Although I enjoy having suitable equipment as a photographer, after shooting for 20 years I am a little over the continuous reviewing and discussing of the pros and cons of each and every camera that comes to the market place. I think we would all agree that ideas and their communication are the most interesting aspect of photography regardless of the medium or tool employed to convey them.
Having made that statement I am now going to make a big exception. I suspect I am not alone in feeling that since giving up film cameras for the brave new world of digital capture there has always been a slight feeling of compromise and unease. Whilst I love the Canon DSLR's I have been using for my commercial work I have never really felt comfortable using them for my street photography, they have never fully replaced the Leica M6's that I used to employ on the streets...they are big, black and loud...and whilst the quality of their imagery is superb they represent a different way of working.
The NYC street photographer Gus Powell put it very well in his interview with Michael David Murphy on 2point8
"I do a lot of work with the digital camera but it's all for editorial or commercial clients. I have tried to make my own pictures in the street with the digital camera, and continue to try to, but for whatever reason, real or imagined, I end up feeling like a pedophile. Even if I am taking a picture of a tree and a trash can I feel like a creep with a big lens and a mirror flapping away. I am sure that eventually the equipment will move on and there will be some sort of rangefinder camera that will do the job"
Well, in my opinion, Gus's wish and that of many other street photographers has been answered in the last few months with the release by Leica of the 18mp full frame M9 rangefinder camera. I have lived with the M9 for a couple of weeks before making this statement because over the years I have tried many new digital cameras and it has taken time for me to work with them on the street and discover their little niggles and idiosyncrasies.
Lets first get out of the way the fact that this camera costs £5000 without a lens and very few of us can justify spending that much money on a camera. I am the first person to tell students that you don't need an expensive camera to make great street photographs and that is certainly the truth. Those of you who followed my trip around the world making pictures with a small Samsung cameraphone will know that I am sincere when I say that. Owning an M9 is not going to open your eyes, give you a new vision or great ideas.
I'm not going to talk about sensors or chips but I am going to tell you how nicely the small Leica body and 35mm f2 lens fits into the palm of your hand and how easily it zips up underneath your jacket so you can wear it hidden when you walk and travel and go about your day...and that is super important because street photographers need a camera that is going to fit seamlessly into their daily routine...if its too big or inconvenient you don't take it to the store when you go for bread and you miss the shot of the lady nibbling on her baguette (nearly wrote baps!) in the queue. The M9 is the only full frame digital camera that is small enough to pass the 'Turpin Jacket Zip up Test'.
The M9 feels like the film Leicas we used to use, its a smidgin deeper but you hardly notice...you do, however, notice badly the lack of a resting place for your thumb where the wind on lever used to be. But Match Technical have already provided for that.
I was fairly happy with the Leica M8 but even that felt like a compromise, the half frame chip (doh!) meant all my lenses were unfamiliar lengths and the 10mp sensor (doh!) didn't really provide me with file sizes I was comfortable with for exhibition print quality at a reasonable size (Lets not even mention the IR filters we had to attach to every lens we used with it). Each Raw file from the M9 is giving me 34.7 mb of picture information. The M8 did show promise especially in producing beautiful 'film like' images that made my Canon files look very 'digital' in comparison...the M9 has retained this quality, producing files that seem very forgiving with an apparently broad dynamic range. The images so far have been extremely sharp and detailed which is much more than I can say for the Canon 7D I tried for a month recently.
The M9 shutter release is very quiet indeed and would only be noticed in the quietest of locations, the motorised re-cocking of the shutter is somewhat louder but again it is only going to be heard in very serene surroundings...I took a photograph on the train this week and the gentleman across the aisle had no idea but the gentleman beside me did look up from his paper. The M9 allows you to delay the re-cocking noise by leaving your finger on the shutter release until you are able to release it more discretely.
Leica rangefinders have always been excellent in low light situations, the lack of a mirror box firing reducing the vibration caused by the actual act of releasing the shutter. The M9 has taken this even further with a selectable 'soft' mode which releases the shutter electronically with the slightest touch on the release, the kind of touch that normally just brings the cameras metering to life. This is a great advantage over the fingertip stab needed to release the shutter of the M range of film cameras. In Switzerland last week I made images in a dark hotel foyer handheld at 1/6th of a second.
Even in the street at night the M9 gives one the confidence to tackle difficult subjects at slow shutter speeds.
The M9 is not perfect, it only allows 7 images to be recorded in succession before hitting the buffer, the lcd screen is a poor resolution and slow to render images but it is now viewable in bright light outdoors which the M8's wasn't. For me, however, the biggest problem is its high value, I actually feel a little nervous taking it out on the streets and am very nervous about taking it to places like Sau Paulo, Mexico City and Mumbai for a project I have planned this year...with a lens attached it is £7000 worth in a very small package and that makes me very anxious.
There is currently no other camera this small, quiet and discreet that can deliver this sort of image quality and file size. If it weren't for the high purchase price it would be the perfect street camera.
Overall I feel like I have lived through a short drought, one that the various compacts and DSLR's I've tried have not quenched. The Leica M9 feels like the camera I can take forward and make great pictures with again, I feel like I can stop looking for the perfect street tool and get back to the grind of actually communicating my ideas and shooting my projects. And that is a relief.
Normal non 'Gear Head' service will resume shortly.