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Why I Choose the Leica M9 Over the Nikon D4S – My Leica Experience

By Jay Cassario on August 7th 2014

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.

[RELATED: THE NIKON D4S – DOES IT NOT LIVE UP TO EXPECTATIONS?]

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.

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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.

[REWIND: Leica: Is It Really Worth The Price Tag]

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:

About

Jay Cassario is a fulltime photographer from South Jersey, owner of the multi-photographer wedding and portrait studio Twisted Oaks, and Brand Ambassador for Leica Camera USA.

WEBSITE: Jay Cassario
Personal Facebook: Jay Cassario
Business Facebook: Twisted Oaks Studio
Google Plus: Jay’s Google +
Twitter: @JayCassario

Q&A Discussions

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  1. Martin Garcia

    Do you use an expodisc or the likes to color correct your white balance or just use the in camera white balance? Thanks!

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    • J. Dennis Thomas

      Personally, I use the Auto WB on my M9-P. In some situations I’ll use the Kelvin settings, but I find the Auto WB pretty good.

      YMMV

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  2. J. Dennis Thomas

    I’m surprised I hadn’t read this earlier. It’s a great summary of why I use one (and the Df). I’ve made some of the same points in a few of my articles as well.

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  3. Rafael Steffen

    Thanks for sharing this interesting point of view.

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  4. Michael Moe

    thanks for sharing!

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  5. Joe Camera

    I didn’t read all the prior post so maybe someone already told you the process for low light minimal grain with an M9. But just in case it has not been mentioned here it is.
    Keep ISO at 600 or below (setup menu) then under expose by as much as 3 stops then push process in LightRoom. i.e. ISO 600 1/15 sec f1.4 can be pushed to an effective ISO 4800 which is pretty low light. Discovering the Leica DNG specific methods for post processing you will be able to achieve the result you seek with little effort. Like wise dynamic range, its there but the way to reveal it is not the same as with non-Leica products.

    Like all things Leica, the required workflow more closely follows traditional film photography and not contemporary digital. If you find something you can not do as you wish consult a Leica forum and there will be a way, it just may not be the same way as you would use on a DSLR or other non-Leica digital camera.

    Some may ask why Leica doesn’t just ‘make this easier’, it is easy its just not the same. For me Leica is easier than other digital systems, I can focus without thought, I can pre-focus a range so no focus is required for a shot. My mind, even peripherally is only on the image in my viewfinder which for me is the easier way. Different strokes for different folks :)

    Enjoy.

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  6. J. Cassario

    Mark, glad you liked the article, I appreciate the compliments. I am experiencing the same exact thing, where I have been shooting the M9 alongside of both my Nikon and Canon bodies, and once in LR I am pleasantly surprised at how many of the Leica images still are my favorites…and my clients. This makes me even more happy since I was very hesitant on spending the money that I did on it.

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    • Herm Tjioe

      The intangibles that you spoke of highly perhaps is the secret sauce to a higher level of creativity

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  7. J. Cassario

    Jeff, my clients book me because they are already wowed with my portfolio, they dont book me based on my gear. But it definitely makes a difference when your clients feel like you are using a unique camera to take their photo. Usually they have family members, friends, or even themselves sometimes that have DSLR cameras, so to get their picture taken by a DSLR is nothing new to them. Its a different experience, a different level of excitement for them, they are more into the shoot, when they feel that they are being photographed by a more unique camera. Im not alone on this one Jeff, there are many photographers that will tell you the same. So yes, while they hired me for my skill as a photographer, and my portfolio, its the experience for them during the actual shoot that I was referring to.

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  8. Mark Griffin

    Hi, great article and lovely images! I fell in love with the Leica many years ago and since then have owned and sold quite a few. I used my M9 along with my Canon kit many times on jobs and it always amazed me as I went through the edits in Lightroom that most of my picks were from the M9. It was the same for clients who often picked the M9 images for publication etc. As I was doing my fist edit in LR I would just 4 star my first picks and then in the library view them by camera and it always made me smile that so many of the Leica shots made it through. I have now purchased a Leica Monochrom and it blows me away every time I use it, I think I may have found the one camera I will never part with….

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  9. Jeff Rottman

    Does it really matter so much that clients are enamored by your camera? I would rather have them wowing over my sample portfolio. When you come down to it, it isn’t the camera, but the skill of the photographer that can land an assignment. Plus, I thought Leica was more about the lenses, rather than what body might be behind them.

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  10. Mark C

    Wow! You bought it!! Looking forward to seeing more of your personal work with the M9 Jay! Great write up and stellar images as always.

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  11. Tanya Smith

    Sounds so refreshing (the “simply just pick it up and shoot” part). Now I want to try one!

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  12. Sean John Zanderecza

    love this article, hate this article (cause now i want to get my hand on it haha)

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  13. Greg Royar

    Great article. It is refreshing to read and article like this with a different opinion rather than the same old sheep following articles about canon and nikon that everyone writes.

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  14. Austin Swenson

    I appreciate you bringing this topic up, I bought an old Minolta XD-11 dil camera for this exact reason. I think that learning how to use a tool like this makes you appreciate the mechanics and the basics of photography, and when you shoot with your regular gear, it changes how you shoot with that too. I think everyone could benefit from using a camera like this to slow down.

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  15. J. Cassario

    Steven, I never once had a client be intrigued by my camera when using a DSLR. I have had so many, like you said, think that I am taking their photo with film, or once I tell them it is actually digital, ask me if they can see it up closer. Its amazing how many people are still intrigued by the Df, whether it be clients, strangers at weddings, or other photographers. I have noticed the same with the Leica.

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    • Ralph Hightower

      This wasn’t a paid gig; it was a personal mission: to see and also photograph the final Space Shuttle mission. At a post-launch celebration party, a woman came up to me and asked me “You shooting film?” I replied “Yes” and she said “Cool!” and we exchanged fist=bumps.
      I went to an air show with six rolls of 36 exposure film; that was my budget. I had shot four rolls before the US Air Force Thunderbirds performance. I put a new roll of film in prior to the start of their performance. During their performance, I had to reload. After the close of the show and we were leaving, a veteran sitting next to me said “I know you got some good shots. I watched you occasionally.”
      I was taking photos at a rock concert and after one photo, my wife said after hearing the shutter and motor drive, “You nailed it” when the lasers passed by. One benefit of shooting film, lasers won’t fry the DSLR sensor.

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    • Herm Tjioe

      Hahahah . . .I hadn’t thought about the benefit of being laser-tolerant

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    • Rafael Steffen

      This is a great way to be able to experiment with other systems if you have the extra money to invest in a Leica. Sebastiao Salgado use to shoot with a Leica, now he shoots more with medium format, but he still carries around his Leica for candid moments.

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  16. Steven Pellegrino

    “… but my clients feel a different experience, and are more intrigued by the Df than my other DSLRs,”

    The Df is a beautiful camera. I shoot with Fuji X cameras and the X100 is what really gets the attention. People either think it’s a film camera or a Leica. When I’m out doing personal projects or shooting street photography I am always being asked about that camera. It happened a couple of hours ago at an art museum. I’ve gotten into more conversations with people because of the way my camera looked. It has broken down barriers with complete strangers and allowed me to get shots I wouldn’t have been able to get.

    Gregory Heisler talks about the same thing, but with large format cameras and how the people he has shot have taken a completely different attitude about the session. They take it more seriously and are more patient with the process.

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  17. Jason Switzer

    I would love to play around with a Leica for awhile. While I would ever ditch my Canon system, slowing down with a lightweight rangefinder sounds enticing. If I ever had the cash to invest in a second system, I’d take a hard look at Fuji’s mirrorless options. They’re not full frame, but they seem to take beautiful photos.

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  18. Geoffrey Van Meirvenne

    What do you do in low light situations such as churches? Do you use a DSLR then. I assume you don’t want to miss a special moment. i do see the value for portaits and details where you have time and usually better light

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    • J. Cassario

      Hi Geoffrey, I have a Df for low-light as well as a 5D MkIII for capturing special moments. I use the M9 when I have time to slow things down and get good portraits.

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  19. Adam Wold

    While the shooting experience might not be so easily replicated with a different camera, given the vast amount of film presets out there, do you think the character of the images can be recreated with Lightroom presets? If not, what specifically about the images cannot(easily) be recreated in post?

    Thanks!

    Adam

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    • Ric Donato

      Wow, I am four years late to this thread.

      Your questions are in two parts. One about using presets  is a common one. Here is my take: using presets attempting to mimic film is fakery, a way to fool your viewer, client, into thinking they are viewing a  film image. Fooling the viewer is not my goal, thus I shoot real film.  My observation is photographers using film presets are  more enamoured with their computer skills than photography skills. 

      When one wants the appearance of film, shoot with film.  Many excellent  film cameras are quite inexpensive, The other day I saw a Nikon F100 for less than $225. The F100 is an amazing camera used by many pro photographers. 

      Your other question: “…if not, what specifically about the images cannot (easily) be recreated in post?…”. Speaking to film presets: spending time in front of a computer moving sliders, adjusting settings, (fooling the viewer) is not the reason folks became involved with photography. 

      You want your images to have the appearance of film shoot film!purchase a film camera  the same brand as your digital camera. Use your digital lens on the film camera. Purchase a few rolls of film; have fun.  Use your outstanding digital camera for non film simulated captures.

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