First Impressions: Leica M9
Posted on April 6, 2011
Okay, first off…I’m not that guy who shoots color checkers, dictionary pages and window lines and compares aberration studies. I’m glad that guy is out there, and I’m glad he is doing what he does, but when it comes to a camera test, I’m not that guy. When I test a camera I have a few basic questions I’m trying to answer.
First, does it look cool? Okay, just kidding.
Let me back up. I’m a Leica user. Have been for many years, so the idea of “testing” the Leica M9 really isn’t fair. I had a pretty good idea what this camera was before I ever had it in my hand, and after a quick, and I say QUICK test this afternoon, I can tell you one thing for certain. It is exactly what I thought it was.
This is an M camera without the negative. That’s it, in a nutshell, and for those of you familiar with Leica you will know what I mean.
The M is my primary camera, and when confronted by the age old question, “If you could only use one camera what would it be?” I have no decision to make.
The M is small, light, solid, reliable and doesn’t take up much space, either physical or mental for that matter, and when I’m in the field using it, nobody seems to care.
Okay, to the details. The camera is painfully simple, just like my M6. It has a shutter speed dial, aperture on the lens, and a S or C advance mode. Okay..that about sums it up. Turn it on, point it, focus, expose, move along. Again, this is what I’ve been doing for fifteen years, so this little combination is like breathing for me. The Leica legend has a tremendous pull and over the years I’ve talked to legions of folks who fell in love, bought an M, never really gave it a shot, then sold it. If you commit to this camera, really learn it, you will never let it go, and this is where I find myself.
The menus on the M9 are also simple, in comparison to the DSLR world. Leica has basically grouped them into two groups, things you would use in the field and things you would adjust before you went out. Again, I’m not making a lot of adjustments here folks, other than watching the light, the people around me and trying to make something sensible of the world. That is about all I can handle. I don’t need a camera that thinks for me, talks for me or tries to figure out what I’m trying to do. I’ll save that for my car, my phone and my government.
When you turn the M9 on it starts pretty darn quick. There is a short delay, but I turned it on and off, constantly to see if it would cause me to hold but it did not. I’ve heard the image count per battery is about 300 images, but the way I shoot, I have a feeling I’m fine when it comes to batteries. 300 images for me is a lot. Or, I could buy a few extra batteries and never had to think about this ever again.
In case you are wondering….the fastest ISO I used was 320. When people found out I was testing this camera I got a lot of “Shoot that thing at 2500 and tell me what you get.” Well, I can if you want me to but I don’t really want to do this. I’ll tell you why. Over the past ten years of shooting digital, the highest ISO I can remember using is 800. And in most cases, I don’t go over 640. I’m not sure what all the chatter is about regarding high ISO, but I’m not on that same page. This is my feeling. I have f/2 lenses and I have a strobe. And, most importantly, I’ve NEVER liked noise. Noise ain’t grain people. I’ve seen noise sauteed, fried, roasted,poached, grilled, torched, glazed, caramelized, pan seared, blackened and even served all you can eat and I just don’t like it. So, I’m not really wanting it in my digital files. And before you go trying to learn me in regards to all the actions sets that mimic film grain, please refrain yourself. Those are fine, but I go one better.
I just reach with my right hand, pull up my M6 and actually shoot film.
And this leads me to my next point. I’m not ending my film life because I’m using an M9. There is no either/or. I’m trying to make my life about creativity, and how I come to that creativity is wide ranging. Heck, I made a sketch this morning. Yep, I did. Paper, pen and the world’s worst drawing. In my backpack I have an iPad and a paper journal. I looked at Time online this morning but I have a paper magazine on the table next to me. Do you see where I’m going here people? Okay good. You are I are one in the same.
The M9 is quiet. Very quiet, and I’ve yet to even put it in the quiet advance mode. It also has a black and white mode, which I did try, while I was driving actually. I nearly careened off the road at high speed while driving with my knee in essence scaring myself nearly to death. I have yet to revisit this tool. But, again, I’m shooting black and white film, so I’m not really searching for a digital, black and white camera.
I’ve handed the M9 to several other photographers who all said the same thing, “Wow, this feels good.”(Some want a rewind crank to help balance) And this people is VERY important. The M9, like all other M cameras, feels really good in your hand. It is very easy to carry, even for extended periods of time.
Now, these images. Random, quick. I did the edit in Photo Mechanic, which is an insanely good program, then copied the edits into Lightroom, another insanely good program, where I tried to do some basic adjustments only to realize I don’t know how to use Lightroom, so I just used the program to convert the DNG’s to my tiny 600 pixel jpgs you are looking at here. I then followed up with a dazzling curve adjustment-really strutting my stuff here people-and then dodged and burned-lightly-and finally…..no sharpening. All of these were shot with the 50mm. I LOVE this lens. It’s a nightmare to get good with a 50mm in my opinion, but it’s well worth the struggle.
This brings me to perhaps my last point. Post production. The reason I did not go to town on these images is that the post production world is now so far beyond anything we could have imagined a few short years ago that I don’t see the point of testing a camera and then blasting the images to oblivion with Photoshop. I’m not saying it is bad or wrong to do that, but I just wanted you to see a basic image. I feel that much of the digital photography I see is made almost equally between the actual moment the photographer made the image and the amount of time they spend in post production.
As you can probably guess…that isn’t me. I think at the foundation of this is the reality I just don’t enjoy it. I love shooting, obviously, and I love blogging, writing, posting, etc, but the image prep of digital files ranks right up there with that eye exam thingy they give you when the small blast of air is shot into your eye causing you to snap your head back and curse the optician. Ya, it’s like that to me. Having said that, because of the M9, I’m planning on finding a way to like this part of the game.
So let me sum this little story up.
A great camera, to me, is a camera I don’t have to think about.
Looking back on my little jaunt this afternoon, I don’t even feel like I tested a camera. And many of you are probably saying, “You didn’t you idiot.” But it’s my blog so you can’t stop me from continuing. I don’t feel like I tested a camera because the camera was not controlling me in the field. It is such a simple device to use. I don’t have to spend any time thinking about my gear. I’ve heard many people trying to compare this camera to the Canon 5D Mark II or other offerings, and I think that is a big mistake. The 5D Mark II is an incredible camera, and cameras like the Leica X1 and Fuji X100 are also great tools but they are simply different from the M9. The M9 is unique, as the M cameras always have been. For what they are designed for, they are simply the best tools ever made.
When it comes to my primary system my future is about two things.
They just work.