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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.

Full Frame Leica M9 rangefinder

Full Frame Leica M9 rangefinder

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.

m92

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.

Handheld at 1/6th second using the M9's 'soft' mode shutter release.

Handheld at 1/6th second using the M9's 'soft' mode shutter release.

Even in the street at night the M9 gives one the confidence to tackle difficult subjects at slow shutter speeds.

1/4 second handheld using continuous shooting mode.

1/4 second handheld using continuous shooting mode.

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.

'England expects every man will do his duty' taken on the Leica M9

England expects every man will do his duty.

Detail of Leica M9 image at 400 iso

Detail of Leica M9 image at 400 iso

Further detail of Leica M9 image at 400 iso

Further detail of Leica M9 image at 400 iso

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.

19 Responses to “The Leica M9, perfect street camera?”

  1. The Leica M9, perfect street camera? | Street Photography by Guido Steenkamp

    […] Nick Turpin summarizes his Street Photography experience using the Leica M9 in his latest blog post. […]

  2. Ulrich

    Hey, nice, congrats on the M9. The first full frame digital rangefinder camera body for not more than EUR 2000 will be mine regardless of brand :-D

  3. jacques philippe

    Perfect except for the price… well indeed that could summarize quite correctly.

    I never had a M9 in hand and sure I would love to have one. But frankly I don’t understand the price for that thing… You pay more than twice the price of a Nikon D700 that has way lot of more technology in it. The M9 is probably great and does not need the hightech stuffs you have on DSLR for sure. But most of what is in it (rangefinder, mount, shutter, body…) is long long time proven – as great as it is. And it even comes with a not-so-nice LCD ! What was the real cost of development for the M9 ? I am fine with that. Indeed the beauty of it is in its simplicity, but then why such a price ? Also why including a license for Lightroom (assuming you don’t have it for free) ? Do you really think the kind of serious photographer who could be interested in it to make serious pictures would start with no software at all ? now maybe the wealthy people that would buy it find it cool to have it… which comes to my point : what is the market for such an item ? I doubt that it is marketed for a handful of passionate and demanding street photog (who would praise its convenience over DSLRs but won’t dare to bring it in unsecure places, what an irony…).

    Now OK it is Leica’s business but frankly that’s crazy.

  4. Richard

    At the risk of opening a can of worms… how would you compare the value of a ‘near-perfect but obscenely priced’ camera like the M9 to a ‘far from perfect but still lots of fun’ film camera like a 1960s Olympus Trip that can be had for under £20 on Ebay these days?

    The ‘Trip’ has no ambition to make images you can blow up to the size of a billboard, but with more conservative enlargements for me it ticks all the boxes for street photography… small enough to be discrete, tough, quiet, and very fast to use.

    As you said, even a ‘perfect’ camera won’t see the shot for you, so maybe ‘technical perfection’ is entirely the wrong criteria to be judging street cameras by?

  5. Paul

    I am as guilty as the next man of getting drawn into these ridiculous discussions about prohibitively expensive luxury bits of gear being the answer to our prayers and also being (hopelessly) tempted by them… that is until the next, even more expensive Leica M10 comes along…

    But I for one would love to see a ‘camera death match’ website where we challenge each other over a weekend or whatever and compare photos taken by the Olympus Trip (which by the way is a great camera) or some other cheap camera with those taken by the Leica M9 to show us the futility of it all…

    Of course you’d have to give the Trip owner an extra week to get the film devved and scanned but I think it’d probably be worth the wait ;)

  6. John Maloof

    I just went through a similar problem searching for the right digital street camera to fit my needs. I recently sold my M8 because I feared that the M9 would devalue it and I wanted full frame. I went with the Sony A850 which is currently the most affordable full frame digital camera at around $2000 retail. Downside…it’s big. But, like most of us, if I could afford the M9 it would be a no-brainer.

  7. Predator

    I think that the m9 is not the perfect street camera, m9 is very expensive and you have better results on a m7, m6 or any film camera.
    I prefer, actually, the film

  8. Nick

    @jacques philippe I actually agree with you, it is difficult to see why the Leica’s cost so much more than slr’s or dslr’s…if anything they seem to have less parts. I guess the fact that they are bought by a small number of people compared to the millions that by a Canon or Nikon means they have to charge that much for it to be viable. I understand they have only made around 4000 units so far which kind of puts it in perspective. I wouldn’t own one unless I was a street photographer.

    @Richard It depends what you call ‘value’, and it depends what kind of pictures you want to take. I want a camera that only takes soft or vignetted pictures when I ask it to…cameras like the Holga that have a built in ‘look’ due to poor build quality don’t interest me because every picture you take with them looks the same and says more about the camera used than the subject of the picture, same with a lot of Polaroid cameras. I don’t think I have emphasised ‘technical perfection’ in my post about the M9 I think I have mostly recommended it for its small size, silent operation and discreetness. I am sure I would have fun with an Olympus trip though.

    @Paul Love your ‘camera death match’ idea! I am sure an M10 will be along in the future if Leica survive long enough to make it. The thing about the M9 is that it crosses a file size threshold that allows me to print for the gallery wall and use the files from it for a 48 sheet poster if I wanted too. If you can give an Ad agency production guy a sharp A3 file at 300dpi he can do virtually anything with it. The Canon 1dsMkII was the first camera I owned that could do this and that was when I ditched film photography. An M10 with a bigger file size wouldn’t necessarily make me buy it for this reason.

    @John Maloof I don’t know the Sony range very well John but I’ve heard good things. The size issue is a big one, I still took street shots with my Canon DSLR’s but they were a different kind of picture becasue I felt a little like Gus Powell describes in my post above.

    @Predator “m9 is very expensive and you have better results on a m7, m6 or any film camera” Er…no this statement is just plane wrong I’m afraid…No 35mm film camera can render the detail and information of even an 8mp DSLR especially at higher iso’s. The only area in which you might be right is in tonality especially in rendering skin tones.

  9. Ulrich

    I use a Zeiss Distagon 2/28 on my 5D (not Mark II) having the 5D since 2006. Significantly better dynamic range and image quality needs still to be proven by digital competition. Although plain numbers don’t tell all in this context, here is just a small comparison with focus on image quality (see dxomark or dpreview websites for more details)

    D700 12.1 MP, 1.4 MP/cm2 density
    5D 12.7 MP, 1.5 MP/cm2 density

    5DMkII 21 MP, 2.4 MP/cm2 density
    M9 18 MP, 2.1 MP/cm2 density

    Given that the 5D dominates image quality since 2005 I am not too impressed by what Leica did so far in this area. I wonder why one should spend money on a ‘me too’ product when the next leap in image quality is already on the horizon for less.

    Speaking about money, I paid 3.150 Euro for the 5D and the Distagon while a M9 + Summicron-M 2/28 would cost 8.700 Euro. If I spent that much for a smaller, more silent camera it would bother me to see that better image quality is available elsewhere for less than half the price. That said, the 5D was already there when the M8 came out. Now look at how long the M8 was on the market until the M9 came out and guess how long it stays until an M10. Ridiculous.

    I guess it depends on priorities, whether small size, silent operation and hand made quality counts more than image quality and sustainability.

  10. Predator

    “”Er…no this statement is just plane wrong I’m afraid…No 35mm film camera can render the detail and information of even an 8mp DSLR especially at higher iso’s””

    I don’t agree with you, sorry.

  11. Leica M8 Black SLR Body Only Reviews

    […] 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 … The M9 is probably great and does not need the hightech stuffs you have on DSLR for sure. But most of what is in it (rangefinder, mount, shutter, body…) is long long time proven – as great as it is. …Read more… […]

  12. Andrew H

    I always enjoy real world user reviews, and this is no exception.
    This is exceptional on the basis that there is no way I can afford an M9, so your report on the experience is all the more interesting.
    Even if I could buy one, like Nick I would findthe cost of the M9 a deterrent to general use, such as street photography. I would find the camera’s value inhibiting my freedom and ease of use.
    I well remember my fear in first using the £3.5k Nikon D1, which was worth far more than my (well used)company car!
    As Leica’s have always been expensive cameras from way back, I’d be curious to know if the cost of the M9 is relatively the same as say, an M3 was in it’s day?

    “Normal non ‘Gear Head’ service will resume shortly.” Nothing wrong with being a gear head. Try being a photographer without gear….

  13. Paul

    Seems like there are pros and cons to each. Without AF, this could be a detriment to those who do not have an easy time focusing in low light situations. Also, it takes only fixed lenses, right? Some of us like the capability to be a bit more spontaneous from a distance with a zoom, and sacrifice a bit of the clarity. Yes, I know, HCB with his normal (50mm) lens might be rolling in his grave, but whatever works for each shooter.

    As fine as Leica images have been historically, I still feel that there is the Leica name and status you are paying for, similar to fashionistas who are selective about their labels. As the worn-out cliche goes: it’s just a tool.

    Now, after saying all of that, the image quality of what you posted does look mighty good.

  14. Spyro

    Ha! Enjoy, I’m jealous. I’d love one too, if nothing else for the simple fact that it looks good, feels good and sounds good. Small, quiet, discreet, these things also make sense for street work (but so does a Lumix LX3). To be honest though I’m a bit surprised to hear a street photographer talk about megapixels. That was new.

    Anyway whatever works.
    Enjoy!

  15. Lainer

    I just bought a used M8.2 with a 35mm Summicron. I was on the list for a M9, but being that it was a long wait, and I’ve never tried a rangefinder digital Leica before, I thought I’d try the M8.2 before plunking down 7K. (I’ve also never owned a Leica film camera before, and I actually thought about getting a used M6 or M7 instead, but because I am mostly into digital now, I chose the M8.2). Did I make the right choice? Well, I compromised on sensor size. I wish it was full frame. I was actually thinking of getting the D700 body instead to keep up with my Nikon gear, but I wanted something much smaller, with high quality, and silent for street shooting, and general portraits, (in the style of HCB).

    There’s a lot of quirkiness in the Leica digital. It’s aggravating at times due to being spoiled by D-SLRs and point & shoot digital cameras. I do notice a difference in sharpness and film like qualities though. The M8.2 produces files that are film-like. I am not a techno-geek, but I can’t explain the difference. It’s very haunting sometimes. I do notice more noise in my Nikon, but I’m sure as I raise the ISO past 1250 on the Leica, there’s a lot of noise and the nikon would be better, especially with the newer D700 body.

    Anyway, I’m still up in the air about this whole rangefinder thing. I love the bright viewfinder, but hate the slow file writing. I prefer the menus on the Nikon, but that could be because I know the system more. I do think there is a difference between how the files look coming out of each camera. The Leica is crisper. It almost reminds me of slide film.

    Is it worth that much money though? Uhm, I don’t think so, in retrospect. It’s not full frame, and it was more expensive than the D700 body, and that’s me buying a Leica used, albeit in mint condition.

    I’m sure the files are even better on the M9. I just wish that Leica would lower prices and refine their line a bit. Make a body like a CL but digital? I don’t know. Something cheaper. The X1 would have been perfect if you could change a lens on it and use it manually.

    With all that said, I’m still liking the Leica very much. It’s a different way of shooting, simplified, but with more thinking, like the old film days.

  16. George

    I sold my M7 and M4p; my film slrs; and got rid of my B&W darkroom. I have switched to digital-well except I can’t find a suitable camera for street photography. My wants are simple: small, optical VF, no shutter lag, 35mm lens, aps size sensor or larger, and affordable-say, under $3000 US dollars. So far the closest I’ve come to that is the Ricoh GRD3 which has a small sensor, a 28mm lens, but and external VF available and a snap focus setting that allow zone focusing and no shutter lag. About $800 US.

    It has been out about a year so I’m going to wait until the next version in hope that it has a larger sensor.

  17. Ulrich

    I wrote: “I guess it depends on priorities, whether small size, silent operation and hand made quality counts more than image quality and sustainability.”

    Just back to report that the mirror fell off my 5D effectively ruining my photography plans for weeks. So here you are, I will give Leica a chance now.

  18. danielk

    http://kenrockwell.com/leica/m9/sharpness-28mm.htm

  19. sevensevennine.com | nick turpin on street photography » Blog Archive » One year with Leica’s M9

    […] almost 12 months since I picked up my shiny brand new Leica M9 and wrote my first review of it here on sevensevennine . This is a brief update to that review having used the camera in earnest on the streets and in […]

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