PHOTOOG Photography writings by Olivier Giroux

30Sep/100

First Encounter with the M9

I have a unit in my hands, here through a friend.  It's a very nice looking camera and it handles pretty well.  Today is day #3 with the camera.


Plenty of detail.

Some good news before the bad:

  • I can confirm that this device can make bitingly sharp images that are beyond the ability of a D700.  My instinct is to say there is 2x the true resolving power here.  The images don't need much sharpening either.
  • It's much easier to achieve critical focus with this camera than the D700.  Even with 2 years of experience with the D700 under my belt, it took less than 2 days with this camera to match my previous success rate.
  • I have no issues with the operational speed of the camera.  It starts fast, it writes to the card fast, and it reads from the card fast.  I think the recent firmware updates have solved this problem once and for all.
  • You won't find "noise at high ISO" as an issue in my list below.  I think I will need several weeks of use and a very long write-up to do justice to this subject.  You will see below that I do list a real problem with higher ISO's, but it's not the noise per se.

Ok.  Now I have to say that the rough edges are many, and some are just spectacular failure modes.

My honeymoon diary :

  • DAY1.  We're having trouble finding an SD card on which the M9 will record images at better than 50/50 corruption rate.  I have a copy of the best card that Sandisk offers on its way, but it's not here tonight.  This basically makes the camera into a brick (or the fanciest lenscap ever made) until this is resolved.
    • DAY 2.  We have a 4GB card that appears to work.  I'm cautiously optimistic now.
    • DAY 3.  The Sandisk 8GB Class 10 card has arrived and it works properly.
    • Corruption appears to be behind us.
  • DAY 1.  Tonal range is so far not looking great, and the calibration is fairly poor.  Colors saturate & quantize quickly at high ISO (where "high" is something like 640 in this case) so it's left to LR3 to do heroic things with recovery.  This appears to be the real challenge for this camera.  I cannot counterbalance this assessment with low ISO discussion because all the images I made in daylight were destroyed by the corruption issue above.
    • DAY 2.  We have daylight images now.  Colors are decent but the system struggles with contrast, I'm tweaking my default LR3 profile to compensate.  I hope to find a profile that brings reds under control.
    • DAY 3.  Comparing my images with the data from the DXOMark database, I think I've come to the conclusion that this camera's sensor can only shoot at ISO-160 and all other ISO's are either emulated in software or the hardware doing it is no more effective than software would be.  The key indicator is that you lose a stop of DR for every stop of ISO you push.  With this in mind I can say that ISO-160 pushes extremely well... I have seen LR3 "auto-tone" punch-in a +4 push and the resulting image looked fine.
    • I think tonality at ISO 160 to around 640 is going to be fine.  Higher ISOs are another discussion, we'll talk about this at length later.
  • DAY 1.  Image review on the LCD shows shamefully low quality images.  It makes you think that every shot you take is trash, but later you find out (on a per image basis) whether that was in fact a lie.  Most images look good through LR3 in the end.
    • DAY 2.  It's really the dark tones that are rendered TOO dark and there are WAY too few levels drawn by the LCD.  In LR3 the shadows open up quite a bit and are not so rotten with noise as some might expect.  It might just be the LCD that has terrible tonality range.  I have adjusted the tone curve in the camera (so much as I can with 5 values) to try and reduce contrast of the preview image to make it easier on the LCD.
    • This is probably the final word on this subject unless a firmware update comes along that improves preview quality.
  • DAY 1.  I've seen moiré already.  A single blond hair catching a ray of sunlight in the plane of focus will rotate through a palette of colors.  It's less distracting than you might think though.  Really.
    • DAY 2.  More moiré : in the needles of a pine tree, on the ground in a dirt field.  Lowering default sharpening in LR3 helps.  I'm convinced that LR3 does something to account for moiré, I can see it become less visible as it goes through a batch generating the 1:1 previews.
    • DAY 3.  I've seen a really bad case now, the classic issue with balcony architecture.  I would need Photoshop (not Lightroom) to deal with those, or some other software that can do the L*a*b channel trick.
    • I'm considering writing this filter myself, it doesn't sound hard at all.  I think this is going to be resolved even if it takes effort on my part.
  • DAY 1.  Manually coding lenses with the M-Coder kit doesn't work well for Leica's own lenses because the bayonet is too tight.  The (long dry) ink on my 24mm Elmarit ASPH rubbed off pretty much instantly.  The irony is that Zeiss ZM lenses keep their coding quite well because of a groove that is now standard on their bayonets.
    • DAY3.  This hasn't been an issue at all so far.  Even when I forget to reset the manual lens settings (same as D700 with ZF.1 lenses) there isn't a meaningful amount of cyan drift visible.
    • Bottom-line, this is a non-issue.

Where am I now?

I have moved past the debilitating issues and I am using the camera to take pictures now.  It's unfortunate that the first encounter was so rough.

I want to part on a word about the viewfinder: for a variety of reasons I don't find it terribly useful for viewing the image.  To me it's more of a "focusfinder", used only to bring the image into focus.  For the "view" part of the equation I have to rely on my mind's eye knowing the view angle of each lens.  Maybe with a 50mm lens I could use the viewfinder for actual viewing.

That's enough for today.  Going out to shoot.