Archive for December, 2009

A Working Photojournalist’s Review of the Leica M9

Leica M9, 21mm f/2.8 Elmarit ASPH. © Kevin Moloney, 2009.

Through the generosity of the Rocky Mountain regional Leica rep, I had the chance to take Leica’s new full-frame, 18 megapixel rangefinder with me to Southeast Asia this month. It was  a great chance to really use a camera thoroughly for evaluation. They loaned it to me mostly because I have one on order, and it wouldn’t be delivered before the trip.

I don’t write a camera review blog, but several students have asked for this. And rangefinder cameras (film, digital, old, new) have a deep place in photojournalism.

This will also not be an overly technical review. If you crave test charts, densitometer readings and firmware analysis, there are some great ones on Erwin Puts’ site and dpreview.

Reviews like this can also be very contentious as many photographers carry an irrational loyalty to certain brands or camera forms. I’m a fan of them all and find advantages in everything from a view camera to TLR, rangefinder, or high-speed DSLR. I’m camera agnostic. Please do comment, but do so knowing that these are simply my impressions from three weeks of use. This is far from the final word.

Form Factor, Handling, Construction

The reasons for using a rangefinder of any brand are often discussed. I’ll mention mine. There are quite a few rangefinders available, from Leica, Zeiss-Contax, some almost new from the recently defunct Rollei, also from Epson and Cosina/Voigtländer. There are classics still quite usable from Nikon, Canon, Olympus, Kodak Retina. Many… These are much different than a live-view compact camera though. By rangefinder I mean there is an optical coupled rangefinder focus device that projects overlapping double images within the viewfinder.

You see differently through them. The whole view is sharp and in-focus, and many photographers like me find that composition becomes more complex and layered when you see at very deep depth of field. With an SLR you only see with the shallowest depth of field, which can yield a different kind of image.

Layers of action in Old Havana. Leica M6TTL, 28mm f/2.8 Elmarit. Fujichrome Provia 100. © Kevin Moloney, 2000

Rangefinders are extremely quiet and subtle cameras, intimidating subjects far less with smaller size, less shutter noise, and by covering much less of your face when you shoot.

They are quick to lift, quick to focus (yes, even manually) and that makes them very stealthy on the street.

With all but the widest lenses, the photographer can see outside the frame while looking through the viewfinder. Once upon a time sports photographers preferred rangefinders because they could see the action coming and anticipate the moment very well. This has proven itself to me over and over. For example when using a long lens — a 90mm or a 135mm — I can see so much of the world outside the frame that catching a fleeting moment becomes simple. You know it is coming before it enters the frame lines. To get the same with an SLR you need that loud, fast, subject-startling motor. Why was le maitre Henri so good at catching those decisive moments? Perhaps because he could see outside the frame of his shot. My timing is much better with a rangefinder than it is with an SLR.

A fleeting bird enters the frame suddenly. Seen outside the frame lines of a Leica M6TTL with a 90mm f/2.0 Apo-Summicron ASPH. Fujichrome Provia IV. © Kevin Moloney, 2008.

Fast motor speeds are irrelevant with these cameras. First because timing is actually easier, and second because if you’re going to spray shots at eight frames per second you might as well use a big obtrusive camera with gigantic zoom lenses.

I use SLRs too, and they have their advantages. Rangefinders just do different things for me.

Leica M8, 50mm f/1.4 Summilux, lens-mounted IR filter. © Kevin Moloney, 2009.

The M9 is certainly a Leica rangefinder. In the hand it only feels different from 50 years of M ancestors because there’s no thumb advance and the body is slightly thicker. The view through the finder is more than familiar. It feels almost exactly like my M8 and much like my M6s.

The construction of this one was fairly solid as I would expect — again, much like my M8. But I have three complaints. Starting with the M6TTL, Leica changed the way the rangefinder is calibrated. Now repairmen need a special tool. I think Leica did this so people would stop wrecking their cameras by trying to fix it themselves (a bit patronizing). But the aftereffect is that the calibration screw cannot be tightened as well even by a good repairman. The cameras are easier to knock out of alignment.

This one was no exception. It is a demo model that had been handled before I picked it up, and sure enough the focus calibration was slightly off. I couldn’t safely use long lenses wide open and be sure of a sharp image. For that I used my better-adjusted M8. On this slightly off M9 the wide angles were razor sharp wide open, but they are more forgiving than a 90mm f/2.0 for example

My other complaint with this one is that the twist latch on the camera’s bottom plate — where you put battery and SD card, and where you once loaded film — was a bit loose. The cover fit perfectly, but the latch handle sagged a bit.

The third complaint is that though my M8 will (albeit begrudgingly) use a high-capacity SD card, the M9 will not yet. I assume that will be corrected in firmware. But with these big files a 2GB card fills fast.

Image Quality

Here’s the important part. The shape of the camera, after all, is more than 50 years old.

Leica M9, 21mm f/2.8 Elmarit ASPH. ISO 160. © Kevin Moloney, 2009.

Resolution

Leica’s first digital rangefinder was the 10-megapixel M8. The M9 has now 18 megapixels. They did this simply with a 30-percent physical increase in size from the M8’s sensor. The pixels themselves are the same size and the same distance apart from each other on the chip.

Though in the digital age the first 8 megapixels were life or death, I have to say these last 8 megapixels make for a much smaller difference. You can see a bit more detail in the images from an M9 than those from the M8. But shooting the M8 raw makes images that can be very nicely interpolated to 25 megapixels and have an image only marginally inferior to one from a 25-megapixel camera.

Print both as large-format magazine doubletrucks and you will not see a difference. You won’t in 16X20 prints either. How much resolution do you need and what is it worth in terms of investment in camera and data storage?

Leica M9, ISO 160, full frame. © Kevin Moloney, 2009.

100% view of the above frame.

The great resolution is achieved in Leica’s cameras by using a much weaker anti-aliasing filter, which does a variety of geeky things including eliminating the moire that happens when photographing visual patterns like window screens.

Though you get a moire slightly more often (it’s not often a big deal) you do get much sharper images. And that sharp Kodak sensor paired with so-sharp-you-can-cut-yourself-on-the-pictures Leica lenses, you can enlarge much more. Pixels be damned.

Resolution is not only about pixel count, and the M8 started in a good place there. But then they made the M9 with 18 megapixels.

Leica M9, 28mm f/2.0 Sumicron ASPH, ISO 640. © Kevin Moloney, 2009.

Color quality

On both cameras the color quality and depth are excellent. It is slightly better on the M9 than the M8. There’s a very rich natural contrast range and good saturation. But the depth is there too, giving a raw shooter the ability to soften contrast, dodge, burn, correct shadows and highlights with as little damage as one finds in new high-end Japanese SLRs.

The M8 was good, though, and still is. I have no complaints about its color depth, though my three-years-newer SLR is a bit deeper. The M9 has caught that fine Japanese machine for color.

The M8 suffered at the beginning from too much infrared sensitivity. This was due to a thinner IR filter on the sensor — a necessary compromise to make the thing fit in such a small body. Leica caught hell for this, probably because with Leica most people expect the camera to start out perfect. And why not at these prices? Leica fixed that with lens-mounted filters, and they gave each M8 buyer two. Problem (almost) solved.

Though wearing a gray suit, the combination of artificial lights and synthetic fabric made Alberto Gonzales' suit turn purple from an excess of infrared light. Leica M8, 90mm f/2.0 Apo-Summicron ASPH, ISO 640. © Kevin Moloney, 2007.

To get the full benefit of that fix also required having the lens mount changed to sport a set of black and white stripes that tell the camera which lens you are using. The cost was $75 per lens (cheap for anything Leica) but took some time. It was particularly necessary with the wide lenses that would suffer a cyan-colored vignette from the filter. Problem exchanged.

With long lenses (50mm and up) that vignette is not noticeable if there at all, so the lens mount change was not as necessary. I skipped it on lenses from 35mm and longer. But then the camera creates image thumbnails that look a bit green and a bit weak on some image browsers like Photo Mechanic that just use them straight from the camera’s file. The images themselves are lovely, but the thumbs can be uninspiring.

By fixing this IR problem in the M9 you gain a couple things. You don’t need the filters anymore and you don’t need the lens mount coding if you can’t afford it.

That 6-bit lens mount code does still have function. It helps the camera correct aberrations and vignettes, and records the focal length in metadata. But who cares? You can fix the very rare lens problem in many raw converters, and only absolute camera geeks care about that level of metadata detail.

The M9 does suffer from one color issue. With extreme wide angle lenses you may see a magenta shift on the sides fading over 1/4 of the frame. It’s annoying. It’s a tricky thing to fix in editing either raw or in Photoshop.

Leica M9, Voigtländer 15mm f/4.5. Note the red/magenta shift on the left side of the frame caused by light striking the pixels at an extreme angle. © Kevin Moloney, 2009.

This is caused by the extreme angle at which the light rays hit the sensor when coming from a super-wide. I see it when I use my inexpensive little Voigtländer 15mm lens. This may be something corrected by the firmware in the M9 when using a Leica branded and coded lens, like their 16mm.

If you like extreme wides, you might think twice, or cash out for the Leica lenses. I use that lens rarely in full-frame shooting. I got it so the cropped-sensor M8 would have a 21mm perspective. It worked very well for that. I doubt I’d use it on an M9 except in emergency.

Noise

Low noise is not the realm of the Leica M8 nor M9. If you want the best quality at insanely high ISOs, have a look at the Japanese models.

But the M9 is a one-stop improvement over the M8, now making shooting at up to 1600 fairly pleasant. Pair that with a series of lenses that are one to four stops faster than a Japanese zoom and you’re fine.

This camera uses a CCD sensor designed for optimum sharpness. They also apply far less firmware noise correction than the high-end DSLRs do. So though they are noisier, the images are sharper. And if I need to fix noise, I’d rather have full computer control myself than leaving it irrecoverably to the camera.

Many have praised the noise of the M8 (and now the M9) as looking more like film grain than other cameras. I love film grain for what it is. But it’s crazy to think of paying $7,000 for film grain. I’d rather have noiseless images at every ISO and add it later if I’m feeling nostalgic.

Leica’s “film grain” noise is not an advantage to praise. But correcting that noise is very easy to do thanks to the sharpness of the images. The M8 or M9 shot raw and processed delicately through Noise Ninja or another software solution yields images as noiseless as a high-end DSLR even at extreme ISO.

I have not posted high-ISO images here because doing so at such a small size is fairly meaningless. But here is a link to a raw file at ISO 1250, the highest rating I tried. Play at your leisure. The camera will go to 2500, but I hadn’t planned a detailed review and rarely shoot there on my own. Other reviewers have nice examples.

Leica M9, 35mm f/1.4 Summilux ASPH, 1/40 sec. at f/1.4, ISO 640. © Kevin Moloney, 2009

Should you get one?

Here’s the deal. The camera body is $7,000 ($5,200 for students). That’s a chunk of change. It’s a couple trips overseas to shoot a story or two. It’s some big Japanese glass. It could pay for lots of things. New lenses start at about $1,300 and shoot to $10,000 each. Used they are half that, but half that is still a lot. I have taken more than 20 years to put together my kit from mostly used gear.

There are great cheaper lenses available from Voigtländer, Zeiss, and Rollei if you can find them. The cameras use almost every Leica lens made since 1955.

But the price is something to think seriously about.

If you have no Leica and want a digital one, I’d say the M9 is your machine. You’ll get happy use from it for years. Get new lenses and you’ll benefit from all that the Leica firmware can provide.

It might be $1,500 better than the M8.2, assuming you could still find an M8.2 new.

It is not $3,000 better than the original M8 if you can find one of those new.

It certainly is not $5,000 better than a used M8 camera.

The older M8 is still a great machine and the differences in practice are very small between it and the M9.

If you’re poor and you REALLY REALLY want full frame, get an M6 or earlier body. The price difference between a used M6 ($1,000) and an M9 would buy an awful lot of Kodak’s amazing new Ektar 100 film, with processing, or many other great films. Buy a Voigtländer camera with their good lenses and save even more.

And if you’d just like to try a rangefinder camera for fun, haunt ebay, flea markets and pawn shops for a 1960s-vintage Canonette, Olympus Pen F or XA, or a Russian or Chinese Leica knockoff.

When you’re sure you are a rangefinder shooter, then the M9 is worth every penny.

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