It’s been a long time coming: the Leica M9 is the first full-frame digital rangefinder. Does it live up to the Leica name?
Although the M9 offers a fairly sparse feature set, the features that it does offer are, on the whole, very effective.
Focusing a rangefinder is tricky at first, but soon becomes second nature. Experienced rangefinder users know all the tricks, but one of the most useful to bear in mind is that with wideangle lenses especially, using hyperfocal focusing for landscapes and grab shots saves a lot of time.
When shooting at small apertures, however, things get a lot more critical. Fortunately, the M9’s rangefinder is very accurate, and even shooting at ultra-wide apertures I am satisfied that with the subject centred in the frame, focus is spot on. Lenses longer than 75mm are always trickier to focus using a rangefinder, since the indicated frame coverage is only be a little larger than the rangefinder rectangle itself, but I have no problems to report with the M9’s accuracy when using both 75mm and 90mm lenses, wide open. For those with less than perfect eyesight, Leica does produce screw-in magnification lenses, which really help when focusing telephoto optics.
Unfortunately, of course, nothing is perfect. As with all rangefinders, off-centre compositions, especially at wide apertures, are risky with the M9. For focus to be established, the subject must be centred in the viewfinder. However, should you wish to recompose the scene, the subject-to-sensor distance changes slightly as you shift the lens axis, which, at very wide apertures and close focus distances, is enough to throw the focus slightly out. Obviously this is impossible to see in the viewfinder.
Another issue that can cause focusing errors is the vulnerability of the M9’s rangefinder window to smears from handling, and to flare. This tiny window sits just above and to the right of the lens mount, and provides the focusing image that is projected into the centre of the viewfinder. Fingerprints on the glass can cause the rangefinder image to become rather ‘smeary’ and low in contrast, and flare can also reduce its effectiveness.
When faced with a strong directional light source, the rangefinder rectangle can fall victim to internal reflections even when no flare is visible in the rest of the viewfinder. At its worst, this ‘white out’ makes the rangefinder useless. During my time with the M9 I found that such catastrophic flare is uncommon, but difficult to predict.
The M9 gives best results in raw mode, and with careful post-capture sharpening an incredible amount of detail can be drawn out of low ISO images. JPEG files aren’t quite as crisp, but detail capture is still high at the low end of the ISO sensitivity range.