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Leica M9 review
|DATE REVIEWED: 15th Jul 2010||Add Camera To Comparison Chart|
|Camera Type||DSLR||Shutter Speeds||32 - 1/4000 sec|
|RRP||£4850||ISO Range||80 - 2500|
|Megapixels||18.5||Focal Length||By lens|
|Dimensions||139 x 37 x 80mm (WxHxD)||Focus Distance||By lens|
|LCD Size||2.5 inches||Zoom (Opt)||By lens|
|Max Resolution||5212 x 3472||Battery Type||Li-Ion|
Three years after the introduction of Leica’s first digital rangefinder – the M8, closely followed by the M8.2 – the prestigious German brand announced its newly honed successor: the M9. Crowned the ‘World’s smallest full frame format digital camera’ the Leica M9 is based upon Leica’s iconic M-series of film cameras, combining retro looks with up-to-date digital technology.
For the uninitiated, a rangefinder features a completely different design to a DSLR, which comes with its own set of pros of cons. Obviously these cameras are smaller and more compact, making them more discreet when out in the field. They also have fewer moving internal parts and no mirrorbox, so it’s easier to hand hold a rangefinder at slower shutter speeds than is possible with a DSLR. Like the hybrid cameras filling up a significant portion of the camera market at the moment, rangefinders also support smaller lenses which sit closer to the sensor, making them a great choice for those who prefer to travel light.
On the other hand, some find the focusing mechanism tricky – there’s no autofocus with a rangefinder and you have to get used to using a Bright-line focusing screen, however this is a skill that’s quickly mastered with practice.
The Leica name has long been synonymous with superb build quality, and – holding the Leica M9 – it’s clear that it upholds the reputation set by its predecessors. Little has changed on the outside of the M9 in comparison to its former incarnations, but on the inside, it’s a whole different story.
A new UV/IR cover glass filter offers a marked improvement over the old M8’s design, which featured a very thin UV/IR filter in front of the sensor, and proved to be less than successful when it came to scrutinising images for quality. The later M8.2 introduced a few tweaks to the design, notably a quiet metal shutter, snapshot mode, and a new sapphire crystal glass cover on the LCD, to name a few, but no improvement to the UV/IR filter, so Leica enthusiasts will be pleased to hear the issue has been rectified in the M9.
This is only the tip of the iceberg: the Leica M9 is bursting with innovative features that offer a significant improvement over earlier versions, not least a larger 36x24mm (full-frame) 18mp CCD and dual processors – compared to the M8’s single processor. The M9’s sensitivity range covers same native settings as the M8/.2 (ISO 160-2500) but can now also be expanded to include an equivalent to ISO 80.
Also new to the Leica M9 is exposure bracketing, allowing the user to shoot 3, 5 or 7 images, 0.5-2.0 EV apart, and the camera features new Bright-line frames too: 35 and 135mm, 28 and 90mm, 50 and 75mm. There are also 4 user profiles available for programming now, compared to the M8.2’s 3, increasing the M9’s versatility even further.
A couple of changes to the Leica M9 have resulted in some slight reduction in functionality in some respects, notably a slower maximum shutter speed of 1/4000sec compared to the M8’s 1/8000sec. Continuous shooting is also a tad more restrictive than it was with the two older digital M’s – the Leica M9 will still shoot at up to 2fps, but only for 8 images now, compared to the M8/.2’s 10, but this is a negligible loss considering the introduction of the new full frame sensor.
In the hand, the Leica M9 feels incredibly solid, with its attractive brass top and bottom plates (finished either in black or steel grey) lending a robust feel and reassuring weight to the body. In terms of design, very little has changed on the M9: you still have everything you need right at your fingertips. The main switch surrounds the shutter release and allows you turn the camera on/off, as well as selecting from Single shot, Continuous shooting or Self Timer mode.
The shutter release has three pressure points by default: a brief button press activates exposure metering and viewfinder displays, a further, harder press to the second pressure point saves the exposure metering value in aperture priority mode and pressing it all the way down takes the shot. You can modify the way the shutter release operates however, via the Advance option in the main menu.
If you’re in a situation that calls for a bit more discretion, you can turn on the Leica M9’s Discreet shutter release mode. This lets you suppress the sound of the shutter cocking temporarily, by holding down the shutter release until you’ve had the chance to move to an area where it’s safe to release it, at which point the shutter will cock. The delay time can be any length.
Another option – Soft – means the shutter is released at the second pressure point, rather than the third, making it easier to keep the camera still when taking a shot. This is handy when you’re working with longer shutter speeds, but it’s a bit odd working without the normal resistance there at first, which can lead to accidental ‘misfires’ until you get used to it.
A large metal shutter speed dial – as with the Leica M9’s predecessors – provides a direct method for setting the camera’s shutter speed. You can opt for the M9’s Auto setting instead, which puts it into Aperture Priority mode, allowing you to concentrate solely on setting your aperture and ISO.
The rest of the controls are on the back of the camera, which are all the same as with the M8/.2, save one. A seemingly small change leads to a not insignificant improvement in the interface: a dedicated ISO button alongside the other main buttons to the left of the LCD means there’s no more delving into the main menu system to alter this key setting, speeding up the way in which the M9 handles.
The menu system isn’t the most streamlined we’ve used - there are no ‘tabs’ to condense the options into organised sections - rather everything forms a long list, with each option in turn providing access to further sub-menus.
Within this menu system, you’ll find a few hidden gems that offer further improvement over the M9’s former incarnations. For example, the Leica M9 features the Lens Selection Database seen in earlier versions of the camera, although you now have the option of automatic lens detection or manual entering of lens models. Once the camera has identified which lens is attached to it, automatic vignetting correction is applied to lenses that are known to generate this problem, cutting down on the work required to process images in post. The Leica M9 also adds another new Vintage B&W mode to the existing B&W option.
You can opt to shoot JPEGs at various quality settings – either on their own or in combination with DNG (Digital Negative) files (or DNG alone). DNG files can be opened in a range of different image editing programs, so you’re not restricted as you would be with other manufacturer’s ‘own-brand’ Raw formats, and Leica has had the foresight to include a free download of Adobe Lightroom for M9 purchasers too.
There’s the choice of either Compressed or Uncompressed DNG files, which are of benefit if you want to control just how large the files you want to record are, according to the amount of space you have on your memory card / the purpose of your shoot. A one-to-one session with photographer and Leica consultant Brett, revealed that – contrary to what you might think – it’s rarely necessary to use the uncompressed setting, since the compressed DNGs don’t actually lose all that much information and save a lot of space on your memory card. Looking at the level of detail in compressed DNGs from the M9, we’re inclined to agree: there’s more than enough detail and dynamic range captured to keep even the most scrupulous pixel-peeper satisfied.
If you’ve never experienced working with a rangefinder before, there’s a bit of a learning curve to assault at first, but we were surprised at just how quickly operating the Leica M9 became intuitive. Having learned on film cameras initially, the idea of having all of the controls – a shutter speed dial and aperture ring on the lens – at our fingertips felt remarkably comfortable very quickly. The focusing was a lot easier to master than we’d expected and – as we learned through out session with Brett – you don’t actually need to be as entirely accurate as you might think.
It’s a different way of working compared to that of a DSLR, but a bit of practice was all that was required to sharpen our reflexes when out shooting street candids. Brett taught us how to anticipate your distance from your subject, using the clear demarcations on the lens to select roughly the right focusing distance before you’ve even lifted the camera to your eye. Once you’re looking through the viewfinder, all you have to do is quickly fine-tune the focusing and take your shot: instead of relying on fast burst modes and AF to get your shot, it’s down to you and your own skill as a photographer.
Once you adapt to this way of working, you certainly won’t be disappointed with the shots the Leica M9 allows you to capture. The level of detail in converted (compressed) DNGs is simply stunning, and there’s something special about the way in which the M9 records high contrast scenes lit with natural light: you can’t quite put your finger on it and the only way we can begin describe it is to say ‘It’s a typical Leica image’. There’s always been something distinctive about a photograph shot with a Leica – film or digital – and the M9 succeeds in continuing this trend.
If you’re a Leica enthusiast then the new features sported by the Leica M9 will delight. The build and image quality this camera produces makes it earn its price tag
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|If you’re a Leica enthusiast then the new features sported by the Leica M9 will delight. The build and image quality this camera produces makes it earn its price tag|
Josie developed a taste for photography while travelling around Ecuador, returning home to specialize in the medium as part of her BA (Hons) degree at university. Now the Reviews Editor for Digital Photographer, Josie handles all of the latest camera launches and boasts an in-depth knowledge of all things camera-related.
|Total Camera Reviews||25|
|Average Camera Rating||3.9|
|Josie's Last 5 Reviews|
|Pentax K-5||5 / 5|
|Nikon D3100||4 / 5|
|Leica M9||5 / 5|
|Kodak EasyShare M530||3 / 5|
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