Thoughts on the M9 after a year’s use..

I’ve had the Leica M9 for about a year now. With the recent announcement from Leica about their new M products, it’s prompted me to consider and write-up what’s been good & not so good about using the M9 rangefinder camera. I’ve used it in almost every situation that I’d used my Canon 5D Mk II: portraits (with natural light and strobes), landscape and macro, plus I’ve been through a lengthy repair process. So I feel rather qualified to briefly summarise my experience using this camera.

The good

It’s generally well-designed and simple. As I wrote before in my first impressions post, it feels like a precision instrument – kinda like a fine timepiece: it’s quite beautiful to hold, and look at, but more importantly, it’s functional with minimal fuss. It gives a distinct impression that it’s a photographer’s tool.

For a full-frame camera, it’s remarkably compact & discreet (check the camera & lens comparison in the first impressions post). I’ve been able to use this camera in situations where a regular DSLR would be refused entry or would simply standout in a negative way. This in itself is a substantial benefit.

The image quality is very good, if not outstanding at times – with some caveats. Need to stick to around base ISO, as the noise steps up quite a lot from ISO 800. It lacks an anti-aliasing filter, which generally is a good thing, however this also can created unwanted image artefacts which can’t be easily removed in post.

Lenses are great. Lenses from Zeiss and Leica are generally expensive, but are a case of you ‘get what you pay for’ in terms of form, function and image quality.

Flexible HDR image taking mode. The number of exposures (3, 5 or 7) and EV increment (0.5, 1, 1.5 or 2) can be independently set easily.

The indifferent

Battery life is not great, but I’ve managed to get by with just one battery.

The preview image that accompanies the DNG is too small. This only becomes a problem when viewing images on a computer using a viewer. It’s not possible to see a decent sized preview – you have to use a RAW processor to process the full-sized image as a decent preview. I hope this is addressed in the future.

It’s hard to do macro – not impossible (see my solution here). It’s impractical, but to be fair, Leica doesn’t market the M9 as a macro-photographer’s tool.

The bad

As a package, it can get very expensive. Consequently I’ve tended to be a bit worried about dropping it, since it’s rather solid. I wonder how robust the camera is. I’d wager if it’s dropped, probably the range finding mechanism would suffer in some way, and would need calibration.

Poor rear LCD size and clarity (can not judge critical focus). The screen must be protected from scratches due to the soft plastic.

Bottom plate design. This needs to be removed to access the battery or SD card. There is a recessed lever that secures the base plate. To access and lift this lever is a bit cumbersome. The whole thing is a poor functional design. Leica seems to be nostalgically clinging to this plate design. Leica should pay attention to Really Right Stuff’s M9 base plate solution, which is so much better (especially its lever access design).

It’s a bit buggy. I had several image corruption issues involving SD cards, and camera lockups requiring removal of the battery to reset. Very frustrating and unforgivable in a camera of this class. I hope the latest firmware update (v1.1.96) fixes these problems for good. As insurance, I’m using slower Class 4 card (max 15Mb/s transfer speed).

After-sales service: ‘functional’ but distinctly lacking. I recently described my repair experience following a mystery crack in the sensor. I think 2 months without a camera due to servicing is pretty unacceptable. Overall, that particular experience did not endear me to the brand. Leica is branching out with many retail stores. I hope Leica puts some thought into also boltering their service capability, as it is lacking (unless you’re in Europe, North America or Japan).

In summary

Though at times it’s been a bit of a love/hate relationship, there’s no doubt the M9 is fun to use, and the image quality is great. For heavy use or critical events, I’m not convinced the camera is absolutely ‘rock solid’ reliable – hopefully the latest firmware improves the situation. I wouldn’t use the M9 exclusively for a wedding for instance.

The future

In the past year, some points above reinforced my view that the M9 was a ‘version 1′ digital full-frame product. Hopefully the new M model addresses many of these issues, and it ought to be revolutionary for the company. Improvements include:

  • The M’s battery capacity is doubled (with increased physical size and voltage).
  • The rear LCD screen is protected by Gorilla Glass.
  • Weather/dust sealing on bottom plate (tripod thread is also under the plate). Hopefully the plate removal method has been improved.
  • Live view support (will do away with Visoflex adapter) plus video (a by-product of the CMOS sensor)

It will be interesting to see images using the new CMOS sensor.

Hopefully the latest firmware bug fixes paves the way for the new entry-level ME model to be completely stable (since the M9 & ME are essentially the same camera).

10 images

To finish up, I’ll show a selection of images I shot with the M9 in the past year.

More on my flickr page.

Thanks for your visit.

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