Leica is a brand that pretty much every photographer knows, and either loves it, hates it, or chooses to ignore as pure hype.
During the years, I fell for it and bought (and after a really short time sold) first an M4-P, then an M6 “Classic”. I did not manage to bond with either camera. I found rangefinder focusing not to my liking, and the cameras yes certainly well made, but not really that better, if at all, than much of the others high-end models I used.
Then what came onto me that made me buy, in short succession, an M8 and an M9? Yes, they were two screaming deals, and I could certainly sell in the future these two for more than I paid for.
But, truth to be told, this time I was in awe as soon as I took the M8 (the first one to arrive; the M9 took over a month to ship) in my hands.
I’ve always read about Leica quality, and brass and yadda yadda yadda…well, I needed to take a digital one into my hands to become a convert. It feels like you are shooting with a solid ingot, not with a camera without a hollow core.
But cameras are not watches, so just the amazing level of build quality of the bodies would not have been enougt to win me over.
What did it were the colors. I cannot explain it in other words, if not that they are “pasty”, as in dense and rich and wonderful. Not straight out of camera, even if they come pretty close. There is no hidden magic inside the Leica M8 and M9; you still will have to process the files in your raw processor of choice, to your taste. But the results are way easier to get right—with all the limitations imposed by old CCD sensor technology in terms of dynamic range, high Iso etc.—and way more beautifyl that I can get with my other cameras in the same situation, even after post processing.
Part of it has to do with the CCD sensor itself. I have old files from a Nikon D70 that almost seem to have been shot on slide film. Same from (some of the) files I get from the Hasselblad H3DII-22 (a “fat pixel” medium format back, whatever you make of such a claim). Part has to do with Leica color science, that is second to none.
The resolution is good, but not stellar. The M8 has 10Mp—yes, ten— and the M9 goes up to 18Mp. That said, M8 files are super sharp, while M9’s tend to be still really sharp but in a peculiar way: the detail has a softer, rounded, “film like”* appearance.
*yeah, I hate this term too, but I really cannot explain it any other way
By the way, “film like” sharpness is still sharpness. So if your Leica is not giving you crisp pictures, either the body or the lens is out of whack and needs calibration. If it is the lens you are probably out of luck, and in need to send it for a probably costly repair. If it’s the camera, and you are handy enough with an allen key, you can calibrate the rangefinder yourself pretty easily (check online for instructions, no disassembly of any sort involved). I had to do that to my M9, while instead the M8 arrived already focusing spot on. It is not a comment on the quality of the camera: rangefinders, by their very nature, get out of calibration sometimes if they get bumped, exposed to vibrations, or just with general wear and tear. So no big deal.
Be aware: the M8 has the IR problem, meaning it needs an IR blocking filter on the lens if there is any sintetic fabric in sight, that otherwise will turn purple-ish. I used it without a filter for a while (all the pictures you see here have been shot without a filter), and you can mitigate somehow the problem in Lightroom usign a brush to reduce brightness and saturation, if the affected area is small and/or omogeneous enough. On the plus side, this IR sensitivity gives you a richer black and white.
The M9 suffers from the dreaded sensor corrosion issue. Actually it is the sensor glass to corrode, and nowadays Kolaris still replaces said glass, but we are talking about an extremely expensive repair, in the realm of 1.500$ plus shipping and customs fees. Leica replaced the sensors for free for years, but—I don’t understand why—many owners did not send the camera in, so there are still a lot of M9 floating around the net with old, corrosion prone, sensors. If you can, find one with the last batch of replaced sensors, that should be immune from the problem. My Leica M9* has a pretty mild case of corrosion, with a few dozens small spots and a big one, that’s why I got it really cheap. But at wide apertures they are invisible, and even at f/5.6 or f/8 they are still easier and faster to spot away that dust on a film scan.
*former Leica M9, given it broke without any apparent cause, starting taking completely black pictures. I since learned that the electronics of the M9 are apparently prone to failing like this
Their strong suit
I use the two Leica anyway not for landscape photography, that I don’t think is their strong suit (I prefer to bring either the GFX or the Sigma DP1 and DP2 Merrill with me), but for documenting my family daily life. By the way, that’s why I won’t share that many pictures in this post.
I have been on the search for the holy grail of good color reproduction since film, especially slide film, become a no-go as my only medium for a lot of reasons (availability, costs, lack of good labs in my region etc.).
In the last year I found four (five) of these grails! The Leica M8, Leica M9, the Sigma DP1 and DP2 Merrill, the Fujifilm GFX 50S II. The two Sigma and the Fuji (reviews are coming) render in a vastly different way, more realistic. Think medium/large format slide film. Instead the two Leica, and especially the M9, are more “poetic”, for lack of a better way to descibe wath my eyes see. Fuji and Sigma show the colors that were there; the Leica make those colors rich and creamy, sometimes with almost dream-like results—in a good way.
The M8 and M9 outdoors are fenomenal, but just like many of my other cameras. But indoors, and with artificial/mixed lighting, where I use them most (remember, I document my family life with them), they excel, giving me awesome colors, with “painterly” results that I cannot often get from my other gear.
I will not wax lirically about the shooting experience. I’ve read about it for years, and no one was able to convince me one bit. It is something you have to actually experience for yourself to understand. Rise the camera, feel the amazing build quality, focus and shoot. It is a thowback to the days when taking photos was really just about that, not having to remember what button does what in what combination in what program (and I am a huge nerd, so I don’t actually have any problem with that, but I still don’t like it).
Just to give you some context, I’ve shot with pretty much all the pro cameras, film and digital, of all major brands, so I know a thing or two about quality. Still these two Leica are in a league of their own.
Vs. Fujifilm X100 lineup
I also have and routinely shoot with a Fujifilm X100s, mostly because it is compact, lighter than the Leica, and fun. But, in comparison:
- I don’t like the colors out of the Fuji (even after post processing) as much as I like Leica’s
- the Fuji X100s has the huge advantage of a rear scren I can use to frame my pictures without too much fuss with the viewfinder, but (see next point)
- at any particular event, I tend to take a lot more pictures with the Fuji X100s compared to the Leica M8 or M9, but mostly because half the time I can’t see my subject expression as well as with the two Leica, so I compensate overshooting
- even if, like I just said, I shoot a lot more photos at any particular event if I am carrying the Fuji X100s that if I am carrying, for example, the Leica M9, I still generally have way more keepers with the Leica. This factor is probably the result of liking better the colors and the lenses from the Leica and, especially, of being able to actually see what my subject is doing, knowing if I got the shot already “in camera” (in a sense). Beside, only a true optical finder, rangefinder or not, gives you a really instantaneous view of what is happening in front of your lens. An electronic one has alwais a maybe minuscule, but still present, lag that can make you loose “the moment”.
Now you could legitimately think, like I usually did when I read a Leica review, “ah, he’s got Leica rose-tinted glasses”. But no: like I said, I’ve had at least two Leica film bodies that I did not particularly like, and soon sold. And I still use a small Leica CL as a film companion to the amazing Voigtlander and Leica glass I used for years on a Sony A7. The CL is a nice camera, really well designed, but not amazing like its sisters, rather quite less well made than most of the Japanese film cameras from the same era, in my opinion—a Canon F1 old or even a Minolta SRT101 would wipe the floor with the CL, build quality wise.
As for lenses, I use the Leica M8 and M9 mostly with the Leica Summicron-c 40mm f/2, that makes for a svelte and high quality setup; a 35mm f/1.2 Voigtlander Nokton Aspherical 1st version, for low light; and a Canon 50mm f/1.2 ltm, a touch hazy but pure poetry. I have also bought on a whim (another deal I could not pass on) a Leica 135/4 Elmar, that is super sharp—on the M9 after I calibrated the camera, on the M8 straight on—and with a wonderful rendering, but that doesn’t get much use because 135mm is a focal length I tend to use quite a lot for landscapes, but not much for portraits.
Regarding the low resolution of the Leica M8 and M9, don’t be scared by measly 10 or 18 megapixels. You don’t need much in general (who prints 1meter wide sheets of paper all the time?) and anyway with new softwares like the exceptional Topaz Gigapixel Ai these files can really go a long way.
The only mildly annoying thing about the M8 is that you have to remember wich frame is for which focal lenght, due to the crop factor, so here is a handy table correlating M9 with M8 framelines:
- 24-35 > 28-50
- 50-75 > 75-90
- 28-90 > 35-135
Finally, the mandatory remark: as long as you find them cheap enough, Leica cameras are easy to try, because you can always sell them back for at least what you paid for, should you not like them. So why not give them a spin and see if you can get rid of that Leica bug?