Reviewing the 'Ultimate' Mirrorless Camera: The Leica M9

Reviewing the 'Ultimate' Mirrorless Camera: The Leica M9

The Leica M-series has long been the standard for rangefinder photography -- or so I've heard. Since the Leica M9 is a rangefinder, we know it's also mirrorless. And thus, this will be the introduction of the camera to 'look up to' throughout this month's reviews. If you're interested in a mirrorless system, despite whether or not this fits your idea of what's possible, I highly recommend you read on, as there are some great introductory explanations here.

Note: Click on any images below for the full size.

The mirrorless camera concept has become incredibly popular in the last five years, and only more so in the last two. And it’s all happening for a few reasons.

First, the technology is only now becoming readily accessible, affordable, and manageable as electronic components are small enough to squeeze into incredibly small bodies. However, mirrorless cameras transformed from the ‘mirrored’ or ‘prismed’ cameras because the prism and mirror systems used to allow for a proper viewfinder could only be so small. At some point, something had to give. And thus, the entire system gave.

Rangefinders are mirrorless -- they always have been. But a true point and shoot camera (these days, with interchangeable lenses) with viewfinders that didn’t sacrifice on usability but still didn’t require a prism couldn’t come until the creation of smaller in-camera electronic viewfinders with extremely high resolution and response times. No one wanted to forego a pleasant viewing experience for one that would result in a delayed image coming into view (with live view on many cameras, it’s apparent that there is a slight delay between the action in front of the camera and that on the screen).

Now that we are able to have properly registering electronic viewfinders, we also have the ability to cram larger sensors into those same compact bodies. And larger sensors mean better image quality in every sense.

With cameras like that in the iPhone being so small, the majority of casual photographers do not need a separate camera -- not unless they want better image quality and overall dynamic range. And manufacturers, as did the public, began to understand the importance of small, still-portable cameras that featured better-than-ever image quality comparable to that of a professional DSLR.

Fuji, Samsung, Sony, Pentax, Ricoh, Nikon, Canon, and many other top names in the photographic industry have all jumped aboard with their renditions. And while we like our big, bulky cameras, we also understand how nice it is to have a little thing to take with us on vacations, out to dinner, whatever. What we didn’t like was having to sacrifice on image quality to do that.

So this month, we will be reviewing all the major players in the mirrorless game with product reviews, discussions, mirrorless news, and more! If you’ve been waiting to pull the trigger on a new portable camera, let this be your go-to source for anything mirrorless.

A look into the Leica M9 will be our first review for one main reason: image quality. Now, as far as I was concerned, Leica's extremely impressive image quality was just a rumor until I could see for myself. And thanks to, I was able to do just that. The main point of this month's mirrorless comparisons will be to compare image quality (because that's the only reason we might bring a camera in addition to our phones) to that of the M9. But we haven't done that yet. So maybe something will blow this out of the water...but Leica sure has a good head start at the very least.

For now, enjoy this review and stand by as we bring you thoughts on other top mirrorless cameras on the market today.

The Leica M9:

Yes, the replacement is already out. We know. But the M9 is still a relatively modern camera and certainly represents the best that mirrorless has to offer. Of all that we’ll test this month, we just had to start with the Leica. It’s certainly the one to measure up to, so here we go.

This was my first time with a Leica; and after all the hype, I was a little giddy when it came in the mail. I can’t deny it’s a beautiful piece of machinery. But could it live up to the hype? Leica comes from a long generation of excellent film cameras. But could its digital technology (or that of its partners) really live up to the legacy of its classics?

The Good

The body is solid. The lens is solid. Come on -- we’re dealing with Germans, here. They know how to put together a damn-good product. And it shows. It’s beautiful and true to its roots. And man, while I can’t help but baby it, I feel like I could chuck it out my window, pick it up, and keep shooting -- no problem (do not try at home).

Leica lenses have an extremely convenient focusing ring with a protruding ‘grip’ or ‘knob’ that you can grab to ease focusing -- it’s all manual, you know. I always thought it was weird when people talked about it; but after using it, I’m a believer. For one, it’s not just any knob like what Nikon and other companies used to offer to clamp around a lens. It’s curved in a way such that I find pinching with your thumb and index finger makes focusing completely natural, accurate, and quick. This has to be the best manual focusing system ever. Even wide open at f/2, I had virtually no trouble getting accurate focus after focusing quickly with the adjustment knob (focusing near the minimum focusing distance was naturally slightly more difficult).

The adjustable focusing knob is visible at about the 7 o'clock position on the lens.

The menu system is superb. No, you can’t change that many settings. But it’d be more accurate to say you can’t do anything stupid. No cheesy filters -- nothing that’s really unnecessary. One of my favorite things about the Leica is the ability to adjust ISO quickly, easily, and efficiently -- and no, that’s not all the same thing.

First, there’s a dedicated ISO button (THANK YOU!). For some reason, compact camera manufacturers don’t see the need for this. And perhaps there isn’t for the average user using auto ISO. But if you want the highest quality images possible, you want to be able to set your ISO back to 100 when you walk outside or 800 when you enter a dark room (not necessarily 6400, as you rarely need a shutter speed above 1/60 indoors). You need to hold down the button while you use the selectors to switch ISO, but it’s SO easy! ISO values are laid out in a grid such that moving to the right or left changes the ISO by 1/3 of a stop, while moving up or down changes an entire stop. How brilliant! Sure, some other people do this, too. But between touch screens and filtering through multiple submenus, I really don’t think it’s as easy with anything as it is with the M9. So this is a huge plus for me -- and it should be for anyone.

The Not-So-Good

Shutter speed is set with a large dial on top of the camera, much as it has always been with virtually any rangefinder. While it works, I still think there should be a way to move it with just a thumb while you’re still looking through the viewfinder rather than having to hold the camera all with your left hand (taking a break from focusing) and then using two fingers to rotate the shutter speed dial. Yes, then it wouldn’t stay ‘true’ to the Leica form. But who cares? Can’t we adapt a little? This camera is touted as being the best street photography camera around. And it almost is. But for stupid reasons like this (and a bigger reason later), I can’t help but want to stick with a DSLR for quick, action-ready shooting. Rather than one that is flush within the boundaries of the front and back of the body, a shutter speed dial that protrudes slightly at the back of the camera would solve this. Simple as that.

Additionally, while I didn’t care because I don’t change my memory card or battery enough during shooting for it to matter that much, Leica’s ancient completely removable bottom plate is getting old. It’s a novelty, but I’d rather have a little more practicality in a $5000+ camera. Can’t they replace it with these wonderful, simple, automatically latching covers that’s a cinch to unsnap and snap back in with one hand? How many have accidentally dropped the camera because they’re fumbling with different pieces of it? I don’t want to think about it, really.

I have one final gripe with the M9. And that’s that I can’t help but wish Leica were to introduce the same exact camera with a quick, snappy autofocus. I don’t care if it’s just one point in the center. In fact, that would be preferable. But aside from the fact that I think we deserve it for the price we’re paying (that’s a given for anything from this wonderful company), it would make the camera a truly perfect street camera. If manual focusing was kept just the way it is and a simple autofocus feature was added, I’d actually buy the M9 despite being a virtually broke student.

Okay, I lied. One more thing. And this is a big one. It’s the reason that while I’ll rent the camera any day if I really need the image quality, I'll never buy it: the screen. The screen on the back of this camera is just barely adequate to confirm proper composition and maybe even exposure, plus or minus a stop. The pixel density is such that you just can’t squeeze any real information out of it. I really don’t know how great that image will (or won’t) be until it’s on my computer. And in that case, why don’t I just get the M7 and shoot film? I had the same issue with the Hasselblad H4D. Sure, they expect you’re going to hook it up to a computer in the studio, but I don’t care. I want to shoot medium format documentary images in Ghana. And I did that. But it was a pain not quite knowing whether my exposure was just as I wanted it. Histograms aren’t enough, sometimes -- especially when you’re experimenting or being creating. Thankfully for Hasselblad (and for Leica, too, in this case), you learn to trust the exposure meter for its reliability and the stellar image quality for its pliability in Lightroom after the shoot.

Now, I’m being extremely critical here. The Leica was a joy to use. And among all the cameras I had to choose from, while I had the Leica, that’s the one I would take along. It only took me this obscene amount of words because of the subtleties of the issues at hand. My only point in all this is to create a sort of wish list for the perfect Leica. That, and to say that I would actually purchase one for that price were these things addressed. And until I get more money to throw around later in life, it won’t be until those changes are made that I’ll drop 10k on a Leica with a few lenses.

Image Quality

The point of mirrorless, really, is to get the greatest image quality out of the smallest cameras. If you don’t care about image quality, just use your phone. Otherwise, this -- right here -- is the reason to spend extra money on a ‘real’ camera.

Leica has a corner on the sharpest photos of any camera in its class. As they remove (or rather, don’t add) the anti-aliasing filter that helps moire, image sharpness and clarity is unreal (I don’t know what’s wrong with me using the opposite words’s incredibly real). I can not only see every hair, and every pore, but also every curve of every hair and every detail of every pore on anyone’s face. Seeing an image from the M9 at 100% is what I always thought I should be getting out of my DSLRs, until I learned about anti-aliasing filters and the fact that they essentially blur the image to help the sensor of the camera not get ‘tricked’ by certain patterns (forgive the crude explanation). I love the images that come out of this thing. People talk about an unnamable ‘Leica feel’ to images taken with their cameras. And this is it. It really exists. Color reproduction is dead-on, but then still somehow unnamably that much better than the real thing. You have to see it to understand.

Look at this at 100%. This is a JPG from an original DNG and still shows incredible detail unlike what you'd normally be able to see from a digital image, thanks to the absence of an anti-aliasing filter and those wonderful Leica lenses.

Moreover, this is one of the few cameras of its size that features a full frame sensor. The modest, but plentiful, 18 megapixels on the sensor leave plenty of space for each pixel to spread out and gather light. Images have great dynamic range and wonderfully shallow depth of field when you want it.

Lenses are important when looking at image quality. You can have the best sensor ever, but if the lens in front of it mucks up your image in any way, it'll show. And Leica's famous lenses contribute to its advantage over competitors over the years. While I tried Leica's "cheaper lens," the 50mm f2.5 Summicron-M, it still fared extremely well in basic tests. Chromatic aberration was quite evident at large apertures, but practically disappeared when stopped down past f/5.6 (see this page for a more elaborated explanation of these characteristics). The lens is incredibly sharp at all apertures and excellent coatings allow for practically zero signs of flare or ghosting even when pointed directly at the sun. No complaints whatsoever, here, despite this being Leica's most reasonably priced offering.

This is the most flare I ever got (and it was one image in ten similar ones) when pointing directly into the sun.

If some of these other cameras could produce the same results as the M9 does -- Leica wouldn’t be in business. But that’s the thing: no one does it like Leica does it.

So for the rest of the month, I’ll be adding a short statement relating the image quality of the Leica to that of other cameras being reviewed.

Adam Ottke's picture

Adam works mostly across California on all things photography and art. He can be found at the best local coffee shops, at home scanning film in for hours, or out and about shooting his next assignment. Want to talk about gear? Want to work on a project together? Have an idea for Fstoppers? Get in touch! And, check out film rentals!

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You do not shoot film with an M8...

That was a bad typo. Thanks for the head up :-)

The M8 is a Digital Rangefinder as well.

Nor is there such a thing as 2.8 Summicron, and the M9 has 18 megapixels, not 16. Little things, but they do add up to the "are you sure you know what you are talking about, or do you even care?". But glad to see you started the mirrorless month in style.

"are you sure you know what you are talking about, or do you even care?" ... yeap they are getting sloppy.
In the previous article they said " pioneers Olympus and Sony..." Anyone the has minimal information about the mirrorless market all know that the pioneers were Panasonic and Olympus... and Sony and Samsung came about a year later

We all make mistakes fellas. Thanks for helping us out :)

You can easily change the shutter speed with your right index finger without moving your grip on the camera.

In fact, that was the ordinary way of doing things on 35mm SLRs as well before the Minolta Maxxum/Dynax series came along. With only a little practice one could change shutter speeds while winding on (which is what your thumb was used for in the Olde Dayes).

I think the M9 was a fantastic "benchmark" to start off with. There are going to be more than a few core philosophical differences, however. For one, it's full frame, whereas all of the other mirrorless will be 1"/CX, M4/3, and APS-C. Manual focus and aperture only, again, is not a point of antiquity but rather intended use. Most importantly, this is a very "boolean" camera - you either get it and love it, or don't and hate it, as there are many other things one could do for the cost of a digital M setup.

I would add that perhaps one of the best features unique to this [style of] camera is that the rangefinder window extends beyond the capture region. Operation of this camera will be as different to the other reviewed ILC systems as the PhaseOne/Hassy systems are to us DSLR shooters.

" Sure, they expect you’re going to hook it up to a computer in the studio, but I don’t care."

No, I think they expect you to know your exposures and metering modes well enough not to rely on chimping.

"Even wide open at f/2, I had virtually no trouble getting accurate focus..." 
It doesn't matter at what aperture you at when focusing with a rangefinder 

I mean that I rarely 'missed' the focus. Of course, when composing there's no issue. But when you get the photo back on the computer, you can sometimes think you were dead on, but not be. That's rarely an issue here.

Adam, something you may have missed (I don't know since you don't talk about it in your article) is that also a great way of shooting with the Leica and mostly street photography is using "Range focusing". You pre focus to a certain range, and you go out and shoot, almost no focusing is needed, of course you need to move more, but you don't miss the action. Takes time to master, and become good to, but once you have it... man, you really start enjoying the camera.

It seems most of the gripes in this article is due to the tester trying to force an SLR method of working on a rangefinder. That's quite common - it took me a few months before I "got" that rangefinder way of working, too.

What can't autofocus do well? Focus wide angle lenses accurately, what can a rangefinder do ... What do rangefinder users normally use? fast wide angles. Horses for courses as the saying goes, hence the autofocus thing is the most ridiculous review statement here. If this was a mirrorless camera in the "new" sense, yes valid point. As re-iterated in other posts a rangefinder is a rangefinder. Just because it's not got a mirror doesn't mean it falls into the consumer DSLR tickbox category with no mirror ideal. I'd also say the same on the shutter speed thing, rangefinders subscribe to the set it and leave it. From what I have found with various film leicas and my M9 you use A and only set the shutter if you you need to. Leica have already gone all out changing the direction the dial goes, that infuriated the masses of users. To move it to a easily knocked position would be outright blasphemy.