My Shooting Experience with the Leica M9
These days, it looks like every major camera manufacturer is coming out with a new addition to the mirrorless class of bodies and lenses. The latest (as of this writing) is Canon with its EOS-M camera. These units, typically smaller than your average DSLRs, have been getting better and better– packing some serious punch into a very small form factor.
Thing is, in all the hype behind cameras like the EOS-M and Fuji’s X100 and X-Pro1 bodies, people forget that digital mirrorless cameras have been around before companies like Sony, Fuji, and Olympus made them popular. Way back in 2006, a good three years before Olympus came out with its retro-styled Micro Four Thirds camera, Leica introduced its first digital rangefinder, the M8.
Powered by a 10.3MP crop sensor, the body retained almost all of the classic Leica styling that’s been aped so much now. They also kept the lens mount the same, so that almost all M-series lenses could fit onto this new digital body.
The M9 kept the same general body shape of the M8, but upped the sensor to an 18.3MP full frame sensor. It also added some very nice features, including better high ISO performance, a better EV compensation system, and exposure bracketing (though it feels kinda weird to try and shoot HDR with a Leica).
Leica users also happen to be some of the
biggest zealots most passionate folks out there. I’m not talking about the rich folks who like to hang a Leica M9 from their necks for the cachet that the little red dot on the camera’s body provides. I’m talking about the folks who, day in and day out, actually use their Leicas to produce great imagery.
The drop-dead simplicity and reliability of the original Leica film cameras made them a favorite from the streets of Paris to the war zones of Vietnam. Even today, there are some fantastic shooters using Leica film cameras to create some astonishing images.
Assuming for a moment that where there’s hype, there’s sometimes a modicum of substance, I decided to shoot with the Leica M9 for an extended period of time. The idea wasn’t to do a full-on review, but rather to talk about the experience of shooting with the digital successor to a legendary system. This, folks, is my Leica Diary.
So, what does my kit look like? Well, I started with the Leica M9 body, then added three lenses to it. The classic Leica 50mm f/2.5 Summarit-M, the 35mm f/2.0 Summicron, and the 90mm f/2.5 Summarit-M.
I chose these lenses after reading a bit about one of the most famous Leica users in history, Henri Cartier-Bresson. Bresson is said to have shot the majority of his images with a 50mm, occasionally branching out to the 35mm and the 90mm lenses. I would be, I thought, in good company with this kit and I didn’t want to overload myself with an abundance of choices.
The Leica uses the DNG format for its raw files, which is absolutely fantastic for me as my workflow involves converting everything to DNG. I used Lightroom 4.1 to process my images and will refrain from doing much more than the occasional B&W conversion using Nik’s Silver Efex Pro 2.
When you hold the Leica in your hand, the first thing that might go through your mind is, “Dang, that 50mm lens is tiny!” The second thing is “This is a full frame camera? It’s… kinda small.”
The Leica looks like a point-and-shoot. It doesn’t feel like a point-and-shoot, but it looks like one. Hold it in your hand and it feels…well, it feels like a piece of history. Which, given the fact that it isn’t all that different from the M-series film camera it succeeds, makes sense.
In my hand, the Leica feels dense. There doesn’t appear to be any wasted space here. The shooting controls on this 1.3 lb body are sparse and easily reachable with my right hand, so my left stays on the lens.
Speaking of the lens, a number of Leica’s lenses have this nifty little notch toward the bottom that makes focusing the lenses a lot easier. With your right hand on the camera and your left supporting the bottom, your left index finger drops into that notch perfectly. On the 50mm f/2.5 Summarit, a short, perhaps 120º throw moves you through the lens’ full focal range.
Focusing, which I’ll get to later, is very, very different from manually focusing a lens on your DSLR. The top panel has just two controls: the shutter, which is in the center of the on/off/shooting mode switch and the shutter speed dial. Again, painstakingly simple appears to be the way this camera has been built.
The shutter speed dial is close enough to the shutter button (which, by the way, is threaded for use with one of those old-timey plunger-style release cables) so that even my fat digits can reach over and spin it with my right index finger. Though I shot mostly in Aperture Priority (leaving the dial set on A) it was nice to be able to spin it quickly to compensate for the camera’s built-in meter’s shortcomings.
As for aperture control, if you look at the front of the lens, you’ll see it marked on the front-most ring with with f-stops, from f/2.5 to f/16. The aperture ring clicks in half-stops, so you can, for example, set the aperture to f/13 by setting it in-between f/11 and f/16. Incidentally, you can easily spin this dial with your left index finger (the one you use to focus the lens), so the entire camera’s exposure controls can be controlled with your two index fingers.
The rear of the body is sparse too. Five buttons and a command dial dominate it, and the playback and menu systems, accessed and manipulated on the screen, are pretty simple too. This is not a camera that you’ll need an instructional manual for – though this article will help you navigate the sticky area that is focus and shooting with the Leica.
Handling and Use of a Leica
It’s been a few years since I picked up a rangefinder. My last one was a Canonet QL17 GIII, the “poor man’s Leica”, which died a noble death (and is about to be replaced – thanks, eBay!).
Rangefinders are a curious lot. By eschewing things like autofocus and reflex mirrors, they end up being a lot more compact. Yet the images out of them can be pretty spectacular, leading one to believe that size does not, in fact, matter at all.
Working with the Leica M9 requires a change in mindset, I think. I’m used to my 5D Mark II and my rented 5D Mark III’s controls. I’m used to sticking my face up against that viewfinder and seeing the world through a heads-up-display consisting of all kinds of readouts. The M9, by contrast, feels a bit like an antique, despite the fact that it’s newer than many of the DSLRs I’ve shot with. On my DSLR, the fingers on my right hand are flying all over the body, spinning dials, locking exposure, setting in exposure compensation and ISO changes, while my left hand works the zoom ring or just supports the camera. On the M9, it’s a bit reversed – it’s my left hand that does more of the work, focusing and setting aperture, while my right just braces the body and squeezes the shutter button. Yet the workflow change is more than about your hands switching roles. Shooting with the Leica M9 almost makes you stumble at first. You’re looking for stuff to change, settings to adjust, things to do. Most of the time, though, it’s just focus, then shoot. Focus, shoot again.
Remember how I said the Leica looks like a point-and-shoot? Well, when you step from a DSLR to this camera, it kinda works a bit like one, too. You get this sudden realization that, despite there being a very expensive CCD sensor in the camera and an LCD display on the back, you’re not really operating a computer attached to a lens. Rather, you’re operating a camera that, despite its change of storage medium, Henri Cartier-Bresson would be able to pick up and shoot with without hesitation. That was one of the hardest things to come to grips with. Using a Leica distills the experience of shooting down its very core elements, and when you’re used to the photographic equivalent of driving a loaded Lexus LS with all the amenities, being dropped into the equivalent of a 1970’s-era Porsche 911 is a shock. A pleasant shock in many ways, but a shock, nonetheless.
Focusing a Rangefinder
Leica cameras don’t focus like the DSLRs, interchangeable lens compacts, or point-and-shoot digitals that we’re all used to. For one, Leica lenses are all manual-focus lenses. For another, unlike most other digital cameras today, you’re not focusing through the lens (TTL). You’re actually using a separate viewfinder to do the framing and focusing for you.
Take a look at the image below. It’s a bit hard to capture the view through a Leica’s viewfinder, but see that slightly bright rectangle near the top-left of the circle? That’s your focusing aid. Now, see how the part of the poster that’s in that rectangle is doubled? Well, on a Leica you adjust the focus ring of the lens till the two images merge into one.
That’s the first way to focus a Leica, and when you’re at a wide-open aperture like f/2.5, it’s the surest way to gain critical focus. But that’s not how zone focusing works. Google defines zone focusing as “A way to focus that utilizes the depth of field scale rather than the actual distance from camera to subject. Zone focusing is most useful for candid, street photography.” To understand this, let’s take a look at the lens barrel of a Leica. In the image below, you’ll see that there are a number of markings on the barrel. First, closest to the business end of the lens, is the aperture adjustment. In this case, we see that it’s set to f/11.
Next is the focus ring and this is where that whole zone focusing thing comes in. Using the tab shown in the image below, you adjust that ring to match the markings at the very base of the lens barrel. Those markings, you’ll notice, are marked with the numbers 4, 8, 11, 16. These are aperture markings and are arranged so that they get progressively higher in number as they move out from the center of the scale.
In the image shown, I’ve arranged the focus ring so that the infinity mark on the lens rests over the f/11 marker. Looking at the other side of the scale, we see that the 3-meter mark on the focus scale is right over the f/11 marker.
That means that the lens is now focused in a way that all objects between 3 meters and infinity will be acceptably sharp, as long as the aperture remains at f/11.
That’s zone focusing for you. You determine your zone of coverage, the range within which all subjects will be acceptably sharp, then use the markings and the focus ring to set it. If I changed the aperture to f/8, for example, I would get a range of something like just over 3 meters to somewhere short of infinity. Is this system precise? No, not if you’re trying to get critical focus on a specific object at a close distance, or if you’re trying to shoot at wide-open apertures. But if you’re a landscape or street photographer, zone focus is your friend. It allows you to quickly raise your camera to your eye and snap off a shot without having to wait till you manually focus your Leica. Set that thing to f/11 and everything from about 10 feet to infinity is acceptably sharp.
Focusing with the Leica was a challenge. All too often, I was unsure whether I really was getting images that were sharp enough; it took a while to get used to trusting the zone focus system, and even longer to get to a point where I wasn’t constantly peering through the viewfinder and adjusting the focus ring to zero in on a subject, completely changing the focus range I’d set moments ago. Once I got used to it, the Leica as a street shooter’s dream camera started to make more sense. When you use zone focus, it’s just lift, frame, shoot. Assuming you’re not horrible at estimating distances, there’s a pretty good chance that your shot will be spot-on. In the image below, taken in Sausalito, CA, I fixed the aperture at f/16, marked it off so that I had a range of between 2 meters and infinity, and shot away. As you can see, he and the background elements are all in sharp focus.
As DSLR shooters, we’ve gotten used to isolating our subjects by shooting with the aperture wide open and blurring the background. Zone focusing doesn’t truly lend itself to shooting wide open, which is why you have to get better at framing your subjects so that even sharp background objects don’t distract from your main subject. I included the photo above precisely because it’s an example of bad framing; the background objects do distract from the main subject. Focusing with the Leica M9 takes a bit of getting used to. What I found most remarkable was that zone focus was a fantastic aid when shooting landscapes. While shooting at Rodeo Beach in the Marin Headlands, I don’t think I touched the focus ring once after I set zone focus.
Zone focus was one of those things that was an “Aha!” moment, as are a lot of things about this camera system. Things that initially don’t make sense suddenly do, and preconceptions that I had going into this project often got broken to pieces, leading to a lot of frustration and angst. So let’s talk about those unexpected things.
Composing with Leica Lenses
Most people who shoot with a Leica assume that the only lenses available for it, like the 50mm f/2.5 shown above, are primes. And, for the most part, this is true. I’d certainly had no reason to think otherwise. Then I was introduced to the Leica 16-18-21 lens.
Okay, here’s the deal. Leica has really only made two zoom lenses that I know of and, of those two, this one is the only one still in production. And, to be fair, this isn’t a zoom lens like we imagine it to be. Canon and Nikon both make a 16-35mm zoom, for example. On those lenses, you can zoom seamlessly through the entire focal length range. I’m fairly sure I have images shot at 19mm, 23mm, 29mm, and other focal ranges in my library that were shot with just the one Nikon 16-35mm lens.
The Leica’s zoom lens, however, is more like three prime lenses bundled into a “zoom lens”. The zoom ring doesn’t turn seamlessly. Instead, as you can see in the image above, there are three “click” stops at 16mm, 18mm, and 21mm. When you shoot, you shoot at one of those three focal ranges. To aid this, you need an accessory.
The Leica’s built-in viewfinder isn’t wide enough to help you frame your images using this 3-in-1 lens, so you need to use an accessory viewfinder that goes on the hotshoe. The regular viewfinder is used for accurate focusing, while the accessory viewfinder is for framing. Yes, you heard right: you have to use two viewfinders with this lens for the most accurate framing and focusing. Since the accessory isn’t “coupled” to the lens, it cannot help you focus.
On the top of the viewfinder, as shown in the image below, are two dials. The one closest to the front sets up the bright frames in the viewfinder to match the focal length you set the lens to. This viewfinder goes all the way to 28mm, allowing its use with lenses longer than the 18-18-21. The second dial lets you change the vertical position of the bright frames if you’re shooting subjects closer to you, thereby helping correct for parallax.
Zone focusing is still possible and easy with this lens and that’s the mode I stuck with for the most part so I wouldn’t have to keep using two viewfinders. As you can see in the image below, the zone focus marks are stepped for each focal length. For each f-stop value, there is a vertical line that you match up with the distance range you need on either side of the lens. In the images above and below, I’ve set the lens at 21mm (though I forgot to change the dial on the viewfinder), and zone focus is set up so that subjects from 20″ to infinity will be sharp at f/16.
I really like this lens. Of all the lenses I tried out, this ended up being one of my absolute favorites. That viewfinder on the top and the quirky lens hood makes this Leica look even more like it belongs in the mid-to-early 20th century. I basically stuck to using zone focus and the accessory viewfinder and found that – for the most part – my shots were framed pretty accurately.
HDR with the Leica M9
In many ways, the Leica M9 is a “true to its roots” camera – manual everything, dials and switches and rings for most controls, things like that. But that’s not to say that there aren’t little touches and flourishes hidden in the menu system that give this body a few features that you’d normally expect to see in modern DSLRs. One such little feature is the Leica’s Auto Exposure Bracketing. Now, I’d expected some exposure bracketing, but having come from the Canon world, I thought there would be the usual three-exposures, +1 and -1 f-stop. Um, no. The Leica is a full-on HDR-capable monster. You can shoot 3, 5, or 7 exposures, with each exposure being either 0.5EV, 1EV, 1.5EV or 2EV apart. So, theoretically, if a scene meters in at f/8 at 1/60th of a second, you can shoot a burst of 7 exposures in Leica’s “C” mode (which gives you 2 frames per second) that would cover all exposures from f/8 at 1 second to f/8 at 1/4000th of a second.
The HDR image below was created from a 5-exposure burst, with the images 1EV apart.
Again, as HDRs go, it’s no great shakes, but the fact that the Leica is capable of bracketing exposures at this range is an unexpected surprise.
Why the Leica M9 Ultimately Wasn’t for Me (Or Why Gear Shouldn’t Dictate How You Shoot)
After about four weeks of shooting with the Leica M9 and various lenses, I came to a dismaying conclusion. I am not a street photographer. I don’t like street photography. I get nervous, am unsure, and take terrible street photos. And, for most of the time that I had the M9, I was trying to be a street photographer. What we have here, folks, is a classic case of a photographer trying to mold himself into the image of his camera gear. The Leica is the classic street photographer’s camera; therefore, my thinking went, in order to truly use it and get the hang of it, I MUST shoot on the street. Occasionally, that resulted in a decent image. The portrait below of my friend and colleague, Ben Salomon, was taken with the Leica M9.
Every so often, I’d come across an image I’d like. But more often than not, my efforts would be a wash. But this was a really amazing camera. Surely, the fault lay with me if I couldn’t get good images out of it. Well, yeah, kinda. The fault was with me – to a point. The trap that I fell into was allowing the Leica to dictate not just my technique, but also my style and genre. Since it was supposed to be a “great street camera”, I decided that I had to shoot street photography with it. That, unfortunately, was an awful, awful mistake.
Your equipment should never dictate the kind of shooting you do. I know it seems like obvious advice, and it is, but I realize now that even after years of doing this, I still fell into that newbie mistake. I suppose you could argue that it took the power and legacy of a camera (and a brand like Leica) to sway me, and there’s some truth to that. But ultimately it was my responsibility to shoot true to my preferred style and subject and I kinda had a big fail in that department. Which is truly tragic, because the Leica is an admirable performer no matter what you throw at it. Which is something that became all too obvious when I decided to put the camera and its gorgeous 16-18-21mm lens to use in landscape photography. The Leica has a pretty cool AEB (Auto Exposure Bracketing) mode. That HDR shot above was processed in Nik HDREfex Pro 2 off a 5-exposure burst.
I had similar results whenever I turned the camera to subjects I had an interest in. Strolling around near a beach in San Francisco, I took the shot below and was absolutely pleased as punch at the texture and “crunch” the Leica was able to capture.
Ditto for the graffiti on a wall at that same beach.
The Leica M9, it turned out, was capable of keeping up with my style and subjects just fine. To “push” it a bit, I threw a PocketWizard Plus III on it and stuck another one on a Canon 580EX II for a few quick portraits in the BorrowLenses front office.
The conclusion? Shoot what you know and love, not what you think you need to shoot just because you’re holding a Leica. Sadly, this was a realization that I came to toward the end of my time with the Leica. Had I come to it sooner, I would’ve put it to work in the studio or taken it on a trip down the coast. What I found in my limited time with this amazing bit of gear is that when you shoot with a Leica, you really do have to think a bit differently about your approach. The manual controls force you to slow down, to consider composition and exposure and timing. This is a camera that forces contemplation. That’s a good thing. Being forced to slow down leads to a much more thoughtful approach to photography and is one of the reasons I still shoot film. The Leica M9 brings that same focus on deliberation to the digital realm, and that’s a good thing.
I’m glad I took this time to work with the Leica. It fleshed out certain things for me — making me realize how much I love working in the studio versus out on the street, for example. It also revealed just how much Leica has grown beyond their origins, making a camera that excels in a variety of environments. If you’re into landscape, street photography, studio work, on-location portraiture or, really, any field that doesn’t require high framerates and super-tele lenses, give the Leica some consideration!