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Leica M9

The World's Smallest, Lightest Full Frame Digital Camera


Leica M9 Celebrates Its Birth
Leica M9 with 50mm Noctilux f/1.0 1/2000 sec ISO 160

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Introduction

In mid-August, 2009, I was invited to join a small group of journalist on a visit with Leica at their headquarters in Solms, Germany. The purpose was to preview three new cameras, the M9, S2 and X1. We were able to spend time shooting with the S2 and M9 and also had unprecedented access to Leica's executives, product development team, and engineers over a three day period.

We were each given an M9 and a selection of just-about any lens we wished for the duration of our visit. There were no restrictions on what we could shoot, later show, or report on with regard to the M9.

Over the three days Leica was extremely forthcoming about all of their new products. We met with a wide range of executives, including the CEO, department heads, product managers, design engineers, and project leaders.

One of the other photographer / journalists on the trip to Leica was Sean Reid of Reid Reviews. I urge you to visit Sean's site and read his perspective on this camera. His is a subscription site, but his camera and lens reviews are among the best in the business, written by a working photographer rather than a technologist.

My M9 review is featured below.

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Full Frame

Yes, Virginia, finally with the M9 Leica has produced a true full frame M series rangefinder. What everyone had said was impossible, including Leica, – primarily because of the extremely short back focus distance of the M series design – is now a reality.

The M8 and M8.2 featured an 10.3 Megapixel sensor of 18 mm x 27 mm size, while the M9 is true full-frame (23.9 X 35.8mm) at 18.5 Megapixels resolution. It uses a sensor specially designed for Leica by Kodak that required a redesign of both the sensor’s pixel and microlens configuration compared to the sensor used in the M8 camera. In addition, the sensor incorporates a new IR-absorbing cover glass as well as a new red color pigment for improved color fidelity and enhanced image quality over the M8 series.


Kodak KAF sensors as used in the Leica M8, M9 and S2 cameras

This makes the M9 the world's smallest and lightest full frame 35mm format camera. The M9's body is no thicker or higher than that of the M8 and the same base accessories, such as the M-Grip, can be used.

We all know about the issue that the M8 series had with extended IR sensitivity. This required the use of IR blocking filters in front of each lens, which was a nuisance at the very least, and also an extra expense. With the M9 those days are over. No IR filter is required. (More on this below).

Many will remember as well that Leica had said that a full-frame M series would be very unlikely. The reason for this is the extremely short back focus of rangefinder lenses. This is because there is no mirror housing and therefore the rear of the lens lies very close to the focal plane. With a full frame sensor, it was believed, there would be no way to allow for coverage at the edges and especially the corners, because of the acute angle of the light rays, especially with wide angle lenses and lenses of retrofocus design. These peripheral rays end up striking the corners of the photo site wells rather than the silicon at the bottom of the well.

Somehow though the engineers at Kodak were able to pull it off though the use of microlenses over the sensor as well as the positioning of the photo sites at the periphery of the sensor. I tried several wide lenses with the M9 and saw no vignetting or any other artifacts, even wide open. The frame below, taken from my hotel room window in Wetzlar, was shot specifically to illustrate this. What little vignetting there is is typical of a lens this wide, and is easily eliminated if desired with the appropriate adjustment tool in Lightroom.


Wetzlar Street. August, 2009
Leica M9 with 21mm f/1.4 Summilux-M ASPH @ f2 and ISO 160

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DNG and Lightroom

The M9, the S2 and the X1 each record their raw files in DNG format. This is a huge plus as it allows the files (at last in theory) to be processed in any raw processing program that one wishes. It also ensures, going forward, that photographers have unrestricted access to their original files and are not at the mercy of a manufacturer orphaning a proprietary file, as has already happened.

Leica provides access with each of these cameras to a free copy of Adobe Lightroom 2.4. This means that Adobe's Camera Raw for Photoshop will similarly process these files.

As this is being written Lightroom does not ship with custom profiles for the M9, S2, or X1, but since Adobe frequently updates their raw processors for new cameras it is only a matter of a while until these are available. In the meantime one can make ones own profiles using Adobe's free Profile Editor or simply use Lightroom's Camera Calibration tools to create a custom colour preset that can be automatically added to all files on import.

Photographers who have been shooting with, or renting, Phase One medium format backs will be able to continue to process their S2 files with Capture One, since C1 handles DNG files – one of the beauties of open standards.

Leica is to be commended for supporting open standards in the form of DNG, and for providing a full-featured copy of Lightroom with each camera.


Old Europe – Wetzlar, Germany, August, 2009
Leica M9 with Tri-Elmar @ ISO 160

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Shameless Plug

Of course if you're not expert in Lightroom, this could mean having to learn a new program. To ease the pain you may wish to purchase a 7.5 hours live video tutorial which Jeff Schewe and I have produced that provides in-depth training on every aspect of this comprehensive raw processing, editing, cataloging, presentation and printing program.

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What's Changed?

With the headlines out of the way – full frame, 18.5 megapixels, and no lens-mounted IR filters required, the improvements of the M9 over the M8 and 8.2 are minor, but real and worthwhile.

The M8's small top LCD frame counter and battery indicator have been dropped from the M9. Instead the top left panel has been resculpted with a dropped shoulder, giving the camera a somewhat more svelte profile.

The information that was on that display has now been moved to the rear LCD and is available when the INFO button is pressed. Bar graphs showing the battery condition and memory card usage are displayed along with the number of remaining shots, the shutter speed engaged and the type of lens attached.

The PROTECT button is gone, and in its place is an ISO setting button and associated screen. ISO speeds range from native 160 up to 2500 in 1/3rd stop increments. A PULL setting of 80 is available, but with reduced contrast.

Auto ISO is also available, and the user is able to set the Maximum ISO and slowest shutter speed that one wishes to use when this is engaged. Shutter speeds range from 32 seconds to 1/4000 second.

Of note is that the M9's files are now a true 14 bit in a 16 bit space. Shooting speed is about two frames per second, and auto-bracketing is available. The viewfinder magnification is 0.62X. The battery and LCD are the same as on the M8.2.

One nice additional feature over the M8 is auto-bracketing, with three, five or seven consecutive images possible, and in increments of from half a stop to two stops. Just the thing for HDR work.

According to Leica in-camera JPG processing has been enhanced, leading to superior output in this format. Also, an optional soft release can been programmed into the shutter, so that it takes less depression of the release button to actuate the shot.

And for those who only have experience with the original M8, as with the M8.2 exposure compensation has been greatly improved, with direct access via the rear thumb wheel.

Normal shooting is at up to 2 FPS to a maximum of 8 frames before hitting the buffer. This is a few frames less than with the M8, but of course the M9's files are much larger.

High ISO performance is described by Leica as being at least a full stop better than on the M8 and M8.2. I did not have time to do any rigorous high ISO testing, but to my eye noise is minimal up to ISO 1200, and even 2500 is suitable for publication. Don't look to this camera for extraordinary high ISOs performance such as one gets with CMOS based DSLRs, with ISOs up to 25,000 rather than 2,500. Leica, along with medium format back makers, has chosen a CCD imager rather than a CMOS for reasons of image quality at bright to moderate light levels. Low light shooting can be accomplished by using fast lenses, of which Leica has quite a number of excellent examples.


Cafe Light - Bronfeld, Germany. August, 2009
Leica M9 with 50mm f/1 Noctilux @ ISO 2500

Owners of older Leica lenses will be very pleased to learn that there is now a full listing available within the camera for manual lens parameter settings when optics without the newer 6 bit encoding are attached.

From an ergonomic perspective there's little to fault. The M9 is not significantly changed in this regard from the M8 series and these were logical continuations of the M series gestalt, stretching back some 50 years.

Leica rigorously pursues a minimalist esthetic when it comes to features and functions. The top panel only has a shutter speed dial and release, while the rear has a bare minimum of buttons – just enough to provide appropriate access to the camera's digital functions.

My only real complaint is that the power lever which surrounds the shutter button can be too easily moved. This is the case when one is holding the camera in one hand standing by for a shot, and the camera is being handled unconsciously. I've always found with the M8 and now the M9 that I can find the camera switched off by mistake at the most inopportune times. A power switch interlock is one of the few things left on my M series wish list.

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Image Quality


Looking Up. Wetzlar, Germany. August, 2009
Leica M9 with Tri-Elmar @ 35mm ISO 160

A couple of days and a few hundred frames isn't enough time to draw any firm conclusions about M9 image quality. What I am seeing thus far though is exciting.

Firstly, there's the use of Leica M lenses. Though previous film and digital Ms have used these as well I think it's fair to say that the M9 is the highest resolution photographic device ever to have these superb lenses available, and therefore really shows them for what they're worth.

At 18.5MP the M9 certainly isn't the highest resolution full-frame 35mm camera available. Nikon, Canon and Sony all have cameras in the 21 – 25MP range. But all of these use anti-aliasing filters, while the M9 doesn't. In my experience this translates into appreciably higher resolving power. Whether this means that an M9 will be able to out-resolve a DSLR with a slightly higher megapixel count sensor remains to be seen, (and is a test I'll be doing as soon as I have an M9 in-hand at my studio), but I have no reason to doubt that the results will be awfully close.

Simply put, the Leica M9 is the smallest and lightest full-frame 35mm camera available. Combine Leica's unquestionably world-class lenses with a next-generation Kodak CCD sensor featuring large pixels and no AA filter, and you end up with a camera capable of producing exceptional image quality along with shooting style discretion and mobility.

Some people have queried the issue of moire with a camera with 18MP and no AA filter. I've used a succession of cameras without antialiasing filters over the years – Leica M8, Phase One P25, P45 and P65, and have never ever had a moire problem. Not that it's not there. It can be. But, the higher the resolution the less moire, because it takes finer and finer fabric textures for it to become visible, and fabrics are just about the only place where most people will find it.

In any event, Leica has chosen to deal with any possible moire using in-camera DSP, which makes much more sense than just cutting resolution across the board for every image, as is done when an AA filter is used. It would be a crime to use an AA filter with Leica glass. :-)

On the subject of image quality, we need to touch on the question of IR sensitivity, which plagued the M8 and M8.2. It was exciting to learn that the M9 would not require on-lens IR filters, as its predecessors did, but would the IR gremlin be quashed?

The answer is that to all intents and purposes there are no IR issues. I saw none in my two days of shooting, even though I looked for it. Sean Reid reports that he is able to see some very slight effect on absolute colour accuracy in some instances, in which case the use of an external IR cut filter may be desirable. But, apparently it's no worse than is seen on some mainstream DSLRs, and should be of no concern with day-to-day shooting. You can read a further analysis of this topic on Sean's subscription site.

UPDATE

Be aware that as of initial shipment there are no profiles available for the M9. This means that you should not make any judgments about colour reproduction of images that you view online.

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The Price Equation

Leica cameras are more expensive than other brands. That's the way it is. These are essentially hand-made precision devices, manufactured using the finest materials and techniques.

At about $6,000 the now discontinued M8.2 seemed very expensive. But, because the M9 is a higher resolution full frame camera, at about $7,000 it no longer is priced that far out of line with other top-of-the-line full-frame 35mm cameras such as the Nikon D3x at $8,000 and the Canon 1Ds MKIII at $6,500. One can argue that one get's "more" camera for the money with these Nikon and Canon models, but does one get a "better" camera or "better" image quality? That's a question that only each photographer can decide based on his or her own needs and experience.

Of course if high resolution full-frame is all one wants, then this can now be had for as low as $2,000 in the form of the Sony A850 and less than $1,000 more for the A900 and 5D MKII. But, the point is that with the move to a full-frame sensor the M9 Leica now seems to have positioned itself alongside the top cameras in the category, at least in terms of price, rather than in some rarified category all by themselves.

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The Bottom Line

With the M9 it is my opinion that Leica has finally fulfilled its mission to produce a true digital version of the classic M camera. The original M8 was exciting but was flawed in many ways. While the M8.2 addressed many concerns it still needed IR filters, and didn't give full expression to Leica's wonderful lenses.

Now, with the M9, not only have the M8 series' teething pains been overcome but numerous worthwhile suggestions made by users and reviewers have been implemented.

The M9 is now a mature product. The film-based M7 and MP continue to be produced to satisfy the wants of those still committed to film, predominantly in Asia, according to Leica. The M8 and M8.2 sold well according to Leica, meeting their sales projections and requirements. While we were at the factory in mid-August we saw the last of the M8.2s being produced, while a few feet away on the line the first of the production M9s were being assembled.

An M series Leica, whether film based or digital, is a unique camera – a link to photography's past, to be sure, but also a device for the present and even the future. Some will inevitably deride the M9 as an expensive anachronism. But, to do so is to misunderstand what rangefinder-based photography is all about, and an M series Leica is rangefinder photography defined.

The ability to see ones subject without the abstraction of a wide-open lens and the flattening effect of a ground glass; the ability to see around the subject, and judge action outside the shooting frame; the ability to use Leica's unparalleled lenses – arguably among the best ever available for any camera system; these are all a part of what the M series ethos is all about.

In the end some may well see the M9 as an expensive retro plaything. But, there will be countless photographers both young and old around the world who will see the Leica M9 for what it is – a unique photographic device that provides a method of photography that reaches back to the beginnings of photojournalism in the early years of the 20th century. Combining this with the latest digital technology the M9 gives new expression to a style of photography that will likely never go out of style.

As for me – I've been shooting M Leicas since the 1970's. Their gestalt is in my blood. I made my living as a photojournalist for many years primarily with an M2 and M3. An M6 and then an M7 became my companions of choice when I later traveled the world on business rather than on assignment. When the M8 came out I bought and used one, in spite of its shortcomings, though eventually these became too frustrating and I turn to other small cameras for personal travel use. I skipped the M8.2 because it didn't address what I regarded as the M8's primary failings.

But, this is now, and the M9 is upon us. My two days shooting with the M9 in Wetzlar convinced me that it was time to return to shooting with an M.

I'm very fortunate in that I get to use and review a great many cameras. Some I like. Some I don't. The real test of a new camera's goodness though is how I feel when it's time to hand the sample back. With most, even the good ones, I do so with little more than a backward glance. With the M9 though it was with great reluctance, and once it left my hands I knew that I had to have one of my own.

No sooner had I returned home than I placed my order for an M9. I expect to have it mid-September, and will be using it beginning on a trip to France that same week. I expect eventually to publish a follow-up to this review based on more extensive field use, including that trip. What better place to reunite with an M Leica than France, the home of M Leica user par excellence Henri Cartier Bresson?

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The Leica M9 carries a suggested list price in the U.S. of $6,995
and is available almost immediately from authorized Leica dealers.

September, 2009

 


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Concepts: Leica Camera, Digital single-lens reflex camera, Full-frame digital SLR, Leica M9, Leica M mount, Camera, Digital cameras, Leica cameras

Entities: Wetzlar, Solms, rangefinder photography, Kodak, Phase One, Nikon, Sony, Adobe, Canon, Asia, Germany, U.S., the home, ISO, CMOS, Michael Reichmann, Sean, Sean Reid, Jeff Schewe, Henri Cartier Bresson, Bronfeld, M8, D3x, Virginia, Leica M9, M7

Tags: camera, Leica, Leica M9, image quality, sensor, full-frame 35mm cameras, ir filters, Leica M8, AA filter, series leica, shutter speed, new camera, Leica M lenses, Lightroom, older leica lenses, leica in-camera jpg, high isos, Leica cameras, Leica user par, Leica glass, Leica dealers, button, IR sensitivity, review, Sean Reid, Phase One, profiles, megapixel, Camera Calibration tools, open standards, raw processing, subscription site, photographic device, medium format, highest resolution, lens-mounted ir filters, photo sites, format camera, Camera Raw, wide