On 09-09-09 Leica Camera AG announced the world’s first digital rangefinder camera with a full-frame 24 x 36mm sensor. As the world’s smallest full-frame system camera, the LEICA M9 continues the long heritage of the Leica rangefinder system, and unites more than 50 years of continuous technical improvements to the M System with cutting-edge digital technology.
The successful combination of a high-resolution image sensor, the superior performance of Leica M lenses and sophisticated processing ensures the best imaging results, making the camera perfect for all fields of photography from reportage and ‘available light’ to the capture of discreet, spontaneous images.
The 18 megapixel image sensor, specifically designed and developed for the M9, enables capture of the full 35-mm film format without any compromise. All M lenses mounted on the LEICA M9 therefore offer the same focal length as originally intended, and the enormous potential performance of the current M lens portfolio, with focal lengths from 16 to 135mm, is now fully exploited in an M digital camera for the very first time.
Furthermore, the M9 sensor features a newly developed glass sensor cover designed to guarantee the suppression of the infrared portion of the light spectrum, avoiding the need to mount special UV/IR filters.
Leica has listened to photographers’ requests for quick access to essential features on the M9. One example is the new ISO adjustment button, which simply requires the user to hold down the ISO button whilst turning the dial to select the required setting – rather than having to access it via a menu. In addition, all other functions important for everyday photography are accessible by pressing the set button.
At just 139 × 37 × 80mm, the LEICA M9 maintains the compact size of the LEICA M8, despite the considerably larger sensor. The robust, one-piece, full metal housing, made from a high-strength magnesium alloy, combined with a solid brass top and bottom plate, provide perfect protection for the camera in all photographic situations. For photographers, this all adds up to absolute reliability over decades of use.
The LEICA M9 is available in two different styles: a standard black with ‘vulkanit’ finish, and for the first time, a version in steel-grey with classic leatherette finish.
The CCD, specially developed by Kodak for the LEICA M9, has been optimised to exploit the particular qualities of the Leica M lens system. As a result, the LEICA M9 achieves the highest resolution values, which in turn guarantee outstanding image quality.
The M9 sensor employs further advanced and meticulously-designed micro lenses with a low refractive index. The micro lenses at the sensor edges are laterally displaced towards the image centre to match the characteristics of M lenses precisely. This optimised micro lens design captures and concentrates even the most oblique rays on the sensor, and reliably prevents image brightness fall-off at the edges and corners of the image. As a result, all existing Leica M lenses maintain their full performance when used for digital photography.
A moiré filter has not been integrated, allowing full exploitation of the superb resolution of Leica M lenses. Any moiré patterns occurring are eliminated in the camera’s signal processing software. The optimised signal–noise ratio reduces the need for digital post-processing, and results in high-contrast, high-resolution exposures with natural colour rendition from corner to corner.
Performance criteria, such as the individual coating of each element, have long been a Leica standard. For the first time, the immense performance potential of the M lenses is fully maintained and can be exploited for digital photography. In line with Leica’s commitment to system compatibility, almost all Leica M lenses built since 1954 can still be used on the new M9, as a result of their mechanical and optical precision.
The M9 sensor demands a particularly high spatial resolution, as offered by the latest M lenses. Their high resolution and efficient correction of optical aberrations make them all the more suitable for digital use. Current M lenses are supplied with a 6-bit code on the bayonet mount that is scanned optically by the M9. Using this coding, the M9 can compensate for any vignetting effects, if required. In addition, the lens type is recorded in the EXIF data and, when using the latest flash units such as the LEICA SF 58, automatically adjusts the reflector to match the focal length of the lens attached.
The viewfinder / rangefinder system
The Leica viewfinder / rangefinder system sets the LEICA M9 apart from SLR and compact digital cameras and makes it particularly suitable for reportage, ‘available light’ and discreet portraiture. Photographers become part of the action and frame their subject in the viewfinder, while still being able to see the full scene outside the viewfinder frame. The decisive moment can be anticipated and captured at precisely the right instant, resulting in particularly authentic images.
The clear view of the subject remains during the full exposure and, even in the most adverse lighting conditions, the bright, high-contrast viewfinder guarantees extremely fast and precise focusing. The minimal delay between shutter release and capturing the shot, together with the viewfinder / rangefinder system, positions Leica M cameras amongst the fastest in the world.
The LEICA M9 features a new, microprocessor-controlled, particularly silent, metal-leaf, focal-plane shutter that enables shutter speeds of up to 1/4000 seconds. This means that the photographer still has complete creative freedom by using selective focus at maximum apertures, even in bright situations. The short flash synchronisation speed of 1/180 seconds enables daylight flash exposures with selective focus.
Together with its compact form, the camera’s almost silent shutter is another enormous advantage for discreet and unobtrusive photography. Photographers can also select the appropriate moment for re-cocking the shutter. When longer exposure times requiring an extremely steady camera stance are essential, a slight pressure on the shutter release button in ‘soft release’ mode is sufficient.
The M9 offers a simple, clearly laid-out and intuitive menu system that concentrates purely on the essentials; eliminating any multifunction buttons or complex menu hierarchies. The key control is an intuitive four-way switch and dial combination that enables fast menu navigation. Pressing the set button calls up the capture menu on the 2.5″ monitor, and the most commonly-used functions are quickly and easily set in the menu: sensor sensitivity, exposure correction, white balance, image-data compression and resolution. Furthermore, favourite profiles can be named and saved for quick and easy access.
Sensitivity ranges from ISO 80 for wide-open apertures on bright days to ISO 2500. Very low-noise and finely detailed images are achieved throughout the sensitivity range, even at the highest settings, while the low noise characteristics, low-vibration shutter and fast lenses make the M9 the perfect camera for ‘available light’ photography.
Innovative flash technology
The LEICA M9’s M-TTL flash technology enables both precise and creative control over flash and mixed lighting effects. Prior to the actual exposure, a measuring flash is emitted that is metered through the lens. The flash power is then precisely determined according to the natural lighting situation. Due to the precise and delicate level of flash illumination, the natural lighting mood is maintained. In combination with aperture priority exposure mode, the auto-slow sync function ensures a particularly subtle lighting of the subject.
Tonal value histogram
The LEICA M9 offers an RGB tonal value histogram, which can be displayed at any time for image assessment, and is available in conjunction with automatic image review. A clipping warning indicating any overexposure of the image is also included. These two quality control tools are updated during zooming, allowing the quality of even the finest image details to be assessed.
Adobe Photoshop Lightroom, a professional digital workflow solution for Apple Mac OS X and Microsoft Windows, is available as an online download for all LEICA M9 customers. Adobe Photoshop Lightroom offers a vast range of functions for the management, processing and presentation of digital images, whether in JPEG or DNG format. If the images are saved as raw data in Adobe Digital Negative Format (DNG), Adobe Photoshop Lightroom guarantees direct and high-quality image processing with maximum image quality. The 14-bit-per-channel colour information captured by the image sensor is maintained throughout the processing workflow until the final presentation, and ensures that the most delicate tonal differences are preserved.
Build quality and materials
Experienced Leica technicians in Germany are responsible for the assembly and calibration of the M9 camera bodies, as well as the precise testing of all mechanical and electrical components. In addition to the solid brass top and base plate and magnesium alloy body, several other structural features of the camera will ensure a long and reliable working life. The rechargeable battery and SD card slot are protected from dust and moisture under the base plate, while the locking mechanism prevents unintentional opening and the possible loss of the battery and SD card, even under the hardest reportage conditions.
The LEICA M9 offers a special function for manual sensor cleaning: selecting the appropriate item from the menu and pressing the shutter release locks the shutter open to allow access to the sensor for cleaning purposes. Thanks to the short register of Leica M cameras, the sensor is easier to access than in a DSLR camera, where the sensor is located behind the mirror box and shutter assembly.