So I’ve been asked by a number of people recently, friends and colleagues, what my thoughts are on the Leica M9 after I bought one about 6 or 7 months ago. So I thought it was a good opportunity to put some of my thoughts down here for what it’s worth so that others who might be wondering what all the fuss is about can have a read and form their opinions before taking the plunge and maybe buying one.
Firstly though I have to say that I’m not a technical camera reviewer. So I’m not going to be doing that. If you want to see graphs, charts and tables and images zoomed into 100% crops to talk about resolution and the like then Google search it because I will be writing about some of the good and bad points, in my opinion, that I’ve found since I bought the camera and started using it and how I’ve found it during day to day photo work. Also, I don’t work for Leica so I’m not spinning their products…but if they read this and want to send my the new Leica Monochrome or the ‘M’ to have a look at then……well……ok……go on then!
The Leica M9 with 35mm f2 Summicron
So what did I buy initially?
Well I got the M9, a spare battery, 2 x Sandisk 16Gb SDHC memory cards (although I now have 3), a 35mm f2 ASPH Summicron lens and a 50mm f2 Summicron lens. The 50mm was ordered about 2 months after the initial buy. I’m not going to go into the lenses here as the links above have more detailed reviews but suffice to say that the glass is amazing quality and whilst there are faster lenses available (Summilux etc) these come at a cost that I couldn’t meet at the time I got the camera so I went for the Leica Summicron f2 lenses which are incredible to be honest. I also bought a skylight filter for each lens to protect them. Better to scratch those than the Leica glass!
I also got one of these – A ‘Thumbs up’ grip This I’ve found has been exceptionally useful with gripping the camera and keeping it steady. The M9 body is a little slippy in the hands at times and this gives the extra reassurance of knowing that it isn’t going to slide from the hand and fall to the floor. After a couple of close runs early on while I was waiting for the grip to arrive I came close to dropping it and I’m sure my heart stopped for a moment as I thought about the money spent on this camera as it bounced along the pavement! Buy a thumb’s up grip and save the heart attack!
I bought all the gear from Red Dot cameras who were very helpful in getting my order sorted. I did have to wait for the 35mm to come through for a couple of weeks as there was a back order but at the suggestion of Ivan from Red Dot I bought an earlier non-ASPH 35mm lens from them and when my lens came in they bought it back from me at the price I paid which I thought was great as I could start shooting straight away instead of waiting for a lens.
Now I’m not a rich bloke! I take the decision to buy one of these cameras and the associated ‘stuff’ pretty seriously and I also had to sell off a Nikon D3 and couple of lenses to go towards the funds for this although that didn’t make a massive dent in what I needed to pay to be honest but I got there in the end. So I had to consider how usable this camera was going to be for me and for what I shoot.
Now there is a lot of pretentious commentary surrounding Leica’s. You’ve heard it all before I’m sure….they’re a rich enthusiasts toy, they are no good in ‘real world’ news type photography, they’re only used by those ‘arty’ lot who have visions of themselves being some glamorous ‘photojournalist’ travelling the world to exotic locations, you can get better performing compact cameras these days, they are too expensive…etc etc. You get the point.
And to be honest….much of this is probably right! This camera is limited in what it will offer and what it can be used for. There are better cameras out there that perform with better ISO or with faster computers in the camera to process and write the images to memory cards, cameras with better weather seals, cameras with auto focus, cameras with more accurate white balancing and cameras with a setting for every occasion. Cameras that decide what kind of picture you want before you know yourself! Now all of that is fine but this is the point to get your head around I think – A camera is simply a tool to get a picture with. At least that’s how I see it. Any camera, whether you use the term amateur or professional to describe your involvement with photography it shouldn’t make any difference. A camera is a means to an end. The end being, hopefully, a good picture and this should only be influenced by why you’re shooting – and for whom.
The three most important things in photography, in my opinion, are light, subject and composition. The camera is the tool used to make a record of this but what I like about the Leica is the fact that I make all the decisions in that process. I have to look at the light, the subject and the composition and I am deciding what I think is going to work best for what I want. I decide what exposure to use. I focus the lens myself, I take time and construct my picture. Now all of this you can do with a mid-level or pro DSLR of course and there are far better photographers than me doing this as we speak covering may different subjects and simply owning a Leica will not make a better photographer and to be honest if all of this manual control is new to you it may well make you a worse photographer initially until you get used to it. I still own a Nikon D3s and I use that for much of my professional work when it is suitable but I have always shot it fully manual. For the majority of my work I still manually focus using old Nikon AIS lenses – although I do also use a 70-200 AF for some news and press work – I expose in manual mode and I take control of my pictures and so the shift to the fully manual Leica wasn’t a huge shift in the way I work.
But I learned about photography by shooting film. By making sure my technical shooting skills were as good as they could be and then I developed and processed my own film before printing my pictures in the darkroom so I needed and required that technical understanding and discipline of controlling what I wanted for the best results. I understand exposure and can use it for what I want to achieve I have never relied simply on a ‘mode’ setting to achieve results and this is simply an extension of that. It is a tool for making pictures. Like a carpenter uses a hammer or a plumber uses a wrench or a painter uses a brush it is a necessary tool to allow them to do their job and so also is the camera for a photographer. But like the artist, who uses that brush to make great paintings so the photographer uses the camera to shoot great pictures.
But this is where things change a little, at least for me. This is where the road divides and we leave the common sense and practical route and head down a road that doesn’t really make any practical sense at all and that is simply that this camera is really great to use. It is a tool yes and it is a very expensive tool but there is something that is very enjoyable and satisfying about using a finely crafted tool with a heritage such as the one enjoyed by Leica and which through its use makes you feel as if you are using the best equipment there is for true, no frills photography. Buying a Leica is not a practical decision based on sound financial and business choices. It is a decision based on the heart and a passion for photography. Rather like the classic car owner who drives his E Class Jag, it might not be the fastest or the best daily-use car but it is the experience of driving it that is the appeal.
Now since trading in my other Nikon I have had to use the Leica for some of the press and news jobs that I’ve done. I’ve used it in fast moving demonstrations and busy public events. I’ve used it to shoot portraits and features and I also use it on the documentary projects that I’m currently working on so it is still in full daily use as a working camera and runs right along side my D3s when I’m out on a job. My 2-camera set up is still achievable and using the 35mm on the Leica and the 85mm AIS or the 70-200 AF on the Nikon I can cover most eventualities and requirements without changing lenses. However I can’t use it when the weather is really bad though. If it’s really raining hard I don’t trust the weather seals, such as they are, so I have to work around that but I have the Nikon that can step up for those times so I can get by.
It all depends on your needs. If all of my work was fast paced news events then I would struggle with using the Leica for some of the reasons I’ve mentioned but for the majority of the work I do, including much of the news and press work, it fits nicely into my workflow. When it comes to my own ‘documentary’ and project work then I love using it. The fast write speeds are not an issue as I’m not shooting off loads of pictures at once so the buffer doesn’t strain too much, being relatively slow is a little frustrating maybe, but not a show stopper. Shooting wide open at f2 in bright light needs use of an ND filter to let me achieve f2 because the fastest speed is 1/4000th and so I have a 3-stop ND filter for each of my lenses to allow me to do this – the images really pop at f2 though, especially with the 50mm!
It is a little more discreet and as such people tend not to take much notice when I’m using it on its’ own which can help at times depending on what I’m doing although I have had to explain a few times to some who ask if it’s a film camera or who ask if it is ‘one of those really old ones‘? Yeah, a really old one whose file size and image quality blows the D3s out of the water!
The ISO isn’t as good as I’ve become used to with digital, especially with the D3 or the D3s and images can have more ‘noise’ when I crank the ISO up beyond 800 or 1600 but that’s fine. I can help reduce this with accurate focus and exposure and to be honest I’m changing my mindset about this. Thinking once again back to shooting film and the grain that was visible at higher film speeds and which often lent itself more to the subjects of those images and I loved the look of grain. So maybe we are that used to the ‘clean’ noise-free digital images of today that can almost look plastic in appearance that maybe having that grainy, film-like appearance isn’t a bad thing? With so many pictures whizzing over the desk of editors or picture desks is it such a bad thing to at least try and be different?
Below are a few examples of pictures taken with the M9 and the 35mm Summicron…
Street scene, Saltburn
Fishing from Saltburn Pier. Part of my ‘Coast People’ project
Rainbow and sun on Huntcliff
Night fishing event
So….Will this camera make you a better photographer? No, at least not straight away, but I think it does improve your photography abilities and understanding. It makes you think.
Will this camera be suitable for every job you may be shooting if like me you’re a working photographer? No, but you’d be surprised at just what it can do.
Will the limitations of the ISO range and slower computer on the camera have to be considered? Yes, definitely but it can be worked around in many cases with a bit of thought.
The biggest issue I have is the weather protection. Great pictures can often come in the worst of weather conditions and I do feel restricted as a result. Mine is scratched on the rear screen, some of the paint is rubbing off through use and it looks about ten years older than it is already but I’m not bothered about that but I do wish that I could use it in any conditions – especially the wet – and not have to worry about water getting into it. Maybe I could and just see what happens…but I’ve bottled it because I can’t replace it if it does die on me!
Getting a handle on this camera takes time. It takes time to get a grip on the rangefinder focus method – especially when shooting wide open. But eventually it becomes faster and more intuitive. After 15 years plus with Nikon cameras a rangefinder was a different beast entirely but one that soon becomes familiar and as the confidence grows so too the pictures start to improve. With focus needing to be spot on to ensure the best performance from the amazing quality lenses and with real accuracy of exposure needed to ensure the best quality results it is not a very forgiving camera but this forces you to up your game.
It forces you to challenge yourself and in photography I think that is something we should all be trying to do. All the time. If nothing else it brings about, for me anyway, a self-satisfaction that my photography knowledge, skills and abilities are good and are always being pushed and improved upon. It is down to me to constantly improve my skills and to get the most out if this camera. To be able to think about what you want and how to achieve it and then when the results come…when a quality image results from the creative decisions that have been made it brings a greater sense of satisfaction knowing that you made all those decisions. Maybe a little bit like – and I hope this doesn’t sound too much like pretentious, arty-farty, Leica crap – a master craftsman who enjoys the process and not just the results?
The choice is yours.
I now pack a lot lighter for many of my own jobs when the Nikon is not required.