The Leica M9 may not seem like a big deal in the 2020s, but back in 2009 this was a groundbreaking camera. It was the first full-frame digital rangefinder camera, which was small and compact and built on the success of the M8 and M8.2 models. The design was also counter to the full fat DSLRs of the time, harking back to the old days of photography with vintage design appeal.
Many wondered at the time if this little thing could compete with top-end DSLRs, but being a Leica product, consumers had little to worry about. But how does the camera hold up today and can it still compete in an ever-growing mirrorless market?
As the world’s first digital full-frame rangefinder camera, Leica had to produce not just a cute looking camera, but the workings to back it up. The Leica M9 is wrapped around an 18MP full-frame CCD sensor with a 14-Bit depth and utilizes two processors. Unfortunately, there are no video facilities, so this one is a pure stills workhorse.
The only real giveaway to its modern construction is the rear 2.5-inch LCD screen, with a 230,000 dpi resolution. It’s not great resolution, but at least it gives a semblance of a preview to what has been shot. The main way to view a scene is through the optical viewfinder, which sports framing lines and automatic parallax correction. If wide-angle lenses are used up to 28mm, than there is an optional hot shoe-mounted viewfinder available. Basic exposure information is displayed through the viewfinder, but it is rather simple.
One thing’s for sure, Leica cameras are built to last and the M9 is no exception. The main body construction is made from die-cast magnesium alloy, with the top and the bottom plates being made from brass. There is no convenient side door to access the battery or memory card, instead the bottom plate needs to be removed to access these items. This is very much like removing film from old-style film cameras.
Those familiar with the M8 model will feel right at home here, since only one or two buttons have been moved from the previous model. The rear of the camera has buttons for play, delete, ISO, info and set. There’s also a small menu button and four-way toggle controller to easily zip through the menu items.
Exposure compensation has to be done through the menu system, but at least there are four user profiles which can be assigned with their own characteristic settings. The top plate is a simple design, with just the power/shutter button surrounded by three settings plus an old school shutter speed dial.
The Leica M9 In Use
The ISO range of the M9 isn’t great by today’s standards – only 160-2,500 by default. This means that the noise starts to become visible in images from ISO 400 upwards. Center-weighted metering generally does a good job of hitting accurate exposures, with the only hiccups coming in with under- or overexposed images in high exposure areas. However, these are scenarios which would trip up most cameras.
While noise levels increase significantly as the ISO levels increase, these have to be compared to similar cameras of the time. In many ways noise levels are comparable to a Nikon D700.
Automatic white balance is generally accurate, but it’s also advisable to shoot predominantly in RAW for the most scope of tweaking after the event. Fed with enough light and the lowest ISO settings, images are finely detailed, with image anomalies being more down to the lens being used.
As this is a manual lens camera, apertures need to be changed via the ring on the lens. This, in reality, is a quick way to work once you get used to things. Plus, as Leica lenses are one of the reasons for buying into the brand, manual working just goes with the territory.
Chromatic aberration and chroma noise can easily creep in, especially in areas of shadow. However, this is balanced with excellent color rendition, especially with JPEGs and although only center-weighted metering is used, there are no complaints with general exposure settings.
For such a small and compact camera and lens combo, the Leica M9 is ideal for discreet street or travel photography. With a healthy selection of wide to telephoto lenses and enough light to keep ISO levels down, the M9 produces some very finely detailed images, which are rich in color and contrast.
How Does It Compare?
As the Leica M9 was the first full-frame rangefinder type camera, it would be a little unfair to compare it to modern offerings. Thus, we’ve omitted our usual comparison table. However, the Nikon D700 could be a likely candidate with its 12MP sensor, but with full DSLR credentials. The D700 is a better low-light performer and arguably has lower noise levels at the same ISO points.
However, the Leica M9 has that special extra something which you don’t get from a regular DSLR. It’s hard to quantify, like owning certain cars. Some vehicles may not have the latest features or be the most reliable, but in their niche way of working, the experience goes above and beyond.
Although the M9 isn’t faultless, combined with renowned Leica optics, this camera can produce some outstanding images. The images produced are up there with professional DSLRs of the day and still stand up today. You just have to be very aware of keeping the ISO levels low.
The optical viewfinder is basic, but the simplicity makes for a more straightforward workflow. The rear LCD screen isn’t the greatest and the white balance can be be thrown off at times, which means there are more capable cameras these days at a far lower price point.
Which brings us to the main downside of the M9 or Leica cameras in general. Even in today’s money, the M9 costs a pretty penny. Couple that with the price of a few lenses and you’re already into pro-level money. The lenses alone can justify the price with their extraordinary reputation, but do you really want to be spending nearly $2k on a camera body that is over 10 years old?
For some, the answer will be ‘yes’ simply because it is a Leica. A resolution of 18 megapixels is still worthy and as an object it’s a very beautiful thing. The other argument is that Leica cameras hold their price, so you will initially have to dig deep to buy into the camera, but its value won’t drop like a traditional DSLR.
If you are in the market for a very niche and very exclusive camera with exceptional design principles and a fantastic range of lenses, then the Leica M9 fits the bill. Plus, hover a Leica camera around any photographer types and you instantly get increased street cred. Just like an old Ferrari – they are specialist, cost the most, and need the most expensive part. But, you will be so proud of owning one.