Leica M9 Review

 
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Basic Specifications
Full model name: Leica M9 / M9-P
Resolution: 18.00 Megapixels
Sensor size: 35mm
Kit Lens: n/a
Viewfinder: Optical / No LCD
ISO: 80-2500
Shutter: 32-1/4000
Max Aperture: n/a
Dimensions: 5.5 x 3.1 x 1.5 in.
(139 x 80 x 37 mm)
Weight: 21.3 oz (605 g)
includes batteries
MSRP: $8,000
Availability: 09/2009
Manufacturer: Leica
18.00
Megapixels
Leica M bayonet 35mm
size sensor
image of Leica M9 / M9-P
Front side of Leica M9 / M9-P digital camera Back side of Leica M9 / M9-P digital camera Top side of Leica M9 / M9-P digital camera Left side of Leica M9 / M9-P digital camera Right side of Leica M9 / M9-P digital camera

M9 Review Summary: One of the few real rangefinders on the market, the Leica M9 is a little more challenging to shoot with than most other digital cameras. With a manual focus lens and a choice of Manual and Aperture-priority exposure modes, it's not for the point & shoot set. But if you take the time, the Leica M9 will challenge your photography and turn out high-quality images, with a uniquely film-like, almost three-dimensional look to them.

Pros: Excellent image quality, with unique film-like "Leica look"; No-nonsense controls; Solid build; Good print quality.

Cons: Difficult to focus in low light; High default contrast and saturation; Manual focus only; Lack of low-pass filter can leave moiré and other artifacts.

Price and availability: Pricing for the Leica M9 is on the order of US$7,000, and the camera started shipping in September 2009, in black and steel grey. The Leica M9-P variant reviewed here was announced in June 2011, and is available in a classic silver chrome or black paint finish, for about US$8,000. The Summilux-M 50mm f/1.4 Aspherical lens reviewed with the camera is available for around US$4,000.

Imaging Resource rating: 4.5 out of 5.0

Leica M9-P Review

by Shawn Barnett, with Mike Tomkins
Review Posted: 02/20/2012

We've had a few requests over the years for a Leica digital camera review. Since we're pretty much always behind, and the volume of Leica purchases through our site is quite low, we've always put it off. We have always been curious how well a Leica M8 or M9 would do, and see the value of such a review to our readers, but time has always kept it from happening. Until January 2012, when a lull in the lab left us wondering what to test before the next round of CES cameras arrived. So we quickly got a loaner from Leica and put it through its paces in the lab.

Knowing that Leica cameras are owned by a different breed of photographer and hobbyist, I want to warn existing Leica owners that I won't quite see the camera the way a Leica or rangefinder shooter will. I will see it as most modern camera users would. Even though I've shot with an Olympus XA and a few other rangefinder cameras over the years, most of my shooting has been with film SLRs, and later with digicams and digital SLRs, so my experience with pure rangefinders is limited. As for focusing manually, I haven't done much since I bought my first EOS camera back in the early 1990s. I made that switch from Olympus to Canon primarily because I just couldn't see well enough to focus with a split prism. I needed the aid of an autofocus system.

This review is directed primarily to digital camera hobbyists who may never own a Leica, but who might aspire to. In order to give the Leica M9-P its due, I would need at least four months, if not a year. Leica is not interested in loaning me an $8,000 camera and $4,000 lens for that duration, however, and I doubt Dave would like my time thus occupied, so my brief experience will have to suffice.

Leica M9. We reviewed the black Leica M9-P, but this is what the silver M9 looks like.

What would take me longer is learning the controls by heart, so that turning the dials became second nature. On my last outing, that started to happen. I instinctively knew which direction to turn the aperture and shutter speed dials to answer the red arrows inside the viewfinder, and it became more obvious where the focus ring was, and which direction I needed to turn it to bring the two images together. If you've never shot a rangefinder camera, I'll need to explain that bit a little further down.

My first trip out I had the ambition to also bring along the Sony NEX-7. Probably foolishly, I thought it would be interesting to see if there really was something special about Leica cameras and lenses that would show up when compared to one of the most popular and unique contenders on the market. In the end, a better comparison would have been between another full-frame camera, as the Leica Summilux-M 50mm f/1.4 lens easily outdid the Sony 30mm f/3.5 Macro in terms of bokeh and brightness.

It was shooting them side-by-side, though, that was my biggest mistake, necessary though it was. Having to attend to both cameras, with noticeably different focal lengths and user interfaces was hard enough, but made more difficult because the Leica really required all of my attention just to get a shot in focus and properly exposed, not to mention framed the way I wanted; matching a shot with the NEX-7 was even harder. Indeed, because the Sony moved in 1/3 stop increments and the Leica in 1/2 stop, for both aperture and shutter speed, it wasn't easy to match exposures even when I resorted to shooting both in Manual mode.

Leica M9-P Sony NEX-7
It's pretty difficult to see in these thumbnails, so I ask you to commit to enlarging the images. You can see the various difficulties in making the comparison, including framing, exposure, and aperture. Still, the Leica image looks a little more luscious to my eye. Your opinion will vary. There are more examples below the review.

Despite these difficulties, I think I see some difference in the images, as the Leica shots seem to pop a little more, with better contrast. But the variables are so plentiful, from tone curves to optics to sensor size, relative resolution, and processing, that it's only of minor interest; it's not science at all. Please take it as only an attempt to see the unseeable.

What it is. The Leica M9-P is a camera hand-built in Germany with a manual rangefinder focusing system and a digital sensor. Its predecessors have inspired several generations of camera makers around the globe, and the M9 continues to do so even now. Focus is manual. Exposure is either manual or Aperture-priority. It is expensive. It is heavy. It is primitive in a no-nonsense way that is also beautiful. The Leica M9-P uses an 18-megapixel Kodak sensor with an ISO range of 80-2,500. It has a 2.5-inch LCD and accepts M-mount lenses.

What it isn't. The Leica M9-P is not your grandfather's Leica. It is not clinging to the past for no good reason (though it is tempting to think so). It seems repetitive to echo the items in the above paragraph, but it's important for emphasis: It does not autofocus. There is no Program, Shutter Priority, or Green Zone mode--and there are no Scene modes. It is not cheap, light weight, or flashy. It is not great for snapshots of children. The M9-P version that we reviewed avoids ostentation by omitting the bright red dot on the front and all other pretense, primarily to make the camera appear less expensive to thieves, though in reality it costs $1,000 more than the M9.

Ultimately the Leica M9-P is a difficult camera to use, despite its simplicity. Sometimes downright frustrating. But with practice, you can reap benefits that you wouldn't get with any other camera.

Walkaround. As I said, the Leica M9 and 50mm lens are a heavy combination weighing in at 2.35 pounds (37.6 ounces; 1,066g). The silver version of the lens alone weighs over a pound (16.93 ounces; 480g) with front and rear caps included. Interestingly, if you check retailers and even Leica's own web site, the lens is said to weigh only 11.8 ounces (335g), just like the older lenses of this type, but our triple-beam and digital scales here are quite well calibrated, and they match. Turns out the black version of the lens is lighter. The M9's body dimensions are fairly large too, at 5.5 x 3.1 x 1.5 inches (139 x 80 x 37mm). Though it's heavy, it feels great in the hand, and the solid lens balances the camera well.

Probably the most interesting side of the Leica M9-P is the front, at least for those unfamiliar with rangefinders. Across the top plate are three windows, and each contributes to the rangefinder mechanism. Furthest right is the main optical Viewfinder. You look through this optic to frame your images. The semi-translucent window that's one step smaller to its left is responsible for providing light to the bright framing elements in the optical viewfinder, or as Leica named it, it's the Bright Line Frame Illumination Window. You can use these to loosely frame your image. As you turn the focus ring to closer subjects, the Bright Line frame moves diagonally downward to the right to compensate for parallax error. Furthest left is the Rangefinder Window. This sees only a small slice out of the center of the image. Much like our eyes triangulate to help our brains judge depth, the rangefinder triangulates to set the lens's focus distance. Rather than looking down at the scale on the lens and guessing, the rangefinder, responding to the turning of the lens ring, fairly accurately finds the range for you, essentially using mirrors.

What's missing from the front view of the Leica M9-P is the famous red dot indicating that this is a Leica, as well as the M9 logo, both of which appear on the less-expensive M9. The Leica dot would cover the black screw just left of the Bright Line Frame Illumination Window. The small round window upper left of this screw is the Brightness Sensor, which measures ambient light to adjust the brightness of the viewfinder LEDs and to roughly estimate the current lens aperture by comparing it to the light meter's readings.

Also on the front you'll find the lens release button on the right of the lens mount (the left in this photo), and a unique adjustment lever that switches between wide and telephoto framing guides. In the center it shows two sets of brackets, one for 50mm and one for 75mm. Moved left it frames for a 28mm and a 90mm lens, moved right for 35mm and a 135mm lens. Its default position is set as you mount each lens, so you don't need to change it in use.

On the bayonet mount there's a relatively new feature called the Lens Identification Sensor, which enables the Leica M9-P to know which lens is attached, and correct for residual corner falloff not resolved by the sensor's offset microlenses. New lenses have the 6-bit Lens Identification Barcode built in, as shown above right, but older lenses can be retrofitted with a pattern for greater compatibility with the Leica M9.

Here you'll find the only obvious indications, other than the markings on the bottom plate, that this is a Leica M9-P. The retro Leica logo is not included on the M9, but is quite prominent on the M9-P. The model number is engraved on the right side of the hot shoe, and the serial number is stamped on the left. Right of that you'll find the Shutter speed dial, the shutter release button (with a screw hole for a mechanical cable release), and the surrounding power switch. Here you set the Drive mode, including Self-timer, Continuous, Single, and Off.

The remaining controls are pretty simple. The optical viewfinder is the upper left corner. Four arrows on the right provide menu and image navigation, while selections are made with the Set button on the left. The center dot is not a button, and does nothing. The dial surrounding the Four-way navigator can set EV compensation, whose adjustment level appears in the optical viewfinder in red LEDs. Because the Leica M9 doesn't have matrix metering, you'll be using Exposure Compensation a lot if you choose to shoot in Aperture Priority mode. The dial also helps move through menus more quickly, and serves as a zoom control in Playback mode.

The 2.5-inch LCD screen on the back of the Leica M9-P sports a scratch-resistant sapphire crystal cover. Leica says this sapphire crystal is so hard that it "can only be worked with special diamond-cutting tools." So I suppose it's only vulnerable to scratches if you have long diamond necklaces or diamond buttons on your shirt. Good to know. It's this part of the Leica M9-P that warrants the extra $1,000 on the price tag over the M9.

The LCD is strictly for using the Menu, reviewing photos, and viewing the camera's settings when you press the Info button. There is no Live View mode, as the sensor doesn't support it. The closest you get to that is looking through the optical viewfinder; my favorite kind of live view.

Another interesting nod to the past in the Leica M9-P is that you have to remove the bottom plate to change the SD card or battery. I remember chuckling when I first saw it, but some are apparently quite put off by it. It's not as difficult as you'd think. To replace it, just hook it at one end and turn the lock one quarter turn at the other. It works as well as every other control and cam on this extremely well-engineered camera. As for tripod work, provided you can turn the cam, you can just leave the plate in place and remove the entire camera to change batteries or cards while the camera plate remains in position. The only real danger is forgetting to put the plate back on when you head out to take shots, because the camera won't work without the plate in place.

Lens. Weighing more than a pound (yes, it bears repeating), the $4,000 Summilux-M 50mm f/1.4 Aspherical lens we received (not included in the camera's price) provides a "normal" view on the M9's full-frame sensor. Because there is no Live View and the user never looks through the lens, when you change the aperture, the blades move inside the lens and stay in position until you move them again. Just looking into the lens is astonishing. Rather than multiple size optics as we see in most zooms, it's just a big open expanse of glass all the way through. Hence the weight. Its all metal barrel is likely part of the equation as well, and all parts fit to extremely tight tolerances. Focus is smooth and aperture adjustments are crisp. It feels like a four-thousand-dollar lens for sure. For a full-frame lens, it's also very compact.

A black finger grip protrudes from the bottom of the lens (see the photo above). At first it seems a bit of a nuisance, but I quickly learned that it helped tell me in just a moment whether the lens was focused near or far. Built into the lens we received is a lens hood that slides forward and locks open with a turn to the right.

The Leica M9 accepts most Leica M lenses built to date, and thanks to the full-frame sensor, all of these lenses will offer the same field of view as they would with a traditional 35mm film camera body.

Our mini-crisis regarding the actual weight of the lens compared to the published weight led us to inspect the lens more closely. We noticed there were several different lenses with the same description depicted on different retail sites around the Web. In addition to our version having an external lens hood rather than one that nests internally, there's a little number engraved just right of the meter notation on the focusing ring. Ours said 14, but other lenses had 13 and 16. Turns out the lenses aren't 50mm. Instead they're 51mm plus a fraction. The little number indicates which fraction. Just put a decimal in the middle and add 50 to the number, and the number 14 indicates that our lens is 51.4mm long. The others are 51.3 and 51.6mm, respectively. We're not sure whether this varies within a given lot of the same design, or if it's locked to an entire run of the same lens.


Sensor. Using a Kodak KAF-18500 CCD image sensor with approximately the same dimensions as a frame of 35mm film, the Leica M9 takes over the crown as the smallest full-frame digital camera announced as of early September 2009. To accommodate the larger sensor area while minimizing issues with vignetting using wide-angle lenses, Kodak has used an offset microlens design. Thanks to its larger surface area, the Kodak KAF-18500 sensor offers the same 6.8µm pixel pitch as its M8 predecessor, but with an increased effective resolution of eighteen megapixels, up from ten megapixels in the previous cameras. Noise performance is said to have been improved since the previous generation cameras, and the Leica M9 includes a thicker and more effective IR cut filter that negates the need for extra IR filtering on the lens.

Leica has opted not to include a low-pass filter in the design of the M9, allowing for maximum resolution from attached lenses, but necessitating processing of images to automatically detect and remove moiré patterns.

Like the M8.2 before it, the Leica M9 uses a metal blade shutter design capable of offering shutter speeds ranging from 1/4,000 to 32 seconds, plus a bulb mode up to 240 seconds. ISO sensitivity ranges from 80 to 2,500 equivalents, exposure modes include Aperture-priority or Manual, and exposure metering is center-weighted. As well as its rangefinder, the Leica M9 includes a 2.5-inch LCD display with 230,000 dots of resolution.

The Leica M9 stores its images on Secure Digital cards, including the higher-capacity SDHC types. Images are stored in either .DNG RAW or JPEG file formats, and the M9 now offers both uncompressed and compressed DNG format options. Power comes courtesy of a 3.7V, 1,900 mAh lithium-ion rechargeable battery. The Leica M9 includes only USB 2.0 High-Speed data connectivity, with no video output included on the camera body.

Menus. The Leica M9's menu system is pretty simple. You press the Menu button on the right to bring it up. Then you navigate with either the wheel or the four buttons. Somewhat unintuitively, you use the set button on the left to make selections. It's not bad, though, once you get used to it. Setting ISO is simple too, though it takes two hands: just press and hold the ISO button on the left side, then you can use the arrows or the wheel to pick a new setting.

 

Shooting with the Leica M9-P

by Shawn Barnett, with Luke Smith

Narrow DOF. Prefocusing on a preoccupied kid is difficult. His eye is the most in-focus part, but it's still a little soft.

Focus. As I mentioned, I abandoned manual focus twenty years ago thanks to difficulty with my vision, and I haven't looked back. But I always thought rangefinders like my Olympus XA were a little easier to focus than split prism cameras. Despite its precision, though, the Leica M9-P gave me the most trouble when trying to focus indoors. Luke and Rob also had plenty of trouble in the lab. They came to the conclusion that the rangefinder image was offset from the viewfinder image by a small fraction vertically, which made it difficult to see when focus was achieved horizontally. Rob brought in one of his old Yashica rangefinders and found focus confirmation considerably better. My Olympus XA is also easier.

Cool, but soft. It's also underexposed, but adjusting levels in Photoshop makes a great 8x10. Note the football-shaped highlights in the background.

Focus becomes critical when shooting the Summilux-M at f/1.4, because the depth of field is extremely shallow at large apertures. While taking snapshots of the family around a restaurant table, I thought I was getting at least a few shots in focus, but it turned out nothing was tack sharp. The slightest motion of photographer or subject toward or away assured an out-of focus shot. I'd think I had it in focus, then one of us would move the tiniest bit and I could see it was out of focus. Focusing on an eye was very difficult, more so than the classic straight lines. It might have been due to the slight offset the guys in the lab saw, but I wasn't sure I ever saw this offset.

I ended up with some beautiful shots that are out of focus. The characteristics of the lens leave some beautiful bokeh, and the black and white mode is tuned for nice contrast.

Recomposed. I focused on the Graco label on the front of the third stroller, so my first shot had that centered. After chimping, I realized it wasn't the shot I wanted, so I took another in color, then in black and white. I'd need a really big card with the M9.

Using the Leica, I was reminded of the classic scene where the family gets impatient because Dad is taking so long with the camera. I was that Dad. Wait, I have to focus. Wait, the exposure's too dark. Wait, you moved, it's out of focus again. I'll confess, that still happens on occasion with other cameras, as I explore new features or just get used to a new interface. My poor family. But it happened a lot more with the Leica M9-P.

Still, as a person who loves cameras, I enjoyed shooting with such a simple, high-quality camera. Having to think a little before taking a shot is quite good. But it does lend itself to a certain kind of photography. Until you get very comfortable with the camera, you're not going to just raise the Leica M9 to your eye and fire off the perfect shot. You really do have to focus. And if you were set just right for a contemplative shot of a white car against a gray building, your exposure isn't going to be quite right for the shot of the man in the black suit stepping brusquely past the child curled up next to the city dumpster.

Retro. Love the old VW Bus next to the modern pizza place. Another quality German design that someone loved enough to maintain (I doubt it's digital, though).

These are the shots I think of when I consider the Leica M9, probably because so many great street photographers used and still use Leicas. I even think of myself in a T-shirt and jeans with a notebook, a pen, and a cigarette when I grab the M9. I've never smoked cigarettes (though many relatives did), but both the Leica and Olympus E-M5 have evoked this romantic vision. It reminds me of simpler times when we took time to do things like focus, enjoy a smoke, ride a motorcycle, or other, less fumy pastimes. The Leica M9 needs to you to start thinking like that, so it doesn't go well with our ever-faster-paced society. Unless you're wealthy enough to take some time. In which case, you should.

Fingers. The other major problem I had with the Leica M9 also had to do with the rangefinder system. I kept covering the rangefinder window with my finger. I did it mostly in vertical mode. Because there's no built-in grip, I usually turned the camera to the right, leaving my left fingers to work the focus. It's then that my grip shifted, placing my index fingers over the rangefinder window. It's not a flaw in the camera, really, it's just a fact that you'll quickly discover when you find you can't focus: You have to hold it differently.

Kids. All but Anna's eyes is out of focus in this shot. Though I have three kid shots here, the Leica M9 isn't the ideal child photography camera.

Sounds. Though somehow the Leica M9 is known for its quiet shutter, the shutter's cocking mechanism is anything but quiet. Press the shutter release and the shutter clicks, then you hear a sound much like a motorized drive advancing film. There are three different options to deal with this sound, one supposedly dampens the sound (though I noticed no difference), the second defers the sound until you release the shutter button, and the third both dampens the sound and defers the cocking until you release the button. As one who appreciated the shutterless exposure system of the Nikon J1 for discreet photography, I can't help wondering why they haven't made this mechanism more quiet.

Wish I had a few reflectors to illuminate the bike a little more, though a little dodging might do.

Multiples. I normally shoot multiple images of a subject. Despite my reliance on autofocus with most cameras, I've found that just like my eyes, I can't trust autofocus, so I always shoot at least two images to make sure I got the shot. If I really like the subject, I'll move around and make more. That practice paid off with the Leica M9-P. As I mentioned, focus was difficult, but so was exposure. Rather spoiled after years of matrix metering, I had to adjust back to Center-weighted metering and its usual pitfalls. That was where EV adjustment came in handy when I shot in Aperture priority, but I eventually just shot in Manual mode for better control.

I also often reshot the image to recompose. I'd often be so concentrated on focusing the lens accurately that I forgot composition, so I had to make another shot just to get a shot without the subject in the center. I normally recompose on the fly, but the M9 required more of my attention. And that big silver lens very often interfered in my efforts to include important details in the lower right quadrant of the view. Yes, it sticks quite prominently into the viewfinder frame, and the closer you focus, more of that lens slides into the frame.

So as I said, it was a bit of a hassle learning to shoot with a nearly manual digital camera, but I enjoyed the journey and the results most of the time. Several gorgeous shots just aren't sharp when blown up 100% onscreen, but they still make decent prints. Can't complain there.

The Leica M9 has effectively avoided most color moiré and demosaicing artifacts in the JPEG from between the fine lines in the larger letters and in the small text near the bottom of the crop, compared to the Adobe Camera Raw conversion of the same shot. (Mouse over the links to load the corresponding crop.)

Moiré and demosaicing errors. Lacking a physical low-pass filter, the Leica M9 can leave behind some moiré patterns, particularly in the RAW images, where demosaicing errors as well as color artifacts are a little more pronounced. As a result, JPEGs are a little softer than we'd like to see, thanks to the software anti-aliasing filter.

Despite the software anti-aliasing, some demosaicing errors are noticeable, as you can see in the lowercase d in Pure Brewed at left. It shows up in hair as well, a little more prominently than we're used to seeing.

JPEG images are also dark, and we found that many images, including my own shots, are underexposed, requiring exposure compensation of up to one stop. JPEGs are darker, with lower dynamic range partially to get that dramatic contrast we expect from a Leica, while the RAW images have significantly greater dynamic range. As a result, shooting both RAW and JPEG is a good idea, as sometimes you'll want that unique contrast, and sometimes you'll want to rescue some of that shadow detail.

Luke's notes. Some of Luke's thoughts will only apply if you do a lot of studio shooting, but since people do, it's information worth knowing.

Overall, Luke thought it had a very good lens, but its rangefinder system was difficult to focus. He didn't like the low-ISO sensor, and thought the value of the quiet shutter was spoiled by the noisy cocking motor. Unlike me, he didn't like the "soap-bar ergonomics," nor its heavy weight. He thought the user interface was a little quirky, but noted that it was easily ignored due to the camera's overall simplicity. A few other thoughts:

  • After each shot, a low-res image is displayed for nine seconds, then the high-res appears, while most cameras take a fraction of a second.
  • The Meter cell reads light reflected off the shutter blades. Centerweighting is accomplished by making the center blades lighter, fading to black on the outer blades. There is no other option for metering.
  • The M9's Self-timer is triggered by a light half-press of the Shutter button, so camera motion is minimized. That sounds good, but it makes other functions unusable. The only way to turn on the meter is with a half-press, but in Self-timer mode, this just takes another shot.
  • The viewfinder is big and bright, but there is no diopter adjustment. The eyepoint is low, so it doesn't work well with glasses, especially bifocals. View, frame, and RF image are blurry without glasses. You need the optional diopter lenses to compensate, at $100 each.
  • Framing lines shift for parallax, but don't change size. Framing is correct only at one preset distance (1 meter).
  • ISO can be set in 1/3 stops, while shutter and aperture can only be set in 1/2 stops.

 

That certain je ne sais quoi... You might think from reading some of the above that we didn't like the Leica M9 all that much, what with all the complaining about focusing and exposure, aliasing artifacts, etc. That wouldn't be accurate, though. What became clear as we shot with the camera was the one thing that leaves Leica fans frothing at the mouth and reaching for $11,000 or so it costs to own a setup like we were using: The pictures.

While we're leading proponents of objective testing as a way to smoke out cameras' foibles and missteps, sometimes the whole is indeed more than the sum of the parts, and we found that particularly to be the case with the Leica M9. Looking at its images, we were struck time and again with the almost three-dimensional character they possessed: There's something about how it renders images that is different from most any other camera we've tested. The original Canon 5D probably came closest in this regard, but the M9 easily goes it one or two steps better.

After looking at a lot of images from the Leica M9, we think the source of this unique quality comes down to a combination of tone curve and color mapping. On the tonal front, as we've noted above, the M9's images are more contrasty than those of many other cameras, and as such it's more prone to losing highlights or producing plugged shadows under harsh lighting. But that's only part of the story, though. It does have higher contrast or perhaps a narrowed dynamic range, but we found a lot more detail and shape in medium shadows (properly quarter- and lower half-tones) than we're accustomed to seeing with other cameras. It also helps that the tone curve flattens a fair bit as you move into the deeper shadows; there's no abrupt cutoff at some point, as we see in many cameras. Because shape information in more-saturated colors is basically carried in the quarter tones and shadows of the "contaminant" colors, we believe the M9's increased detail in that part of the tone curve accounts for a lot of the increased dimension and depth of its images.

On the color side, the Leica M9's color is considerably more saturated than most. - At the same time, though, when you look at its pictures, they certainly don't strike you (or at least not us, anyway) as being oversaturated. Looking closely at the color-accuracy map on our Leica M9 Exposure page, we find an unusual profile: With the exception of the dark green swatch, most lower-saturation colors are rendered pretty accurately, while the high-saturation colors are pushed quite a bit. The result is that bright colors are very bright, but more subdued ones look quite natural. The overall effect is quite pleasing.

Hmm... A contrasty tone curve and a tendency to lose strong highlights, but a smooth tail in the deep shadows, combined with relatively high color saturation: Where have we seen that before? Slide film! Taking the tonal and color characteristics together, we realized that the Leica M9's images look a lot like those from old-style color reversal (slide) film; some sort of combination of Kodachrome and Ektachrome, or perhaps some other emulsion that was being mimicked explicitly.

This is the real heart of the M9: Leica set out to reproduce not just the shooting experience of their famous rangefinders, but the total picture-taking experience as well, extending even to the look of the final images. Rather than adopting a purely by-the-numbers approach to digital imaging, they created a camera whose pictures looked like they could have come from any of their film-based M-series models. Judging by our own reaction, we'd say they succeeded quite well: The Leica M9's pictures have a luscious, vibrant, three-dimensional quality that we've really not seen from any other camera.

 

Leica M9 versus Sony NEX-7

As I mentioned, there are so many variables, I don't think much is clear from the shots below other than that the Leica's full-frame lens and sensor have better and more bokeh. The Leica M9's tendency toward greater contrast in its JPEGs is also evident. We had to send the NEX-7 back to Sony, so further experimentation was not possible, but I doubt we'd have matched exposures any better. As it is, the apertures recorded in the EXIF from the M9's images are only an approximation based on the camera's meter and ambient sensor making a guess, as there is no electronic communication between the camera and lens. The Leica again used the 50mm f/1.4 Summilux-M lens, and the Sony NEX-7 used a Sony 30mm f/3.5 Macro lens.

Leica M9-P: ~f/3, 1/250, ISO 160 Sony NEX-7: f/4.5, 1/80, ISO 100
Leica M9-P: ~f/2, 1/3,000, ISO 160 Sony NEX-7: f/3.5, 1/1,000, ISO 100
Leica M9-P: ~f/4, 1/90, ISO 160 Sony NEX-7: f/4, 1/80, ISO 200
Leica M9-P: ~f/5.5, 1/90, ISO 160 Sony NEX-7: f/5.6, 1/80, ISO 200
Leica M9-P: ~f/1.5, 1/1,000, ISO 160 Sony NEX-7: f/3.5, 1/500, ISO 200

I generally prefer the Leica images here, as they have slightly higher contrast out of the camera and beautiful bokeh. By comparison, though, the Sony NEX-7 was incredibly simple to shoot, and turned out good, if not comparable, results, with incredible resolution. The comparison wasn't made to say one was better than the other, though. It was to see if the Leica had a "special something." I think it does. I can't be sure if it's just the lens, the tone curve, or the overall combination, but there's a fairly unique richness to the images.

However, the lack of an anti-aliasing filter does have its drawbacks, as you can see from these crops below.

Leica M9-P Sony NEX-7
Note the jaggies on the tachometer and handlebar in the top left crop, as well as slight purple fringing around the edges of the chrome. There are also jaggies in the roofline in our FAR shot. The two images on the right are from the NEX-7, which has a low-pass filter, if only a low-strength one.

Leica M9 Image Quality

Below are crops comparing the Leica M9 to the Canon 5D Mark II, Canon 60D, Nikon D3X, Sigma SD1, and Sony NEX-7. Though we normally start with ISO 1,600 here, we thought we'd start with the base ISO to show the best each camera can do.

NOTE: These images are best quality JPEGs straight out of the camera, at default settings including noise reduction. All cameras in this comparison were shot with our very sharp reference lenses, and we used the Leica 50mm f/1.4 with the M9.

Leica M9 versus Canon 5D Mark II at base ISO

Leica M9 at ISO 160
Canon 5D Mark II at ISO 100

Comparing the 18-megapixel M9 to the 21-megapixel 5D Mark II might seem a little unfair, but it does well enough, likely because of the absence of a low-pass filter. Because we didn't use the same optic, as we try to do, it's hard to know whether the softness on the olive oil bottle in the top shot is soft because of focus or because of the software anti-aliasing. The 5D Mark II turns out a sharper mosaic logo, but they're surprisingly close. And while the M9's red leaf swatch is softer, the pink fabric underneath is sharper than it is from the 5D Mark II. But yes, it is a pink and not a purple fabric, so that's a problem.


Leica M9 versus Canon 60D at base ISO

Leica M9 at ISO 160
Canon 60D at ISO 100

Now matched against another 18-megapixel sensor, it's easier to see that while the Leica M9 excels in certain colors, it loses details in others. The Canon 60D has more sharpening artifacts than the M9, but it's a more even performance overall, despite the sensor's APS-C size. Remember that this is at each camera's base ISO, so the softening in the red leaf swatch on the M9 is a little surprising for a full-size sensor.


Leica M9 versus Nikon D3X at base ISO

Leica M9 at ISO 160
Nikon D3X at ISO 100

Back in full-size sensor territory, the M9 does well in spots against the refined and modern 24-megapixel Nikon D3X sensor. Obviously it doesn't exceed the D3X's rendering, but it's not bad.


Leica M9 versus Sigma SD1 at base ISO

Leica M9 at ISO 160
Sigma SD1 at ISO 100

Up against the 14.8-megapixel Sigma SD1, the Leica M9 looks like it's about comparable in most areas, save for the red channel.


Leica M9 versus Sony NEX-7 at base ISO

Leica M9 at ISO 160
Sony NEX-7 at ISO 100

Finally, it holds up reasonably well against the Sony NEX-7, which again has a very crisp 24-megapixel sensor, but it's also an APS-C-sized sensor. How the NEX-7 does against the full-frame M9 will be interesting as the ISO rises.



Most digital SLRs and CSCs will produce an excellent ISO 100 shot, so we like to push them and see what they can do compared to other cameras at ISO 1,600, 3,200, and 6,400. Recent advances in sensor technology have made ISO 1,600 look a lot more like ISO 100, but there are still cameras whose quality starts to fall apart at this setting. We also choose 1,600 because we like to be able to shoot at least at this level when indoors and at night.

Leica M9 versus Canon 5D Mark II at ISO 1,600

Leica M9 at ISO 1,600
Canon 5D Mark II at ISO 1,600

The 5D Mark II produces a mostly cleaner image, but they're still fairly comparable. There's more chrominance and luminance noise in the shadows from the M9, but the mosaic image looks about equal. The red leaf swatch isn't very good from the M9, but the pink swatch beneath still shows threads, while the 5D Mark II has essentially lost that texture.


Leica M9 versus Canon 60D at ISO 1,600

Leica M9 at ISO 1,600
Canon 60D at ISO 1,600

The M9 is quite comparable to the 60D, a little softer here and there, but almost on par. Remembering that both are 18-megapixel sensors, the Leica's not quite living up to its potential, but it's still doing okay.


Leica M9 versus Nikon D3X at ISO 1,600

Leica M9 at ISO 1,600
Nikon D3X at ISO 1,600

There's more luminance and chrominance noise in the shadows, but the mosaic image is about on par with the Nikon D3X's shot. The red swatch is much better on the D3X, but the M9 does better with the pink fabric beneath... except with its color (which again is pink).


Leica M9 versus Sigma SD1 at ISO 1,600

Leica M9 at ISO 1,600
Sigma SD1 at ISO 1,600

The Leica M9 does quite a bit better at ISO 1,600 than the Sigma SD1, likely because the Foveon sensor's multiple layers absorb a lot of the light, making the lower layers less sensitive. Despite the loss of color, the SD1 does hold on to the red leaf swatch pattern a little better, but it's not really saying much.


Leica M9 versus Sony NEX-7 at ISO 1,600

Leica M9 at ISO 1,600
Sony NEX-7 at ISO 1,600

Given the extreme noise suppression and sharpening required to keep the smaller sensor's noise down and detail up, the Sony NEX-7's images look better, but are a bit compromised, while the M9's images look better in spots. Certainly the pink swatch has more detail, but the mosaic swatch will print a bit better from the NEX-7.



Today's ISO 3,200 is yesterday's ISO 1,600 (well, almost), so below are the same crops at ISO 3,200 for all the cameras in this group except the Leica M9, which has a maximum ISO of 2,500.

Leica M9 at ISO 2,500 versus Canon 5D Mark II at ISO 3,200

Leica M9 at ISO 2,500
Canon 5D Mark II at ISO 3,200

The M9 holds onto detail surprisingly well here, though of course it's only shooting at ISO 2,500 compared to the 5D Mark II's ISO 3,200. The 5D's more sophisticated processing leaves more detail in areas like the red swatch, but otherwise, they're close.


Leica M9 at ISO 2,500 versus Canon 60D at ISO 3,200

Leica M9 at ISO 2,500
Canon 60D at ISO 3,200

The Canon 60D is once again very close in performance to the M9, but a little better in key areas like the Mosaic swatch and olive oil bottle.


Leica M9 at ISO 2,500 versus Nikon D3X at ISO 3,200

Leica M9 at ISO 2,500
Nikon D3X at ISO 3,200

The Nikon D3X does a better job than the Leica M9, despite its greater pixel density over the same full frame sensor area. It might be due to the software anti-aliasing, but it's likely more due to the very advanced technology in the Nikon D3X CMOS sensor.


Leica M9 at ISO 2,500 versus Sigma SD1 at ISO 3,200

Leica M9 at ISO 2,500
Sigma SD1 at ISO 3,200

It's pretty clear here without a lot of explanation that the M9 does better than the SD1 at their highest ISO settings.


Leica M9 at ISO 2,500 versus Sony NEX-7 at ISO 3,200

Leica M9 at ISO 2,500
Sony NEX-7 at ISO 3,200

Though the NEX-7 distorts the features of the mosaic image's character, it'll probably print better. However, the Leica M9's image might sharpen up a bit better, so it's still pretty close.



Detail: Leica M9 versus Canon 5D Mark II, Canon 60D, Nikon D3X, Sigma SD1, and Sony NEX-7

n/a
Leica
M9

ISO 160
ISO 2,500

Canon
5D Mark II

ISO 100
ISO 3,200
ISO 6,400
Canon
60D

ISO 100
ISO 3,200
ISO 6,400
Nikon
D3X

ISO 100
ISO 3,200
ISO 6,400
Sigma
SD1

ISO 100
ISO 3,200
ISO 6,400
Sony
NEX-7

ISO 100
ISO 3,200
ISO 6,400
Detail comparison. High-contrast details are often sharper as ISO rises, so they're worth a look as well. Given that the Leica M9 doesn't even have ISO 3,200, it's no surprise that it doesn't compete with the more advanced sensors in these crops. It has a little more color than the Sigma SD1, but even that has greater sharpness, albeit at a smaller size. The M9's ISO 2,500 image is outdone by most of the others even at their ISO 6,400 setting, although the 60D is fairly comparable at 6,400. The Leica's performance is a little spotty in low-contrast detail, with some colors having more and others having much less, so we expected it to do a little better here, but its sensor is just outmatched by more modern CMOS designs that perform better at higher ISOs. See the Print Quality below, though, because the Leica M9 still does pretty well at large print sizes.

 

Leica M9 Print Quality

Thanks to the lack of an anti-aliasing filter and the use of software anti-aliasing, JPEGs from the Leica M9 are in places quite sharp, and in others quite soft, making the printed output a little more difficult to judge.

ISO 80 images (Pull 80) are quite sharp in some areas, but a touch of softness around high-contrast areas lead us to call them usable, but not perfect at a quite large 24x36 inches. Overall elements look better printed at 20x30 inches. Contrast is very high, and dark areas seem rather plugged.

ISO 160 images are usable at 24x36, but soft in red areas, leading us to prefer the 20x30-inch prints.

ISO 200 shots likewise look very good at 20x30 inches.

ISO 400 shots look better at 16x20 inches, with only a slight smattering of chroma noise in the shadows that is barely noticeable at this print size.

ISO 800 images have very good detail at 16x20 inches, though reds are again somewhat soft. Overall, though we'd call the images quite good.

ISO 1,600 shots are very good at 13x19, but slight chroma noise in the shadows is visible. At arm's length, we'd still call it good. Chroma noise becomes less of an issue at 11x14.

ISO 2,500 images are usable at 11x14, but chroma noise changes shadows to a bluish purple haze, so we'll call it at 8x10 for the Leica M9's highest ISO setting.

Overall, the Leica M9 does very well, maintaining very large file sizes as ISO rises. ISO doesn't rise as far as other full-frame cameras on the market, however, so bear that in mind when making comparisons.

 

In the Box

The Leica M9-P ships with the following items in the box:

  • Leica M9-P body
  • Rechargeable lithium-ion battery pack
  • Battery charger and two power cords (Europe and North America, different in some markets)
  • Car charging cable
  • USB cable
  • Carrying strap
  • Body cap
  • Instruction manual

 

Recommended Accessories

  • A selection of your favorite M-system lenses, of course
  • Diopter correction lens(es)
  • Extra battery pack
  • M9 hand grip
  • Leica SF 24D or SF 58 flash unit
  • Protective case
  • Large capacity, high-speed SDHC memory card

 

Leica M9 Conclusion

Pro: Con:
  • Gorgeous film-like tonal and color rendering; intangible, almost 3D appearance to its pictures
  • Excellent image quality at low to moderate ISOs
  • Real rangefinder design
  • No-nonsense controls
  • Solid build
  • Magnesium body
  • Viewfinder framing lines change based on lens mounted
  • Framing lines move diagonally to compensate for parallax
  • Big, bright viewfinder
  • Superb detail and per-pixel sharpness (no AA filter) in RAW files
  • Good dynamic range in RAW files
  • Very good auto white balance in tungsten light
  • Smallest full-frame body
  • M9-P has sapphire crystal LCD cover
  • Built-in access to legendary lenses
  • Lens identification sensor helps camera adjust for lens characteristics
  • Saves RAW files in DNG format
  • Good print quality
  • Comes with a free download of Lightroom
  • Often covered rangefinder window with fingers
  • Difficult to focus in low light
  • Frame lines are often difficult to see in low light
  • High default saturation and contrast
  • High ISO performance lags more recent sensors; ISO tops out at 2,500 equivalent
  • Struggles with subtle contrast in reds, even at base ISO
  • Aperture-priority AE or manual exposure only
  • Center-weighted metering only
  • Manual focus only (it's a true rangefinder after all)
  • No image stabilization
  • No dust reduction system (quite a few of our shots have dust shadows)
  • No control over JPEG noise reduction
  • Lenses don't provide aperture info to body
  • Slow continuous mode
  • Buffer clearing very slow
  • Moiré and jaggies can be an issue, particularly when working with RAW files
  • Has some difficulty demosaicing around small specular highlights
  • Pixel defects can cause trouble with vertical lines (we've seen this in other large CCDs)
  • Quiet shutter spoiled by noisy cocking motor
  • Expensive

 

Shooting with the Leica M9-P was a great experience. It was not always easy to get a focused shot, nor to set exposure properly the first time. Modern autofocus and metering technology has spoiled us somewhat. But it's a great reminder of how film photography used to be, one you can also simulate by turning off your digital SLR's autofocus system and switching to center-weighted metering. What you'd be missing is the potential for accuracy offered by the Leica M9's rangefinder system. We found ours to be slightly mis-aligned vertically, which made fine focusing more difficult, but in good light it was easier to get focused shots, and quite clear when our subjects moved out of focus. My trouble focusing indoors was likely due to the very narrow depth of field wide open, as well as the curvature of field, as I usually recomposed the image after focusing.

Controls on the Leica M9 are easy to use, have a quality feel, and it's easy to admire their simplicity. It didn't take long to get familiar with them, though it was always important to remember each setting before taking a shot. Because of the unique center-weighted metering, getting a properly exposed shot often required some experimentation. Quick snapshots are not easy with the Leica M9, making it less useful for spontaneous or child photography. It's great for more thoughtful composition, though.

Image quality is pretty good considering the relative age of the sensor. The highest available ISO is comparatively low, though, so indoor shots require that you lean on fast lenses, and the Summilux M 50mm f/1.4 we received for review certainly qualified. Contrast is high in the images, with darker shadows than we're used to seeing. We think it's partly how the images are processed to look like a high-contrast film. The result is pleasing to the eye, but analytical inspection reveals some plugged shadows in the JPEGs, where we'd like to see more recoverable detail. Raw processing seems to offer better dynamic range, however; an improvement of more than four stops over the JPEG images. Obviously shooting in RAW format is recommended for better post-processing control.

The Pro/Con list above is heavier on the Con side partially because the Leica M9 has fewer features to mention than most cameras, and because there are a few issues with its large CCD sensor. See our Exposure page for a detailed analysis of its image quality. Color is more saturated than normal, probably to emulate film a little more closely. Obvious problems with demosaicing errors, moiré, and purplish specular highlights stem primarily from the camera's lack of a low-pass filter. But overall, we thought the image quality was pretty good despite the issues.

Ultimately the Leica M9's image rendering is the biggest reason why people will shell out the hefty price for this camera. The M9 uses a much more interpretative approach than most other cameras, trading by-the-numbers accuracy for an overall look that's strongly reminiscent of the best film images. We liked the luscious "analog" look to its images, and suspect many others will as well: There'll certainly be no shortage of fans willing to fork over the stiff price to own an M9 and kit of lenses.

Overall, we thought the Leica M9 lived up to its reputation, it's just a very different kind of camera, which makes comparisons to other cameras irrelevant. Bottom line, if you're looking for a digital camera that works like a Leica, the Leica M9 is for you. If you're looking for a simple snapshot camera to get pictures of family and friends, the Leica M9 will make you work harder than you probably want to. However, if you want to learn more about the art of photography by using a manual focus and manual exposure camera, the Leica M9 is a great way to go. Not only are the manual controls easy to use, the Leica M9 has something film Leicas don't: an LCD on the back to help you confirm and adjust exposure and focus after capture, better ensuring you got the image. Though the IR Lab begs to differ (they had a worse experience than I did, a valid data point if that's the kind of shooting you do), I found the Leica M9-P worked very well, and captured fine images that I really enjoyed, so it qualifies for a Dave's Pick.

 

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