The Leica M9: The Ultimate Street Photography Camera or Just Hype? My Practical Review

Leica M9

My Leica M9P* (gaffer tape upgrade) and 35mm Summilux 1.4. 

Background

About a few months ago, I finally achieved one of my lifetime goals: purchasing a digital Leica (the Leica M9 to be specific). Although I was enthralled by the camera the first month I tested it (when Leica loaned me one for my Paris trip as well as a 35mm Summilux) the initial glitz and glamor faded away. However after shooting with one, I knew I wanted to get one nonetheless for a variety of reasons (explained in this article).

For this review I am going to give you my honest review of the camera, not focusing much on the technical aspects (other sites have already done this to death) but how it actually performs when it comes to shooting street photography. Considering that I have only been shooting with the camera around 3 months—I am not an expert with the Leica M9. However having shot with it enough when it comes to street photography, I am very confortable discussing how it performs when shooting on the streets.

What is a rangefinder?

Before starting off, I think it is important to discuss what exactly a rangefinder is and how it differs from a DSLR or any other camera out there.

A rangefinder is a type of camera that is much smaller in form factor, yet still has interchangeable lenses. Leica was the first company to produce the modern 35mm camera as we know it. It also doesn’t have a mirror in it, which results in a quieter shutter and less vibration when you are taking photos.

Rangefinders use optical viewfinders that don’t go through the lens. Therefore what you see through the viewfinder is not what your lens actually sees. Also the focusing mechanism is through two patches that you can stack up with one another. Oh yeah, and it is only manual focus. There are other technical differences, to consider but I will not go into detail about this in this article. 

Why rangefinders?

Leica isn’t the only company that produces (or has produced) rangefinders. You can find old film rangefinders by Contax, Canon, and several other companies.

The benefits of a rangefinder for a street photographer is primarily size, ease of use, as well as being discrete. The form factor is far less threatening than a modern DSLR, the shutter is quieter, and you don’t have to deal with a lot of functions or settings. Everything is done through dials.

Leica M9 Review by Eric Kim

Top of the m9

As I am writing this, Leica is the only company to currently produce a digital rangefinder. (Epson made one in the past—the RD series, which is currently very difficult to find). 

Focusing on a Leica

For those of you who have never shot with a rangefinder before, it is very intuitive but difficult to get used to. Pretty much to sum up the experience, when you look through the viewfinder you will see two little boxes. To focus, you want to stack the two boxes on top of one another to get your subject in-focus. Some people claim that they can manually focus as fast as an autofocus camera, but I feel that this will only be possible after decades of practice.

When it comes to street photography, I never focus. I pre-focus my camera to 1 meter using a 35mm and use an aperture of f/16-f/8 and zone focus my camera. When you are shooting street photography, everything happens so quickly so you don’t have the time to focus.

Leica M9 Review by Eric Kim

Zone Focusing at f/16

Another benefit of shooting with the Leica, is that the 35mm 1.4 Summilux lens I use has a depth-of-field scale embedded on the lens. Therefore I will know exactly what will be in focus, depending on my aperture and what I have my lens pre-focused to.

Leica glass

Leica makes the sharpest and most beautiful lenses out there, hands-down. Not only that, but it also makes it very convenient that all their lenses have a depth-of-field scale embedded, which makes zone focusing much easier (many modern DSLR lenses don’t have this feature).

I haven’t done any scientific tests in terms of the sharpness of my images, but I can definitely vouch they are extremely sharp. The only lens I currently shoot with is the 35mm 1.4 Summilux (the previous version) and when I blow up my files to 100% I am amazed by the sharpness.

But is sharpness everything? I disagree. When I am uploading photos to the web, I can’t tell a different in image quality between a Leica M9, Canon 5D, or even a Ricoh GRDIII. Having this extra sharpness would only be beneficial if you were to blow up your photos extremely large. Even so, I feel that using unsharp mask in Photoshop or any post-processing software makes this concept of “sharpness” irrelevant. As Henri Cartier-Bresson said himself, “Sharpness is a bourgeois concept.” If you want to save some money on glass, check out the Voigtlander lenses which are far cheaper. Not as great optically, but get the job done.

Bokehlicious?

Bokeh is something highly overrated in street photography. I have the 35mm 1.4 Summilux and the only time I ever shoot at 1.4 is of my friends sitting down at restaurants. With a ton of experience it is possible to shoot at 1.4, but this is nearly impossible when your subject is moving.

But if bokeh is what you are going after, I can definitely say if you shoot wide-open it does give you a very “creamy” and “dreamy” look. Whenever I am shooting portraits of my friends at 1.4, I always love commenting on how “bokehlicious” the images look. But like I mentioned before, shooting manually at 1.4 is nearly impossible for moving subjects. For street photography stick to zone focusing at a high f-stop like f/11-f/16.

The feel

The Leica is built like a tank, is heavier than you would expect, and oozes of quality. It is very well-crafted, and I am sure it will last a lifetime. Not only that, but I am sure it can take a nice beating too.

The buttons are nice and responsive, the shutter dial on top clicks precisely, and the camera body’s texture is nice and tough.

People are always surprised to see how heavy the Leica M9 is when they first hold it—I would say it is comparable to weight to my Canon 5D (a bit lighter). However it is definitely far more compact and easy to shove into a bag.

Battery life

I know a lot of people out there complain about the battery life of the Leica M9. Most people report that they need at least two batteries to last them a full day.

I have turned off the auto-preview on my LCD screen, and have found that a battery can last me an entire day if I don’t look at my LCD screen too much. I also keep the “auto-power-off” featured turned off—which should theoretically drain more of my battery.

However if you go shooting for an entire day with the LCD screen on, you will probably need two batteries to make it through the entire day.

The LCD screen

Back of the M9. A bit dirty

One of the downsides of the Leica M9 is that the LCD screen isn’t great. The resolution is quite low, and if you are shooting with a high-ISO the image preview shows the image before noise reduction, which makes the images look very noisy. However once you import your photos into your computer, they look fine. Not only that, but the screen doesn’t “auto-rotate” which many of us nowadays are accustomed to.

However if you are shooting street photography, you should rarely be checking the LCD screen anyways, unless you are trying out new settings to check your exposure, focus, etc.

The High-ISO capability 

I shot with my Canon 5D for around two full years when shooting street photography, and have been shooting with the Leica M9 for around 3 months. I would say the ISO performance is pretty similar, although the Canon 5D is a bit better.

I shoot at ISO 2500 (the maximum) with my Leica M9 all the time and find the files to look fine. However if I shoot at ISO 2500 and try to push my photos a stop above in exposure (in post-processing) the images become too noisy in my opinion. My Canon 5D seemed to handle 3200 ISO without much of a sweat, and would even create “acceptable” images when pushed to 6400 (3200 pushed a stop above). Also if I could compare, I would say that the ISO 1600 on the Leica M9 look similar to the ISO 3200 files on my Canon 5D.

How it performs on the street

Enough about the technical settings and appearances of the camera. As every camera in street photography—they are tools. So how well does it perform when shooting in the street?

The first thing I noticed is that it is far less intimidating to the average on-looker than a DSLR. Many people mistake the M9 to be a toy-camera, or even an old-school film camera. When I would point my Canon 5D at people, people would be taken back by the large body and suppose I looked like a professional (and feel more intimidated). With the Leica M9, they think I am only an amateur or hobbyist, strolling around and taking photos.

Another benefit of the Leica M9 is the bright and clear optical viewfinder. In my experience this is one of the most important things when shooting on the street. Compared to a DSLR, there is no “blackout” when I am taking a photo because the viewfinder is optical, and doesn’t see scenes through the lens. Also it gives me a more full view of the scene, so I can see people walking into my frame from the left and right, while a DSLR will only show you the perspective of the lens.

Adjusting settings on-the-fly with the M9 is also straight-forward and simple. With the shutter speeds on a dial on top, with the aperture settings on the ring of the lens, and the ISO button easily accessible in the back—I don’t have to worry about digging through menus to change a few settings. Even better, the aperture-priority mode of the M9 makes life very easy when it comes to zone-focusing as well. I keep my aperture at around f/11-f/16, ISO at around 800-2500, and just look through the viewfinder to make sure my shutter speed is above 320ths/second.

Ergonomics

Although the Leica is comfortable to shoot with when shooting with two hands, I feel it a bit awkward to handle with one hand. There are many ways that people have added to the ergonomics of the camera, from adding a “Thumbs-up” grip, to adding a Leica grip, or a Luigi half-case shell with a handgrip built-in. I would use a thumbs-up grip but my problem is that I use the hotshoe mount for my flash, so I can’t do that. I plan on trying out the Leica grip (played with it once, but don’t remember if I preferred it). I might also consider getting the Luigi case, but I heard it is a bit annoying to remove when I want to take out my SD card or change my battery.

Leica M9 Review by Eric Kim

My Custom SLR Strap

I currently use the Custom SLR glidestrap with my M9, which attaches to the baseplate of the M9. Therefore I don’t have to hold my camera all day when shooting—I let it dangle off to the side and hold it with one hand (to make sure it doesn’t hit any poles or anything when I am out walking). I have found this to be an easy way to carry around the M9 for an entire day, as I don’t always have to hold it in my hand. I know other people who like to use a wrist-strap coupled with a thumbs-up or a Leica grip, which some people swear by.

Leica M9 Review by Eric Kim

Bottom of my M9

The shutter sound

I think the Leica M9 makes one of the most beautiful shutter sounds of all the digital cameras out there. It sounds like butter, and has a very mechanical sound to it.

However don’t be fooled. The shutter is not silent. It is definitely audible to the person across from you, especially if it is quiet out there. It is probably half the sound of a DSLR, but sounds more like a “clicking” of a film camera than a “clacking” of a DSLR. If you are looking for a camera with a nearly silent shutter, look at the Fujifilm FinePix X100. The “leaf shutter” of the X100 is practically silent (but almost too silent—I don’t know when I am taking a photo).

The price

The Leica M9 definitely isn’t cheap. It retails at around $7000, and the “cheapest” Leica glass out there starts at $2000. Therefore after buying a few accessories and this and that, it will probably run you around $10,000 new. However if you buy your gear used, I have seen Leica M9’s as cheap as $6000 and used lenses as cheap as $500 (Voigtlander lenses). Therefore a “budget” M9 kit will run you around $6500.

Is it “Worth it?”

You don’t need a Leica M9 to take great photos. I have seen people take horrible photos with the M9, and many street photographers out there are even using iPhone’s to take photos (with great success).

Spending around $6,500-10,000 on a camera is a ton of money and can be seen as a waste to many. However I know friends who spend $50,000+ on a new luxury car. Considering the price of an average car is around $25,000—spending $25,000 more on a car that gets you from point A to point B doesn’t make any sense to me.

After getting my Leica M9 I haven’t taken better photos than I was taking with my Canon 5D, and don’t be fooled into thinking that it will. However the benefits I have seen is that it is easier to use, more compact, more discrete, more versatile, and takes sharper photos. If you like shooting with a rangefinder (but want a digital rangefinder) I say try shooting with the Leica M8 first. It is only $2500 used, and picking up a 28mm Voigtlander lens for around $500 can give you a Digital Rangefinder experience with a roughly 35mm equivalent lens for only $3000. If you really want to save money, buy an old rangefinder camera and shoot with film.

But at the end of the day whether the M9 is “worth it” or not—is a personal decision. But remember to always test it before you ever consider buying it. Some people don’t like shooting with a rangefinder and prefer autofocus. Thomas Leuthard recently shot with a Leica M9 and didn’t like it much. I am happy for him, he saved himself $10,000 dollars and opted for the Fujifilm FinePix X100 instead.

How can I afford one?

Sell your organs, your car, or all your earthly possessions. (I’m only half-kidding) ;)

The reason that I bought my Leica M9 is that now I am a full-time street photographer, I need the best equipment that suits my needs—regardless of the price. My mother helped me finance the cost of half the camera (I love you umma!) and I wiped my personal savings clean to purchase the rest of the camera and a 35mm 1.4 Summilux lens. Fortunately at the end of the day, it is all a business expense and tax write-off.

If you are serious about wanting one, I suggest start saving for one now. If you tuck away $500 every month for 14 months, that will be around $7000—which should be enough for a used M9 and lens. $500 a month is about how much people spend on a car payment. Like I said in the end, it is all about priorities. I have an expensive camera and lens, but I drive an old used car, rarely buy new clothes, and try to live as frugally as I can.

But at the end of the day if you cant’ “afford” it– you probably shouldn’t spend the money on one.

Any other suggestions for street photography cameras?

Fujifilm FinePix X100

If you want a street photography camera that is digital, has an optical viewfinder, and a compact body—look at the Fujifilm FinePix X100. In my opinion, it is the best “bang-for-the-buck” street photography camera out there. The high-ISO on the files look great, image quality is solid, and the body is very comfortable to hold. The only frustration I have with the camera is that the autofocus is a bit slow (if you zone-focus this isn’t an issue), the menus are confusing, and sometimes it doesn’t listen to you (the camera sometimes won’t turn on or take photos).

Ricoh GRDIII (or IV)

My second favorite street photography camera in the world (after the M9) is the Ricoh GRDIII. It is a compact camera (that Daido Moriyama uses) that is high quality, comfortable to hold, and has a very nice 28mm f/1.9 lens. In all-black, it is non-intimidating and with the “snap focus” mode, you can use zone-focusing all day. However if you wait long enough, the Ricoh GRDIV is going to come out, so I suggest you to wait for that.

Olympus EP-3

 

Don’t like dealing with zone-focusing and want a street photography camera with blazing-fast autofocus? Check out the new Olympus EP-3. The micro 4/3rds form factor still has great image quality and ISO-capability- while you can use interchangeable lenses. I would recommend the Panasonic 14mm f/2.5 or the Olympus 17mm f/2.8 (which are a 28mm or 35mm focal length equivalent). Also the autofocus on the camera is so blindingly fast it is ridiculous.

If you are a Leica M9 user and switched from a DSLR or any other camera, what has been your experience. Thinking of getting a M9 but have more questions? Share your thoughts, questions, and opinions in the comments below!

Comment by Richard Bram from In-Public (so good I had to include it here)

“Good solid review, Eric, well thought out, clear and cogent for your core audience. (I might have said ‘fair and balanced,’ but that phrase has been perverted by a certain ‘news’ network.) As you know, I’m a long-time M user for my street work – since 1988. I never felt comfortable using my SLRs then DSLRs for color work on the street – too big, too heavy and too obvious, especially with any sort of zoom on the front. Thus I stuck steadily to black and white and my M3, then M6, only occasionally shooting color. (I have always shot color of course in my working professional life, just not for the personal work.)

I got an M9 about 15 months ago. At last there was a digital camera that enabled me to work the same way, with the same lenses that I’ve used throughout my shooting life, with no shutter-delay or nasty quirks that prevented the shutter from going off at the exact moment that I choose to press it. The results can be seen in the Street Reverb article from June of this year – http://tiny.cc/3ioxa – when for the first time in 25 years of street shooting I presented a show of color work.

Is it for everyone? Probably not, especially given the price tag. Using rangefinders and essentially all-manual cameras is not for everyone, and of course the M-series is tricky to use with telephotos and is only best with normal to wide. But as that’s what I exclusively use for street work so it was OK. As we all have said, it isn’t the gear – it’s finding a camera that feels right for you. A brilliant picture can be taken with a phone cam if you know what you are doing, and a crap picture can be taken with an M9. I do that all the time, too but never show those to anyone!”

-Richard Bram (Personal SiteIn-Public portfolio)