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Leica M9 Digital Camera Review

Leica M9 Digital Camera Review - Leica once again come up smelling of roses with the M9. A full-frame rangefinder that even they thought couldn't be built.

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Category : Mirrorless Interchangeable Lens Camera
Product : Leica M9
Price : £2,050
Rating :
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Features
Handling
Performance
Verdict
Specification

Leica M9 main image
Matt Grayson casts his eyes lovingly over the new full-frame Leica M9 digital range finder.

Arguably one of the most exciting cameras to be released recently is the Leica M9. This is the camera that has achieved what even Leica said was unlikely: put a full-frame sensor into a slim 'M' series rangefinder body. Boasting 18Mp on the 23.9x35.8mm CCD, the M9 has one of the highest resolutions of the full-frame crowd. In this test, we take a look at the M9 body fitted with the Leica Summicron 50mm f/2 to see what you get for nearly £6500.

Leica M9: Features

Certain obstacles found on the M8 have been overcome for the latest model but most importantly it has a full-frame sensor which is great for existing M lens owners who can expect the same focal length as the 35mm cameras.

Leica have also done away with the need for UV/IR filters on the lenses which seemed to only be a patch at best. Even though they were provided free of charge  to M8 users, it still meant having something infront of the lens. It also means better colour reproduction from the new IR filter so the full benefit of investing in the amazing lens quality can be fully appreciated.

There are a number of other notable improvements on the M9 such as an extra stop at the lower end of the ISO sensitivity range called Pull80, although this is a processed version of the ISO160 setting. There are two processors to deal with the additional resolution and the fact that the DNG files can now be left uncompressed if that's what you wish to do. Uncompressed files are 14-bit and showed 34.7Mb on the computer but opened up at 51.7Mb in 8-bit and 103.4Mb Compressed DNG files showed 17.4Mb on the computer and open to the same size as the uncompressed versions in 8-bit and 16-bit.

Leica M9 front view
A decent sized rangefinder camera with a good, solid build.
Leica M9 inserting the card
Memory cards go in the bottom by removing the entire bottom plate.
Leica M9 view from above
A large shutter speed dial sits next to the shutter release button.
Leica M9 function menu
Quick selections of common features are made in the Function menu.

Click on any of the thumbnails to open the large size images.

Leica's decision to only use DNG for the Raw file format instead of a dedicated Raw file type is a good one and JPEG is available to use if you wish. It ensures compatibility with generic Raw processing programs such as Adobe CameraRaw which already accepts the files.

Leica M9 command dial
The traditional shutter release button has a threaded cable release socket.
The M9 benefits from the 6-bit coding system that allows the camera to recognise which lens has been attached to it without the electronic connection that is used in traditional DSLRs. New M series lenses are all fitted with the system and older ones can be converted for an additional cost of around £149. A full list of upgradable lenses are available to download from the Leica website as a PDF by following the link:

Leica lens 6-bit coding compatibility

It allows the camera to make additional adjustments to correct vignetting if necessary. That's not to say that your older non-coded lenses won't work and there's the option of manually selecting the lens that's fitted.

Three of the shutter blades have been painted, two grey either side of the centre blade which is white. This is an evolution of Leica's metering system which measures light that is reflected off the blades.

Leica M9: Handling
Despite being 300-400g lighter than a DSLR it still feels quite weighty at 545g. I think there's an air of psychological trickery here too because of the build being more blocky, I expected it to feel heavy. I considered that the sharp corners would be a problem while shooting but the tried and tested Leica design manages to create a simplistic shape that works well because all the curves are in the right places.

Buttons are only small but they're firm to the touch if a little more unresponsive than what I'm used to. Of course this means that modes aren't selected by accident so there are pros and cons to both sides.

Only the rear panel gives the game away that the M9 is a digital model thanks to the modest 2.5in LCD screen. It's a small screen in this day and age which I think looks smaller because of the larger body it's on but it's bright enough and the resolution is satisfactory. One point I don't like in the playback mode is the zoom function. The image goes pixellated on the screen and takes several seconds to resolve itself which is annoying to wait for.

One aspect that I think Leica should look at is putting a lock on the on/off switch. It's far too easy to turn the camera on when putting the M9 into the camera bag or pouch. Auto power off minimizes battery drain but it’s a system that needs looking at. That said, M rangefinders are known for not having a shutter lock so they are always ready for action so the M9 is only following a long-time tradition.

A really important aspect of a Leica M’s handling is the shutter release. Press it and you are greeted with barely a whisper as the exposure is made. Leica rangefinders are renowned as cameras that are ideally suited to discreet shooting. To be honest, outside in the street, the M9’s shutter sound is more than likely to be drowned out by ambient noise.

There is probably more noise generated by the shutter recocking than when the exposure is actually made. There is a discreet mode so that you can actually stop the shutter recocking until you are ready and that is handy for shooting in very sensitive situations.

Noise is one consideration and the other is low vibration, and all thanks to rangefinders not having a reflex mirror clacking up and down like you will find in traditional SLR cameras. I was getting sharp pictures at shutter speeds in the region of 1/4sec thanks to the low vibration levels – and that is without any anti-shake system available.

Leica M9: Performance
The camera was put through its paces in a variety of conditions and tests. All pictures were taken in Raw/JPEG.

Click on any of the thumbnails to open the full size images.

Exposure
As mentioned earlier, the Leica M9 uses light reflected off the grey and white painted blades of the shutter curtain to meter and it uses a system similar centre-weighted metering. Thanks to the great quality of the lenses when wide open, to get a good exposure in less than perfect conditions, the ISO doesn't have to be shoved up to a massive degree. Instead, a mid-range setting of ISO400 will be sufficient for most scenarios and manual metering means that stray light sources don't make the camera automatically stop down the aperture. It just means you have to ignore the red arrow in the viewfinder screaming at you that the camera is over-exposed.

Leica M9 long exposure
Long exposures are easy thanks to the full manual control.
Leica M9 light from above
Diverse lighting in various conditions is handled well by the M9.
Leica M9 indoor light
Indoor shots expose really well with a minimum of noise from mid-range ISO.
Leica M9 sunset
Warm lighting doesn't cause trouble for the centre-weighted metering system.

Click on any of the thumbnails to open the large size images.

The camera has a good dynamic range, coping with all but the harshest of contrasty lighting. Images taken at sunset or sunrise pose little problem for the camera. The camera suffers quite badly with hard lighting but then every camera does and this is why dynamic range compensation was invented.

We tried the M9 in both of its exposure modes, manual and aperture-priority AE.

Manual metering proved reliable – obviously if there is any error, it is usually down to the user. The arrow red LED system in the viewfinder is simple to use. Red spot indicates correct exposure and the arrows indicate which way the aperture ring should be rotated to get that red spot. It is simple system and it works well, especially if the camera is angled down slightly to meter from the shadows.

Compared with most modern cameras, the M9’s lighting measuring method is downright primitive. There is no multi-segment meter here, just the pattern on the shutter blind.
It is probably due to this that the aperture-priority mode is okay rather than outstanding. When it works, it works well, but it is easily fooled by strong highlights, for example.

Colour and sharpness
Leica M9 colour test
Rich colours are recorded nicely in both JPEG and RAW and there's a good range of greyscale.

Click on the thumbnail to open the large size image.

It's fair to say that in both JPEG and Raw, the Leica M9 records some great colour. Whether in a studio or out and about, the processor works well to give a balanced amount of bold colours. Primary red strikes out of the frame whenever it's present while primary blue is rich. On our test chart, the skin tone tile looks overly pink but taking portraits doesn't convey the same problems as they look more natural. I like the way that foliage is recorded especially when it has other colours contrasting it.

Leica M9 recording  blue sky
Blue skies are saturated without loss of colour from other areas.
Leica M9 recording  portrait with smile
Skin is balanced and not too pink like in the colour test.

Click on any of the thumbnails to open the large size images.

In Raw, there's not a great deal of difference although they come with the usual mild flatness that an unprocessed image produces.

Leica M9 portrait
A nicely exposed portrait with good skin tones and sharp focusing.
Leica M9 smile in portrait
The close up is a little under-exposed despite the same exposure values.
Leica M9 details
Plenty of detail is recorded in both RAW and JPEG.

Shooting in Raw/JPEG, fine mode shows any differences between the two settings. RAW files are ever so slightly smoother than the JPEG versions and the processing will also adjust the exposure if necessary. JPEGs are also sharpened which can be seen when looking at fine detail areas of photographs while colours are given a welcome boost.



Click on any of the thumbnails to open the large size images.

Focusing

If you're a newcomer to Leica but have used manual focus lenses in the past, then you may find yourself grabbing the aperture as this is at the front of the lens instead of nearest the body and vice versa for the focus ring. It's easy enough to get used to and the focus ring is smooth with just the right amount of resistance.

It's worth noting that the images on the screen of the camera may look a little soft and I think this is down to the quality of the screen. There are better monitors available and given the price, I'd expect one of the best on the M9. What I thought was soft focusing turned out to be the screen because the images were sharp on the computer. I know what you're going to say: a photographer shouldn't need to use the screen to view the images. Some do, though, and I think it's important to have the best quality screen on a camera of this calibre.

The focusing system through the viewfinder is great. It incorporates a coincident rangefinder system which aligns two lenses by manipulating a prism until the two images are aligned. It looks like double vision through the viewfinder and I found this a lot easier than the traditional split screen focusing found on old manual film SLRs.

Noise
The sensitivity setting ranges from ISO160-2500 with an extra Pull80 which was touched on earlier. It works by taking an over exposed shot at ISO160 and making adjustments to give it the same result as an ISO80 image.

Leica M9 studio ISO80 (Pull80)
Leica M9 ISO80 (Pull80) test.
Leica M9 studio ISO160
Leica M9 studio ISO160 test.
Leica M9 studio ISO200
Leica M9 studio ISO200 test.
Leica M9 studio ISO400
Leica M9 studio ISO400 test.
Leica M9 studio ISO800
Leica M9 studio ISO800 test.
Leica M9 studio ISO1600
Leica M9 studio ISO1600 test.
Leica M9 studio ISO2000
Leica M9 studio ISO2000 test.
Leica M9 studio ISO2500
Leica M9 studio ISO2500 test.

Click on any of the thumbnails to open the large size images.

Noise at low ISOs in controlled lighting is good with the camera producing lovely smooth results. Noise isn't visible at the mid-range settings either and moving up through the range it still stays away until ISO1600 which is where it becomes noticeable. Even then it's only seen at full magnification. I'm really impressed with the level of noise control which, although easier on a larger sensor, is still an excellent result.

Leica M9 night ISO80 (Pull80)
Leica M9 night ISO80 (Pull80) test.
Leica M9 night ISO160
Leica M9 night ISO160 test.
Leica M9 night ISO200
Leica M9 night ISO200 test.
Leica M9 night ISO400
Leica M9 night ISO400 test.
Leica M9 night ISO800
Leica M9 night ISO800 test.
Leica M9 night ISO1600
Leica M9 night ISO1600 test.
Leica M9 night ISO2000
Leica M9 night ISO2000 test.
Leica M9 night ISO2500
Leica M9 night ISO2500 test.

Click on any of the thumbnails to open the large size images.

The visible purple and green coloured noise increases its attack in the final two settings with ISO2500 showing a snow of colour over the darker areas of photographs. Colours appear pretty much unaffected and I'm impressed with how the Leica has dealt with noise in a studio.

Leica M9 outside ISO80 (Pull80)
Leica M9 outside ISO80 (Pull80) test.
Leica M9 outside ISO160
Leica M9 outside ISO160 test.
Leica M9 outside ISO200
Leica M9 outside ISO200 test.
Leica M9 outside ISO400
Leica M9 outside ISO400 test.
Leica M9 outside ISO800
Leica M9 outside ISO800 test.
Leica M9 outside ISO1600
Leica M9 outside ISO1600 test.
Leica M9 outside ISO2000
Leica M9 outside ISO2000 test.
Leica M9 outside ISO2500
Leica M9 outside ISO2500 test.

Click on any of the thumbnails to open the large size images.

Getting out and about with the camera shows a similar performance in the ISO range. Low ISO results are excellent with lovely smooth images and plenty of detail in finer areas. I would say that ISO1600 is more borderline because of shadow areas but up until that point, there's little difference in quality.

White-balance
There are only the most popular white balance settings available on the Leica M9 and the extra fluorescent option for daylight fluo is a welcome one. I like the manual setting as it's easy to use although in some cases it couldn't get a reading from the white balance card.

There's an option to select the correct Kelvin below that and this could help if the camera can't get a reading at all and the preset options don't quite get it.

Tungsten  
Leica M9 auto white balance tungsten
Leica M9 auto white balance tungsten.
Leica M9 white balance tungsten
Leica M9 white balance tungsten.
Fluorescent  
Leica M9 auto white balance fluo
Leica M9 auto white balance fluo.
Leica M9 white balance fluo
Leica M9 white balance fluo.

Click on any of the thumbnails to open the large size images.

Preset modes actually work very well and I found with stronger casts such as tungsten or fluorescent that the image was coming out well balanced. Saying that I was impressed with how the auto white balance setting coped with the stronger settings. With the softer settings, the camera simply didn't add the elements it needed for the perfect tone such as a slight warming in shade. This is expected though and doesn't mark the camera down any.

Card Buffer/write speed

Continuous shooting is at around 2fps and Leica say this is up to 8 frames. In Raw the M9 managed to take seven frames before it had to empty the buffer. It managed to clear the backlog by the seven second mark, fired off another then got a final shot in at the ten second mark.

Recording in JPEG managed to squeeze an extra frame through before the buffer was full and two more shots at the same time as Raw were fired.

This is by no means a camera for people in a rush so I think the performance of the continuous shooting is satisfactory. To further cement this theory, the camera took around ten more seconds to process the images that I'd taken.

Leica M9: Verdict
What I really like about the M9 is that Leica could've added all sorts of bells and whistles but instead went for the workhorse approach with superior build and invested in areas that the user wanted and what is important to photography. The direct ISO button and solving the IR filter issue are two worthwhile improvements.

Leica have produced a stunning camera but at just under £6500 with the 50mm Summicron lens we used, the price can leave a nasty taste in the mouth. I think if you're the sort of person that either loves Leica or buys only from prestige companies then I don't think the price tag will make you bat an eyelid. Personally, I think it's too expensive although it is hand-made and from the best materials.

Leica M9: Pros

Excellent build quality
Quiet shutter system
Lovely colour rendition
Good noise control at low and mid-range settings

Leica M9: Cons
The only complaint is the screen
Expensive

FEATURES
HANDLING
PERFORMANCE
VALUE
OVERALL

Leica M9: Specification
Resolution: 18.5Mp
Sensor size: 23.9x35.8mm full-frame
Sensor type: CCD
Image size: 5270x3516
Aspect ratio: 3:2
Focus system: Manual
Focus points: N/a
Focus types: Manual
Crop factor: 1x
Lens mount: Leica M bayonet with 6-bit coding sensor
File type: JPEG, DNG (RAW) compressed or uncompressed
Sensitivity: ISO160-2500 (expandable to ISO80 using Pull80 mode)
Storage: SD, SDHC
Metering system: TTL
Metering types: Centre-weighted with working aperture
Exposure compensation: N/a except warning in aperture-priority mode
Shutter speed: 8sec-1/4000sec & Bulb
Frames per second: 2fps, max 8 images in JPEG
Flash: Hot-shoe
Flash metering: Centre-weighted TTL pre-flash metering
Flash sync speed: 1/180sec
Integrated cleaning: No
Live view: No
Viewfinder: Optical rangefinder type with automatic parallax compensation.
Monitor: 2.5in TFT LCD with 230,000 pixels (690,000dot)
Interface: USB 2.0
Power: Li-Ion battery
Size: 139x37x80mm
Weight: 585g

Prices online for the Leica M9 start at around £4900 body only. Go to the Leica website for more details on the camera:

Leica M9

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Photographs taken using the Leica M9

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Comments


User_Removed 10 17.9k 8 Norway
22 Jan 2010 6:11PM
(Pass the Kleenex... slobbering can get messy. Wink)

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A very positive review, it seems much better than the M8 which was really a bit problematic for the Leica name. Not that this is an slr, there's no mirror in it -- as the review says. Yet in the header it says slr. I'd love to have this, it's a great tool, I have an earlier (film) version of it and I bet the handling is the same. Still, I think I would miss the film (and the money).
my my typos. "Note that this is not an slr", is what I wanted to say. Sorry.
23 Jan 2010 12:52PM
A great review.I`ve just bought one.After using top end Canon with all the L glass to go with it,don`t get me wrong they produce great results,I`m using the M9 more often, and this baby produces pin sharp results.I am over the moon with the camera and lenses.On a recent trip to New York all the gear I had was a M9 and 35mm f/2 lens...it makes you work and think a little harder to get the image.


Andy
Leif 9 722
23 Jan 2010 6:01PM
Nice review. Shame about the price. (Anyone got a tissue, some of Mike Otley's slobber seems to have dripped down here.)
so the thing about the slr got corrected, good!
MattGrayson 7 622 3 England
24 Jan 2010 8:25PM
Yes, it was put in a report. As I responded there, we don't have a category for rangefinder cameras and as it has interchangeable lenses, it was placed as an SLR.

All good in the hood. Smile
User_Removed 10 17.9k 8 Norway
29 Jan 2010 9:43PM
(Sorry about that Leif... Wink)
hydeca 3
4 Jan 2011 2:14AM
Matt, I'm wondering whether you noticed all the crud on the sensor in most of the shots posted in your review.

This is a common problem with M9s, particularly when they're new. There is a tendency for lubricant in the shutter mechanism to get thrown all over the sensor (as appears to be the case here).

Its an expensive mistake if you damage the IR filter when cleaning it. If so the camera has to be sent back to Solms to have the entire sensor assembly replaced at nearly 1/2 the cost of the camera (not covered by warranty), with a turnaround of at least 3 months.
Andy_Cundell 3 1.1k 5 England
24 Mar 2011 2:49PM
I dont think this justifies the 6.5k price tag, designer camera or not. It may be a bit of bling but I wouldn't buy one.

Saying that, if I had just spent that much on a camera, I would say it was the 'bees knees' and the best thing since sliced bread. Pushing the boundaries of photography equipment..........yes, as must have camera.........no

Thanks for the review!
11 Apr 2011 3:29PM
My M9 is just back from its 2nd (free) sensor clean despite having a Tri-Elmar in place permanently since the day I bought it. Marvellous photos but there is a problem somewhere.

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