Leica M9 hands-on; or, The Tao of Leica

For most amateur photographers, Leica's legendary M System represents a virtually unobtainable holy grail, a line of cameras so unspeakably expensive, rare, and coveted that even having the opportunity to hold one -- much less own one -- is a somewhat unrealistic goal. Why is that, exactly? It's a combination of things, really; sure, Leica's brand cachet undoubtedly factors into it, but in reality, it's much, much more than that. For our money, nothing demonstrates that better than a day or two with the M9, the company's latest flagship rangefinder with an 18 megapixel CCD sensor sourced from Kodak.

And what, exactly, does it feel like to carry $11,695 worth of rangefinder body and lens around? Follow the break.

For anyone coming from a DSLR -- or any modern point-and-shoot, really -- handling the M9 for the first time is a shock. It's both simple and foreign, small yet unspeakably substantial. It's not quite like anything we'd ever used. Don't let its size fool you -- even though it's significantly smaller than your average SLR (think Micro Four Thirds size), it weighs a ton, speaking volumes about its all-metal construction. Seriously, you won't find an ounce of plastic on the M9 unless there's a great reason for it; every indicator is engraved, the battery / SD card cover is solid steel, and not a single square inch of the camera hints at cutting costs. You get what you pay for.

But let us rewind for a moment. Leading up to our brief time with the M9, we had a lengthy (and genuinely enlightening) phone conversation with Leica's Justin Stailey, a man who could very well be regarded as the foremost M System expert in the US today (to put things in perspective, his personal M9 is already worn down to the brass beneath the black paint on the corners, and the camera's been out for less than a year). Basically, the dude knows his stuff. "If you're going to put us head-to-head against the D3s, we know we're going to lose," Stailey said, on no uncertain terms, just moments into the call. "That's not what we're about."

If it's not about besting other cameras -- some of which are thousands cheaper -- what is the M9 about, then?

The answer to that isn't so simple, but it revolves around the fact that there's a romance in photography, a certain philosophy and emotion that's threatened by modern technology; the disappearance of film and the darkroom certainly plays a role in that, but it's just the tip of the iceberg. You see, virtually all journalists shooting Nikon and Canon DSLRs in the field will tell you that manual focus is a last resort, an override that you only dare invoke when autofocus fails you -- it's a safety net. Modern AF has gotten so good, and so unbelievably fast, that the safety net is rarely needed. It's much more than that, though: a 1D Mark IV on full auto will expertly configure shutter speed, aperture, white balance, focal point, and ISO equivalency to make you look like a regular Ansel Adams with just a single push of your right index finger, and it'll do it up to ten times a second. The thought and the human touch have been replaced with cold, robotic precision -- and arguably, perfection.

Stailey told us that most photographers new to rangefinders will spend the first roughly half day cursing the M9 and its quirks, but then something -- something -- happens, and they never want to put it down again. That's exactly the process we found ourselves going through: why isn't it focusing? Where's the aperture dial on the body? Why can you see the lens in the lower right corner of the viewfinder? How do you put it in video mode? Why, for the love of all that is good and pure, isn't it focusing?
But then you settle into it, and the camera just sort of melts away. It's hard to explain, but it simply isn't about the camera anymore, it's just about the shot. We found that the M9 walks this weird line that we didn't even know existed: it's both manual enough so that you've got to think about composing your shots, but intuitive enough so that you really don't. You don't have 13 different readouts in the LCD below the viewfinder, just a simple three-LED indicator to let you know how you're looking for exposure based on your current settings.

The rangefinding system makes the M9 just about the easiest way to manually focus you can imagine, and an experienced Leica photographer could likely out-focus a modern AF camera in a variety of situations (dark subjects, for example). A rectangle in the center -- the "metering field" -- shows a double image when you're out of focus (just like your eyes). Rotate the focus ring on the lens until the two images come together, and you're golden. At this point, you can read the distance to the subject off the top of the lens, and it'll be dead accurate. The bright lines around the center indicate different frames for different lenses; the default is 50mm / 75mm, but depending on your attached lens, you can change the lines to indicate 35mm / 135mm or 28mm / 90mm by flipping a switch on the front of the camera. The dual-lens concept is nice here since it lets you quickly get an idea of how your shot would be framed at different levels of zoom.

After you've framed the shot and focused, you press the shutter button just as you would with any other camera (of course, there'll only be one detent since you've handled the focusing yourself). The shutter sound is a strangely effective way of gauging the quality of a camera -- listen to the shutter on a D700 or D3 versus the shutter on a D40, and you'll see what we mean -- and the M9 is no exception. There's an almost film advance-like quality to it, as though the camera is actually forwarding to the next frame on a roll of 35mm that doesn't exist. Considering the fact that Leica's film-based M7 is still sold today, we think that's strangely appropriate.

Turning our attention to more practical matters, we tested the M9 with a 4GB Eye-Fi Pro. At first, we thought we were running into compatibility issues despite claims on Eye-Fi's site to the contrary -- pictures were coming out with odd red and green banding patterns, save and preview operations were taking forever and a day, and the camera would occasionally reboot itself -- but a few battery pulls later, we were good to go. Like everything else about the M9, the camera's software interface is designed to get out of your way and stay there; it's not fancy, it's not complicated, it's not particularly pretty, and it's just enough to get the job done. ISO sensitivity -- nearly as important as shutter speed and aperture -- gets its own dedicated button, and otherwise, you might find that you almost never touch the controls. A dial on the top right controls shutter speed, but an "A" setting there doesn't stand for Automatic -- it's actually Aperture Priority, because the M9 features no fully-automatic mode. Aperture is controlled via a ring on the lens, just like in the good old days.


This all leads us back to the core question that we have to answer when reviewing any product, regardless of its price, market, or function: would we actually buy the M9? As an alternative to a similarly-priced DSLR and a cache of pro lenses, absolutely not -- the Leica can't replace many of your SLR's capabilities, nor does it try to. Heck, there's only one macro lens in the M System's stable, a 90mm f/4 that we're told isn't particularly good, and the longest telephoto is a measly 135mm. But if you're looking for the ultimate way to get back to photography's roots -- a way to make your photographs about the life you're capturing, not about the camera itself -- you'll be hard-pressed to find a product that can out-shoot the M9. As Stailey told us, bringing an SLR with you automatically turns you into an attraction; people want to know what you're shooting. The M9 is small enough to have with you all the time, perhaps with a second lens in your pocket (they're pretty small), and you're still able to get pro results. You're capturing events, people, and things that you never would've captured before.

Of course, the $7,000 asking price for the body alone (don't even ask about lenses) is enough to keep it firmly in the clutches of financially prudent enthusiasts and those with entirely too much money on their hands -- and for a company that's having a very, very difficult time keeping up with demand, that's just fine.

The Leica mystique continues.