First Impressions: Leica M9

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.

Leica MP
Leica M9

They just work.

72 Responses to “First Impressions: Leica M9”

  1. Gary Kurtz says:

    Are you planning on selling either of your M6′s? Of all the photographers that I’d love to procure a used Leica from, you’re at the top of the list.

  2. Mark Olwick says:

    That’s pretty much the perfect combination for me too, Daniel. Thanks for the review – it’s exactly the level of detail that I like for reviews.

    Mark

    • Smogranch says:

      Really? Okay, was hoping to give some real world info but not get too bogged down in tech stuff. Camera works. It’s easy to use.

  3. Dn'l S. says:

    I finally ordered an M9 today and just read your post. I’ve been shooting with a s/h M6 &50mm Cron the past few months to see if M’s are for me. They are. (big grin)

    Why do think it’s a nightmare to get good with a 50mm? Will you elaborate?

    • Smogranch says:

      I think the 50mm is a very difficult lens to use because it looks normal. On the DSLR, the 50mm is the new rage. Set it at 1.2 or 1.4 and everything is blown out, but that gets old after about five minutes. If you look at the history of photography, there is a significant amount of imagery done with the 50mm. It takes a while to get used to and knowing what a portrait looks like at 5.6 instead of 1.2 is something that takes time to learn. I have had at least four 50mm of the years, sold them all. Except this last one. Now I get it. It’s in between. It’s not exotic. Call it boring call it what you will. It’s changed my photography for sure.

    • Dn'l S. says:

      Thanks. It’s funny because I really want a 35 but have been worried that that will be a nightmare for me to learn. I think I see what you mean though. I do find myself working harder to frame well with the 50 — I frequently start out too tight and then end up having to back off to get the right composition.

      Love that first shot of the baitfish on the ground.

  4. Perfect USER review, getting out and testing it in the real world,that’s what cameras are made to do. Have fun! If only the M8 had been the M9 but that’s another story.

  5. Charlene says:

    I got more out of your review than I would have a full on technical one (since I can’t consolidate specs with actual user experience). And you made me chuckle all the way down the post, to boot :) All the M references were lost on me though. Have never met a real Leica in the flesh. Perhaps one day.

    • Smogranch says:

      Charlene,

      M is simply the designation for the rangefinder cameras from Leica. M1 through the M9. Glad you enjoyed it. It’s a fun camera for sure. Using these cameras takes a bit of getting used to, but once you do, it’s hard to use anything else.

  6. Dn'l S. says:

    Thanks. It’s funny because I really want a 35 but have been worried that that will be a nightmare for me to learn. I think I see what you mean though. I do find myself working harder to frame well with the 50 — I frequently start out too tight and then end up having to back off to get the right composition.

    Love that first shot of the hands and feet and baitfish on the ground.

  7. KeithC says:

    If you don’t like the processing of the digital images, you should outsource it. Just like sending your film to the lab. The best film lab, Richard Photo Lab, can also do digital processing.

    • Smogranch says:

      Hey Keith,

      Ya, I’m not sure that works for me. A great service, no doubt, but for me, I figure I need to keep my fingerprints on my work throughout the process. It’s odd. I started back in the darkroom after a 15-year break, and now I want to go further. I want to process again, etc.

  8. Kevin Keefer says:

    Thanks Daniel, for taking the time to review this incredible camera. What I hear you saying is regardless of the medium (digital or film) you are going shoot the same way. That’s cool.

    • Smogranch says:

      You know Kevin, that is exactly right. I shouldn’t have to make changes due to what is in my hand, and today during my test, I didn’t change anything.

  9. You forgot Tempura….

  10. dan sutton says:

    haha. beautiful. but this brings me to my point about my deardorff . it’s actually an 8×10 camera. I took it to a very, very weird guy’s house to do some honest portraits of him with my buddy’s elinchrom ranger. I have some contact prints from the 8×10 and a few 3200 iso tri-x prints. The 35mm is exactly, exactly what i wanted. Don’t much care for the LF in comparison. And this is why I want to sell it: i have the tool i need and it gives me the prints that i want. the lf is amazing, but i like my m6′s. Also, I’d like to sell one m6 and the deardorff for an mp:)

  11. otto says:

    Its a very specific tool the M9 and therefore I also think its pointless to try and compare it to SLR’s etc. It’s simply a image making tool and for me when the M9 and those little Leica lenses gets it right it is absolutely perfect for me. thanks for the thoughts man.

  12. otto says:

    “There is no either/or” – AMEN!

  13. Eric Jeschke says:

    Nice to see some balance in your kit. I agree totally about the post-processing. Nice shots, BTW. I think you’d get some great B&W from it either in camera or after with Nik.

    Personally, I’m liking a 40mm. It’s a nice balance between the 35 and the 50–not so “boring” as the 50, but lacking a little of the WA distortion of the 35. I’m also currently playing with a 90mm. A classic focal length for tighter portraits.

  14. Paul Gero says:

    danno…i think those two cameras will make a killer combination…you’re right that m9 does feel pretty darn good…it’s such a different experience than slr’s..have fun in hong kong…

  15. Sean says:

    I’ve just upgraded from my 5D Mark II to a Konica C35 and a roll of Kodak Gold.

  16. Herman says:

    Great practical review without the usual overkill of blabla. I just decided to buy a M9 but couldn’t choose a right lens. After reading your article the 35 and 50 are the ones. Thanks and good luck finding enough time to shoot :-)

  17. Richard says:

    Coincidentally enough, I bought an M9 a couple of weeks ago. I’ve been using an M6 for almost 15 years, so switching to the M9 was seamless. At times, it doesn’t feel like I’m using a new camera (though my bank account certainly felt it).

    But beauty of the M-cameras is its simplicity. Stick on a 35mm or 50mm and you’re set. I think your review really captures what I’ve been feeling using this camera for the past two weeks.

  18. Tom Ridout says:

    Your observations of the Leica are good I think. I remember years ago when I had a Pentax SLR with a few lenses. I was always futzing with the controls and it never occurred to me how the camera was getting in the way. Then it was stolen and I borrowed my dad’s little minox 35mm. Fixed lens, a little exposure needle, estimate the focus and shoot. Well what do you think happened? My pictures got WAY better fast because now I didn’t think about the camera only the picture. It felt good. I feel the same way about the M7. Just look and think about the scene……snap. Done. Looking at electronic cameras with all the menus and such makes me nutty. If you watch people using them they are spending as much time looking at the camera as they are looking at the scene.

    • Smogranch says:

      My mother had a Minox when I was young. Tiny. Love that thing.

      I like not having to think about my gear. Until now, I never even had to travel with laptop, chargers, etc. It’s very difficult to NOT look at that preview, and I agree. Any minute you are looking at that, beyond initial review, is a waste.

  19. I’ve had the M9 for one year. Loved it. 10.000 images on it but when I got my MP it did not see much use and I sold it. It’s still the best digital camera I’ve ever owned but film is were my heart is. There is not much difference between M6 and MP. MP has slight lower profile (means the world in handling) and a smaller shutter speed dial that turns opposite compared to the M6. Shutter speed dial is also more stiff on MP than on M6.

  20. thank you for a no-frills reminder how natural shooting an M feels, film or digital. I’ve been using an M9 for almost a year now and won’t look back…

    • Smogranch says:

      It’s interesting to hear how many of you all have this camera. It MUST be working. I hearing nothing but good things about it.

  21. mani says:

    I’ve used digital cameras most of my adult life, then discovered film with an M6. Still love my M8 and use it for a lot of family shots (a 2-year old running around wildly is great for digital), but I’ve fallen in love with the way that Portra handles light – and especially *bright* light – and for me there’s no comparison any longer.
    What happens in the background of your surfer shot is one of the reasons film still blows away digital.
    That and the fact that my concentration, the zen-state of using film, the sheer intensity, is never 100% there with digital. I can’t help thinking that maybe I’ll get ‘the shot’ with the next shutter release, so I waste a few shots, and chimp, and shoot some more, and before I know it, I’ve lost the vision of what I wanted to capture. And I’ve also ‘burnt-up’ a subject – used it up and spat it out, without ever really ‘envisioning’ or ‘internalizing’ it.
    Film rules in my opinion – for so many reasons. And I’m sad to see you even mixing digital into your workflow again, as you’ve been such a role-model for my own journey.

    • Smogranch says:

      Mani,

      I’ve been using digital since about 1998 or 1999. I was fully digital for three years before switching back. So what I’m doing now isn’t new for me. My project work, the bulk of the story, will still be film. I don’t have any intention of using the digital for that. But, for telling the daily stories, and for my blog, as well as certain types of assignments, digital is the best way of getting it done. So, I use both. I also have Blurb duties now, so I have a need to be able to get into the field and share with you what I’m seeing, hearing and doing. I’ve been doing this with film, but the backlog is the hard part.
      The M9 is good enough to do my main work, but I love the look, feel and brains of film, and I also love working in the darkroom. I’m in no hurry with my work, so film works great for me.

  22. Pat says:

    just wondering, why go for an MP when you have a pair of M6 Classics?

    • Smogranch says:

      Always wanted a brass body, and love the old school rewind. I will probably stay with my current setup. No time for anything now anyway.

  23. richardvanle says:

    So do you envision using the M9 for primarily color or black & white work? I’d also love to see you do a follow up review once you’ve put some more miles through the M9. I’d be curious if any quirks pop up for you. I’m running mine through its paces before I use it for a client shoot in a couple of weeks. So far the transition from M6 to M9 has been virtually seamless for me (unlike when I bought a Canon 5D, for example).

    • Smogranch says:

      Richard,

      for me it is about color. I’m leaving tomorrow for Hong Kong and I’ll be trying to post most every day. I’ll be using the M9 for this, as well as my color work. For black and white I have M6 and TRI-X.

  24. Karen says:

    I’m using the MP/M9 combo these days. For me the b&w film look just can’t be replicated with digital, at least without a lot of post processing time and I spend more time in front of the computer than I want to already. For color though, and for experimenting with composition in a ‘sketchpad’ sort of way, I love the M9. Can’t wait to see what you do with it on your trip.

    • Smogranch says:

      That is precisely what I envision. I want a negative for some work because I want to print silver. Other times I need the speed and immediacy of digital.

  25. mike a says:

    I really like the top photo. Ive always wanted a Leica even though Ive never held one. It just seemed like the perfect camera to me. About the right size, simple and made really well. I doubt I could could focus one with my eyes but I always felt it would have fit my style. And the 35 and the 50 would in my opinion be the ideal lens set up. I try to set up my 5d’s as simple as possible and I almost always shoot in the same mode. I just want things simple and I dont want the camera getting in the way of what Im trying to accomplish.

  26. laura says:

    That was so funny! Dan I really enjoy your humor. You have got me thinking I should sneak Jeff’s M9 out for a run!!!

  27. Suzanne Revy says:

    Late to the party, thanks for the review. When I was in Santa Fe in February, one of my workshop classmates had two M9′s, and I have to to confess, it’s probably the one digital camera I’m tempted by. Partly because it felt “good” as you say, but more importantly, it’s so simple. I can never get my head around all the bells and whistles and menus on big DSLR’s (though I’ll confess, I feel the same about the bells and whistles on film SLR’s too) when all I really want to think about is an aperture and a shutter speed and nothing else. And I’ve been thinking about shooting more color. With the cost of processing film, there’s something to be said for using such a camera for color (keeping your film cameras for b/w that I process myself!!) Then again… this camera is not cheap, so it may all be a wash, I don’t know. Still, seems like a great bit of kit to add to your gear without losing too many brain cells figuring out the bells and whistles of more complex gear!!

  28. Neil says:

    Finally a honest down to earth review of the M9, thanks for doing this. I’ve got an M6 and 50mm ‘cron, I’m always looking for the next thing, after reading this it’s made me think about what I’m trying to achieve with photography, I should stick with the M and try to get better with that, rather than always wanting to buy something else. Logical choice has to be the M9, but it’s too expensive for me right now.

    • Smogranch says:

      Neil,

      The gear treadmill never works. Look at the history of photography, a huge percentage of the best work has been done by someone with limited gear and lots of time.

  29. Ivars Krafts says:

    You’ve gone through a number of 50mm lenses. Which one did you settle on and why?
    I got my M9 with the Summicron and like it very much. However, every once in a while I wonder whether I might have been better off with the Summilux. I suppose if I had one of those, I’d lust after a Noctilux.
    Thank you for your photos & writing.

    • Smogranch says:

      Ivars,

      I’ve got the f/2 which is great for me. I would love the 1.4′s but I’ve managed just fine with the f/2′s this long. They are also smaller and lighter.

  30. ottoschulze says:

    The new summilux 35 asph is incredible gents. My all time fave.

  31. Dan, I am glad you liked the M9. I think it strikes a great balance. Same experience, with some of the positive aspects (as well as the ‘negative’) of shooting digital. Since I started shooting with this camera I have shot pretty much with the 35. I do miss sometimes the 50 that is what I used to shoot with my slr. I have a 75 that I used very rarely for portraits. I could consider exchanging it for a 50 at some point. Enjoy and good luck in Hong Kong.

  32. Dan, I noticed that you mention you use a strobe with your Leica. What do you use? Do you use it often? Is there such a thing as TTL with these cameras? Can you take it off-camera? I never even considered using a flash with my Leica, but I could see a few instances where it would most definitely help. Thanks.

  33. Bob Miller says:

    Thanks for the review, Dan. Simple is better.
    Looking to supplement my 35 summarit with a 50mm f.2 Summicron after reading through comments on this post. Any idea if the newer model for that lens is better than the old? The newer do have a built in lens hood I’ve noticed.

    • Smogranch says:

      Bob, I have the model with the build in hood, which I really love. I think the difference between old and new is simply the look. I know folks who bought and sold the 35mm Ashperical because they preferred the look of the old 35. I’ve had two 50′s and they were both great. I like having the built in hood. It’s small and folds away.

  34. Javier Montiel says:

    Dan,

    I love your review of the M9. I just got one myself. I normally shoot with an old M4 and a new M6 camera with a 35mm ASPH and a pre ASPH 35mm ‘cron. Could you please specify the flash unit for us? Sometimes I need for a strobe to assist in the picture taking experience.

    Javier

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