24 Hours With The Leica M9

NOTE: Since posting this initially on the 22nd of September, this has gotten a lot of traffic.  If you’d like to see a gallery of images taken since then with the M9 go here: A Gallery of M9 Images And I have now UPDATED THIS POST with a more recent review: Eight Weeks With The M9

***

When I was a teenager, I had a Pentax 35mm camera, and it was simple and indestructible.  After college, I bought an Olympus OM1, and it was a great camera.  It metered simply, you chose the aperture and speed, and bang, either got the picture or you didn’t.

A few years ago, frustrated with the way cameras had become computers with lenses attached, I yearned for the simplicity of great optics, a light meter, and the variables: aperture, shutter speed, film speed. I yearned for something closer to those old 35mm cameras, not the incredibly complicated and distracting Nikons, etc. with their menus and too many options.  So of course I bought a Leica M7.  It was the most glorious contraption I’d ever put my hands on, a tool for use.  But of course, by now the digital era was in full swing, so like many others in the Leica community, I really couldn’t wait for a Digital M.

Sure, the Panaleica — optics by the Germans, electronics by the Japanese — known as the Digilux 2 was a nice approximation of a digital rangefinder, and when it came out in 2004, I was really glad.  It was a good companion to the M7.

But we had to wait until November 2006 for the M8 to come out — a glorious, but compromised Digital M.  Compromised?  Well, it wasn’t full-frame — the sensor was cropped, smaller than the 35 mm film that all of Leica’s incredible lenses were made for.  Your 28mm lens became a 35mm lens, etc.  (Actually, to compensate, it was nice that my 90mm lens became a 135…) But still…

It was a Digital M — a rangefinder that, to my eye, had the special Leica elasticity and pop to the images it produced, while still being small enough to carry anywhere.  I hiked in the mountains with it, across deserts and and down canyons, took it to Bhutan and Italy and school pageants, up rivers and down streams.  It wasn’t perfect.  But it was great.  And the Leica M9 I put my hands on yesterday?  The perfect camera, the culmination of dreams.

The M9 has 80% more pixels and a 33% larger sensor than the M9.  It is a simple, powerful tool, and for the first time delivers what I wanted eight years ago when I bought an M7: it is a Digital M, in every way worthy of the Leica tradition.

Here’s an initial shot walking in the streets of DC:

Bag Bokeh

See how the Leica Summilux 50mm draws light to the full-frame sensor, rendering detail and allowing for that bokeh (selective focus) for which Leica lenses have no peer?

I do wish that Lightroom had a color profile for the M9 that nailed it the way the M8 profiles did.  (One is coming, and until then I’ll fiddle around in Lightroom to get something that works.) Still, here’s a broader view, with the same lens:

Bag Store

Look at the punch and level of detail (even though it will be obscured in this compressed jpeg) in this shot:

Wall

Okay, that was yesterday in bright sunshine.  Today, I took a break and walked in a nearby park with it.  Again, the Summilux 50, this time on a cloudy day with lots of greens and greys to sort through:

Park1

For fun, I brought along Leica’s Summilux 21mm wide angle lens, which on the M9 really is a 21, not a 28 (remember the M8 cropped lenses by 1/3rd.)  This was a tennis court in the park near Washington’s Dumbarton Oaks.  Here’s hoping the detail on the metal post in the foreground renders via the web; it sure does on the computer:

Court21

There are a number of terrific photographers who have done serious testing of the M9, some having worked with them for several weeks.  (Find Jono Slack’s images of the English countryside: breathtakingly great.)   These are four shots from the roughly 20 I’ve taken since yesterday.

What I’ve noticed so far: The M9 is far less forgiving than the M8, in some ways.  With ISO sensitivity considerably improved, one really has to decide on an additional variable — “film” speed — to an extent you didn’t have to with the M8.  By this I mean that the new variables in ISO — not just 160, 320, 640, 1250, but 1/3rd stops along the way — demand that you have the right ISO, not just the right aperture and shutter speed.  It adds a dimension, yes a little more complicated, but welcome to me.  I suspect I’ll spend more time looking at histograms in the field than I have with the M8.  That’s fine, no problem.  The ergonomic and design changes Leica made for the M9 all work for me, especially having the ISO button on the exterior.  Oh, and the uncompressed files are so gynormous, if you actually shoot uncompressed all the time, whatever computer you have will seize and groan after a long day’s shoot.  (So I’m shooting the compressed DNG format — still bigger files than the M8 had.)

What I really know is that after 24 hours with the M9, I have found the camera that delivers what I’ve been looking for ever since digital was invented: a camera as fun to use as that old Pentax I snuck into the Fillmore East to take pictures of Duane Allman with; a camera as rugged and ready to go as the Olympus camera I trekked with in Nepal in 1979; a camera as great, in every way, as the M7 that made me rediscover, and once again fall in love with photography.  The M9 is a delight.

John Buckley

8 Responses to “24 Hours With The Leica M9”

  1. […] my blog. Having had the M9 for a day, I felt compelled to write. Hope this resonates for some. JB 24 Hours With The Leica M9 Tulip Frenzy __________________ http://johnbuckley100.zenfolio.com/ […]

  2. David Charney Says:

    Very interesting comments.
    I can’t wait for mine.
    I’m envious you got yours already.
    How did you do it?
    I live in the Washington area too and perhaps some time we could get together and compare notes.

  3. johnbuckley100 Says:

    David – I put my name in with David Farkas at Dale Photo about August 1, as soon as rumors were rife. I’m sure yours will arrive soon! Cheers, JB

  4. John – You lucky bastard. Great write up. I want one.

  5. […] 24 Hours With The Leica M9 « Tulip Frenzy […]

  6. […] The Leica M9 After Eight Weeks On 09/09/09 Leica announced it was releasing the M9, a digital full-frame rangefinder, available immediately.  In the rarified world of Leicaphiles, this was not quite the Second Coming, nor the announcement of a cure for cancer, but it was close.  I was extremely luck to get one early — supply has well outstripped demand, waiting lists are long, and as of early November, rumors spread that one of Leica’s suppliers had “let them down.”  On September 22nd, I posted a review after a single day’s use: 24 Hours With the Leica M9 […]

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