Leica M9

Leica's new full-frame digital rangefinder is a quality extravagance.

Nov 2, 2009
By Dan Havlik


Leica has placed an 18-megapixel full-frame CCD sensor designed by Kodak into a classic M-series rangefinder body. So what's not to like?

Leica has placed an 18-megapixel full-frame CCD sensor designed by Kodak into a classic M-series rangefinder body. So what's not to like?
Though the phrase "critic proof" is often used in the pejorative—i.e. a movie which despite an avalanche of bad reviews still draws a big box office—I think it's a fairly positive way to describe the new 18-megapixel Leica M9. This latest digital rangefinder from Leica answers so many criticisms lobbed at its predecessor, the M8, that at first blush it's almost hard to find fault with it at all.

For reference, here's the main checklist of improvements on the M9: 1) full-frame sensor; 2) no UV/IR filter needed; 3) quieter shutter; 4) easier access to ISO adjustments; 5) lower incidence of noise.

In these reviews for PDN however, I always try to hold a particular product I'm testing to a single overriding standard—is it something that will help a professional photographer do his or her job better? Or, in other words, is it actually useful or just hype? So, while a litany of features and improvements for a camera may be impressive on paper, if they don't make life easier for the working pro, who cares?

And here is where the Leica M9 may give new meaning to being called "critic proof." I don't think I'm going out on a limb when I say that Leica aficionados are a passionate lot. And the argument I often hear when reading reviews of Leica's products on true fanboy sites is that if you don't like certain characteristics of rangefinder cameras then maybe a rangefinder is not for you. So don't be hating!

Never has this been more true than when looking at the M9 which, as I said earlier, seems to remedy a lot of the M8 and M8.2's liabilities, rendering it even more resistant to criticism than any of Leica's digital offerings so far.

This, of course, doesn't mean I'm going to resist turning a critical eye towards the M9 in this review. It also doesn't mean I'm going to ignore my central overriding question with the latest and (possibly) greatest M-Series camera from Leica: Is it the right tool for the working pro? Come join me.


HARD BODY

As an example of beautiful mechanical design, the Leica M9 could be placed in a museum. A couple of issues ago I drooled over the stainless steel build of the Olympus EP-1—while finding fault with some of its picture-taking chops—and as a well-made $800 compact camera, the EP-1 still impresses. When compared side-by-side to the bank-vault construction of the M9 ($7,000) though, the cheaper Olympus really shows its price tag.

There's nothing revolutionary about the M9 design-wise which should please Leica M-series purists. Dimensions of this rangefinder are almost exactly the same as the M8 at 5.47 x 1.45 x 3.15-inches and, if anything, the newer model is actually less "digital" looking than its predecessor. The round monochromatic LCD screen on the left top of the M8 which used to show the battery meter and the number of shots left on the SD card has been removed. (Those levels can be seen on the 2.5-inch LCD screen by pushing the INFO button.) In its place there's a slight step-down lip, which is a good spot to put your forefinger when holding the camera.

Speaking of the LCD screen, it's not particularly impressive, offering just 230,000 pixels of resolution which makes it difficult to check sharpness of your images in playback. (But seriously, Leica fans might say: You didn't buy an M9 for the LCD screen, did you? And if your images aren't sharp with Leica glass, then….)

The camera comes in a classic "black paint" look, or in a "steel gray" duo-tone. I tested out the black paint version and while I liked its discreet styling better than the duo-tone, it's prone to scratching. (I nicked it a wee hair on the right side while attaching the camera strap. Sorry, Leica.)

One small but very significant change to the back of the M9 is a new dedicated ISO button which replaces the useless image "protect" button on the M8. Where changing ISO on the M8 required a slow hunt through the menus, with the M9, adjustments can be made quickly on the fly.

Standard ISO range on the M9 ranges runs from 160-2500 though I wouldn't recommend shooting above 1250. (More about that later.) There's also a low "Pull 80" ISO setting with reduced contrast.

Overall, menus were clear and well laid-out, though I stumbled on having the M9's SET button on the side of the LCD rather than in the center of the control dial as it is on most cameras. The M9's design, while perfected from the M8 and 8.2 models, is not without its quirks. For one, the power switch, which lets you cycle through single shot, continuous (two frames per second) shooting, or self-timer modes, is quite loose. I found myself accidentally turning the camera on and off; and mistakenly putting it into self-timer mode during a day of shooting. Some way to lock the switch would have been much appreciated.

As with the M8, to replace the SD card—yup, the M9 is still SD only and will only accept cards up to 2 gb (CORRECTION: The M9 is SDHC compatible and will accept SDHC cards of up to 32gb) —or take out the battery, you have to remove a metal plate on the bottom of the camera which is more annoying than cutely retro.

Also, in the cutely retro (or annoying) category is the M9's mode dial which offers a choice of only a range of shutter speeds—topping off at 1/4000th of a second—and the more "modern" option of Aperture Priority. One modern feature that's been added to the M9 is auto-bracketing which is helpful for creating HDR images.

Still, despite its eccentricities, both by accident and design, holding the M9 is a beautiful thing. It's been a while since I shot with a Leica rangefinder and the tactile similarities of the M9 to its film and digital predecessors were comforting, to say the least.

But enough fondling of the M9's knobs and dials. It's a camera! Time to go out and shoot.







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