Leica M9 Review
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Leica M9 Image Quality
Saturation & Hue Accuracy
Vibrant default color, with about average hue accuracy.
|ISO 160||ISO 200||ISO 400||ISO 800|
|ISO 1600||ISO 2500||PULL 80|
|In the diagram above, the squares show the original color, and the circles show the color that the camera captured. More saturated colors are located toward the periphery of the graph. Hue changes as you travel around the center. Thus, hue-accurate, highly saturated colors appear as lines radiating from the center.|
Skin tones. In simulated daylight with manual white balance, the Leica M9 produced Caucasian skin tones that had a healthy-looking pink tint, though darker skin tones can be a little yellow. Skin tones with auto white balance weren't as pink, though darker areas were also too yellow. Where oversaturation is most problematic is on Caucasian skin tones, as it's very easy for these "memory colors" to be seen as too bright, too pink, too yellow, etc.
Hue. The Leica M9 showed small to moderate color shifts relative to the mathematically precise translation of colors in its subjects, resulting in a Delta-C color error after correction for saturation of 5.39 at base ISO, which is about average for a compact system camera. Cyan is pushed toward blue, red toward orange, orange toward yellow and yellow toward green, all pretty common. Like saturation, hue accuracy didn't vary by much as ISO increased, which is very good. Hue is "what color" the color is.
The Leica M9 does not offer any preset color modes (other than being able to select between sRGB and Adobe RGB color space).
The Leica M9 lets you adjust image saturation and contrast in 5 steps, from -2 to +2. As can be seen below, the saturation adjustment was effective and does a good job of not impacting contrast, though we wish the settings were biased more towards lower saturation.
|Saturation Adjustment Examples|
The series of shots above shows results with all saturation settings. Click on any thumbnail above, then click again to see the full-sized image.
| See full set of test images
See thumbnails of all test and gallery images
Exposure and White Balance
Indoors, incandescent lighting
Slightly warm results with Auto white balance, but better than average. Slightly above average exposure compensation required.
|Auto White Balance
|Incandescent White Balance
|Manual White Balance
Indoors, under normal incandescent lighting, color balance was slightly warm with the Auto white balance setting, though results were quite pleasing and better than average. The Incandescent setting performed well too, not quite as warm as Auto and again, better than average. The Manual and 2,600 Kelvin settings both produced very similar, accurate results, just slightly cool. The Leica M9 required slightly above average exposure compensation for this shot (+0.7 EV); the average needed among cameras we've tested for this shot is about +0.3 EV. Our test lighting for this shot is a mixture of 60 and 100 watt household incandescent bulbs, a pretty yellow light source, but a very common one in typical home settings here in the U.S.
Vibrant colors with high contrast and a tendency toward underexposure.
|Manual White Balance,
|Auto White Balance,
The Leica M9 produced very vibrant colors with high default contrast outdoors. We needed to use +1.0 EV exposure compensation for a bright face in our "Sunlit" Portrait shot. That's more than the average of +0.7 EV normally required for this shot, and it led to a lot of clipped highlights in the model's shirt and flowers, while some shadows were still quite dark. We found some skin tones just a touch yellow in our "Sunlit" Portrait shot with Auto white balance, preferring the more pinkish skin tones Manual white balance provided here. Colors were rich in our Far field shot as well, and default exposure was a little dim. The camera avoided blowing out highlights, but shadows were quite dark and noisy.
Very high resolution, ~2,200 lines of strong detail from JPEGs, about the same from converted RAW files.
|Strong detail to
~2,200 lines horizontal
|Strong detail to
~2,200 lines vertical
|Strong detail to
~2,200 lines horizontal
ACR processed RAW
|Strong detail to
~2,200 lines vertical
ACR processed RAW
Our laboratory resolution chart revealed sharp, distinct line patterns to about 2,200 lines per picture height in both the horizontal and vertical directions in JPEGs. Complete extinction of the pattern occurred at around 3,000 lines in both directions. We weren't really able to extract any more resolution here from RAW files using Adobe Camera Raw, though remnants of the pattern existed all the way to 4,000 lines, the limit of our chart. Use these numbers to compare with other cameras of similar resolution, or use them to see just what higher resolution can mean in terms of potential detail.
The Leica M9 did a much better job at suppressing color moiré and maze patterns than ACR, but we did notice pixel defects in the sensor were causing issues in some vertical columns in a number of our test shots, including a resolution chart as shown in the crop at right. (Notice the "missing" line segment in the test pattern.)
Defective pixel substitution is common, but it's usually invisible in a normal pictorial subject. Problems affecting a relatively large number of pixels are less commonly seen than ones resulting in scattered bad pixels, but we've definitely seen them before in CCDs. (A prior example would be in the Pentax 645D, where we identified a couple of defects of this sort across the frame.)
If you see something like this in a camera you've bought (especially one you've paid $7K for), send it back for repair/replacement. OTOH, if it's just a matter of a few isolated pixels, you'll probably need to live with it, as it's almost 100% likely that any particular camera you pick up (especially full-frame ones with high pixel counts) will have at least a few defective photosites in its sensor.
Sharpness & Detail
Very detailed but slightly soft images straight from the camera, with minor edge-enhancement on high-contrast subjects. Some noise suppression artifacts visible at base ISO.
Sharpness. The Leica M9 produced images with excellent detail, though default sharpening is quite conservative. (Some RAW files actually appear sharper than matching JPEGs, so we suspect the camera is applying a software-based anti-alias filter to reduce the occurrence of moiré patterns and jaggies.) That said, evidence of minor edge enhancement can be seen around some high-contrast subjects in the crop above left, such as the halos seen around thicker branches. Edge enhancement creates the illusion of sharpness by enhancing color and tonal differences right at the edge of a rapid transition in color or tone.
Detail. The crop above right shows some detail loss due to noise suppression and/or software anti-aliasing, as darker areas and areas of low contrast in the model's hair show some smudging and loss of definition. Still, a good performance at base ISO. Noise-suppression systems in digital cameras tend to flatten-out detail in areas of subtle contrast. The effects can often be seen in shots of human hair, where the individual strands are lost and an almost "watercolor" look appears.
RAW vs In-Camera JPEGs
As noted above, the Leica M9 does an excellent job capturing loads of detail in its JPEGs, but its JPEG images are a touch soft. As is usually the case, more detail can be obtained from carefully processing RAW files, without introducing additional sharpening artifacts. Take a look below, to see what we mean:
In the table above, mousing over a link at the bottom will load the corresponding crop in the area above, and clicking the link will load the full resolution image. Examples are all shot at ISO 160, and include an in-camera Fine JPEG, the matching RAW file processed through Adobe Camera Raw 6.6 with no sharpening, and another ACR conversion lightly sharpened in Photoshop with an Unsharp Mask of 100% and radius 0.3.
As you can see, ACR processed RAW files show better detail than camera JPEGs, with fewer sharpening artifacts. It's interesting to see that not much (if any) sharpening is required, thanks to the lack of an anti-alias filter along with the very sharp Leica glass. Do note that moiré patterns and jaggies are more likely when working with RAW files though, as the M9's JPEG processing does a good job at avoiding much of it at the expense of some fine detail and edge acuity.
Here, you can see how the camera has effectively avoided color moiré and demosaicing artifacts in 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.)
We also noticed the Leica M9 tends to smudge subtle detail in reds a little more than many cameras even at base ISO, and the camera offers no control over JPEG noise reduction.
ISO & Noise Performance
Good handling of noise vs detail at low to moderate ISOs, but high ISO performance lags the current state-of-the-art.
|ISO 160||ISO 200||ISO 400|
|ISO 800||ISO 1,600||ISO 2,500|
As mentioned previously, JPEG images are a touch soft straight out of the camera. Detail is very good up to ISO 400, though, while noise is well controlled. ISO 800 is just a bit noisier, but detail is still quite good. At ISO 1,600, chroma noise starts to become more noticeable in the shadows, though luminance noise is still fine-grained enough to leave lots of detail intact in brighter areas. ISO 2,500 is of course noisier with blotchy chroma noise and coarser luminance noise "grain," but still quite usable. Overall, the M9's high ISO performance lags behind most CMOS sensors these days, which is probably why Leica was wise to limit the top ISO to 2,500.
Of course, the impact of noise and detail loss are highly dependent on the size the photos are printed at, and pixel-peeping on-screen has surprisingly little relationship to how the images look when printed: See the Print Quality section below for recommended maximum print sizes at each ISO.
Extremes: Sunlit, dynamic range and low light tests
Very high resolution but poor highlight preservation and deep shadows. Very good low-light performance, capable of capturing bright images in near darkness at all ISOs.
|+0.3 EV||+0.7 EV||+1.0 EV|
The Leica M9 struggled with the deliberately harsh lighting in the above test. The camera required +1.0 EV compensation to render a bright face in our "Sunlit" Portrait shot (the average for this shot is about +0.7 EV), and the M9 clipped quite a few highlights in the mannequin's shirt and flowers, while shadows were still quite dark. Darker shadows were also somewhat murky, with fine detail obscured by noise and posterization.
Because digital cameras are more like slide film than negative film (in that they tend to have a more limited tonal range), we test them in the harshest situations to see how they handle scenes with bright highlights and dark shadows, as well as what kind of sensitivity they have in low light. The shot above is designed to mimic the very harsh, contrasty effect of direct noonday sunlight, a very tough challenge for most digital cameras. (You can read details of this test here. In actual shooting conditions, be sure to use fill flash in situations like the one shown here; it's better to shoot in open shade whenever possible.)
Just like saturation, the Leica M9's contrast setting offers 5 settings, between -2 and +2. Also like saturation, default contrast is on the high side.
|Contrast set to lowest,
|Contrast set to lowest,
At its lowest contrast setting, the Leica M9 did a much better job at balancing highlights and shadows, allowing a lower exposure for our "Sunlit" Portrait which resulted in far fewer clipped highlights as well as lighter shadows. Shadows and midtones weren't as dark in our Far-field shot as well.
|Contrast Adjustment Examples|
The series of shots above shows results with all the available contrast settings. Click on any thumbnail to go to the full-size image.
The Leica M9's contrast adjustment also had little effect on color saturation. Contrast and saturation are actually fairly closely coupled, so it's a good trick to be able to vary one without the other changing as well. Leica did a good job here.
A key parameter in a digital camera is its Dynamic Range, the range of brightness that can be faithfully recorded. At the upper end of the tonal scale, dynamic range is dictated by the point at which the RGB data "saturates" at values of 255, 255, 255. At the lower end of the tonal scale, dynamic range is determined by the point at which there ceases to be any useful difference between adjacent tonal steps. Note the use of the qualifier "useful" in there: While it's tempting to evaluate dynamic range as the maximum number of tonal steps that can be discerned at all, that measure of dynamic range has very little relevance to real-world photography. What we care about as photographers is how much detail we can pull out of the shadows before image noise becomes too objectionable. This, of course, is a very subjective matter, and will vary with the application and even the subject matter in question. (Noise will be much more visible in subjects with large areas of flat tints and subtle shading than it would in subjects with strong, highly contrasting surface texture.)
What makes most sense then, is to specify useful dynamic range in terms of the point at which image noise reaches some agreed-upon threshold. To this end, Imatest computes a number of different dynamic range measurements, based on a variety of image noise thresholds. The noise thresholds are specified in terms of f-stops of equivalent luminance variation in the final image file, and dynamic range is computed for noise thresholds of 1.0 (low image quality), 0.5 (medium image quality), 0.25 (medium-high image quality) and 0.1 (high image quality). For most photographers and most applications, the noise thresholds of 0.5 and 0.25 f-stops are probably the most relevant to the production of acceptable-quality finished images, but many noise-sensitive shooters will insist on the 0.1 f-stop limit for their most critical work. A full discussion of all the data Imatest produces is really beyond the scope of this review: Visit the Imatest website for details of what the program measures, how it performs its computations, and how to interpret its output.
JPEG. The graph at right (click for a larger version) was generated using Imatest's dynamic range analysis for an in-camera M9 JPEG file with a nominally-exposed density step target (Stouffer 4110). At default settings and base ISO of 160, the graph shows only 7.84 f-stops of total dynamic range, with only 6.81 f-stops at the "High" quality level. These are below average results these days. Compared to the Nikon D7000 which uses one of the better APS-C CMOS sensors, the M9 scored much lower at the "High" quality level (6.81 vs 7.97 f-stops), while total dynamic range was quite a bit lower (7.84 vs 10.0 f-stops). The M9's default tone curve has a lot to do with that, as it ends quite abruptly at the shadow end, leaving shadows very dark and plugged. Note though that this measurement has a margin of error of about 1/3 f-stop, so differences of less than 0.33 can be ignored.
RAW. The graph at right is from the same Stouffer 4110 stepchart image captured as a RAW (.DNG) file, processed with Adobe Camera Raw. The Leica M9's RAW file scored much better than the matching JPEG, with total dynamic range rocketing to 11.9 f-stops from 7.84 (an improvement of over 4 f-stops), while the score at the highest quality level increased about 1.9 f-stops from 6.81 to 8.67 f-stops. This score is still a little below average compared to the best APS-C sensors, but much better than the camera JPEGs. It's worth noting here that Adobe Camera Raw's default noise reduction settings reduced overall noise relative to the levels in the in-camera JPEG (compare the noise plots in the bottom left of the graphs), which tends to boost the dynamic range numbers for the High Quality threshold.
Low Light. The Leica M9 was able to capture usable images down to the 1/16 foot-candle light level (about 1/16 as bright as average city street lighting at night) at all ISO settings, though the 32 second shutter speed limit did lead to some dim images at the lowest light level with ISO 160 and 200. (The M9 does however offer a bulb mode for longer than 32 second exposures, and we didn't shoot the above images wide-open either.)
Color balance with Auto white balance was very good, even at higher ISOs and lower light levels, which isn't always a given. Noise levels were pretty low up to ISO 800, though chroma noise was a little strong in darker areas at higher ISOs. A few hot pixels were visible at lower light levels, but nothing usual. We did however notice some additional softness in some of the 32 second exposures, including one with image doubling likely caused shutter vibration during exposure (there's no mirror to slap), though it didn't happen consistently. We always use the self-timer with the camera mounted on a sturdy tripod for all our lab shots, so normal camera shake was not the cause.
(Keep in mind that the longer shutter speeds here demand the use of a tripod to prevent any blurring from camera movement. A useful trick is to just prop the camera on a convenient surface, and use its self-timer to release the shutter. This avoids any jiggling from your finger pressing the shutter button, and can work quite well when you don't have a tripod handy.)
How bright is this? The one foot-candle light level that this test begins at roughly corresponds to the brightness of typical city street-lighting at night. Cameras performing well at that level should be able to snap good-looking photos of street-lit scenes.
NOTE: This low light test is conducted with a stationary subject, and the camera mounted on a sturdy tripod.
From ISO 80 to 200 the M9 makes good 20x30-inch prints; good 16x20s from ISO 800, and even ISO 2,500 makes a good quality 8x10.
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.
Testing hundreds of digital cameras, we've found that you can only tell just so much about a camera's image quality by viewing its images on-screen. Ultimately, there's no substitute for printing a lot of images and examining them closely. For this reason, we now routinely print sample images from the cameras we test on our Canon Pro9000 Mark II studio printer, and on the Pixma MP610 here in the office. (See the Canon Pixma Pro9000 Mark II review for details on that model.)
The images above were taken from our standardized test shots. For a collection of more pictorial photos, see our Leica M9 / M9-P Photo Gallery.
Recommended Software: Rescue your Photos!
Just as important as an extra memory card is a tool to rescue your images when one of your cards fails at some point in the future. We get a lot of email from readers who've lost photos due to a corrupted memory card. Memory card corruption can happen with any card type and any camera manufacturer, nobody's immune. A lot of "lost" images can be recovered with an inexpensive, easy to use piece of software though. Given the amount of email I've gotten on the topic, I now include this paragraph in all my digital camera reviews. The program you need is called PhotoRescue, by DataRescue SA. Read our review of it if you'd like, but download the program now, so you'll have it. It doesn't cost a penny until you need it, and even then it's only $29, with a money back guarantee. So download PhotoRescue for Windows or PhotoRescue for Mac while you're thinking of it. (While you're at it, download the PDF manual and quickstart guide as well.) Stash the file in a safe place and it'll be there when you need it. Trust me, needing this is not a matter of if, but when... PhotoRescue is about the best and easiest tool for recovering digital photos I've seen. (Disclosure: IR gets a small commission from sales of the product, but I'd highly recommend the program even if we didn't.) OK, now back to our regularly scheduled review...
Not sure which camera to buy? Let your eyes be the ultimate judge! Visit our Comparometer(tm) to compare images from the Leica M9 / M9-P with those from other cameras you may be considering. The proof is in the pictures, so let your own eyes decide which you like best!
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Note: For details, test results, and analysis of the many tests done with this camera, please click on the tabs at the beginning of the review or below.