Is the Leica M9 Worth the Hype?
Leica M9 Digital Rangefinder Camera
What it is:The cult of Leica originated in the '40s, when Henri Cartier-Bresson and the Magnum photographers first brought the so-called "decisive moment" into the cultural consciousness. Their startlingly immediate images of street life, war, and people are as fresh today as they were the day they were snapped. The weapon of choice for this school of photographers was the Leica rangefinder, a small, lightweight camera that offered photojournalists an easy way to capture high-quality pictures on the move. Though the film era may be waning, Leica is now producing rangefinders for the era of digital photography, and the M9 is its latest entry into the category. This $7,000 camera is for folks who are serious about their still photography; the M9 doesn't do video.
Rangefinders work in a way fundamentally different from what we've come to accept as standard camera functionality. A standard viewfinder displays only what is in the frame, meaning that elements outside of lens range aren't seen. Therefore, the shot you see in the viewfinder is the shot you get. With a rangefinder, however, you look through a viewfinder that is aligned with the lens but not connected; small marks on the glass delineate the area in frame, with space around the marks remaining visible, allowing you to look further afield when composing the shot. When you drop the shutter, there is no moment of blackness. This lets you focus on your next shot without that momentary disorientation.
Leica has always delivered the gold standard for rangefinders, and remains one of the few companies manufacturing the devices in digital form. The German-made Leica lenses are ground to legendarily precise specifications, and remain arguably the best glass out there. Leica users' impassioned fervor for the lenses borders on religious devotion.
Why it's different:The M9's focusing mechanism consists of two squares in the viewfinder that you can line up in the middle of the frame with a bayonet focus control. The actual distance marks on the lens dial become a vital cue for focusing. That being the case, with enough practice, you'll be able to literally shoot from the hip. It's that quality that makes rangefinders excellent for on-the-fly street photography.
Unlike the M8, the M9's 18-megapixel Kodak-developed CCD sensors are now full-frame at 24-by-36mm (the same size as a 35mm, old school, film-based rangefinder). This means that not only is all the visual information included in wide-angle shots, but also that any classic lens made for Leica's film cameras will work seamlessly on the M9. Since rangefinders forgo the mirror-based mechanics of an SLR, rangefinders are extremely quiet, meaning they're ideal for situations where you don't want to make noise. They are also good for low-light situations and wide-angle photography.
To simplify ISO (light sensitivity) control issues, Leica placed an ISO button on the back of the camera. The simple adjustment eliminates the need to navigate complicated menus to change the light sensitivity -- a major hassle on the M8.
What we like:Besides the advantages provided by the aforementioned full-frame sensor, the M9 is -- at a slender weight of 20.6 ounces and dimensions of 5.47-by-1.45-by-3.15 inches -- small, light, discreet, and ultra powerful. Once you get the hang of the thing, grabbing that shot is fast as hell. The compact, lightweight Leica lenses (coupled with upgraded sensors) deliver stunning imagery well beyond the capabilities of a similarly-sized Nikon or Canon.
Photo quality aside, the camera is a delight for anyone who considers himself a serious photographer and wants a high degree of manual, old-school-style customization. Rather than digging through endless menus in search of settings, you make most of your technical choices before you ever compose the shot. The old-fashioned light meter achieves simplicity; it tells you if you're under, over, or just right. Adjusting often-automated settings such as aperture, shutter speed, or ISO is totally up to you. Various auto functions do exist, but, as any Leica user will tell you, you should be prepared to go all manual once you venture into this level of photography.
Despite its high learning curve, the M9 is still simpler to operate than a Canon or Nikon DSLR of similar quality. It distills all the menus of newer cameras, and offers a simple, elegant interface that delivers all the same functions.
It's half as heavy as most DSLRs, too, and the featherweight lenses don't add to the heft. There's no need to put this down from neck strain. Discrete and unarguably stylish, those who know cameras will be thoroughly impressed. (Not that that's why you'd spend $7,000, of course, but it is a nice perk.)
What we don't like:While sticking the dedicated ISO button on the back of the camera was an improvement over its previous, deep-within-menus location, ISO changes still require more clicks than they should. Though battery life has been criticized by some, charging the camera for longer than the recommended 3.5 hours left ample juice for a day's worth of shooting. Using the zoom function in playback mode takes a few seconds, slightly undermining the benefits of instant review.
Focusing in low light, a difficulty intrinsic to rangefinders, definitely takes practice. There's also no getting around the M9's punishing price tag of $7,000. And that doesn't even include lenses, which start at $1,995, with specialty models fetching around $6,000.
What it costs:$7,000.
Does it live up to the hype?The M9, a the culmination of a lot of back and forth on Leica and Kodak's part and a lot of critiques from users, delivers mind-bogglingly good electronics in a slender body with uncommonly fine lenses, and an interface that deftly melds the classic rangefinder design with the digital platform. The camera synthesizes the virtues of a classic film camera with the best assets of the digital world, delivering a new kind of hybrid that turns the entire paradigm of digital photography back around to a more manual one. It will be a long time before the M9 is trumped for power, portability and image quality.
That said, this camera is not for most. Only those with deep pockets and a serious love of photography need apply.