Leica M9 on a PMPE 5, to Bangladesh. –A User’s Review
1. Day Worker waiting for job
2. Market Vendor selling onions and garlic
3. Fish Market Vendors
4. Children at Kokair Squatter Colony
It all started the year after Malaya’s Independence when a small boy followed his father to send off his colonial CEO. Pictures were taken in the usual “bon voyage” style. A few months later a picture turned up and the boy was so impressed with the picture quality and he enquired about what camera was used to take this picture…it was a Leica M3.
That image left a lasting impression on the boy till today. So when the opportunity to own a set of M3 with 3 lenses came up, he took the plunge and has not regretted ever since.
When the opportunity came up to test the Leica M9, the latest 35mm full frame rangefinder digital camera came, it was hard to resist. What a better time to test this camera other than a 10 days photo trip, PMPE 5 in Bangladesh. The review equipment was a Leica M9 coupled with a 28mm Summicron asph.
The M9 feels no different from the M3 in terms of size and weight though there were additions like the LCD screen, the navigation dials and buttons, the “A” mode and the top plate which gives an affirmative M9. The viewfinder is a .72 though and has a 28mm frameline.
Those who are using DSLR’s will find that it needs a different workflow when working with a Rangefinder.
The general workflow for a DSLR:-
- Sees subject
- Take camera to the eye
- Compose the shot
- Half press to operate auto focusing and auto exposure
- Press the shutter
The general workflow for a Rangefinder
- Sees subject
- Adjust exposure – shutter, aperture combo
- Adjust estimated focusing or hyperfocal distance
- Watch the subject and wait for the right moment
- Bring the camera to the eye.
- Frame and press the shutter.
First time Users will initially feel intimidated and frustrated of having to fiddle with the manual focusing mechanism however, once you master the art of focusing, it is a breeze and in fact you can take a picture much faster than any top of the range DSLR can offer. We have done this test numerous times in our PMPE trip. That is why the rangefinder is the equipment of choice for Street, Candid and Documentary Photography.
I had this opportunity to let 2 first time users try out the camera and after a 5 minute instruction, they were able to take some exciting pictures. Note that these 2 interested participants were female photographers.
Leica M9 in use.
What I like about the digital Leica is its simplicity to operate. There is only 1 page of alternatives that you need to set up the camera against those multiple screens of the set up menu that other DSLR’s offer. Sometimes I think one need a PhD to operate the menus.
Navigating the menu is a breeze and is simple to understand even without reading the operations manual….a rare experience when compared with other digital cameras…even the digicams. The only other camera which offers such simplicity is the Hasselblad CFV back on a 503 body. Note that these 2 cameras are aimed at advance amateurs and professional photographers. It makes the assumption that one will have the necessary basic skills to understand what is aperture, shutter speed, ISO and the exposure system.
The camera is designed as an instrument for still photography at the professional level and hence you do not see gimmick settings like HDR, scene mode, etc being incorporate in the design.
The design philosophy of the M9 is no different from the earlier M’s. Leica aims to produce an instrument of photography excellence that does not take away the brain work from the photographer. The photographer is always in command and responsible for all the pictures he has taken. The camera just produces the best image possible that money can buy.
This design philosophy has been very successful since the firs Leica M3 in 1954. Many good photographers have laid testimony to this corporation between the man and camera like Henri Cartier Breeson and Garry Winogrand just to name a few.
This is the smallest full frame digital camera in the world. It can fit handbags and smallish camera bags or just hang it around the neck. The lenses are very compact too. It is a camera that one would not mind lugging it around the world.
28mm Summicron asph.
The 28mm f2.0 summicron asph. That came with the M9 was smallish and a joy to use. There was very little distortion, chromatic and spherical aberrations were well taken care off. The color reproduction from this lens was so good that for once I have discovered the joy of taking color pictures. The hyperfocal scales were well spread and clearly demarcated.
The Digital Sensor
The difference between buy a film camera and a digital camera is the sensor. In the film days one do have a choice of using different type of films for different purposes. However, in the digital era, the digital sensor cannot be change unless you change the camera. So finding the right digital sensor is of prime importance.
In the early days of digital photography development, manufacturers were fighting the ISO wars. Each manufacturer was trying to outdo the next with better offerings of higher ISO capabilities.
Other image quality requirements like exposure latitude or dynamic range and tonal quality were not in the target sights. For the advance amateur and professionals who grew up during the film era, these qualities were sadly missed. It is only now, that with high end digital sensors, these considerations are being addressed.
Personally I find the dynamic range and tonal qualities of the M9 digital sensor a mark above the competition. The dynamic range is almost at par with wide latitude films like Kodak Tri-X. Incidentally, Kodak also developed the digital sensor for the M9.
What I like about the camera.
- It is light weight and smallish in size, an important consideration on which camera gets taken out more often
- The controls are intuitive. The learning curve for those who have used a rangefinder is very short.
- It dos not take away the brain work from the man behind the shot. The photographer is always in control
- The image files (34MB0 are very clean even up to ISO1600.
- The picture quality is excellent, easily the best in the 35mm class.
- The dynamic range equals to wide latitude films like Tri-X, HP5, Reala etc.
- The tonal range is not patchy even at high ISO.
- It is a specially designed camera for candid, street and documentary photography
Quirks that need to be fixed
- The camera freezes about 6 times when shooting. This can be resolved by switching off and on the power switch. There is an occasion where I have to take out the battery to reset the camera
- The camera also freezes when using the playback extensively. I heard that Leica has just posted their new software upgrade. I wonder if it can resolve the problem
- The battery life is only good for a 8G card, which is about 220 pictures in uncompressed DNG mode.
- The delay in the review of the images in uncompressed DNG mode. Not that I mind because I seldom review those images when shooting.
The Leica M9 is a high end full frame camera and its price is comparable with high end offerings from Nikon (D3x) and Canon 1D series. Rangefinders do have limitations for sports and macro photography but is has no equal in candid, street and documentary photography. It is horses for courses.
The image quality is arguably the best that money can buy. Leica lenses last a couple of generations. My set of lenses is more than 50 years old and still performs very well especially in BnW photography. This can’t be said for the modern AF lenses.
Leica lenses retains its value over time. For the lucky few, the lenses have appreciated over time. Would I buy one, sure and I am saving hard for it.
5. Children at Kokair Squatter Colny
6. Mother and Child
7. Ticket Seller at Pier, Dhaka
8. Children at the Fruits Wholesale Market, Dhaka