Leica, the king of hand-built precision German cameras, has long been viewed as the ultimate camera for many of us. The Leica M was a camera to shoot for. One we all hoped at some point we could earn. Whether it was a classic M2 film camera, or a newer digital M, the Leica M has the pedigree, style, and the feeling that simply couldn’t be matched by anything else. The legendary Leica glass, the unique rangefinder focusing system, the all-manual control; it seemed so tactile and real. For years I dreamed of shooting with a Leica M9, and finally I was able to. For a week.
Be sure to check out our editor-in-chief’s review of the Leica M9.
I’m primarily a street shooter these days, so the Leica M fits my style perfectly. Many of my favorite street photographers shoot exclusively with Leicas, even going back to the 1930’s, when Robert Doisneau and Henri Cartier-Bresson were die-hard Leica shooters. The opportunity to shoot with a Leica M9 felt like a right of passage to me, as if I hadn’t truly experienced real street photography until I had used one.
Thanks to the guys over at Dale Photo and Digital, I had the opportunity to shoot with a Leica M9 for a week. I had two lenses, a 50mm Summilux ASPH, and a 50mm Summicron (more on this later), and a handful of memory cards to fill up. The streets were my oyster, and I was ready to take them on.
The camera was set to arrive on a Monday. I anxiously awaited the UPS delivery man all day, hoping there was even a sliver of daylight left by the time I had it in my hands.
The packaged arrived, and I felt like a kid on Christmas morning. I opened the box and finally, after years of dreaming, I was holding a Leica M9 in my hand. It was everything I had imagined. Solid. I’m not sure there’s any better word to explain the feeling of an M in your hands. The body is made almost entirely of magnesium alloy and machined brass, and the effect is an incredibly robust feeling piece of gear.
Let’s face it: it’s beautiful. Say what you will about Leicas, but the M is such an iconic and gorgeous looking camera. Holding it in your hand, you almost feel as if you’ve been taken back in time to the 1950’s. Leica has done such a wonderful job of creating this as an ode to their past, and it feels as much a Leica as any other I’ve ever held.
The Leica M9 reminds me so much of driving a BMW. Shooting with it, there’s no doubt that it is made with the finest craftsmanship and precision possible. True hand-built German engineering.
I was familiar with rangefinder shooting, but had never spent enough time with one to become comfortable with it. That said, the process felt very natural to me. Twisting the buttery smooth focus ring with my index finger and watching the focus patch overlay perfectly is such a satisfying feeling, and an entirely different experience than manually focusing a DSLR lens. It makes manual focusing fun, and the lack of autofocus never seemed to bother me.
Everything about shooting with the Leica M9 feels nostalgic. The LCD screen is absolutely horrendous by today’s standards, but it doesn’t matter because you won’t be looking at it. This feels like a classic film Leica in every possible way, and there’s something very tranquil about using it. It slows me down, and makes me think less about the technical details of the shot, and more about the whole composition. There are no aids. Even the framelines aren’t terribly accurate. It’s just a pure artistic connection between your eye and the tool.
Stunning. Yes, this camera is incredibly fun to shoot, but the resulting images are shockingly beautiful. Not to say it’s not without it’s flaws; auto white balance is easily flubbed, metering seems confused more often than not, and high ISO performance isn’t great. But when all the pieces work together and you’ve dialed things in properly, you will be rewarded with truly gorgeous images.
The first lens I shot with was the 50mm Summilux ASPH, which is arguably one of the most appreciated pieces of Leica glass in their lineup. Like all Leica lenses, it’s beautifully crafted and feels nearly indestructible. The bokeh is about as perfect as it gets, and it’s pretty sharp even wide open (f1.4). There’s nothing not to love about this lens.
Next up was the 50mm Summicron, a slower standard, but not without it’s charm. This is, by a wide margin, the sharpest lens I have ever shot with. The images shot with it wide open (f2) seem to push the limits of the resolution the sensor is capable of. This lens costs half of what the 50mm Summilux costs, and in my opinion is every bit as good.
So now I’ve done it. I’ve shot with a Leica M9 and I can move on with my life.
It’s not that simple. I’m dreaming about it nightly. I’ve never felt so attached to a piece of gear. It so quickly became what many describe as “an extension of the eye”, and it taught me so much about slowing down when shooting, and thinking critically about what I was about to capture.
The Fuji X100 has many of the same qualities as the M9, including the manual control and an excellent viewfinder, but it’s not nearly as visceral of a shooting experience. It doesn’t slow you down in the same way that the Leica does. It’s a step in the same direction, but it’s no substitute.
Will I buy one? In short: no. The cost of an M9 and a good chunk of Leica glass is well over $10,000, and that’s just not something I can justify right now. That being said, if a good deal on a used M8 came along, I’m not sure I could say no. Even the images from the M8’s older sensor are still breathtaking and incredibly unique.
Shooting a Leica M is unlike anything else out there, and boy, it is addicting.
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