When it comes to choosing the gear I shoot, the name or logo that’s on it usually doesn’t factor in all that much. The gear that I choose to actually own, is the gear that I feel does the best job of creating the images that I want to create. I am very selective and careful about what I spend my money on and the gear I choose to own. If there is something I need for a particular shoot that I don’t already own, I simply rent it. Along with renting what I need, I also rent anything that I am interested in trying. Anything that strikes my interest, whether it be newly released gear or older film gear, I will rent first.
Recently the Leica M9 started to tickle my interest. I’ve been interested in shooting a rangefinder for a while now, and knowing other photographers that love their Leica systems they shoot with, I thought it was time. I rented an M9 along with a Voigtlander 35mm f/1.4 lens for a wedding and fell in love. A couple weeks later, I rented it again. This time it was more of a trial run to see if it was something I wanted to spend the money on purchasing. It never went back, and not only did I get it for a great price, but a percentage of the money I spent on renting it went towards the purchase.
Rather than writing a review, I wanted to instead share my experience as a wedding photographer with the M9 and explain a little about why I ultimately chose to not send the rental back. What made my decision even more interesting is that I had a D4S in my possession for reviewing, a camera I had initially thought I would really like. A rangefinder is a completely different beast than a DSLR, and choosing between the Leica M9 and the Nikon D4S was actually not a difficult decision to make once I got to spend a good amount of time shooting both of them. Let me explain why.
Growing tired of my heavy DSLR bodies, shooting with the Nikon Df really made me start to think about smaller and lighter options for my digital work. While the Df is still a DSLR, it is lighter and smaller than my other pro bodies. But it’s not just about the size and weight, it’s about the shooting experience. I simply enjoy shooting the Df better than my other DSLR bodies, both Canon and Nikon. Not only do I enjoy shooting it, but my clients feel a different experience, and are more intrigued by the Df than my other DSLRs, including the Nikon D4S. All of them create a digital image, but it’s about the process of getting there. Not once did I have a client show interest in the $6500 D4S, but bring the Nikon Df out and they almost always become more engaged and interested in what the images look like. The Leica is a similar experience.
Leica is known for being extremely high priced, and along with the history and “mystique,” as some would call it, it is a system that is either loved or hated. It’s also been considered the Rolex watch of cameras, a more expensive way of simply telling time, and a camera priced more for its name than its actual performance. Leica is expensive, but I can tell you this, there is more to a Leica than just its name. As an artist, the Leica M9 was refreshing to shoot with. Just like my medium format film cameras, it made me slow down. A unique shooting experience that is much different that of a DSLR. It inspires me and ultimately makes me a better photographer.
The rangefinder is different from the moment you pick it up and put it to your eye, no longer seeing through the lens like you do with an SLR. But for me, it’s not just about the experience, for me it’s also about the images that the M9 produce. The images have a unique look to them that I personally have fallen in love with and so far, my clients have too. The M9 has a full frame sensor, which packs an 18 megapixel CCD sensor made by Kodak, which also lacks an AA-filter like that of the Nikon D800 line-up. The images are crisp and have a lot of character along with pleasing and beautiful colors, providing a look that I find authentic and similar to film. With that being said, it’s these same qualities that leave a lot of photographers scratching their heads and wondering why so many love it.
The M9 does a horrible job in low-light, and the auto-focus is…well, there is none. The sensor doesn’t excel at high ISO and sucks in dynamic range. It has flaws when compared to cameras of newer technology, but Leica makes no attempts to hide from them. It’s part of the whole experience, and for those that understand what character is, the M9 has it. In good light, the image quality shines, but the graininess that comes along with bumping the ISO up resembles that more similar to film from what I’ve noticed, especially when converted to black and white. The Leica M-lenses also have a big part in the unique look and while the prices of the lenses alone are pretty shocking, there are less expensive options.
The thing that is special about the M9 is that Leica stayed true to its older technology from its early days, and while it is in fact all manual, it is very simple to use. The focusing system is the same as it was with their film cameras of old, which is much different than that of an SLR, and takes a little getting used to. There is no top LCD screen to see your settings, and the aperture settings are done on the lenses. The digital features are extremely simple and options are minimal to say the least. There aren’t any menu banks with tons of options to choose from, just one menu. Once set up, it’s a camera that you simply pick up and shoot. It does its job without getting in its own way. It lets the photographer do something that is often lost with all the newer technology, and that’s using their vision, imagination, and ideas to create an image without having technology interfere.
As an artist, I loved being able to use different mediums to push my creativity. Whether it be pencil drawing, oil painting, clay work, charcoal, or watercolor, each requiring unique skills and creating its own experience. Using different mediums in art not only helped make me a better artist, but enhanced my creativity. Photography is no different, and while classical artists may have disagreed for many years, it’s a medium. As a photographer now, pushing my creativity is no different and the gear that I use is not only about the images being created, but the experience that goes into it. Whether it be film or digital, as a photographer, we have never had such a wide selection of equipment to use as we do today. Choosing which to use as a creative tool can be challenging sometimes, especially when the cost of technology isn’t cheap. Leica is one of the most expensive names in the game, with both its cameras and lenses, but the price of them used can make them more affordable to those that don’t want to sell a kidney.
In the end, I chose to keep the M9 and not the D4S because of what it offered my wedding business, a fresh new look along with a whole new shooting experience. It can’t shoot at extremely high ISOs and may not be able to capture every moment as it plays out in front of you, but that’s not what I bought it for. I bought it to use as a tool, a new medium, to help bring a vision or idea to life. The M9 is more about the experience and creating unique images to me. It forces me to slow down. It gives me a chance to see things, feel things, and more importantly be creative in the process. I’m extremely happy with my decision to not only finally try the Leica, but purchasing it has made me truly enjoy photography again. If you’re interested in trying something new, and expanding your creative mind, I highly recommend giving the Leica M9 a try. Here is the exact kit that I rented and ultimately purchased – LEICA M9 + 35mm Voigtlander Nokton Classic
A few more images taken with the Leica M9: