Monday, November 15, 2010

Leica M9 Thoughts

Back some time ago I had the chance to spend several days shooting with a Leica M9. I didn't have any Leica lenses to try, but I did use several Voigtlander and Zeiss ZM lenses. At the end I came away with a good idea of what the M9 has to offer and in particular the value the rangefinder system has to offer. Most images were taken at work and are of my co-workers with a couple of my daughter.

There are numerous reviews of the M9 already out there. Without exception, it seems those already familiar with the M-system gestalt applaud the M9. There is some (arguably justified) criticism, especially when it comes to the price. Looking at a specification sheet, I will go out on a limb and say that the M9 is unimpressive. It doesn't have the highest resolution sensor out there, no earth shattering high ISO, no auto-focus, no movie mode, no live view, in short no bells and whistles. Fortunately, there's more to a photographic experience with a camera than a specification sheet.

Overall I was pleased with the M9 image quality. One thing to realize is that because of the short distance between sensor and mount, there is a lot of work that goes into the full frame sensor of the M9 to reduce vignetting and color shifts. Modern, re-designed lenses are less of an issue as the optical design can be changed so that light rays are projected more perpendicular to the sensor even near the edges but for older lenses (especially those Zeiss ZM lenses) this is a big deal.

The M9 also lacks an anti-aliasing filter. This leads to images that appear sharper and require significantly less sharpening. It also means that the M9 is more prone to Moire. Here are two images comparing the M9 to a 1Ds3, you can decide just how much worse the Moire is.

What is remarkable is the detail resolved by the M9 sensor. I would say its easily capable of resolving as much detail as the higher (albeit only slightly higher) resolution 1Ds3 sensor. In some prints I'd say the M9 even resolves more detail.

The rangefinder working style is in my opinion most suited for particular styles of photography, most notably street, candid and photo journalism. Trying to fault its shortcomings for other styles is perhaps a little disingenuous. In having used one, I can certainly see how as an overall system the M could be so very appealing for photo journalists and street photographers.

I should also add that with its great resolving power and superb lenses, the M system also could be well suited for landscape photography. It is here though that I will bring up the one thing that I really wish the M9 had, Live View. This is a feature that was ridiculed by many when first introduced as a gimmick, but the fact is that it is extremely valuable for getting accurate focus quickly. Accurate focus is essential if one wants critically sharp images.

I love the user interface of the M9. Its very simple, yet very powerful. Changing settings like aperture, shutter speed, ISO are all done very naturally and quickly. This is an area in which I can appreciate what Leica has done in terms of keeping to the simplicity of the rangefinder heritage.

Overall, I can appreciate what Leica has accomplished with the M9, it finally gives people a good full frame sensor while mechanically keeping to its rangefinder roots. I even applaud Leica for it, however my suggestion for Leica is to start thinking about where to go from here. I think there are some areas (Live View most notably) where Leica can embrace some of the advantages of digital without giving up the appeal of the rangefinder system.

So am I getting an M9? Sadly no. Like I said, its important to figure out what a particular piece of equipment is good for and the things that the M9 (and rangefinders in general) excel at are types of photography I don't pursue, namely street, candid and photo journalism. If I lived in a major urban center and was involved in any of these types of photography, an M9 would definitely be in my bag.

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