Tristan Hall asked me last week if I would like to give my thoughts and feelings on the Leica M9. He told me that I would have free reign on length, but that I should write an article – and include some pictures – that I would be interested in reading.
“Wonderful!” I thought. “A chance to have my feelings about the pinnacle of German consumer photographic technology be read by the fine fans of PhotoComment.net and by people all around the planet!” Little did Tristan know that he had just requested work by an illiterate Canadian massage therapist/photographer who likes to shoot Sony DSLRs, film rangefinders, iPhones, and has a tendency to have his sentences run on and on… So don’t be surprised if car crashes, explosions, and full-frontal nudity find their way into my Leica M9 camera review, or – at the very least – some spelling and grammatical errors. And “review” might also be too strong of a word… Perhaps a word such as “confession” would be better suited.
First; a little about me: I’m 38-ish, Canadian, male, and am glad to say that I am almost over my photographic ‘GAS’ (Gear Acquisition Syndrome) which is in fact the reason that I am writing about the Leica M9. In the past, I have gone out of my way to research, lust after, and buy the gear (second hand and new) that I thought would make me a better photographer. Things like: shiny lenses, flashguns, bounce boards, and plastic bits for my flashguns. Some of it helped; whereas some of it just slowed me down. I needed plenty of time behind the camera lens before I could really see with the eyes of a photographer. After hundreds of dollars spent on gizmos, I discovered m42 mount lenses. You can look up this type of lens on the internet, but I will ‘bottom-line’ it for you. They are really old, full-manual lenses that you can mount on your fancy DSLR with an adapter plate. You have to switch your camera to ‘M’, for manual, and learn to focus, expose, and frame… all by yourself! There’s no auto-focus and no auto-exposure; just you, the camera’s meter, and manual settings. It’s a modern digital camera with 50-year old glass. It is a challenge and a lot of fun! A funny thing happened to me… I began to see why film and vintage cameras were so appealing to photographers. These old film cameras are pure. You use a meter (on-board, or hand-held), the f-stops of the given lens, the shutter speeds of the camera, and the ISO speeds of the film. Moving to film was easy and was just like I was using with the m42 lenses on my Sonys, but with some serious time delay to chimp the photo. The guy at the local lab hates it when I take over the entire counter to look at prints from the latest roll; making comments to myself on how awesome I am for taking pictures with 35mm film… as if I’ve discovered a cure for cancer or something. -note some great groups on Flickr devoted to m42 lenses
So I got into rangefinders: Vintage Konica, Minolta, and old Russian Zorki rangefinders started appearing in little boxes from eBay and second-hand stores. Beautiful cameras from a bygone era made of metal, glass, and a whiff of Essence of Oscar Barnak. They became an addiction, but in the back of my mind, I wanted a digital rangefinder. I wanted to see what an M9 was like…
I got an email from Leica one morning – thanks to hitting a “like” button on that website everybody seems to use – saying that they would be holding a Leica day here in Calgary Alberta. Calgary – as some of you may know – is the home to the world famous Calgary Stampede and for 10 days in July, the city turns into Disneyland, with the citizens as the cast.(Think ‘cowboy of the old west’ meets ‘drunken rave sex party’…with horses). I’ll share more on the Stampede later…
So… I signed up for the day and was very excited. A special day with the mother of all digital rangefinders! Plus, somebody was going to let me actually use one without an armed guard staring me down! I had never held a Leica before; partly because I know that they are super expensive and also… how could somebody possibly render an opinion on a camera that they picked up and held at a shop for a couple of minutes; then gave back to the nice youngster with the Polaroid t-shirt and hipster glasses? Also: why would I even look at a camera-and-lens combo that – in order to own – I would have to sell one of my kidneys to a “shady” Doctor? Really… $12k is a lot of tacos.
The day arrived and I was off to the venue to find out from Leica why I should buy their product. I had done my homework on the camera. It is a rangefinder, so I knew how to focus it (I’d been shooting with them all summer). The M9 has a built-in meter so I knew that if I could turn a dial and change an f-stop, I could make an exposure. I just didn’t know how to change the ISO, but that was sorted out ten minutes in.
The day went like this:
Got an M9 with a 35mm summicron f2 signed out (in blood)
Got more excited
Got taught why Leica is cool
Got a lift to the shooting venue (Calgary Stampede Fair Gounds)
Got left alone with $12,000 worth of camera in a crowd of 60,000 potential subjects at the Calgary Stampede grounds
Got to follow a would-class photojournalist around and become his friend
Got personally asked 6 times which major paper I was shooting for
Got sad when I had to give the camera back
Got a cool Leica pen, lens cloth, and place mat.
That’s the day in a nutshell.
That inspired an small review which you can read here -à(http://www.flickr.com/photos/mshutchison81/5952493522/). However, the gist is:
For some, the M9 will make them want to take their current camera and toss it into the trash. For others, it will be a source of frustration and they will be left with a feeling of, “what’s the big deal?”
For me, picking up the M9 was a dream come true!
I am not going to go into the specs of the M9. You can look those up anywhere. I am going to talk about how it feels:
It is heavy, solid, and precise. The viewfinder is clear and bright and offers the world to you as you see it; not the refracted, blurry and sometimes dark way in which a DSLR will show what the camera is seeing. The rangefinder is so easy to manually focus fast. You can nail tack sharp by feel after an 1/2 hr with the M9. A DSLR in manual focus – without focus confirm – will make you pull your hair out. The M9 inspires confidence; like having the right tool in your hand for a given job.
This is where some will be upset by the M9: It is not the be and end all of cameras. It would be tough to shoot sports with it. It would be hard to do off-camera strobist stuff with it, though not impossible. With a standard lens, it is no better indoors in low light then my Sony A350 above 800 ISO. The M9 is super expensive; maybe even ludicrously expensive. I could have an A900/grip and all the nice Sony/CZ/G glass for what I held in my right hand.
Is it worth the $12,000 or so with lens? Not for a new photographer. This camera is for someone who has practiced their craft, paid their dues, and knows that they will always be learning and exploring photography. This camera for them is an instrument with which to play a symphony of light and shadow. I have a nice chef’s knife at home and I can cut up fruit without bleeding too seriously. The same knife in the hand of someone like Gordon Ramsey becomes a magical device that flashes and dances as it is used as it was intended: at a level where the ‘pro’s’ hang out and the ‘wanna be’s’ think they belong.
Would I buy an M9? One day. Is it for everyone? No.
That review was over six months ago. How do I feel about the M9 now? Well, to put it bluntly:
I really want a Black Leica M9 with a 35mm Summicron f2!
It’s all I think about now: the weight, the clicks of the aperture ring, the dampened click and re-cock of the shutter, the bright, clear rangefinder, the inspired confidence of a tool in hand that is not trying to be an iconic bauble slung around some pretentious ‘arse’s’ neck. It is just an extremely basic, well constructed camera; built on the values and tradition of the way things in our lives should be built: with love, attention, and a mindfulness of the end user; not the marketing department.
My feeling all of that is one thing and I know that the Leica M9 is not a magical device that poops out National Geographic covers with every shutter click. It is not going to make me a better photographer. Lots and lots of time spent behind any camera will do that.
However… it is 1/2 a year later and am I still infatuated with a camera and lens combo rounding out at $12,000? The lens hood is $200! Am I insane? Dropped on my head as a child? Too much cold weather and I’ve frozen my head?
What do you think? Drop us a line at PhotoComment and tell us where you are on your journey to ‘the land of Leica’. Are you in the middle of GAS, or have you evolved your taste to simplify to gear (however cheap or expensive) to fulfill what you want from a camera and from your photo?