Since the announcement of the Leica M9, there has been much interest in the powerful but little camera. The main reason for this is the full frame sensor in such a small body. I had the pleasure and opportunity to finally fondle the Leica M9. I previously brought up the issue of really needing a rangefinder for street photography, and while I have not solved that question yet, I can tell you that the M9 has characteristics that surely can help with doing such things even at close range. However, it is not perfect.
Tech Specs at a Glance
What you should know first and foremost is that the Leica M9 uses a Kodak CDD Full Frame sensor. It is the smallest camera ever created to use such a large sensor. It shoots Adobe DNG RAW files at 5212 x 3472 pixels (18 MP), JPEG: 5212 x 3472 (18 MP), 3840 x 2592 (10 MP), 2592 x 1728 (4.5 MP), 1728 x 1152 (2 MP), 1280 x 846 pixels (1 MP). It shoots images to any SD cards; however, Leica recommends the use of SanDisk. Other cards are either not compatible or are a hit-and-miss such as the Kingston I used today. The founder of Eye-Fi Ziv Gillat let me know in a meeting today that the metal plate at the bottom seriously slows down how fast the pictures are uploaded. However, this may not be the case with their pro-line of products. Leica says that this problem will be fixed in a future firmware update to come.
ISO values range from 80-2500, meaning that Leica chose to take the safe route and not go up to 6400 and above the way that other full framers do. The camera does not have a flash. The display is a 2.5″ LCD screen which could truthfully be much sharper and higher resolution. It’s well below today’s standards on higher-end cameras with only a 230k dot resolution.
The Leica M9 feels like a light brick of a camera. You can shoot with the confidence that it won’t break, wont’ break down, and obviously your shutter won’t jam from dust or dirt. As you can tell from the guts being left out there for display, it is tightly packed into a small body.
This my very first time ever getting the opportunity to shoot and hold a digital Leica. My first time holding a Leica was at the recent Pentax event that I covered last month.
The body is designed in such a way that when you place your hands on it, the texture works with your fingers to allow you to grip onto it well. It does not feel like it will fall out of your hands and you can grip onto the camera as tightly as you’d like just to be sure. The tightly packed body feels like it can take as much pressure as you can possibly sanely put on it.
Shooting with a Leica is a different experience from using a DSLR. For example, focusing is much different. Everything you see through the viewfinder looks just like it would in real life. The exception to this is the little rectangle in the middle which is a different color and shows something that should not be there. For example, if you aimed it at someone’s face and placed the center on someone’s nose, the center may actually appear to be a cheek instead. You need to fix this by focusing correctly. To do that, you need to focus until you see the nose in the rectangle lined up correctly with the person’s real face. This may sometimes require even moving back and forth as almost all Leica lenses are primes. An article on Wikipedia explains this very well.
The top of the camera shows the shutter speed control and shooting modes (which includes the on/off switch). There were times where I accidentally switched the camera off because the shutter release is right in the middle. This is the first time that such a thing has ever happened to me with a camera.
Control for the aperture is on the lens itself (the way it used to be in the old days of photography and cameras.) The back of the camera is characterized by only a few buttons and a wheel to help with navigation of things like the menu and cycling through images.
Actually shooting the Leica is quiet and you don’t even feel the shutter at all. To me, I actually feel more of a shutter on a Micro Four Thirds camera like the Olympus EP-1. A reason for this may be because of the solid construction of the Leica and the metal shell.
Shooting wide open on this camera is harder than shooting with a more closed aperture because it requires you to really pay attention to what is in focus. Shooting with a more closed aperture is easier because of the extended depth of field.
These files were DNGs that were quickly processed using the Adobe Bridge “process multiple files” command in association with Photoshop. As you can see, the colors are rendered very accurately. However, lighting and exposure is not. I metered the camera correctly according to the light meter but the photos came out darker than expected. All images were shot at ISO 500. To download a full-res copy of these samples for your personal inspection, right-click and choose “Save as…”
From my early tests, the Kodak CCD sensor does not seem to allow for the large dynamic range that the CMOS sensors have. Part of this could also be the DNG file standard as each RAW contains its own coding and information that it receives from the sensor. That isn’t to say that the images are bad, that is quite far from the truth. The Leica lenses allow for beautiful depth of field and spot on focusing due to full-time manual design.
The M9’s center-biased TTL metering system will take some getting used to for those of us spoiled on multi-zone matrix metering. This is something to take into account when adjusting exposure compensation in-camera. Note the exposure based on the center subject’s white shirt and you can see how this center-bias affects the darker portions of the image.
Overall, I’m very impressed with the Leica M9. While I do not think that the $7000 price tag is justified (which is seriously its only major drawback), Leica has done a tremendous amount of work to design and construct the camera. If you have a collection of Leica lenses, this is the camera to get.