Hands-On Review: Leica M9-P
Having owned a (used) Leica M3 since the late 1970’s I can attest to the charms of working with a Leica camera. There is a certain heft and solidity of construction that speaks to its obvious longevity, which is juxtaposed with a deftness of operation, characteristics on display in the M3 in the stroke of the film advance lever and the sound and feel of the shutter release. For those who have experienced a Leica, that “aha that’s why” moment is quite unmatched by other cameras and it spoils you, in a way. Yet, working with a Leica for me has always had a certain awkwardness—witness the film loading in the M3, at least when compared with a sleek Nikon or Canon of the day, and the rangefinder focusing system, almost arcane in the world of autofocusing speed and accuracy. Yet, that awkwardness is not a true impediment and almost becomes part of the charm.
That charm is now on display in a digital camera—the Leica M9-P. I know, I sound like those photo writers who get rhapsodic about working with certain Leicas (and this has not been true of all of them, for sure, witness the Leicaflex SL and others) but when you approach $8000 (MSRP for the M9-P body) for a rangefinder digital camera, there almost needs to be an ethos and somewhat mystical aesthetic to justify the price.
Maybe it’s hype, maybe it’s the Euro/dollar ratio, but that price almost gets you into medium format digital territory. The fact of the matter is that Leica can’t make enough of these, so there’s no sense carping about price—if you must have a Leica digital this is the one to get. For us mere mortals the camera is pretty much out of reach, so we were glad to work with one for a short period of time so we could see how it performs the primary task at hand—taking pictures rather than impressing peers.
The Leica M9 and M9-P (I tested the latter model) have the pedigree, build and feel of the best of the Leicas, which arguably is represented (to me) by the M3, all the way down to the bottom plate that is opened and closed via the same latch system on their film cameras, but here has compartments for the battery and SDHC card. It seems a bit foolish, but it’s a legacy trait that Leica owners will appreciate and make others just wonder why. The “P” model by the way varies slightly from its non-hyphenated cousin in where the Leica logo sits (a red dot on the M9 front is gone) and in the enhanced LCD cover glass, which Leica says is quite scratchproof. I would assume that there are other changes under the hood that catch up with whatever firmware updates were applied to the previously introduced M9.
This is a “full frame”, 18MP CCD sensor camera that allows you to photograph in various JPEG compression ratios and DNG, Abode’s “universal” digital Raw format that few others than Leica use “natively” in their recording format options. In fact, you get a free copy of Adobe Lightroom with the camera for processing those same DNG files, a good move by Leica that helps them avoid getting involved in sticky Raw format situations or fussy software of their own brand that undoubtedly would be made by some third party anyway.
After processing, image files in DNG open as 16-bit TIFFs (if that’s what you want) and they are large enough and fine enough to deliver 16x20” prints without upsampling. The image quality and clarity is quite startling, and using Lightroom and various plug-ins I was delighted with the sharpness, malleability and most of all presence of the images. However, noise was another matter at higher ISO settings—more on that shortly.
There’s no video, no digital trick filters (though there are adjustable image parameters), no evaluative or algorithm metering (center-weighted only), and just aperture priority and manual exposure modes (you can set shutter speeds and have the camera deliver an aperture). The menu does not require Virgil to guide you and it’s strictly manual focus and aperture setting. That means you click stop the apertures to set them, something newbies will find odd but old timers will find reassuring and even somewhat exciting. Welcome to stick shift photography, kids.
The camera takes interchangeable lenses and adapts the viewfinder framing with white lines accordingly, even allowing for parallax when you focus close. In fact, for part of the test I used my 5cm Summicron f/2 that usually sits on my M3 (which I’ve had since 1978) and it performed flawlessly. The viewfinder is clear and “brisk” and a real treat compared to some of the obscure finders on many other digital cameras today. There’s no Live View or even LCD composition; you have to use the viewfinder to compose and focus. Does this sound like your kind of camera? If so, read on.
There are a few concessions to the modern world. The base ISO is 160 (top is 2500, no “push”) though you can “pull” exposure at EI 80, which Leica tells us can result in flatter than usual contrast. There’s an Auto ISO function that allows you to set parameters for when and how high the camera will move up the sensitivity scale that some find useless and slightly insulting, but I find helpful. You can shoot in sRGB and Abobe RGB color space. You can view a Histogram and even show image clipping in the display—after, not before exposure. You can have a tone sound when setting functions, but of course the factory default is silence. You can also create a silent shutter release.
There is the ability to lock exposure after reading (this is after all a center-weighted system) via pressure on the shutter release, and there’s a somewhat awkward exposure compensation system setup when shooting in Auto mode. Getting the right pressure to lock exposure takes a bit of practice, but once you get it you won’t forget it and it worked excellently for me, showing a small red dot in the finder shutter speed info to indicate it was locked. I often shoot spot and CWA pattern on DSLRs so I found that having only CWA (center-weighted averaging) and exposure lock was just fine with me and a very satisfying way to work.
Of course you can bracket in manual, but you can also do so in aperture priority in a quite satisfying 3, 5 or 7 steps in various EV increments (up to 2EV, which is quite a lot), so this turns out to be one of the best cameras to use for HDR techniques. And you can shoot in a “continuous” mode, up to 8 shots at 2 frames-per-second, which indicates a rather small buffer and quite slow pace. There is a sort of TTL flash system available with compatible units based on a pre-flash exposure setup.
I shot many tests at the “base” ISO 160, but I did try the higher ISO settings. I must say that shadows got quite noisy at or above ISO 1600. This is disappointing for a camera that lends itself to candid shooting and limits its usability in low light handheld without flash. With ISO 800 these days being the new street normal with advanced processors in many new cameras this is one area that needs Leica’s attention.
The menu and the setups are simplicity itself, and happily the camera lacks three and four levels of controls and four or five main menu headings—in other words, it gets you where you need to go quickly and dispenses with many unnecessary items that can often get in the way of simply enjoying the photographic process. The same goes for manual focusing, which seems to be a major challenge these days for some DSLR owners and is a forgotten art in cameras with LCD and EVF only finders.
So, there is only one focusing mode—you and the rangefinder system. A half-moon protrusion sits on the lens onto which you place your finger and as you move it you change the focusing distance. In the viewfinder, you line up the superimposed rangefinder guide onto the main subject to create one image, rather than two, which is what it looks like when displaced, indicating a not in focus condition. It is all very simple and quick, and while those who have not focused in this fashion might find it awkward at first I can assure you that it lets you get pinpoint focus quickly and efficiently.
While modern technology is great, and I’m not into retro for its own sake, let’s just say that rangefinder focusing is much more “involving” than autofocus, and takes away the need to understand matters such as 3D Dynamic Follow Focus in continuous mode with 14-point Zone selection. You know what I mean. And yes, the Leica lenses are marked with depth of field scales, so in the primes you can work with hyperfocal distance shooting. On the Summicron-M 35mm f/2 I was sent for the test I set the camera at f/16, then put the infinity marker inside the f/16 hashmark on the right side. Consulting the depth of field scale I found I could get depth of field from 5 ft to infinity without having to focus at all. That’s why you might want to shoot with primes and why street photographers rely on this type of working method to get the candids they seek—you simply react without concern about focusing and fiddling before the shot.
In terms of image quality the M9-P more than delivers the goods. It’s hard to beat Leica glass, and how the rock solid construction, lack of mirror slap and soft shutter release diminish camera shake. Though I must admit to lacking deep experience with DNG format, working in Lightroom I was able to process the image as finely as any other RAW file format. (Note: you can shoot compressed or uncompressed DNG, and add a JPEG to the single release, or shoot just JPEG Basic and Fine.) For me, this is a camera that encourages picture taking and to me the M9-P is pretty much the best attempt I’ve seen from Leica in the digital realm yet.
This does not mean, however, that the visceral pleasure of shooting with it should outweigh some of the capabilities this camera lacks, and that are afforded to digital photographers with cameras at 1/10th the price. Image processing is relatively slow; the buffer needs to be larger; the framing rate is low; noise is too high at speeds that other processors make neat work of; the LCD finder is a bit too small for proper review (although you can enlarge sections easily enough); and the resolution of the review shot “pops” from low to fine after a lag. Most of these are minor quibbles, except of course the noise issue, which to me is a problem that should be addressed. And while I promised to not to harp on the price, those who have to ask will find it shocking.
In all, it was a real pleasure to work with the M-9P for the short testing period allowed. If you go for the Leica panache and can afford to invest in a camera that offers firmware updates to keep it current and a build that will last a lifetime (witness my M-3 that still works as beautifully as the day I got it in the late 1970’s), then go for it.