The Leica M9 is a controversial object in photography partly because it is a Leica, which implies some generic controversy, and partly because it is itself a messy blend of luxurious quality and lack of polish. It would be easy to dismiss the digital M camera as a collectible toy for the rich and eccentric if only it wasn’t so enjoyable for photographers to actually shoot with it. This is the reality of the M9: it is a second-rate digital camera that also supports a deeper connection with the act of making a photograph. If you actually enjoy making photographs then this should really appeal to you.
By far the most important feature of the M9 is its full-frame sensor, which is simultaneously the only material improvement over the M8.2. Whatever Leica was thinking when they built a cropped-frame digital M camera completely baffles me; by the looks of their financial results this year, it probably baffles them as well. Like the innovative M5 camera before them the M8 and M8.2 cameras are now headed for historical oblivion, while temporarily serving as “entry-level” Leica cameras at bargain prices.
Like many amateur photographers with my photographic inclinations and goals, the Leica M system represented a kind of utopic future for me. In the M system I saw an array of wonderful optics wherein more are masterpieces of optical engineering than not, a well-conceived path to break free from the heavy and bulky Japanese systems, and also at times flying unicorns. The premise of my longing turned out to be partially flawed and my switch to the M system may have happened partially for the wrong reasons, but sometime after making the switch I discovered that I also enjoyed it for the right reasons.
The M9 is well-made, small and light. Its minimalist design is far more enthralling for me than its physical implementation however, and I imagine I would enjoy a more cost-efficient implementation just as well. In terms of size the M9 is near the minimum limit for a viable serious camera (for rigidity, grip, stability). Small size is so much at the core of the M9 experience that it is the camera’s most essential feature, clearly even before image quality.
Manual controls aren’t an afterthought on the M9, they are a key operational fact inherited directly from the traditional M design. Focus is always manual on this camera, and exposure automation is so limited that it typically requires manual interpretation. These are parameters which we agree a photographer should consider while making photographs; therefore the photographer must fully control them while making a photograph with the M9. The result is greater intimacy between photographers and photographs, and the camera gradually disappears from the equation over time.
The other key operational fact about the M9 is that it is a rangefinder camera. This directly implies a long list of other facts: numerous restrictions compared to reflex cameras and a few engineering simplifications which occasionally translate to benefits for users. As befits the M9’s key feature, this design choice is largely about delivering small size for the overall system, and most importantly its lenses. Virtually every other detail of the camera is a result of this design choice.
The M9’s lens-parallel viewfinder shows a fixed field view, between that of a 24mm lens and 28mm lens. This viewfinder might be a great visualization tool for some, but it isn't for me when combined with eyeglasses. In my own experience, visualization with a rangefinder camera is something you do with your naked eyes, building on your own experience as a photographer. When I look through the viewfinder, the photograph is already complete in my mind and needs only to be framed and focused in order to be executed. The viewfinder’s frame-lines work well for framing grossly, but are generously inaccurate at most focus distances.
Manual focus with the rangefinder system is pleasant, even fun, but its effectiveness depends greatly on the lens that is used. Wide-angle lenses are easy to focus to high precision, at high speed and in low light, easily beyond what reflex cameras are capable of. On the other hand telephoto lenses can be extremely difficult to focus at wide-open aperture under all but the best conditions, which makes it hard to justify adopting even the best among them. Lenses in the normal range achieve a happier compromise with useful precision, speed and tolerance to error, leaning variably on the photographer’s experience.
Note: you will want to read this expanded article on focus issues more specific to longer lenses on the M camera.
The biggest issue (in my opinion) with focus on the M9 is the limited range of focus, to a distance no closer than 0.7 meter. This limitation is irrespective of the lens mounted, as it is a camera issue, but is often implemented as a hard stop in lenses as well. Many criticize the impact this has on the camera’s ability to capture details, but that is not my main complaint. Most of my grief comes from using wide-angle lenses in portraiture, in which case I am constantly pushing against this near limit. This occasionally forces me to make a choice between my style and my camera, and for this one issue I really begrudge the camera.
In other aspects the M9 has many rough implementation edges that don’t matter as much. The fake-leather covering fails to function as a grip because it is actually very slippery. The power switch has uneven detents that often cause frustrating arguments with the camera. The SD card interface only works with SanDisk cards (but is actually fast now). LCD image review quality is unreasonably, nay bafflingly poor. Battery life is OK. The bottom plate is an eccentric twist.
The M9’s Kodak KAF-18500 sensor records high-frequency detail with very high micro-contrast and a tonal response suited to fashion photography. Together with high-contrast lenses, this sensor records images with outstanding clarity and also aliasing artifacts. Despite this and other issues, this is a decent sensor if judged by the final output after processing by Lightroom.
At its base ISO the KAF-18500 records a good (but not great) amount of dynamic range with low noise in the shadows. This is the “low noise” that Leica is alluding to when they mention it in the M9 brochure. As sensitivity/gain of the sensor is increased, its dynamic range is reduced by what seems to be close to a 1:1 ratio, implying that the only true sensitivity of the KAF-18500 is its base sensitivity. This is not all that uncommon but many cameras do better than this for the first few stops of sensitivity – for example, see the DXO data for the D700.
At higher sensitivities, reduced dynamic range interacts with amplified noise to produce worse image quality than the noise alone ought to explain. Already by ISO 800 enough dynamic range has been lost that the image files are often on the verge of falling apart with only basic processing. Dispensing with color, by converting images to black & white, is a popular way to correct color inaccuracy due to lack of dynamic range – popular, but not for me.
The expected aliasing artifacts like moiré are omnipresent in the raw KAF-18500 output. They can be seen in almost all images: in fine hair, or anything with a thin edge or line. Interestingly, Lightroom goes a long way to reduce the prominence of the artifacts but this feature isn’t advertised anywhere (nor are there any controls for it). This is enough by itself to make moiré a non-issue for portraiture, specifically. However, even accounting for this processing, the KAF-18500 is not the best sensor for architecture work at apertures above the diffraction limit (f/11 - f/16).
Another issue with the M9’s resultant image quality is the rather poor quality of the color calibration that is implemented in RAW processing software that supports it, including Lightroom. The most objectionable aspect of the current calibration is that colors near red/magenta are being rendered unnaturally saturated and bright, and a bit too cool. Skin tones are excellent however, with white skin coming out just about perfect.
Finally, the KAF-18500 has other well-known issues that have never really affected me: it still suffers from cyan drift on wide-angle lenses, still retains some IR sensitivity, blooms vertically near extremely overexposed pixels, and has a healing seam going down the center.
The M9 packs a serviceable full-frame sensor and proven manual controls in a small body that is easy to carry all day, anywhere and everywhere. This is a wonderful achievement and there are many reasons to go out and enjoy the M9 thoroughly for it. Regardless of this, it’s hard to ignore dozens of irritants that result from insufficient engineering effort in some places, careless choices in others, and unusual devotion to the occasional trivial fare.
Would I recommend this camera to other photographers? Probably not.