Making our way through the deep woods we navigate by compass alone. As we walk there’s soon a rhythm to how the land rises and falls, how the forrest becomes denser and then thinner, how our feet hit the soft ground. We find ourself in a larger clearing. Signs of life for the first time in well over an hour. How does a caravan even get here?
The Leica M9 is a full frame digital rangefinder – the first of very few ever released. Despite closing in on a decade since its launch it’s still highly capable and a practically unique camera.
I’ve been thinking about how to approach writing about the M9 for a while. I’ve had the camera for over four years by now, so I feel I know it almost too well. Still I’ve found it challenging to compile my thoughts on it.
There’s a lot of ground to cover to fully examine this unusual camera. But where to start? Should I lead with it being an old camera by now? And how little that matters in day to day use? Should I start with its differences to other digital cameras? Or the similarities to its predecessors? How about beginning with my own conflicted feelings towards it? Or the image quality and sensor signature? Lenses? Handling? Focusing?
I guess I’ll try to start at the beginning. The M9 was practically my first Leica* as well as my first rangefinder. Three things drew me to the M9. These still stand as the best reasons it’s such a compelling camera, despite being objectively surpassed by more recent releases.
* I did actually get a Leica M8 first, at a price I couldn’t resist and fell in love with it instantly. I upgraded to the M9 within weeks, so the M8 almost doesn’t count.
The strive for excess is so prevalent today that restraint almost seems to become provocative.
Compared to most cameras from the past few decades the M9 is striking in its simplicity. The clean visual lines stand out at first glance and undeniably made me admire Leicas for years from afar, but the timeless silhouette turns out to be more than skin deep.
The M9 does very little and offers few features to help you out. This might sound like a disadvantage, but actually ends up lending the M9 a great sense of functional clarity. It feels like one of few digital cameras it’s possible to truly know. It also makes it rewarding to shoot as you are more responsible than the camera for the end results, rather than the other way around.
No system is better than the lenses available for it and in this regard the M-mount is an absolute standout.
On any M-mount camera you can shoot anything from uncoated lenses made in the early 1930’s to highly corrected contemporary lenses. While there isn’t much in the way of zooms or tilt/shifts everything else is available many times over in as many flavors as you could ever ask for. Most everything is well made, compact and usually with great performance too.
While lenses made by Leica themselves are generally expensive there are so many other options that even building up a small kit needn’t be more expensive than for any other system. Many of the Leica lenses are sublime though, so if you go for one you will generally get your moneys worth.
Personally I bought in to the lenses before the cameras using them on a number of mirrorless cameras, enjoying their small size and high performance. Still the M9 brings some further advantages over shooting the lenses on other brands digital cameras. First, the sensor is designed for the lenses leading to better image quality than with other cameras' sensors. Secondly and perhaps more importantly it has a way more transparent solution for manual focus.
Some amazing M-mount glass I owned at the same time a while back.
I had read up on rangefinders but never shot one before. I was curious but not convinced beforehand. I understood the underlying mechanics, the method used to acquire focus, how it would look through the viewfinder. But picking up and shooting the Leica was still disorienting at first. Decades of shooting with through-the-lens viewfinders had built intuition that was hard to shake. The disorientation subsided and after a while the rangefinder way of shooting made sense to me in a way nothing else really does to the same extent.
The practical difference to shooting an SLR or EVF based camera isn’t difficult to describe, but it’s harder to explain the difference in feel. To me the appeal of shooting a rangefinder is more about viewing than the explicit act of focusing. With any through the lens viewfinder you are looking at an abstraction of a scene but with a rangefinder you simply look at the scene and in a sense you simply overlay compositions on what you´re already seeing.
A rangefinder allows the focusing to be completely transparent both in a practical and metaphorical sense – you soon learn to focus quickly, but unless you concentrate on the focusing patch it’s so visually subdued that it fades into the rest of the scene.
I’ve mostly used the M9 in capturing my day to day through the years. Friends, family – simple things really. These are the images most precious to me and where the camera shines the brightest in my opinion. Still I’ve tried to get a bit of variety in the images throughout the article to show that it’s still a reasonably versatile camera.
That there’s no blackout in the viewfinder is also a fundamental difference and an incredible advantage in my experience. With a through the lens viewfinder you might have more true representation of the end result, but you don’t actually see the moment that you’re capturing. With a rangefinder you are still in the moment as you capture it*. This to me might just be the difference with the most significant emotional impact, with anything else I now feel like I’m being pulled out of the moment and missing out on it, making it hard to go back to fully commit shooting a different type of camera.
* This is true for any camera with a tunnel style viewfinder for that matter. Recent mirrorless cameras such as the Sony A9 also offer blackout free shooting, making for a closer alternative in this regard at least.
The finder is at the core of what makes the M9 unique.
Beyond these key points there are a few more things that furthers the appeal and making the M9 not only still relevant but even close to unique even in today’s market.
It’s full frame
While I don’t feel that sensor size is as big of a deal anymore the fact that the systems lenses are designed around the 35mm format makes the M9 more appealing than the preceding, 1.3 crop sensor, M8. It also gives you more control over depth of field than some smaller sensor mirrorless cameras, despite the overall system size being comparable.
At launch the M9 was the smallest full frame system camera by far. Even today it’s only the Sony A7 cameras that come close. Taking all the compact and high performing M-mount lenses available into consideration means that the M9 an easy camera to bring, even if you want a bit of choice for lenses. At around 600g it’s a heavy camera for its size though and to my tastes it’s pretty close to the upper end of what I prefer carrying around.
It’s well made
Leica’s manufacturing standards are a clear step above all other manufacturers out there. Everything is simply exquisitely machined and assembled and at the same level as the companies previous film cameras. The camera feels built to last though the electronics will probably give up the ghost well before anything else, something I’ll get back to in a bit, making the quality somewhat excessive. Still it’s nice to know that the camera will stand up to daily use without issue and the overall feel of everything is definitely pleasant.
It’s somewhat reasonably priced
None of the digital Leica’s can be considered cheap and getting a brand new one would be a real stretch for most people. However going with a second hand camera can make the financial commitment less daunting. To me the M9 is pretty much the sweet-spot at the moment for my tastes. While more expensive than the M8, the cheapest entry to digital Leicas, it offers valuable advantages for that money. The M240 is more competent but more expensive and some less appealing traits leaves the choice between it and the M9 a bit less clear cut – making the price difference even harder to stomach. Sure there are cheaper cameras out there that are more capable, but at least the M9 is in the same ballpark and if you factor in the slow deprecation it actually comes out cheaper to own for a few years than many alternatives.
Taken together the traits of the M9 results in a very particular type of shooting experience, practically unique among digital cameras.
It offers a different approach to most anything else. It’s simple to the point of ascetic. Slower in many ways than contemporary autofocus based cameras, but far faster in others. Less convoluted and straightforward as long as you know what you’re doing. It’s an experience that’s more akin to that of shooting a film camera than what you usually get from most digital cameras.
It being a rangefinder is at the core of this stripped down shooting experience. The requirement of using manual focus, the transparent view without any way to see exactly what the lens sees forces you into a different pace and mindset.
It encourages concentrating on timing and previsualisation rather than exacting framing and depth of field considerations.
Looking through the viewfinder you’re greeted with one of three frameline pairs and a hard edged rangefinder patch and that’s it. A half press to the shutter button brings up basic light meter readouts in bright red – selected shutter speed in aperture priority mode and exposure indicators in manual mode. You don’t get information on drive mode, white balance, card space remaining or any live histograms. At first it’s a bit daunting, as if there’s vital information missing, but after a while it feels relaxing. Returning to other contemporary cameras makes the contrast stark – the information and readouts presented in the viewfinder on most cameras suddenly feel completely overwhelming.
So while what’s displayed in the M9’s viewfinder can come across as a little bit cluttered compared to older M cameras the view through the M9 is exceptionally clear compared to almost any other camera out there.
What greets you looking through the finder – two framelines (here 35 and 135mm) and a rangefinder patch. Depending on the size of the lens you have mounted you can usually spot it too – here the Summicron 35 ASPH peeks in.
The M9 has a fixed 0.68x magnification of it’s viewfinder which is probably the sweetspot for leveraging the strengths of a rangefinder. It’s within a hairs breadth to the 0.72x default of all M:s since the 1957 Leica M2 and allows using focal lengths between 28 and 75mm comfortably and 90 and 135mm in a pinch.
Having a fixed magnification like this always means that there will be compromises on one end or the other, but a larger magnification would disallow use of 28mm lenses and a smaller one would make it harder to make out details* and to focus faster lenses. The full area enclosed by the 28mm framelines can be a little hard to see with glasses, but 35mm is generally comfortable.
* For instance facial expressions at a little bit of a distance. Something I struggle with at times with the Fuji X100T that has a lower magnification for example.
The M9 has very few functions and buttons which also helps to keep the camera transparent in use. Everything is laid out sensibly and intuitively. Exposure parameters are quick to change – aperture is set on the lens, shutter speed is set in half stop increments on the large top dial and ISO is changed using a dedicated button.
The menu is just four short pages containing very straightforward options. Once you’ve done an initial set up there are very few reasons to return to the menu.
The only times I really enter the menu is either to format the SD card or to change lens profile* whenever I change lenses.
* The canned profiles reduces lens vignetting and ray angle induced color shifts and also helps with organization as images get labeled with the corresponding lens data in exif. Leica’s proprietary 6-bit coding makes it possible for the camera to automatically recognize the lens you mount, but it’s also possible to choose manually from a list of most available Leica lenses.
Pressing the SET button on the back brings up an even shorter menu with some sensible options for quick access on the fly.
The camera is equipped with an unsophisticated center weighted light meter, which means it’s more easily fooled than the evaluative meters present in most other cameras these days. Once you get used to the way it functions it’s completely fine though.
You get a choice between fully manual or aperture priority exposure (chosen by rotating the shutter speed dial to “A”) and depending on the mode you can work with the meter in a few different ways.
Half pressing the shutter button when the camera is on wakes up the meter and a look through the finder gives you some essential exposure information.
In aperture priority you see what shutter speed the camera has selected. A half press of the shutter button locks the shutter speed.
In aperture priority you get a shutter speed read out. The small dot ahead of the number indicates exposure compensation. Apologies for the glare around the numbers, it’s far more prominent in this smartphone image than in real life.
Indicators of under, correct and over exposure in manual mode.
In fully manual mode you get indicators for under, over, and correct exposure in form of two arrows and a dot. Turning the shutter speed dial in the direction of the arrow gets you to correct exposure.
This is just about everything you absolutely need, but I do feel like it would be helpful to have a little more in there to make it completely usable with your eye to the finder and it’s the one thing about the camera that feels perhaps overly simplified.
Especially in manual mode where I find it would be very helpful to also display the selected shutter speed in addition to the exposure indicators. As it is I’m often left wondering if the shutter speed I’ve picked is too slow to handhold or fast enough to stop some slight motion. Sure it only takes a second to take the camera from your eye and look at the shutter speed dial, but when the rest of the operation is so transparent this stands out a bit like something a little less than ideal.
This little niggle is especially noticeable since in situations where the light is marginal the sensor is quite picky about exposure. I’m pretty sure I would find this less of an issue on a film camera, where the latitude of film would be much more forgiving on minor errors. However with the M9 it has pushed me to stay in aperture priority a lot of the time.
My last niggle is that I’m also not a fan of how large and intensely red the indicators are. To me they end up somewhat distracting and overbearing which is especially apparent compared to the incredibly clean view my Leica M4-P offers. Actually I find the smaller white indicators in the X100T more pleasant as long as you configure them to a minimum. Still this isn’t an issue that has practical implications rather a reservation regarding aesthetic preferences.
So as we’ve established that at least to me aperture priority is the preferable way to shoot the M9, how does the simple meter work in practice?
Under a lot of conditions it’s really very straightforward. As long as the scene is somewhat evenly lit you can often simply pull the trigger and the meter does a good enough job with exposure.
It’s only in very dynamic or challenging light that the simple meter can fall a bit short.
However as you get the shutter speed readouts in aperture mode the simple addition of locking the speed with a half press to the shutter button makes a big difference.
So what I generally do in challenging situations is a half press to wake the meter, scan around the scene quickly with the finder to get a feel for the range of exposures the meter suggests. I then half press to lock in something that I feel offers a reasonable exposure* before framing, focusing and taking the picture.
* Depending on the scene this could be locking in a faster or slower speed than what would be the default. Generally it’s better to expose for the highlights and locking on to something that’s on the brighter end of gray.
This might sound involved but actually becomes second nature quite quickly and a pretty simple way to shoot.
There are a few quite reasonable additional features for working with exposure in difficult lighting situations.
You can for instance choose to also relegate ISO selection to the camera. As expected the auto ISO implementation is quite sensible and you can choose both minimum shutter speed and maximum ISO. However the auto ISO and exposure lock in aperture priority mode don’t quite get along* and in this case it’s better to dial in exposure compensation instead.
* The half press only locks in the shutter speed, not the ISO, so the exposure can end up hot or cool despite your best efforts.
Exposure compensation can be dialled in by up to three stops. How you do this is user configurable with options to only do it in the menus, with the rear command dial or with the rear dial at half press of the shutter button.
I’ve personally set exposure compensation to the rear dial which works well for my preferences. When you turn the dial you get a readout of the set compensation in the viewfinder. A small blinking dot reminds you that compensation is set, helpful as it’s retained even when the camera’s cycling power.
Both auto ISO and exposure compensation carries over to manual exposure mode which makes for some interesting permutations of how to work.
The command dial can be set to select exposure compensation.
An interesting aside is that the M9 includes a secondary light meter mounted on the front of the top plate. The function isn’t immediately apparent but becomes evident with a bit of thought.
Images contain exif data on the aperture setting used for each photo the camera makes, but as there’s no real connection between lens and camera aside from the rangefinder coupling cam the setting shouldn’t actually be known to the camera.
Enter the secondary meter. At each exposure the camera makes two light readings – one through the lens, obviously affected by the aperture set; and a second one using the front mounted sensor, totally unobstructed by the lens. By comparing the two readings it’s then trivial to find out what aperture was set. This also explains why the exif date isn’t accurate in 100% of the instances – the exact area of measurement can differ between the primary and secondary meters depending on focal length, scene and lighting conditions, throwing the results off. Still it’s quite accurate for the most part and I’ve got to say a pretty elegant solution.
Shutter speed dial set to aperture priority mode, drive mode set to single.
Aside from waking the light meter and locking the shutter speed in aperture mode the shutter button also obviously releases the shutter. It’s threaded to accept a mechanical cable release.
Unfortunately with the added half press function the travel of the shutter button is a little less smooth than on the film predecessors.
To get around this the button can be set to a few different modes. The “Discrete” mode separates the shutter and shutter recocking actions to make less conspicuous noise, something I’ll get back to in a bit, and “Soft” which trips the shutter already at half press. You can even have both modes active together. The “Soft” mode feels great in use, however as it forces you to give up locking in shutter speeds in aperture priority mode I’ve not found it usable in practice.
The shutter button collar is a clever design. It lets you switch the camera on or off, pick single or continuous drive modes or enable the self timer, all depending on how far you slide the collar. My only nitpick is that it’s a little easy to slide it to continuous mode when you actually wanted single but other than that I find it great to have these modes so easily accessible.
A few interesting features can be spotted here. The rangefinder window, round secondary lightmeter, frameline illuminator window and viewfinder window can be seen along the top plate. At the top of the mount throat the rangefinder coupling cam is visible and the 6-bit code reader window at the bottom of the mount. The differently colored shutter curtains reflect light to the lightmeter – more in the middle where the curtains are brighter and less towards the top and bottom. The large lever closest in view is the frameline preview lever which switches to a different set of framelines.
The simply shaped M9 doesn’t offer quite as positive a hold as cameras with contoured and protruding grips, but it’s still quite comfortable. With slightly larger lenses there can be a bit of uncomfortable torque on the hand though. Fortunately there are some accessories to add to improve the grip.
Many people swear by add on thumb grips, emulating the wind lever on the film cameras.
Personally though I’ve quite enjoyed the add on grip that replaces the base plate. It’s simply shaped but makes quite a difference when shooting longer lenses or for extended amount of time.
People also seem to enjoy adding soft releases screwed in to the threaded shutter release button but I’ve personally not felt too compelled by that.
As the viewfinder magnification is fixed lenses wider than 28mm* require external viewfinders that slip into the camera’s hotshoe.
* On paper at least. In practice I’ve found it fine to shoot at 25mm too, using only the internal finder.
There are also a few accessories available to screw into the viewfinder. Correction lenses get around the lack of diopter adjustment in the viewfinder, which can be a good addition if you wear glasses. Screw in magnifiers can be helpful to focus long, fast lenses accurately.
Progress is an odd thing. As new technologies leapfrog each other whatever gets surpassed suddenly seems poor – reduced to a set of drawbacks, showing how it falls behind the latest release.
But pausing for a moment it becomes obvious that it isn’t really so. The existence of something more advanced doesn’t actually mean that whatever came before it is suddenly less capable, even if the gut reaction is to become impressed by whatever thing is currently the most capable. But obviously anything that has ever been capable enough to do a certain thing is still as capable to do that specific thing after the release of something else.
The M9 is a pretty good example of this. Comparing it to more recently released cameras there are a number of areas where it lags in terms of performance or specification. But if one instead takes a more practical perspective and instead examine what it offers and what kind of performance is truly needed there aren’t really too many major issues.
That’s not to say that there aren’t a few concessions to at least be aware of due to the age of the M9.
The M9 sits at a somewhat uncomfortable place in the timeline of technological advances. Just a few years after the launch of the M9 better sensors made aspects such as dynamic range and low light performance complete non-issues even in small sensor compacts. It became cheap to add in bright and high resolution screens, faster processors and deeper buffers making even low end contemporary cameras have very few significant issues. The M9 is however based on technologies that were getting a bit dated even when the camera launched in 2009, let alone today. So unlike most cameras from the past five or even seven years there are a few pretty clear, objective drawbacks with the M9 from a purely technical standpoint. Though in practice very few of these issues actually materialize as significant.
You’re going to read very few recent articles or discussions on the M9 without having quite a bit brought up on the sensor. It’s safe to say that the cameras Kodak developed sensor gives distinct output in a few ways. It seems to have quite a few steadfast fans despite some objective drawbacks, citing its distinct look. There are obviously also plenty of detractors unimpressed with the overall performance and signature.
I personally fall somewhere in the middle as I really enjoy some aspects of the sensor, but not a fan of others. But let me get back to that in a moment.
In terms of resolution it’s reasonably well specced at least. At 18MP files hold up even when printing fairly large and can stand a bit of cropping without suffering too badly.
The M9 was one of the very last cameras released with a full frame CCD sensor, a totally different architecture compared to the CMOS design that has become ubiquitous today. There are some pretty strong reasons why most manufacturers have moved away from the technology since and there are a few drawbacks that comes along with the technology. Most notably limited dynamic range and poor high ISO performance*.
* interestingly the opposite was traditionally true. It’s only in the past decade that CMOS technology has matured and eventually surpassed CCD sensors in these regards.
It’s obviously hard to say how much of what imaging characteristics can be observed in the M9 is down to the architecture and how much is down to implementation, but there are definitely a few traits that correspond well with the technology used.
In high contrast scenes the dynamic range can be a little lacking and pushing up the ISO sensitivity beyond 800 causes rather prominent amounts of noise. In these regards it’s certainly more unforgiving than newer cameras. Files also don’t have quite as much room to push and pull exposure in post as a camera with a more modern sensor. While this might sound like major issues, what it amounts to most of the time though is simply that you need to be a bit more careful with your exposure.
ISO can be changed easily by holding a dedicated button and either turning the command dial or pressing the arrow keys. ISO 400 can generally be used without reservation. 640 is fine for low light and 800 in a pinch. Beyond that is for emergency use only.
With the ISO performance being what it is you won’t be able to catch too many of the proverbial black cats in coalmines but instead need to have a fast lens or steady hands as the light gets low. How big of a deal this “poor” low light performance is depends on your preferences, habits and perspective. I’ve shot with quite a few cameras that can practically see in the dark and it can be an empowering experience. But on the other hand I have very few real keepers that are shot in such low light. A lot of low light situations simply don’t make for nice looking images. I’ll get back to the practical implications in a bit, but in short I can get away in most any light I care to shoot in as long as I’m not using very slow lenses.
A more problematic issue that can crop up with this architecture is that dead or stuck pixels can overflow to the entire line of neighboring pixels leaving a black or colored one pixel wide line through a large part of the image. This can be quite distracting but is fortunately pretty easy to remove in post and can also be fixed quickly by Leica.
There’s no live-view and consequently no video mode. While live-view would be occasionally useful I hardly ever use video so don’t miss it. The lack of these features also keep the camera functionally and conceptually clearer than cameras that include the functions.
So far it sounds pretty bleak for the sensor performance then. However not all is doom and gloom. The sensor also has some clear strengths that contribute to the distinct look of the M9’s output.
There’s a very strong clarity and presence to images coming off of the sensor in the M9. This is probably at least in part due to the sensor not having an antialiasing filter and it´s also likely that some traits of the CCD architecture contribute to this. Resolution is unusually apparent with very natural rendition of detail. The mid and quarter tones are faithfully reproduced and files feel dense and solid in a way that more modern sensors sometimes lack.
Beyond these aspects more or less inherent to the sensor technology there were also a few other choices made giving the sensor even further particular traits.
The color response was reportedly tuned to correspond with Kodachrome though I’m not sure how true that is. The sensor definitely has a distinct color signature though. It’s a very punchy palette overall but still with pretty extraordinary tonal separation.
Personally I’m not a fan of the out of camera palette, finding it too heavy handed. I can often pick out M9 images from even large sets of images based on the default color response and usually not in a positive way. Fortunately it’s easy enough to work with the images to arrive at a tonality that better matches ones preferences. The files feel stable and don’t break apart too easily in terms of color.
A few other sensor characteristics stem from the aim to offer the best quality and compatibility with the systems lenses. As many wider M-mount lenses have designs that give light rays with unusually high angle of incidence when striking the capture medium a few unconventional choices were made to minimize any issues*. One part of the solution was to have a bespoke micro lens array taking into account the variability of ray angles. Secondly there was also a lot of effort put into decreasing the overall thickness of the filter stack, further contributing to an increase in performance.
* Large ray angles can cause smearing and color shifts towards the frame edges on digital sensors. Read more about that in my article on the subject.
There are a few side effects to these design choices.
The thin filter stack is a little less effective against infrared light which can cause blacks to take on a bit of magenta tone under some circumstances*.
* the earlier M8 lacked IR filtration completely for the same reasons and required use of lens mounted filters instead. Compared to that the M9 is a huge improvement.
The extremely thin sensor cover glass has also caused some issues with durability as it has been prone to crack as well as deteriorate over time. I’ll get back to these issues in a bit, but it’s safe to say that it’s been an unusually troubled sensor.
Fortunately the overall upside to all the effort is significant. Lenses generally perform great across the frame on the M9 with very little given up compared to on film (which is completely indifferent to what angles light rays have) and from what I’ve seen more even in some regards than the later M240. It’s also likely that the thin filter stack also contributes to the very clear rendition of detail overall.
So then, the sensor has quite a few unusual traits and characteristics. Some simply related to its age, some down to design choices. Some traits are positive, some negative. Overall though it’s definitely possible to get pretty incredible results even if the sensor isn’t as forgiving as something more up to date.
The poorly specced screen is an immediately noticeable side effect of the cameras age. Low resolution even by the standards of its day there’s very little that excuse it today. It’s simply awful and practically unusable for anything else than checking histograms.
Interestingly though, I don’t mind it much. Since the sensor is a little picky the histograms are what really matters. And from a practical perspective having the screen so poor actually pushes me to chimp less and concentrate more at the moments I capture.
The screen is awful, but at least it’s usable to catch over or, as in this example, under exposure.
There are a few other things giving the age of the camera away.
For instance the buffer isn’t very deep and it’s pretty slow too. Shooting continuously you quickly run into slowdowns. Still with the somewhat more considered approach required by the camera it doesn’t really become an issue in practice too often.
Perhaps the most noticeable aspect signaling not so much the cameras age, but rather it being a first generation product* is the sound of the shutter.
* While the M8 was first the technical platform is extremely similar between the cameras and they feel more like two versions of the same camera than two distinct iterations.
Leica’s are generally considered very discrete and part of that has been about the subdued sound of the cloth shutter. On digital however higher timing precision is needed, requiring a metal shutter instead. This gives the M9 a slightly sharper sound when tripping the shutter. Not too big of a deal. However the M9 also makes a very unusual sound when the shutter recocks – a mechanical buzzing that is most akin to the motor drive in a film camera.
Personally I don’t find the sound all that objectionable. It somehow adds to the considered feel of shooting the camera, really underscoring every press of the shutter. Still it’s pretty much the least discrete shutter sound I’ve heard from a digital camera so I can see how it could cause issue in certain situations.
As mentioned you can set the shutter button to different modes of operation, where the “Discreete” mode delays the recocking action until you release the shutter button which sort of gives you a bit more control over the sound the shutter makes.
It’s not a huge issue though, and in most situations I don’t even think about it. The quieter shutter is one of the more appealing features of the newer M240 though.
Beyond this the M9 has also had some issues with incompatibilities with some SD cards as well as problems with the camera freezing or shutting down. With later versions of the firmware these issues seem to have been fixed however.
Something that has traditionally been a big appeal with Leica’s are their longevity. The cameras are built to last and even if they go out of spec they’re designed in a way that makes them easy to repair and adjust.
With the advent of digital however the rule book is changed. Sure everything mechanical about the M9 is absolutely rock solid and will hold up for decades of use and abuse.
The electronics seems to be a bit of a different story though. Electronic components can give up the ghost suddenly and without warning. They’re also practically impossible to repair or replace by anyone outside of Leica themselves.
I’ve already touched on the issues that have plagued the sensor and they certainly seem to be both fairly common and quite severe if a camera is afflicted.
The issue that has gotten most widespread attention is the delamination of the cover glass. Over time the material binding the glass to the sensor can start to deteriorate due to a reaction with water particles (through wet cleaning or more often simply through humidity in the air). As the bond breaks apart gaps can form and can show up as spots, dark fields or even web like aberrations in the images of an affected camera. The process is generally slow and if you know what to look for it’s pretty easy to identify the issue far ahead of it becoming visible in the final image. So even though it’s an issue that will eventually make the camera useless you can at least make good use of it for a long while even if affected by the issue.
The second and seemingly less common issue is that the thin sensor glass can crack without warning or undue treatment of the camera. This is more severe when it happens as it tends to be very apparent in the resulting images rendering the camera pretty much useless from the second it appears.
These issues are certainly very unfortunate – who wants to buy and rely on an old camera that’s both still expensive and turns out unusable at a worrying frequency?
Thankfully there’s a pretty significant silver lining to these issues. Both problems are well known and well documented and Leica has been offering free sensor replacements for anyone affected up until recently*. And according to Leica the more recent batches of sensors have been manufactured differently so that they shouldn’t be susceptible to either issue. And as I understand it the entire motherboard is replaced along with the sensor and Leica has also given every camera sent in a good rundown and servicing.
* It was a bit of a disappointment when Leica decided to backtrack on their earlier promise of indefinite sensor replacements. I get that there are corporate realities behind the decision, but it still feels like it could’ve been handled better.
So as long as you get an M9 with a recently replaced sensor you actually get a camera with much newer guts than the camera itself, newer than even a lot of other used options. Tha probably means it’s a lot more likely to last another five or ten years than whatever else you can get from the same vintage.
So factoring in that the M9 seems to be quite reliable outside of these issues the case for this camera as a long term companion still stands and I’d probably have fewer reservations getting one than with a lot of other cameras.
As for getting an M9 that hasn’t had its sensor replaced recently* I’d probably avoid it. In all likelihood it’s simply a question of time as to when the cover glass starts to deteriorate. The price of repair is pretty steep now outside of the replacement program and even if you factor in the fee in the purchase the turnaround is likely to be slow. So don’t really think the risk would be worth it over simply finding another camera even with saving a little bit of money up front.
* As it took some time for Leica to figure out how to solve the issue so the unfortunate reality is that some cameras have had a replacement sensor put in that’s still susceptible to either issue. If Leica’s press release timings are anything to go by then any camera with a sensor replaced after June 2015 should have the updated version that’s not prone to these issues.
At this point I’m guessing it might be hard to figure out what this all adds up to. How the camera is to use and how capable it is in practice. I’ve gone on quite a bit about all the parts, but only touching briefly on the whole.
It takes a bit of readjustment to shoot a rangefinder if you’re used to a through the lens finder.
A rangefinder will for instance never offer as accurate compositions as a camera with a through the lens viewfinder. Still the framelines on the M9 are accurate enough even under pretty exacting circumstances.
And to me the advantages the rangefinder brings end up easily worth the minor tradeoffs in accuracy of composition or preview of depth of field.
The rangefinder lets you focus with very good accuracy, quickly and in almost any light. It can certainly be challenging to nail focus in fast moving situations but as you get more familiar with the gear you’re using it becomes easier. Consistent focus can also be difficult shooting with extremely fast or very long lenses. But beyond that there’s no manual focus method more practical or more reliable in my experience.
The fully transparent view that’s bright and clear and without blackout is also such a treat and makes me stay in the moment to a greater extent than with many other cameras.
The light meter and the different ways to work with it makes it quick to get accurately exposed photos in almost any situation.
Aperture priority with exposure lock is my preference but occasionally I add on auto ISO for working even more quickly. At times I dial in exposure compensation or set everything manually, every setting available in seconds.
In the end the light meter is not foolproof, but as long as you pay attention it’s close enough.
The M9 doesn’t have the capacity to shoot several frames per second, let alone dozens. Instead it puts the responsibility on you to get the moment you’re after. Personally I’m fine with this. I enjoy trying a little harder at the cost of sometimes missing a shot I might’ve caught with something faster.
Still with the rangefinder not having any blackout and zero lag at shutter release I’m far more confident in getting the timing right with the M9 than for instance the Sony A7 or my Fuji X100T*.
* The Sony A7 is pretty awful in this regard with both a long blackout between frames as well as lag at shutter release. The X100T is pretty good overall though when shooting stopped down there’s a bit of a stutter as the camera focuses wide open and then needs to stop down to take the shot. It still feels fast but not quite instant as the M9 does.
I rarely shoot lots of frames in quick succession but when I do the M9 generally works fine. It can take a few seconds to clear the buffer but you can still keep shooting and get previews on screen while the camera’s working.
I’ve already gone on about how the M9 isn’t as good as modern cameras in low light. But while it’s true that for instance my Sony A7 is cleaner further up on the ISO scale I can’t say the difference is all that significant in practice. As long as I have a reasonably fast lens mounted I can still get nice looking photos in low indoor light. The Sony can make those situations look a little cleaner and a little brighter than they actually are, but that’s about it. I might be able to get usable results from the Sony in marginally lower light, but I simply don’t feel compelled to shoot in that type of situation very often. If it’s so dark that I can’t pull of a shot with the M9 odds are the light is so indistinct that the resulting image wouldn’t really look all that pleasant anyway.
That images like these, taken with a dim lightbulb and laptop screen as only sources of light, are possible on the M9 make me less phased about there being cameras out there that are more capable in low light.
However the modest high ISO performance can be noticable when shooting longer or slower lenses. In these cases the cleaner output of the Sony starts having a more meaningful impact.
For instance I have a hard time using my Elmar-C 90/4 indoors on the M9, it’s simply too slow to let me get a fast enough shutter speed and low enough ISO to make pleasant looking images. With the Sony on the other hand I can get away with it pretty easy. The same goes for for instance the Voigtländer 25/4 or 15/4.5 which are harder to use indoors on the M9 than the A7. Not to that the M9 requires exotic lenses to be usable – something like a 50/2 works fine in most situations and a 50/1.5 gets you through the night*.
* As an aside I don’t get why people only look at the f-stop for how low light a lens can be used at. Taking the speed at which you can hand hold in to account something like a 28/2 can be used in the same low light as a 50/1.5 and a 90/2 is pretty comparable to a 50/2.8.
That’s not to say that there isn’t gains to be had shooting something higher performing — absolutely there is. It’s just that the difference in practical performance is a bit overblown. It’s not as if the M9 becomes unusable as soon as the sun’s not out, which it might sound like elsewhere. In practice it stays usable in all but the very dimmest of conditions.
Sure there are times where I wish for cleaner files, but since there are other aspects positive traits of the M9’s output it’s easy to live with the deficits at higher ISO speeds.
As long as you are reasonably well exposed image quality is still second to none. The distinct presence of the output is really appealing.
In my experience the M9 is a bit pickier about having good light. This is partially due to the slightly lower headroom of the older sensor and the unusually powerful color response. Under mixed or harsh light images can need a bit more work than with my other cameras. On the other hand the images shot under nice light can look absolutely gorgeous. It can become almost overbearing at times, but wow, when it works it really works.
The rich midtones also make for particularly pleasant looking B&W conversions to my eye, without a lot of work.
So the M9 then ends up a more practical camera than it would seem on paper. It’s a much more simple and pleasant camera to use than a lot else out there and the rangefinder brings a few key advantages as well. It’s certainly not perfect, but in practice it’s hard to ask for much more.
To sum up – I don’t really care about all the things it can’t do, it’s simply wonderful for the things that it can.
For a lot of people the crux of the Leica M9 in the end comes down to this - there are many excellent cameras out there, that do more than the M9, often in an objectively better way, at a lower price. So why opt for a dinosaur? Well, I’m not sure there’s any really reasonably answer to that beyond that unique shooting experience I’ve gone on a bit about. Still I’ll try and break down how a few of the alternatives stack up in my opinion.
Fuji offers a good number of cameras that are superficially similar to the Leica gestalt. A few of them even offer a broadly similar shooting experience (X-Pro & X100 series).
They certainly make very practical choices with a few objective advantages over the M9 and few true disadvantages, generally at reasonable prices. For the system cameras the lens line up is also one of the better ones among mirrorless cameras.
I’ve really enjoyed shooting with my X100T and have at times considered moving over to the X-mount system completely, but a few things keep me with the M9.
First and perhaps foremost – I’m not a fan of the detail rendition from X-Trans sensors. Despite having tried different raw converters and sharpening methods I’ve never been totally happy with the end result in the same way as with the M9.
And despite looking very similar to the Leica’s the Fuji cameras are a great deal more complicated and less transparent in use than the Leica.
Obviously neither issue is the end of the world and I’d probably shoot pretty much any of the Fuji’s quite happily. But still there’s something just a bit special about shooting a true rangefinder – something that the Fuji cameras emulate quite well, but still don’t quite fully capture.
Read my X100T feature
Read my comparison between the X100T and Leica M4-P
The M9’s predecessor is actually quite an interesting option as well. On the local market it’s around half the price of a nice M9 event though it offers pretty much the exact same shooting experience. It’s my second favourite digital camera and in a few ways I actually prefer the M8 to the M9. Both the black and silver finishes are more pleasant than the M9 ones, the native color palette feels more natural and nicer and I find the round little LCD frame counter display on the top plate totally endearing.
Still, there are also two main reasons that the M9 command a higher price and that I prefer it overall, both have to do with the sensor.
As mentioned the M8 shares the incredibly thin filter stack with the M9, but in a somewhat less sophisticated version. The result is that the M8 is very sensitive to infrared light, wavelengths that are filtered out in most cameras. This can cause pretty distracting and hard to correct color distortions under many conditions, and pretty much mandate the use of expensive lens mounted IR cut filter instead. Not a huge deal, but depending on how many lenses / filter thread sizes you have this can push the price up quite a bit.
The second issue is that the M8 has a smaller than full frame sensor. The 1.33 crop factor means that if you’ve got a lens kit that works well to your preferences on a full frame camera, everything will feel a bit long on the M8. The resulting focal lengths and corresponding framelines also work out to somewhat unconventional ones, which can be a little disorienting coming from a full frame camera.
As the sensor architecture is also closely related to the one in the M9 it also means that the M8 gives you less resolution to work with, even more noise at an equal ISO and less dynamic range. So while I still feel the M8 is acceptable and capable of stunning results as well, the M9 gives a bit more headroom in this regard.
Overall though these issues are quite minor in use and the shooting experience more than make up for it. So as a reasonably priced entry point to digital rangefinders it’s hard to go wrong with the M8, as long as you’re aware of a few caveats.
The follow-up to the M9 has started to come down quite a bit in price, making for an interesting comparison. The M240 is certainly less rough around the edges and have fewer objective drawbacks. The more modern sensor and technical architecture gives higher dynamic range, better high ISO performance and even allows for live view. It also has a quieter shutter and redone ergonomics.
As the price difference has started to decrease I’ve considered an upgrade, but for a few reasons I’ve not yet become totally won over by the M240.
The newer camera is certainly more sophisticated, but with that sophistication comes some added complexity. It has more buttons, a less straight forward menu and noticeably higher weight.
As for imaging characteristics it’s pretty much a wash for my tastes. I know some people prefer the punchier CCD files of the M9, but to me the added dynamic range and malleability of the M240 files would probably make up for the slight loss of crispness from the M9 for my tastes.
Still, overall then the M240 feels like a one step forward, one step back type of situation. And considering that there’s still a bit of a price difference I’m not in any hurry to trade towards it.
If money’s no object then the M10 is the obvious choice. It brings the modernised architecture of the M240 but retaining the simplicity in control and interface of the M9. It’s also thinner than either of it’s predecessors and lighter than the M240.
For me though, the more than 3x price increase compared to an M9 really doesn’t feel worth it. I could probably get together the money if I really wanted to, but I know I would be way too nervous about using a camera this expensive. Honestly the M9 is bad enough in this regard and I generally prefer something cheaper, if nothing else than to avoid the nervousness that carrying around really expensive gear brings.
Another, perhaps less obvious option is to go for what can only be considered the real deal. The film Leica’s have a reputation that’s second to none, and after shooting one for well over two years I can see why.
I’ve missed digital way less than I thought I would but even beyond the choice of medium the newer digital cameras have a few significant differences to the ones that use film.
I’ve written at length about this before, when comparing my M4-P to the M9, so I won’t reiterate too much. But the gist of it is that while the M9 is simple for a digital camera it’s still hopelessly complicated to one of its film siblings. And for something that you generally want to get out of your way as much as possible, simplicity is a pretty nice trait.
Still the cameras are more similar than they are different so the choice of medium is obviously the most relevant motivation for either choice, but in terms of pure enjoyment the film cameras win by a whisker in my book.
Read my rolling review of the Leica M4-P
The A7 cameras are on the completely opposite end to the M9. They are thoroughly modern and there’s very little they can’t do. They are cheap for what you’re getting and incredibly capable.
In terms of shooting experience though, they are awful. The ergonomics are a disaster, the menu system incredibly convoluted and the handling is quite slow overall. I have the original A7 and that camera also has a noticeable bit of shutter lag and awfully long shot to shot blackout which means I’m way, way worse at timing my shots with the Sony than the Leica and don’t really feel very confident in shooting people or fast moving situations with it.
For my tastes the lens line up also lacks a few key lenses. That I find the cameras incredibly unappealing from a purely aesthetic standpoint also doesn’t help me connect with them.
Still it’s hard to argue against the immense capability the Sony’s offer.
So what it comes down to between the M9 and an A7 is whether you prioritise capability or enjoyment. It’s rare to have this clear a distinction between two different pieces of gear, and while I prefer one over the other most of the time I can’t really blame people making a different choice.
So with all this dirty laundry out of the way I figured now would be a good time to come back to some more subjective aspects of the camera and why despite enjoying it so much I have some ambivalence towards it.
I was immediately smitten with the M9 back when I got it. Unfortunately it’s turned out a bit of a rocky relationship over the years.
I had been hemming and hawing for a good long while before getting the camera but when I finally did it felt great. It was such a good fit for how I wanted to shoot and I was totally set on having it as my main and maybe even only camera for the foreseeable future.
I brought the camera with me all the time during the first few months I had it, made a bunch of keepers and even shot my sisters wedding with it.
Unfortunately this positive period came to an abrupt end when the sensors cover glass suddenly cracked. I was traveling and it was the only camera that I’d brought. I’d babied the camera and it felt entirely undeserved – my heart just sank and I missed out on quite a few shots on that trip.
That big streak across the image is what
heartbreak a cracked sensor cover glass looks like.
Adding insult to injury the turnaround for the repair was months and months. I bought a Fuji X100S to shoot in the meantime and while it wasn’t quite as enjoyable to shoot as the M9, it was still pretty great. As time went on I more or less decided to sell the Leica once I got it back from repair.
Just two days before leaving on a trip to Tokyo the M9 was back in my hands. All was forgiven and I was truly enjoying the camera once again.
Still I had this nagging sensation of distrust towards the M9 that pushed me to experiment with other cameras rather than simply sticking with the M9. Its inherent drawbacks such as poor high ISO performance, occasionally odd color signature and poor screen was standing out a lot more clearly when switching back and forth between more recent cameras.
In a lateral move I ended up getting into shooting film more and more and eventually moved over almost completely when getting the M4-P, hardly shooting the M9 at all for well over a year.
So when I discovered signs of sensor glass delamination in my M9 I wasn’t quite as heartbroken as when the sensor cracked. Once again the repair turnaround took months and months and once again I was pretty much set on selling the camera immediately when getting it back.
Still, when I got it back in my hands after a good long while without it I remembered how much I like it. And actually, I found myself liking it even more.
My perspective on a few things had changed with my sejour into film photography. The poor high ISO performance suddenly seemed really good by comparison – quite a bit better than film, and certainly well beyond good enough for my shooting. And while I was still not a fan of the out-of-camera look of the colors, doing my own scanning had improved my skill in color adjustments, meaning that I could get files I was happy with even easier than before. I had also obviously gotten rid of the habit of chimping, so the quality of the rear screen felt even less like an issue than earlier.
So once again I find myself having a hard time letting the camera go. Sure that sense of distrust still lingers and I don’t really like that I have so much money tied up in it. But even with a few objective drawbacks, the age of the thing and the repairs it’s needed, I still enjoy it more than pretty much anything else I’ve shot.
With technology it can sometimes be hard to let go of the idea of needing the absolute best. If you simply compare the capabilities of the Leica M9 to almost any digital system camera released in the past five years the M9 gets left in the dust across the board.
But if you instead look at what’s actually needed to make appealing images there’s very little that the M9 is lacking. And once you realize that the absolute highest end performance and longest list of features isn’t a requirement, so much as something that can occasionally be nice to have, other aspects become more important.
Handling, enjoyment and shooting experience are things that are often considered as something secondary. But the M9 proves that that notion can be turned on its head. This is a camera that puts the experience first and technology second. And while this is a tradeoff that might not be right for everyone it’s certainly one worthy of consideration. Despite flaws, despite drawbacks, this is it – my favorite digital camera.
All photos in this post were taken using the Leica M9 with a number of different lenses. Images of the camera itself were made with a Sony A7 or Fuji X100T. Exif-data is intact. Open any image in a new window for a closer look.