Jack Neubart takes a step back in time to test this century’s classic manual-focusing, full-frame 18 MP CCD interchangeable-lens camera for the ages (along with the Summilux-M 21 mm f/1.4 ASPH).
It has been a very long time since I last worked with a rangefinder camera. And likely just as long since I last had the distinct pleasure of working with a Leica, although, as I recall, that was an SLR. The one thing that did stand out in my mind was how crisp the images were that came out of the Leica lenses I used.
Given that digital is, in a sense, a more complex image-forming process involving any number of variables mediating from the moment of capture on an imaging sensor and in-camera processing until the final image springs to life, I’m not sure that we’ll ever see quite the same quality, regardless of the lens or camera, or sensor. And yet we as photographers still manage to evolve our art with the technology and find ways to take that technology to new levels of creativity and bring new heights of awareness to every moment and scene we capture with our cameras.
The Leica M9 brings to mind my very first camera, the one that my dad bought me when I was a wee lad, and which he wouldn’t let me use for some years, afraid I’d break it (okay, I eventually did-but it wasn’t my fault, dad, I swear). So I bided my time and when the New York World’s Fair of 1964/65 rolled round, I finally got the chance to take the camera out on my own.
I loved that 35mm camera-a Neoca (Japanese top to bottom). It was no Leica by any stretch of the imagination. Didn’t even have a light meter inside. But it was a rangefinder. And what I remember about that rangefinder is that I was never entirely comfortable using it-I just didn’t feel it gave me the speed I needed or the certainty. And that’s still how I feel about rangefinder focusing. (However, I’m certain that many of you may feel just the opposite and would take a rangefinder over autofocusing or any other type of focusing any day of the week.)
And that brings us full circle to the M9, a full-frame, 18MP CCD digital camera featuring coincident-image rangefinder focusing-with the added benefit of interchangeable Leica lenses.
It’s No Coincidence, Or Is It?
Rangefinder focusing in the M9 is of the coincident-image type. That means that you manually rotate the focusing ring until the image within that small central field (which is also used in metering) is not two images but one coincident image. Where straight lines are involved, Leica refers to it as “split-image focusing,” although my understanding of split-image dates back to my earliest SLR, where the center of the finder image was definably split and had to be merged to achieve focus.
Here we’re still talking about some form of coincident-image focusing. This works great, unless you have subjects without distinctive lines, shapes, forms, or textures-you need detail you can easily latch onto. Like I said, this is not my favorite form of focusing-but don’t be dissuaded by my lack of alacrity when it comes to rangefinders. Again, your mileage may vary.
While we shouldn’t expect this camera to offer Live View or anything even remotely resembling it, we also must realize that, because this is not a reflex viewfinder, the view the camera affords us comes courtesy of a viewfinder that is slightly displaced from the lens axis. As such, we would normally expect to encounter what is known as “parallax error,” where what we’re seeing and what we’re capturing do not quite match.
But that’s the beauty of the Leica M rangefinder. The camera features auto parallax correction, so that we can compose with fairly good assurance that what we’re seeing is what we’re capturing. It may not be in perfect alignment, but close enough so that we don’t have to worry about cutting people’s heads off. In fact, the viewfinder displays a bright-line frame that we normally use in composing the scene. Centrally defined within that area is the highlighted rectangular field that we use when focusing (or metering).
Just one caveat. The 21mm Summilux-M lens that I used encompasses a broader field than the camera’s built-in viewfinder can accommodate. To remedy that, Leica came up with a 21mm dedicated optical Viewfinder M that slips into the camera’s hot shoe (there are additional finders for 18mm and 24mm lenses).
Of course that means that you can’t use flash and finder at the same time, but this lens is not really something you’d use with flash anyway, given its superior low-light imaging capabilities with that amazingly large (f/1.4) maximum aperture. Then again, unless you needed fill-hmm, something to ponder.
So, how exactly does this partnership of external finder and rangefinder focusing work? Well, the camera’s built-in viewfinder is used for focusing and exposure, while the external finder is used for composition. Yes, it is time-consuming to switch back and forth, which is why Leica photographers fall largely into the category of “image-makers” who have a sense of what they plan to photograph, and not “snapshooters” who fly by the seat of their pants (not that I’m saying being a snapshooter is necessarily a bad thing-I have lots of spontaneous captures that could never have been planned).
With a Leica M9, there is a process: You see the scene with your eye, scrutinize its possibilities, wait for the pieces to fall into place after focusing and setting exposure, then release the shutter.
One very positive aspect of a rangefinder camera is that your viewing experience is independent of the lens’s maximum aperture, in contrast to a DSLR. That makes this combination of fast lens and M9 that much more suitable for low-light, especially nighttime, shooting.
Making Sense of a Sensor
Now, before we go on, you may be asking, in this age of CMOS sensors on 35mm-styled cameras, why CCD? Well, Leica continues to believe that the Kodak CCD chip is the way to go for ultimate quality. Leica had this to say about their sensor, in a published release:
“The image sensor of the M9 employs further-advanced and meticulously designed micro lenses with a low refractive index. The micro lenses at the sensor edges are laterally displaced towards the image center to precisely match the characteristics of M lenses. This optimized micro lens design captures and concentrates even the most oblique rays on the sensor and reliably prevents image brightness fall-off at the edges and corners of the image. As a result, all existing Leica M lenses maintain their full performance when used for digital photography.
“The intentional decision to exclude a moirÃ© filter, which optically filters out the finest image details, was made to permit the full exploitation of the superb resolution of Leica M lenses. Any moirÃ© patterns occurring with the M9 are eliminated in the camera’s digital signal-processing software. The optimized signal-noise ratio of the CCD image sensor reduces the need for digital post-processing and ensures that images possess an unrivaled, natural visual impact. This results in high-contrast, particularly high-resolution exposures with natural color rendition from corner to corner.”
The long and the short of it is, you’re getting a full-frame 24x36mm (35mm film-size) sensor, which means no focal-length conversions. And that means that the 21mm Summilux-M lens I was working with gave me that sweet ultra-wide view that I was hoping to capture from the get-go. All current M-series lenses, from 16mm to 135mm, are compatible with the M9, as well as most older M optics.
Exposure Control the Old-Fashioned Way-With a Twist
Pressing down on the shutter button activates the camera’s exposure meter, except in the B (Bulb) setting, where it remains inactive. As the user manual explains, “exposure metering for the available ambient light is performed through the lens with the working aperture.” Exposures on this camera are center-weighted. That means that the centrally defined area should also be a guide as to which subject areas will affect exposure most strongly.
I don’t recall exactly which SLR cameras used match-needle LEDs, but essentially the M9 uses that methodology for exposure control-but only in Manual mode. These LEDs point to whether exposures are running hot or cold, with a dot LED showing the camera-recommended exposure. Rotate the aperture ring on the lens and/or the shutter-speed dial on the camera to arrive at an optimum exposure and use either to override the camera-metered exposure as needed.
There is also an Aperture-priority automatic mode, where instead of indicators you get actual numbers digitally represented as an LED-readout of the shutter speed. As with all Aperture-priority metering systems, change the lens aperture and see a corresponding change in shutter speed. In this mode, pressing down to a second position on the shutter button locks in exposure (you’ll hear a second faint beep)-but only in standard advance mode. (There is also a soft mode and a discreet advance, which delays shutter release for a fraction of a second.)
Exposure compensation in Aperture-priority is activated via the Set button menu or the Setting Dial (a wheel located coincident with the cursor buttons to the right of the LCD). A blinking indicator tells you that exposure override is in effect. (Keep that in mind, or better yet manually reset it before moving on to avoid future exposure errors.) Overrides are in 1/3 EV increments, to +/-3 EV, whereas aperture and shutter-speed values are in half steps (mechanically set on the respective dials). A Main menu option gives you a choice of whether you can use the Setting Dial independent of or in tandem with the shutter button.
Auto-bracketing is also available in Aperture-priority mode. Set the camera to single-shot or continuous drive operation, the Set menu to exposure bracketing on, and the Main menu to the number of shots per sequence (3/5/7), the necessary increments (0.5/1/1.5/2 EV), and sequence (0/+/- or -/0/+). With a single press of the shutter button down all the way to make the first exposure, the camera will continue to fire the required sequence of shots even with your finger off the button.
The M9 also features dedicated flash operation with either a Leica flash or any flash that uses a dedicated SCA adapter (typically Metz and other European brands). You have the option of first- or second-curtain sync. Regrettably, a flash did not avail itself for the necessary tests. When using matched flash units, flash exposure is controlled with center-weighted TTL pre-flash metering via two silicon photodiodes.
Here’s more on that (from the manual): “The Leica M9 determines the required flash power by firing one or more pre flashes, fractions of a second before taking the actual picture. Immediately after this, at the start of exposure, the main flash is fired. All factors that influence the exposure (such as filters and changes to the aperture setting) are automatically taken into account.”
You can also use a non-dedicated, hot-shoe-type flash. Unfortunately, there is no X-sync contact as a workaround.
The levels of digital noise in this camera are fairly well-controlled. You begin to discern luminosity noise at ISO 1000 but not to the point of rendering a picture unusable. At ISO 1600, color noise becomes readily apparent, and it’s markedly noticeable at ISO 2500. There is no option for high ISO NR (noise reduction) to deal with the problem. Then again, the problem is not serious enough to warrant it. There is also an ISO 80 option, referred to as “pull.” As with pull processing of film, the result is a flatter, lower-contrast image, so I don’t recommend this setting, unless push comes to shove-well, you know what I mean.
The only noise reduction in the camera revolves around long exposures. It kicks in automatically at around 1/30 sec. Normally you’d expect long exposure NR to take effect at shutter times of 1 second or longer. You’ll notice that longer exposures take twice as long (from two seconds and up, you’ll see a digital countdown). The camera is using dark frame subtraction to alleviate fixed-pattern noise, evident as hot pixels (reminiscent of bleach specks).
Sometimes it’s better to treat the problem of hot pixels in post and grab that next shot when the opportunity avails itself, instead of waiting for the camera to do its thing. Take fireworks, for example. Precious seconds are lost and all too soon the show is over, or you may have missed the most exciting, most vivid explosion of color because the camera was busy.
On average, I haven’t found long exposure noise to be a particularly vexing or even observable problem, at least at shutter times I was using, and would have preferred this to be an optional setting. But there was one instance, when I inadvertently made an exposure in Aperture-priority at 32 seconds and found a hot pixel, despite long exposure NR. However, this is something that is easily retouched out, so let’s not sweat the small stuff, as they say.
The Summilux-M 21mm f/1.4 ASPH Lens
Here’s what Leica has to say about their lenses: “The current M lenses are supplied with a 6-bit code on the bayonet mount (see photo) that is scanned optically by the M9. On the basis of the coded information, the M9 can compensate for any (almost negligible) system-inherent vignetting effects if necessary. In addition, the lens type is recorded in the EXIF data of the image files and, when using the latest flash units like the Leica SF 58, automatically adjusts the reflector to match the focal length of the lens attached.”
What this information fails to address is that the EXIF data omits one vital piece of information: lens aperture. These days I rely on this data so that I don’t have to stand there with a paper and pen or recorder to note the f-stops. And because I was shooting out in the cold, literally, I wasn’t about to stop and jot down notes for each and every exposure. Just wouldn’t be prudent, to borrow a phrase from that noted “Saturday Night Live” bard.
But let’s get to the nitty-gritty. If I understand Leica’s statement, they’re saying I shouldn’t expect to see vignetting. Well, not so. Vignetting was readily apparent when shooting at or near maximum aperture. Stopping down to f/4 alleviated the problem considerably, although at wider apertures the effect should only be observable over uniformly toned areas, such as sky, where a little vignetting may be tolerable.
I do have one complaint about this lens and it revolves around the lens cap. I can’t tell you how many times this has slipped off in the camera bag. It’s a flexible plastic cap that slides over the screw-on lens shade that comes with the lens. It feels too flimsy and inadequate for a $6000 Leica lens (which is nearly as much as the M9 body goes for). I think the addition of retaining clips on a solid plastic cap would be better.
In the Final Analysis
The Leica M9 is clearly a product of German design and engineering, which has always been a standard other camera manufacturers have aspired to in terms of reliability, durability, and solid construction. It’s a rigorous standard that few try to achieve and fewer still approach with any conviction.
When one learns that the M9 is constructed of a one-piece, all-metal housing, specifically high-strength magnesium alloy, with a top deck and dust- and moisture-resistant base plate machined from solid brass blocks, one can’t help but be impressed. By the way, the battery and memory card compartments are accessed via removal of the base plate. (Make sure the plate grabs onto the hinge, or you’ll get a nagging reminder that the camera isn’t closed properly.)
What’s more, the camera sports a new, microprocessor-controlled, fairly silent, and – according to Leica – highly durable focal-plane shutter that enables shutter speeds up to 1/4000 second and flash sync of 1/180 second. And that only sweetens the pot.
Still, it feels a little strange to say that I’ve been shooting digital images with a Leica. I know the digital Leica has been around for a number of years now, but it’s just on principle. Granted, it is a good thing, albeit a sad moment when tradition gives way to technology.
One more thing that we should point out: Leica uses Adobe DNG as their de facto RAW file format. That frees Leica from bundling any software with the camera (so keep that in mind before you spend an hour looking for a CD that is not there). Further, I’d strongly recommend the use of a fast SDHC card, or you may find what-feels-like a limited memory buffer filling up quickly with uncompressed RAW captures. You also have the option of compressed DNG (with or without JPEG), or JPEG alone.
Unlike some of the cameras we’ve reviewed, the Leica M9 is not what I would describe as a “fun” camera. While the design lends itself to ready use by anyone willing to understand and appreciate manual rangefinder focusing and manual exposure (with an Aperture-priority option), it’s not the camera you take to the beach or to parties.
It’s a camera with a serious air and a sense of style, one that should be used with forethought and intent. For those willing to spend the time and make the effort, the M9, in combination with any M-series lens but especially the 21mm f/1.4 Summilux-M, will help you realize your vision. Yes, it’s pricey. But for the price you get more than a brand name. You get a sense of unrivaled quality and a visual awareness that no DSLR will give you. You learn to see in a different light. And that, my friends, is the beauty of a Leica M9.
For more information, visit: Leica’s website
Technical specifications: Check out the Leica M9 website
For prices and user reviews of the Leica M9:From Amazon (about $8999); From B&H (about $6995)
For prices and user reviews of the Leica 21mm f/1.4 Summilux-M: From Amazon (about $5995); From B&H (about $5995)