Leica M9 £4895
22nd Aug 2011 | 11:28
The 18MP digital camera with a full-frame sensor proves doubters wrong
Overview and features
The Leica M9 is the camera that M-series photographers have been waiting a long time for.
It's Leica's first digital rangefinder complete with a full-frame sensor, which allows mounted lenses to be used at their true focal length.
Although it continues a range that's well into its fifth decade, digitally speaking the Leica M9 builds on the M8 and M8.2 models released over the past five years, and in many respects isn't far removed from those. Leica has, however, now managed to integrate a larger sensor into the same size body as before, and claims to have worked around the issues associated with doing so. It sounds impressive, but can something so small really deliver images to rival the best DSLRs?
Marginally cheaper than Canon and Nikon's most senior full-frame DSLR offerings - the Canon EOS 1Ds and Nikon D3x- the Leica M9 is the smallest full-frame digital camera available. Building on the digital M8 and M8.2, which each sported APS-H CCD-sized sensors, it incorporates a full-frame alternative that holds a respectable 18MP.
The sensor uses a micro lens construction that offsets the lenses towards the peripheries. This maximises their light-gathering capabilities and minimises corner shading – a trouble spot with wide-angle, wide-aperture cameras.
Leica's digital camera has two processors to help sort through images quickly – which you need when dealing with 18MP RAW and JPEG images at the same time.
With a fast SDHC card in place, we managed six or seven consecutive RAW and JPEG (or simply RAW) files before the Leica M9 stopped us. It takes a while for the camera to flush these out to the card, although once it's processed a few it's ready to carry on shooting.
Fortunately, Leica uses Adobe's DNG RAW format, which is instantly compatible with Adobe Camera Raw, and, fittingly, a copy of Lightroom is supplied with the camera as standard.
Video recording for home movies and Live View were both left out of the Leica M9, as the nature of the CCD's operation ruled out their inclusion.
Captured images are displayed on a 2.5-inch LCD screen, at 230,000 dpi resolution. This is pretty basic for even a cheap compact camera, so to see one on a rangefinder that costs over £4,000/$7,000 is disappointing. It can be difficult to see in bright light, and when zooming into images it can take a while to fully render details, but it's usable the rest of the time.
The Leica M9's viewfinder features automatic parallax correction and framing lines for composition. These change according to the lens used and are displayed in pairs, so that 35mm and 135mm are shown together, as are 28mm and 90mm, and 50mm and 75mm. As these only work up to a minimum focal length of 28mm, external hot shoe-mounted viewfinders are available for shorter focal lengths, from 18mm up to 28mm.
Inside the finder, exposure information is displayed in a style as minimal as the camera itself –four LEDs show numerical information such as shutter speed, and a handful of symbols indicate exposure-related information, such as under and overexposure.
Composition and focusing happens through the camera's finder. This is sized to be larger than field of view of the lens used (down to 28mm), and it displays the most basic exposure information in large red LED.
Focusing requires the lens ring to be rotated until the floating image lines up with the one visible through the viewfinder. This needs to be done carefully and accurately, or else the image won't be sharp when viewed at 100%.
Diopter correction is possible to help with this, although only through a supplementary lens attached over the viewfinder, available in -3 to +3 diopter strengths, which needs to be bought separately.
Build quality and handling
Leica is renowned for the longevity of its cameras as much as it is for the high quality of its optics, and the M9 doesn't disappoint.
The rangefinder shell is built from a die-cast magnesium alloy, while the top and bottom plates are made from brass. The whole bottom plate needs to be removed to access the digital camera's battery and card, and while this is slightly awkward, it does give the camera far more protection than a simple plastic door.
Everything is clearly designed and built to last for years of service, right down to the powerful spring that releases the rangefinder's battery.
In terms of design, the Leica M9 adheres to the M-series motif, and differs only slightly from the M8. The battery display/shot indicator has disappeared from the camera's top plate, while on the rear the only change is an ISO button in place of the M8's Protect control.
Sensitivity is easily accessed, and with the Set button beneath this so are the rest of the camera's key controls, such white balance and file type. But it'd be helpful to have a way of manually adjusting exposure compensation, rather than having to go through the menu to do so.
Although the camera's buttons are small, they're well spaced apart from each other, and each is clearly labelled. Once you as a photographer are familiar with the menu system, nothing is particularly difficult to access, and the 28 menu options appear in a single long list.
There are even four user profiles that may have settings assigned to them, although none of the external controls can be customised to bring up a function of your choosing.
Handling is a mixed experience on the Leica M9. Although the large body means you can hold the camera without inadvertently knocking any controls, there's no grip or contouring.
The strap lug on the side of the camera's body protrudes into the palm of your hand. It's far more comfortable to slot this between your index and middle finger, although accessing the shutter release buttons and drive mode options becomes difficult if you have anything but the largest hands. Should you find all this to be an issue, you can buy a grip that fits into the camera's tripod thread.
With its full-frame sensor, the Leica M9 compares favourably with the Sony Alpha 900 and Canon EOS 5D Mark II, with similar noise levels to both cameras at lower sensitivities. But the results show it struggles as sensitivity is raised.
Dynamic range is much the same, with excellent results on low sensitivities and a slightly weaker performance higher up. With its less populated sensor it's no surprise that the Nikon D700 manages to outshine the Leica M9 for both dynamic range and noise control, although this is still a commendable performance for such a small camera.
Although the camera uses a centre-weighted metering pattern as standard, exposures are generally correct.
Throughout the hundreds of images shot for this test, the only ones which resulted in any exposure errors tended to be those that could easily fool most cameras, such as those with larger areas of sky or clouds (most of the exposure errors tended to be under rather than overexposed, even in situations when the latter was expected). It'd be interesting to see whether a multi-pattern system would improve its hit rate.
Auto white balance systems are never faultless, but the occasional inconsistencies from the Leica M9's system are worrying, particularly as many mistakes occur under natural light. In a number of daylit situations the camera veered off towards a slight green or blue cast, resulting in images being slightly colder than expected, although the handful of mistakes it made under mixed lighting were more understandable.
Of course, with a range of in-camera presets and a manual option, this issue isn't insurmountable, and for RAW shooters, slight amendments to white balance are likely to be standard post-processing tasks. But this unreliability is unfortunate, as when the camera gets it right, the colours are superb.
On the Standard settings, JPEGs see a slight injection of vibrancy over their RAW counterparts, and the mood of the scene is retained with aplomb.
Noise features somewhat earlier than expected in the digital camera's sensitivity range, with a noticeable shift at around ISO 800. Images past this point show a moderate amount of finely-textured chroma noise, which our lab testing confirms is slightly behind Nikon's D700 and Canon's EOS 5D Mark II.
For detail and resolution, though, the Leica M9 rangefinder scores highly. At lower sensitivities the camera resolves remarkable detail, and with the correct technique and a good lens, sharpness extends faultlessly to the very edges and corners of the frame.
We were also pleased to see little corner shading throughout photos, typically only being noticeable when actually looking for it, although this will obviously vary between lenses, apertures and different subjects.
Slightly concerning is the level of chromatic aberrations throughout images, even with some of the better optics in the M-series range. JPEG processing only seems to have a slight effect at reducing these chromatic aberrations, too – in some cases even being more visible in JPEGs on account of their contrast.
The slight boost in contrast does, however, help to define edges in JPEG files, although some of the finer scene details appear to be lost in the process.
Nevertheless, sharpness in JPEGs is satisfactory, while the overall JPEG processing is certainly better than that seen in Leica's X1.
Many photographers will no doubt be more interested in processing the camera's RAW files instead, and these provide a detailed and clean starting point for further processing, particularly at lower sensitivities.
Image quality and resolution
As part of our image quality testing for the Leica M9, we've shot our resolution chart with the Leica APO-Summicron-M 75mm f/2 ASPH lens mounted.
If you view our crops of the resolution chart's central section at 100% (or Actual Pixels) you will see that, for example, at ISO 200 the Leica is capable of resolving up to around 28 (line widths per picture height x100) in its highest quality JPEG files.
Examining images of the chart taken at each sensitivity setting reveals the following resolution scores in line widths per picture height x100:
ISO 80, score: 22 (see full image)
ISO 160, score: 26 (see full image)
ISO 200, score: 28 (see full image)
ISO 250, score: 28 (see full image)
ISO 320, score: 26 (see full image)
ISO 400, score: 26 (see full image)
ISO 500, score: 26 (see full image)
ISO 640, score: 24 (see full image)
ISO 800, score: 24 (see full image)
ISO 1000, score: 24 (see full image)
ISO 1250, score: 24 (see full image)
ISO 1600, score: 22 (see full image)
ISO 2000, score: 22 (see full image)
ISO 2500, score: 20 (see full image)
Noise and dynamic range
We shoot a specially designed chart in carefully controlled conditions and the resulting images are analysed using the DXO Analyzer software.
Signal to noise ratio
A high signal to noise ratio (SNR) indicates a cleaner and better quality image.
JPEG images from the Leica M9 show less noise throughout the sensitivity range than the Sony Alpha 900. Despite the M9 producing a similar signal to noise ratio as the Nikon D700 at ISO 3200, at all other values the D700, and Canon EOS 5D MK II both show better handling of noise.
This chart indicates that the Leica M9's JPEGs have a at least a 1.5EV lower dynamic range than the comparison cameras JPEG files across the sensitivity range.
Although the auto white balance system is prone to the odd error, usually it behaves itself and reproduces tones and colours faithfully.
The metering system isn't faultless, though, as this slightly underexposed image shows
Although darker subjects are good candidates for overexposure, the M9's metering system has done well to meter this scene accurately.
Taken with the 24mm f/1.4 Summilux-M Asph, sharpness is well maintained right up to the corners of the frame but chromatic aberrations are noticeable.
This image required the camera's sensitivity to be set to ISO 1600, which has introduced a fair helping of chroma noise, particularly in shadowy areas.
Our Best Shot: Peppers and herbs
Colour: When the camera's auto white balance system gets things right, JPEGs shot on their standard settings show excellent colour
Exposure: The centre-weighted metering system has exposed perfectly for these peppers, as well as for the image as a whole
Lens: Taken with the Apo-Summicron-M 75mm f/2 ASPH lens, this image shows no distortion or chromatic aberration
Leica describes the M9 as an investment for life, and in its build quality it's easy to understand its confidence. For existing M-mount users it's the next logical progression from either analogue M-series bodies or the M8/M8.2, and in terms of its resolution it's unrivalled for such a small camera.
Combined with high-quality optics - generally a given with Leica - it really can produce remarkable images. Photos have excellent detail, sharpness extending well into the corners and edges of the frame and beautiful out-of-focus characteristics. It really can produce images that are comparable in quality to those from a professional DSLR – but at a cost.
Just because it can produce excellent images, it doesn't mean it always does, with the auto white balance performance heading a small list of grievances.
A large and clear viewfinder, combined with a rock solid build and attention to detail. The simplicity of its operation makes it an enjoyable camera to use, while the sensor is capable of resolving plenty of details.
A small and low-resolution LCD, together with a few handling issues and often erroneous auto white balance performance mean that the Leica M9 isn't quite the dream digital camera many would imagine it to be.
Leica M8 and M8.2 owners should know that although the pixel pitch has remained the same with the new M9 model, Leica claims to have improved noise performance.
There's also a thicker UV/IR filter built-in and an extra processor, as well as the more obvious difference of their being no crop factor for lenses.
A difference of around £2,000 separates the two models, which is significant.
Although it doesn't have any immediate rivals as such, the availability of M-mount adapters for compact system models (and the Ricoh GXR series) does at least provide a few viable, and far cheaper, alternatives for those with a few M-series lenses.
Coupled with the fact that the M9 is already beginning to show its age it, it's difficult to see Leica winning too many new customers. But then this isn't a camera necessarily designed to compete with others, rather an update to a long-revered series of beautifully crafted cameras with photo image quality very much as the priority.
The Leica M9 is a beautifully-crafted camera, capable of excellent image quality. Although its price puts it out of the reach of many, the lucky few are unlikely to feel disappointed with the results of which it's capable.