It’s 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 particular in the shooting of my current project The French which is completely shot on the Leica M9.
Having used Leica M series rangefinders since 1997 I am very familiar with what to expect from them and the M9 has delivered on my expectations in most ways. The camera has given me the confidence to initiate a major personal project and 1 year in, I am extremely happy with the way it has performed in the hand on the street and very much with the picture results it has produced. I have travelled with it around France and have felt comfortable using it in crowds and intimate public situations, it is as quiet and as unthreatening as its predecessors which gives me the confidence to raise it to my eye and make images in many situations I wouldn’t have with a Canon or Nikon DSLR.
In practice a digital M camera has some advantages and some disadvantages over its film forerunners, the main advantage I see is that I can leave the house with three tiny memory cards and three batteries and shoot a huge story, if I am in town and a major news event occurs I could photograph it until the following morning or beyond. Three batteries and three 16gb cards give me something like 2400 frames, which to put that in perspective would be about 66 rolls of film. The main disadvantage of the digital M9 is probably the life of the batteries and the speed with which they die without warning, this can lead to the ultimate Street Photographers nightmare where you put the camera to your eye, push the button and nothing happens. The second problem I have is that the camera may be set to be permanently ‘on’, but this setting will drain the batteries if you forget to turn it off, if you select the ‘auto off’ setting, then you find that you need to bring the camera to life before exposing a frame by gently touching the shutter release. This is not a big problem because you get used to waking the camera as part of your set up for a shot in the same way that you did to meter a shot with a film M series machine….but it can take getting used to.
The main education of the last 12 months has been in the fantastic sharp image quality from the M9 and the development that can bring to your Street Photography. Once you have seen those big detailed files on your monitor you are filled with confidence in making bigger, wider, busier pictures because you know the files can hold it. A year later I am still amazed at the picture information gathered by this little camera, the combination of high image quality and small physical size is inspiring. During my travels round France I have been taking advantage of the M9’s detailed files and standing back from the scenes I am photographing, building up the scenes, letting more and more action fill the frame because I know I can get away with it, I would have needed at least a 6×7 negative to get this amount of information on film. The M9 trounces its film forerunners for sharpness, detail and sheer information resolving power.
The camera has performed well in low light and even night situations where I have been able to hand hold it down to an eighth of a second reliably. Walking at night in Le Touquet in Northern France, I found a number of situations I wanted to make images of and the small M9 did a very respectable job of all three.
If your camera of choice does one thing then it should be to instil confidence, you need to know you can rely on it to perform both physically and optically. As a companion around France so far it has been exemplary and I have always felt that I could reliably attempt to record anything I saw. The project so far has cost me quite a bit in petrol, hotels and days not working commercially, not to mention the time I have committed to it…..this would all have been wasted had I chosen the wrong camera. As it is, the work will be shown at the Eurostar Terminal at St Pancras station, the departure point for France by train, in July 2011.
I have left my most major concern about Leica’s M9 until last and that is because it doesn’t affect my work as a photographer with the machine but it is more of a concern in terms of the camera as an investment financially. The M9 is not the investment proof camera that its film predecessors were. I sold my 5 year old Leica M6’s for two thirds of the price I paid for them new but I know that is not going to be the case with my equally expensive M9 and this is for two reasons. The first is that the cameras specifications and chip will become outdated and surpassed much more quickly than the film cameras feature set did and this is a big problem for a camera that costs this much. When you buy an M9 you know the arrival of the M10 is going to decimate its value much more than the M7 did to the M6.
The second reason is that the M9 is simply not built to the high quality of its film forerunners, I have had mine for 12 months from new and with only moderate and careful use it is already losing its lettering and numbering. This has nothing to do with it being digital but it does cause more problems for a camera with so many black buttons. Who will buy a second hand M9 when you can’t tell what the buttons do because the paint has worn off?
I always justified the cost of these cameras by their quality and in many ways the M9 is a quality camera but I also justified their high price tag by the knowledge that they would hold their value and their sale would contribute to my next camera. I fear that unlike Leica’s lenses, the M9 is not going to retain its value and that is a big worry for me and for Leica. When I sold my 5 year old M6 cameras the lettering on them was still perfect and they went round the world with me. The M9 has just been around France in 1 year and it is already beginning to look unsellable because of the lettering paint loss. This problem makes the M9 a questionable purchase even for a professional photographer like myself, and its one that you could not really have imagined when you stood in the shop and bought it. You need to live with a camera to really review it accurately and that’s why I decided to add this post to my original excited review of 12 months ago.