Leica M9 - school
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Photos and review by Andrew Shieh, SmugMug Ops. Thanks to our friends at BorrowLenses.comfor supplying the gear for these reviews. 

Why did you rent the Leica M9 and 35 mm lens?

I’m impressed by the photos that my Leica-using coworkers have created, and I wanted to try something different from the traditional DSLR to see how it would affect the photos I take. My photography for the past two years has been all about our son, Hal. Most of my photos of him have been around chance occurrences, like the time he got tackled by a stuffed bear.

I knew that slow, Leica photography would be a complete 180 from my usual rapid-fire, ceiling-bounce-lit photos, but I was curious to try it.

What equipment do you usually shoot with?

• Sony NEX-7, most often with a minolta m-rokkor 40mm f/2 lens (Leica M-mount w/close focus adapter).

• Nikon D600, 50mm and 85mm lenses

• iPhone 5, using Camera Awesome

I’m quite happy with all of the gear above, as all of it fills my different family photography needs. However, I always enjoy experimenting with photography to expand my knowledge and experience.

  • Camera Awesome

    Camera Awesome

  • Nikon D600

    Nikon D600

  • Sony Nex-7

    Sony Nex-7

What did you like about this camera and lens combination?

The unique look of the output. The photos the Leica M9 produces have a distinct appearance reminiscent of film. When there was sufficient light, the photos out of the M9 were excellent.

Despite not having any hand grip and its dense, brick-like body, clicking the M9’s shutter is very satisfying and controlled. With the 35mm lens I was able to easily steady the camera for 1/10s shutter speeds. The physical feeling of the camera is excellent.

Focusing in low-light is simple and as easy as focusing in daylight. The downside of the rangefinder focusing is that you’re focusing in the center square only, and with narrow depth-of-fields, focus-and-recompose can lead to focus errors. Since I'm already familiar with how to manually focus Leica lenses, this was less of a problem.

The camera interface is simple like a point-and-shoot. Unlike today’s typical DSLR where you need to bury your head in the manual for a while to get it set up right, the M9 is ready to go right out of the box.

Was there anything about the Leica M9 that you didn't like?

The back LCD is a 2000-era relic which is nearly useless for evaluating photos on the camera. It's dark, grainy, and doesn't give an accurate depiction of the photo that was actually taken.

High-ISO performance is poor; ISO 1600 and up have too much color noise and loss, but are good for B&W. This means that when tracking a moving toddler under indoor lighting, not being able to use high ISO is nearly a dealbreaker -- even in the better-lit parts of our house, f/2 and ISO 1000 resulted in a 1/30 s shutter speed. With a similar amount of noise I could use ISO 3200 on my NEX-7 or ISO 6400 on my D600 to more successfully capture a busy toddler in motion indoors. If there’s one thing I would improve on the M9, ISO performance would be it.

Color quality out of camera was about as good as on my NEX-7, but worse than the D600. I couldn’t get consistently good color out of indoor photos shot RAW and processed in Aperture, though I would expect that I could adapt to this if I had more time with the M9.

Parallax offset from the viewfinder reminds me of my first film point-and-shoot.

Minimum focus distance is poor -- if your child makes a beeline to you when you have a camera in-hand, this is a big problem with all things Leica. Otherwise, the 35mm f/2 Leica lens is excellent, though in practice no better than my 1970s-era 40mm f/2 lens.

Would you use the Leica M9 again?

I wouldn’t rent the M9 again. It’s a camera that you need to live with, not borrow. I would recommend renting it only if you were considering buying it.

Currently I don’t think the M9 fits well with my photography needs, and wouldn’t buy it even at a steep discount. I understand its appeal, and I am interested in testing out the more recent Leica digital bodies.

The M9 is best suited for people who like slow, careful, available-light photography, who long for the era of film. It’s a camera that forces you to think about your photography.

Who's Andrew?

Andrew runs the Operations team at SmugMug, making SmugMug speedy and reliable for our customers. Like most new parents Andrew enjoys taking boatloads of baby photos and videos, but is too busy to process them.

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