This 18MP digital rangefinder is truly worthy of the legendary brand.
Leica had a hard time switching to digital. Focus issues delayed the digital back for R-series SLRs, the infrared filter in the M8 rangefinder had to be augmented with special filters for lenses, and Leicaphiles had to wait years for an M-series camera with a sensor as big as a frame of 35mm film.
Now the wait is over. With its new M9 ($6,995, street, body only), Leica has delivered its first digital rangefinder truly worthy of the legendary brand. Its 18MP CCD sensor provides resolving power that should satisfy film lovers. And our other tests in the Pop Photo Lab produced admirable results for color accuracy, noise, and overall image quality.
But if you haven't used a Leica M before, there are a few things you should know. The M9 is not a DSLR, so framing works quite differently. And you will forego nearly all of the familiar automatic features, from autofocus to program autoexposure, in favor of manual control.
Going on safari? Bring another camera, because the longest tele you can use on the M9 is 135mm. Want to shoot in low light? Buy a fast lens (such as Leica's extraordinary 50mm f/0.95 Noctilux- $9,995, street), since ISO is capped at 2500. Evaluative metering? Forget it. Video? Dream on. The watchword is simplicity.
Focus And Framing
While the M9 uses a through-the-lens (TTL) metering system, you don't actually look through the lens when framing as you do (albeit indirectly, using mirrors) with a DSLR. Instead, you look through the rangefinder.
The Leica gathers two images through small windows next to the lens. One image is overlaid atop the other in the center of the finder. Then, as you focus the camera (manually), the overlaid portion in the center moves from side to side-align the images, and you're focused. It's an ingenious solution that can make focusing in dim light easier than with many DSLRs.
But it's not without drawbacks. Manual focusing doesn't come close to the speed of today's AF systems. And you have to pay attention to the framing lines in the finder, which change automatically based on a 6-bit code on the lens, which tells the camera the focal length. (With older optics, you can input the focal length in a menu or send the lens to Leica to add the code.)
The M9 has framing lines for 28 and 90mm, 35 and 135mm, or 50 and 75mm. Showing them in pairs doesn't get confusing, though, because it's easy enough to discern the differences. But since your view through the finder doesn't zoom in, you use only a small portion of it when framing a shot at 135mm.
Also, since you can visually confirm focus only in the center of the finder, it can be tricky to focus on an off-center subject while trying to frame a scene quickly.
All Leica rangefinder lenses, however, have clearly marked distance and depth-of-field scales printed on them. That means that if you know how far away you are from your subject, you can set the distance and worry only about framing the scene. With a little careful practice, you'd be surprised at how good a judge of distance you can become.
Focusing in advance this way can be quite useful, especially for street photography. The depth-of-field scales are near-indispensable for this kind of shooting, as they give you a sense of how much is in focus. And with a wide-angle lens, which also tends to give you more depth of field, you can grab amazingly candid images by shooting without looking through the finder at all.