One year with Leica’s M9

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.

The M9, a familiar friend in the hand.
The M9, a familiar friend in the hand.

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.

Contrevoz, France 2010 from 'The French'
Contrevoz, France 2010 from 'The French'

Grenoble, France 2010 from 'The French'
Grenoble, France 2010 from 'The French'

Lac du Bourget, France, 2010 from 'The French'
Lac du Bourget, France 2010 from 'The French'

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.

Le Touquet, France 2010 from 'The French'
Le Touquet, France 2010 from 'The French'

Le Touquet, France 2010 from 'The French'
Le Touquet, France 2010 from 'The French'

Le Touquet, France 2010 from 'The French'
Le Touquet, France 2010 from 'The French'

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?

1 year old Leica M9 backplate with disintegrating lettering.
1 year old Leica M9 backplate.

Shutter speed dial showing paint loss.
Shutter speed dial showing the paint loss.

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.

14 thoughts on “One year with Leica’s M9”

  1. Another way to look at the decrease in value over time would take into account the amount of pictures taken. The per/picture calculation – as one will pay less for a car with greater mileage on its motor. I assume, that you shoot way more pics with the M9 compared to the M6.
    But in any case, if you feel, your M9 is already unsellable, please tell me, for how much you would sell it to me! :)

  2. If I look at mine (black), I’m always slightly depressed that it does not have the black chrome finish.

    I would have been happily willing to pay the additional price for black chrome instead of paint they offer in the a la carte program for the MP/M7…

  3. oops! I muddled the previous post, can you please replace it with this one. I had just written a note to a friend regarding Leica, he is considering an M9, when another good friend, a true Leica lover of over 30 years sent me your link. He has also gone off Leica for the quality reasons. He has a brand new M9 that did not work, right out of the box! Maybe Leica send their seconds to New Zealand :)

    “The trouble appears to be the technical aspects of digital against the mechanical MP version.
    I bought the M8 in 2007 and the light meter didn’t work and then sold it to a friend last year and it was then small things began to go wrong. Nothing to do with the image mind you.
    I bought the M9 in 2009 and it was all okay until I started getting black frames, far too often for my liking, so back it went, it was the sensor. Got it back and the same thing! Bugger. Now it’s working just fine. Emily has sent her, my old M8, to germany for a full overhaul and it should be like a new camera, fingers crossed. Now photographers are finding that the M8 is a great camera, especially for B&W, go figure. But the images we get are stunning, it is a whole different way of working. It takes time and then become totally addictive. So there you have it. Of course when I post a piece like this on a Leica Stroker web site they simply ignore it :) It is a great camera system for all that. Hope that helps :) cheers, Richard.”

  4. Hi Nick,
    Looking through your work (via Balcony Jump) I had an inkling that your France project was shot on an M9. Something about the quality and the feel of the images struck me as familiar being a user of this camera myself for 15 months. Your appraisal is spot on though I miss a comment about the frustrating wait to process successive images to the memory card resulting in a ‘dead’ camera after a few rapidly shot frames.
    My personal Leica history goes back to an M2 (and almost everything they produced in between) which in 35mm format has almost been my sole camera. They all look knackered from an aesthetic point of view, which for some enhances their value. Yet when it comes to the M9, mine suffers from exactly the same “wear and tear” as yours which is disappointing regardless of the cost. What has to be born in mind is that these cameras are not manufactured with the serious professional in mind. They are a luxury market item and are marketed as such. Leica has long conveniently forgotten that their reputation was entirely built upon iconic photographers of the HCB, Winogrand, Frank & co. Black paint doesn’t rub off when a camera is kept in the display cases and pristine camera bags of the occasional user for whom the product is ultimately destined. There will inevitably be an ‘M10’ or whatever comes next. Inevitably it will be even more expensive and for the likes of me at least, likely unaffordable.
    My M2 will outlive the M9 easily and I suppose one could say that it was the best buy I ever made considering that it must have seen many thousands of films run through it. The M9, despite all it’s faults, will serve us both for a fair while to come and so we will just continue to make good use of it. I still get greater satisfaction from using a roll of Tri-X in any of my M’s but then I’m nostalgically old fashioned 😉
    I like your project.
    Happy shooting.

  5. Sorry Nick, but I think it is all fancy :). You could achieve the same results with a starter DSLR or an iPhone. Having said that, if someone gifted a M9, I wouldnt ever every say NO :)

  6. The white lettering coming off within a year sounds like a defective product. I would contact Leica whether it’s under warranty or not.

  7. Think it’s worth saying, that unless the actual ‘innards’ of this camera fail (being electronic after all!) then I can’t imagine ever needing to sell it anyway.

    It seems completely future proof for its main projected use, that of street photography, so unless you really can’t live without ‘the next best tech’ I really wouldn’t be too concerned at all about things like resale value.

    I’d suggest the best re-sale of a product like this, would be to pass on to a next generation. Keep it in the family! I’m pretty certain it will be worth its weight in gold for many generations to come.

    P.S – I sooooo want one :)

  8. I have two M9s. Using Leica is like using crack cocaine, you think you shouldn’t, but a friend let’s you try some and before you know it you’re addicted. The only upside is that Leica doesn’t damage your health, only your bank balance.

    Anyhow, whilst I haven’t had issues with paint fading, my first M9 had to go back for repairs after 12 months as the rangefinder had gone out of whack, so focusing was no longer accurate. The only logical thing to do was buy another one to tide me over while they fixed it. However, the second one is the grey version and needs to be treated with great care because the paint marks very easily.

    My observation is that having owned an MP for a couple of years the M9 is nowhere near as robust or well made. Leica are investing to much time going down the designer brand route and really need to focus on producing a camera that you can rely on and can take a bit of beating out in the field.

    The fact that I bought a second M9 is telling though. I have a D700 which I feel is one of the best cameras ever made. Pound for pound it murders the M9, yet it’s the M9 that I take everywhere with me. It’s a lovely thing to have in your hands, but the fact that it is manual focus, discreet and uses such amazing glass is what wins me over. I really didn’t want to go without for the couple of months it took to fix the first one.

    For me the M10 needs to deliver more pixels (not essential, but that’s the way of the world), significantly improved low light performance, better build quality and the screen at the back really should be sapphire glass like the M8.2. After that I’m not sure what else Leica need to do. Hopefully there will be an upgrade offered for the M9.

  9. Well your requests for the saphire screen and the more robust finish of the M8.2 have been answered with the M9P for an extra £500 bringing the cost up to £5500. I bought an M8 second hand for £1599, about £300 more than my 7D cost earlier in the year. I think £1500 is what the M9P should cost new. Let’s face it, you can buy a new Volkswagon Polo for the cost of an M9P and a 35mm Summilux. Leica have really survived buy selling overpriced vanity cameras and special editions for collectors for years and they can’t kick the habit with their unreliable digital Ms. I sincerely hope that with the success of the Fuji X100 proving that a Japanese manufacturer can sell a quality rangefinder-like retro compact for £1000, still 40% less than a Leica X1, that they take the next logical step and make a new full frame digital rangefinder. If they can keep the price south of £1700 / $2000 has an M-mount and no AA filter it will sell by the boatload. People that buy cameras for photography can then get a Canon/Nikon and the Leica strokers and collectors can buy the ludicrously priced offerings and gold dodo skin limited editions from Solms.

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