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The Leica M9 in 2021

Prices for the Leica M9 in 2021 are the highest they’ve been since the camera was succeeded in 2012 by the M240. It has gained a cult-like following, but what is it really like to own a Leica M9 in 2021?

My Leica addiction.

Twenty years ago, I was pioneering a documentary approach to shooting weddings. I shot an average of 70 events a year, all on film and without flash. In the winter, I would struggle in low light with my Canon film gear and decided to look for another option. I bought a Leica M6TTL with a 50mm Noctilux lens to give me a fighting chance of working in super low light without resorting to flash.

It’s a cliche, but it was genuinely love at first sight. The Leica rangefinder made so much sense to me and the way I wanted to shoot. Inside a year I had bought three more M6TTL bodies and a bunch of lenses.

When Leica introduced their first digital rangefinder, the M8, I immediately bought two of them. Unfortunately, those early models were plagued with problems which made them unreliable for professional work, and I ended up returning one. I couldn’t bring myself to let the other one go, and I still use it today.

The M9 was launched in 2009, and in early 2010 I decided to buy one. Again, there were some major issues with the camera. I was also two years into an Ambassador contract with Canon, so I ended up returning it.

A couple of years later, the Leica M itch hadn’t gone away and I bought a used silver M9. I was so relieved to see that the issues which had plagued the earlier models had gone and I was hooked again.

Incidentally, I believe that the best time to buy a Leica digital camera is towards the end of its production cycle, not at the beginning. Prices are keener and any issues have been ironed out.

In 2013, I bought an M9-P which is now my main camera. I gave my silver M9 to Sarah and in 2021, I bought her an M9 Monochrom. It’s safe to say we are fans of the camera. Was I mad to spend £3.5K on a ten-year-old digital camera?

So why choose a Leica M9 in 2021?

1. The main reason for buying a Leica M9 in 2021 – the sensor.

Go to any Leica owners forum or facebook page, and you will find the CCD sensor in the Leica M9 is highly regarded. In my opinion, it is one of the greatest digital sensors ever made.

Made specifically for the M9 by Kodak, the sensor gives a look which has something truly magical about it. Especially when paired with older Leica lenses. It’s intangible. You can’t really describe to someone what it is, but whatever ‘it’ is, you can see it in an M9 image. Yes, the latest CMOS sensors have tremendous quality, but they just don’t look the same as an M9.

Street photo shot with a Leica M9 in 2021

In print, the differences between an M9 sensor and a modern CMOS sensor are huge. There is a clarity and natural crispness to the images, a 3D quality which is tough to find elsewhere. In my home, I have an uncropped 24×36″ print from a Canon EOS 5DMKIV camera next to a 24×36″ print from a Leica M9-P. The Leica image has been cropped to a vertical from a horizontal file. The Leica file size is less than 30% of the Canon. The Canon looks like a sharp, hi-res digital image. Souless. The M9 looks like a film image from the 20th century. It has soul. Depth.

Of course, the Canon can shoot up to 25000 ISO without quality issues, and the M9 struggles at 2500 ISO. But when I shoot film, the maximum film speed I use is 800 ISO, so 2500 ISO is actually a huge advantage. I’d take the slower M9 sensor any day over a sterile CMOS even if it can see into the dark.

2. It feels like a proper Leica camera.

The Leica M9 in 2021 feels like an old school Leica camera. It has the proper Leica DNA. Unlike the later models, it has the correct rangefinder with three windows and static framelines. When I’m shooting with the M9 and M6TTL together, there is very little difference with the camera to my eye.

All of the old Leica idiosyncrasies are still there. The difficulty in using longer lenses, the lack of accuracy when composing within the frame lines. Some will see these as faults, but when Leica made the M6TTL, it was considered by many to be the best Leica film camera ever made and the M9 is the closest to the M6TTL in terms of handling.

Old Leica film cameras have soul. Digital cameras don’t. Except this one. All three of our M9 cameras are different in some way, cosmetically and in the way they handle. They don’t feel like a computer designed, mass produced electronic box with a lens attached.

3. Lack of buffer speed and slow cards

Compared to the latest models from Leica, Sony, Nikon, Canon etc, the Leica M9 is a technical dinosaur. How can this possibly be a reason for choosing a Leica M9 in 2021? After all, today’s cameras will shoot an infinite number of images faster than my eye can comprehend what has just been taken.

With the M9, it is impossible to shoot more than six or seven frames quickly in DNG. After this, the buffer hangs, and I need to wait for a minute or two for it to clear. However, If there was one thing that quickly improved my photography, it was buying a camera which slowed me down and made me think about the picture. For me, this was the M6TTL. The M9 is just a continuation of that.

Shooting with a Leica M9 in 2021 will slow any photographer down. Especially if they are used to modern digital cameras. This a good thing. Leave 25 frames-per-second to the sports photographers, paparazzi and the ‘spray, pray, and chimp’ brigade.

I’ve covered SD cards in this post, but one of the M9’s annoyances when launched, was its pickiness toward certain SD cards. I’m pleased to say that in 2021, card issues are largely a thing of the past. Get the right ones, and enjoy the camera.

4. The crappy LCD

Back in 2009, the M9’s LCD wasn’t great compared to other cameras. Looking at the LCD of a Leica M9 in 2021 is like looking at a VHS video in a world of 4K UHD. It’s terrible. Honestly, it is only useful for checking camera operation and menu settings. You can’t even use it to judge an image accurately, but therein lies its magic.

We’ve all seen them. The ‘chimpers’. The digital photographers who take an image and look at the LCD. After so many images they look at the LCD and start gesticulating and making noises like a chimpanzee. “Ooh, ooh, ahh, ahh”. Hence the term ‘chimping’.

I believe there is such a thing called chimpers remorse. It is when the chimper realises they’ve missed an incredible image because they were too busy looking at the LCD.

My point is, if the LCD screen on the camera isn’t worth looking at, then there is a tendency to leave it alone. This is a good thing. The M9 screen isn’t worth looking at.

I’m a great advocate of avoiding editing in the field. I teach it in my workshops. The idea is that if you continually look at the LCD screen, you are going to make judgements about the images based on emotion (I thought that picture was going to be great but it’s crap on the screen) and this will affect your mindset towards any further images taken that day.

One of the beauties of film is that I have to wait to see the images. The film picture taking experience is not sullied by a screen shouting “look at me, look at me” every time I take a picture. The images can be viewed objectively without any emotional attachment.

Another advantage of a poor screen is you that I can’t shoot with it. There is a tendency in digital photography to shoot using Live View, just like a videographer. The whole point of purchasing a Leica M is the rangefinder experience and the connection that it makes between your eye and the subject. When shooting via the LCD screen there is no connection. The whole process becomes detached. I also find it difficult to react quickly to a new situation with an LCD.

It’s interesting to note that Leica make some digital M cameras without an LCD. Even though I wouldn’t personally buy one, I can see the advantages of not having a screen at all.

5. The famous Leica build quality

The M9 in 2021 still feels like a beautiful, perfectly engineered instrument. The materials are first class, and even though the technology may be outdated, the sheer joy of handling a fine camera is wonderful.

The rangefinder in the M9 is old school, beautifully made and robust. With all of the M9 and M6TTL cameras that I have owned, very few have ever needed a rangefinder calibration.

6. The Monochrom

When Leica first launched the Monochrom, the first black-and-white only digital rangefinder, I was sceptical. I couldn’t see the point. I like the option of shooting colour or black-and-white without swapping cameras. That is one of the joys of digital photography.

It was Sarah that wanted one. She shoots 90% of her work in black-and-white and wanted something that she could use in really low light but with the Leica M9 look that she loves. Ideally she wanted a digital version of a Leica M film camera with roll of Kodak TMZ P3200.

On paper, the original Monochrom was that camera. With a higher base ISO than the M9, it could be used in lower light, and because there was no colour noise in the image, the files were cleaner at higher ISO. We went for it and we bought her a stunning, mint condition original Monochrom.

One of the joys of working with Sarah is that I am trusted with all of her images. I do all the grading/post production to them. The Monochrom files are something else. The CCD magic is still there but the way the sensor handles highlight detail is exceptional. At high ISO, the files open up and look like 35mm film scans. They are beautiful. The high ISO quality is a match for most modern cameras. It’s an amazing camera.

Street photo shot with the Monochrom Leica M9 in 2021

Ok, there are still a couple of issues with the Leica M9 in 2021.

If you have got this far, you will realise that we are fans of the M9, but that doesn’t mean we wouldn’t make some changes to the camera.

Batteries

It’s safe to say that most of today’s minor issues with the camera are a result of the battery. It isn’t great, especially when it starts to age. The battery gauge is a joke. Why we have to press a button to see it is beyond me. The M9’s predecessor, the M8, got it right. I have no idea why Leica decided to change it, but they did, and it’s annoying.

The M9 battery isn’t high capacity and two batteries are a minimum requirement for a day’s shooting. At £100 each, this isn’t a cheap option especially as they will need upgrading every 12-18 months, and it’s only the OEM batteries which work correctly with the camera.

There are some things that we do which help battery performance and life.

1. We always drain a battery before recharging. At the end of a shoot, if the battery is indicating less than 25%, we leave the camera switched on until the battery is exhausted. Then we charge it. This seems to give us more capacity when we next use the battery.

2. When shooting, we don’t set the camera to auto shut off. Not only is it frustrating to miss a shot as the camera is waking up, but it takes more power to wake the camera every few minutes than it does to leave it on.

3. Don’t chimp. The LCD uses a lot of battery power and it’s not worth looking at anyway!!

4. Clean the battery charger contacts regularly. I can’t emphasise this enough. The design of the battery and charger allows the connection between the two to be clogged with dust. Use a blower brush to dislodge any debris. The battery won’t charge properly if the contacts aren’t clean.

The embedded file size

With every DNG/RAW Image, there is a smaller jpeg embedded within it. This is what is used to show the image on the LCD. Most modern apps like PhotoMechanic use the embedded jpeg to speed up the browsing of images. Alas, the M9 embedded file is so small that it’s next to useless for this.

In some ways the size of the embedded file is a good thing, as it means less data is being moved about, the files are smaller and so on. But when it comes to editing the images it is a PITA. We moved from PhotoMechanic to Lightroom for viewing M9 images because PM can’t show the files any bigger than a thumbnail.

There are a couple of workarounds. The first is to make PhotoMechanic reference the DNG itself to create the browser image, but this is actually slower than using Lightroom. The better option is to shoot DNG + small jpeg but this can put extra strain on the camera buffer, especially at higher ISO.

The menu buttons

Unfortunately, unlike many digital cameras, the Leica M9 in 2021 is showing its age here. The menu buttons don’t need much to activate them. Bump the camera against a jacket button and you could end up accidentally changing settings in the SET menu. I’ve done it. Sarah has done it. It’s annoying.

The simple answer would be to have a menu based setting to prevent the camera settings being changed accidentally. For now, we use gaffer tape. Another minor niggle with the menu buttons is that the paint around them wears off with use.

The M9 Shutter sound

Some people love it and some hate it. I wouldn’t complain if it was quieter than it is, but I used a motor winder on an M6TTL for many years and the sound is actually quite familiar to me. The different shutter advance options are pretty useless too. I just stick to the standard option.

Sensor corrosion

To be honest, a lot of the problems with the M9 can be overcome with experience. On paper they may look worse than they are. We think of them as quirks rather than problems. However, there is still a very serious issue for the Leica M9 in 2021 – sensor corrosion.

The original sensor in the M9, as good as it is, has a manufacturing defect. As I understand it, the cement that bonds the protective glass cover to the sensor can break down causing weird blotches in images. I’m not sure where the ‘corrosion’ term came into play, but the sensor doesn’t actually corrode.

In fairness to Leica, they replaced any sensors that exhibited the issue for free. The problem for the Leica M9 in 2021, is that there are no longer any sensors available. If an original sensor starts to show any corrosion, it has to be sent to a handful of specialists to get the glass replaced. The cost to do this is around £1000. About 50% of the camera’s resale value. Ouch.

If you want to buy a Leica M9 in 2021, it is absolutely essential that the original sensor has been replaced even if there are no signs of corrosion. You should also avoid buying any cameras that don’t have a certificate from Leica stating when the sensor was replaced. There is no long-term evidence to suggest that replacing just the glass and cement will cure the issue going forward, so play safe and get evidence that the whole sensor was replaced. A Leica M9 with an original sensor is virtually unsaleable.

So should you buy a Leica M9 in 2021?

Yes. In fact I did. Prices for M9 cameras are going up and up. I look at it as an appreciating classic and you can’t say that about any other digital camera. The images it produces are unmatched by modern technology. The M9’s old school quirks and handling are very much part of the Leica experience particularly for those with a film background.

Just check the sensor has been changed and avoid the obscure models with bizarre finishes, and you will have a fantastic camera which might be the only digital camera you will ever need. And no, ours are not for sale. At any price.

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