My first camera was the Nikkormat FT2. As far as features go, it was slim. The only luxury it had was a built-it light meter. There was no aperture priority, a maximum shutter speed of 1/1000 sec and, obviously, no auto-focus. This camera which I received 11 years ago set the tone for the way that I take photography to this very day. Even though I primarily shoot in digital, I only use prime lenses, most of which are manual focus. I bought the Nikon D700 entirely on the basis that it had a full-frame sensor and would accept all my old manual Nikkor lenses. I prefer the manual/prime lens combination for a few important reasons. The manual experience puts the shooter in much more control over composition. When I nail a shot with a manual lens, I feel a much greater sense of accomplishment than I get with an auto-focus lens. I prefer prime lenses due to their smaller/lighter profile, and general superior image quality (at least without breaking the bank).
Speaking of breaking the bank, this leads directly to the Leica M9. The Leica rangefinder is nearly a perfect fit for my photography preferences. Leica’s M mount collection consists entirely of manual, prime lenses. Many of these lenses are amazingly small and produce some of the best quality possible (in the right hands). In short, Leica image quality is legendary. The problem is that these cameras are notoriously expensive. A new M9 goes for roughly $7,000 and their lenses range between $1,300 and $10,000. I have wanted to shoot with a Leica for nearly a decade. I decided that if I couldn’t buy one, I could rent one for a week. Since the rental service didn’t offer the 50mm Summicron lens I was interested in, I got the 50mm Summarit.
So why am I writing about a 4 year old camera when there are countless articles written by far more experienced/credible people taking photos? Well, from everything I can tell, the people reading this blog are not professional photographers and may not have even heard of Leica prior to this post. I felt it would be a way to expose a group of people into a completely unique photographic device, and why it’s an amazing camera.
It turned out renting the M9 was a very bad decision because after using it for a week, it has been painful to go back. The camera met my expectations in image quality (even with their “worst” lens) and far exceeded my expectations with everything else. If you know anything about Leica, you simply expect a properly captured photo to look amazing, but it’s hard to quantify the “small things” about using a Leica until you actually use it.
I went out with the M9 and my D700 on the first day to compare results. I intentionally did not compare the photos pixel for pixel; I just wanted a high-level comparison. I didn’t see drastically sharper images from the M9/Summarit than I got from my D700/Nikkor f1.4. The Summarit may have been sharper, but the Nikkor f1.4 was sharp enough. The big difference was the natural contrast and tones that the Summarit delivered. The colors and contrast already felt right.
Many times, I would import the M9 photos into Lightroom and the images wouldn’t need any adjustments. As someone who constantly is fiddling with the RAW files from my D700, this blew me away. It’s hard for me to explain how the M9 photos felt right, they just did. Additionally, the contrast delivered straight from the lens was not something I was able to replicate in my D700 photos by simply increasing the contrast once in Lightroom.
One important note is that the M9’s sensor delivers notoriously poor image quality at high ISO. I think I shot one photo at ISO 1600 just to see for myself. The Leica delivered as promised. This was one area where my D700 blew it away hands down.
Focusing & Framing
Setting up a shot with a rangefinder is quite different than with the SLR. I don’t want to go into the gory details of the differences between SLR and rangefinder viewfinders because that could take a whole article. The gist is that a rangefinder’s viewfinder’s view is independent of the lens on the camera. This video concisely describes the M9’s viewfinder:
I loved the ability to see what was outside of the shot because it gave me greater awareness of my surroundings. After going back to shooting with my SLR, I felt like I had tunnel vision. The rangefinder framing process felt more flexible – I could keep the camera up to my eye and still have a general understanding of what was going on around me.
Focusing took 15 minutes to feel natural and so much better than my D700. It’s important to note that the D700 is not designed for manual photography. In many regards, I was very happy that Nikon provided any manual focus options to begin with. However, you can quickly tell that the feature is not a top priority. I could go on for paragraphs as to how the manual focus mechanism on the D700 is sub-optimal, but this article is about the M9. Suffice to say that a camera designed for manual focus will be better at manual focus.
The body of the M9 feels more solid than the D700 (a difficult feat) and it considerably smaller and lighter (roughly 2/3 the weight of the D700). The M9 doesn’t have any rubberized areas and it can feel quite slick. This intermittently scared the hell out of me since there were times when I felt I could drop it. The body doesn’t have a built in handgrip, which I’m OK with, but I’d never carry the camera without a strap around my shoulder. The M9 camera body may not be ergonomic in shape, but due to its smaller shape and lighter weight, it still feels great in the hand.
What grabbed me the most about the Leica is the quality with the highest subjectivity. The overall feel of the Leica, specifically its size/weight and incredibly quiet shutter, made it the most enjoyable camera I’ve ever shot with. The camera and its lenses are so small that I found unsuspecting subjects were not intimidated when I pointed it at them. I could frequently get away with people not even knowing that I took a photo of them because it was so silent.
The poor-quality preview screen had the interesting side effect of stopping me from chimping every time I took a photo. I spent less time worrying about the photos I had already taken and worrying more about capturing the next shot. This feeling was magnified by the fact that I knew the camera would deliver a great photo if I held my end of the bargain (nailing the focus, not pointing the camera directly at the sun, etc.). It was a wonderful feeling to know that I was the bottleneck for every shot I took.
Rent One. Seriously.
I ended up loving the M9 for the way it let me take photos as much as the photos it produced. On the surface, the camera is tremendously overpriced, but it provides an entirely unique shooting experience. In a way, you are paying for what the camera allows you to experience rather than what it can do for you.