Leica M9:the digital M7?
Project '864' is the internal designation for the camera that is now known as the Leica M9. The number refers to the area of the 35mm negative with the classical dimensions of 24 x 36mm which equals to 864 square mm. When I was informed about the project I at first had the impression that the M9 was simply an M8 with a bigger sized sensor and basically this is the case. The hardware of the M9 is almost identical to that of the M8 with the exception of the 864-sensor, a Kodak CCD sensor with the same pixel pitch as the KAF-10500, employed in the M8 and M8.2. Superficially there are a number of changes in the body. The top cover has lost the display at the far left side, where you now find a shape reminiscent of the M7 and MP covers. The reasons for this change are twofold: the new anthracite color (replacing the classical silver chrome paint) would make the left part of the top cover top heavy in appearance when you use the normal M8 top cover shape. It is a small detail, but the anthracite painted cover would not look pleasant. The small shortening of the area of the left deck is a world of difference esthetically speaking. The other reason is a matter of bean counting. Dispensing of the display reduces manufacturing cost. Another example of cost cutting is the change of the sapphire cover glass for normal glass. M8.2 users might smile when reading this. The introduction of the bigger sensor did not change the finder magnification which stays at 0.68. It is not easy (even impossible) to integrate the classical finder of 0.72 into the slightly thicker body shape: the optical path is different. But the finder now covers a wider area and we see the re-introduction of the 135mm frame. The M7 offers the range: 28/90, 35/135 and 50/75. The M8 has 24/35, 28/90 and 50/75 (use in addition the 1.33 crop factor) and the new M9 has 28/90, 35/135 and 50/75. I made a number of tests with the Apo-Telyt-M 1:3.4/135 and the use of this lens is quite possible. To be really confident about the selected focus plane, the 1.4 magnifier is a must. Using two magnifiers is not an excessive or obsessive move, by the way. Remember too that the display does not offer an accurate representation of the true sharpness! Using 90mm and 135mm lenses on the M9 requires some care as the critical sharpness plane is much narrower than in the case of film emulsions where a certain depth does compensate small focus errors.
The shutter dial has lost the superfluous 'S' selection and gained a 8sec option on the vacant location. You can still select the Snapshot profile, but this is now done as a menu option. The most remarkable changes are indeed found on the software (interface) part of the equation. The 'Protect' button has changed into the much more useful 'ISO' button. Now it is possible to change the ISO setting directly from the camera. It is still not as fast and convenient as a physical dial, but it is a vast improvement over the previous cumbersome menu selection. The ISO choices are from ISO 80 (PULL) to ISO 2500, so no dramatic changes here. Noise seems to be reduced at the higher ISO settings. The PULL option is new, but in fact it operates as a constant over exposure setting: not really earth shattering, but nice to have sometimes.
More important are the inclusion of options that were long overdue and were standard features on even the most basic digital SLR camera. There is now a provision for bracketing with 3, 5 and 7 pictures over a range of +/- 2 stops in half stop increments, nice for the popular HDR picture style. The shutter keeps the discrete mode, introduced with the M8.2, but adds a SOFT option where the shutter is triggered immediately without locking the exposure setting.
A nice feature is the option to manually select the lens that is in use. The required upgrade of older (non-coded) lenses is gone: you select the lens from a list in the menu and the software records the focal length and some additional characteristics. Use AUTO when a coded lens is used and MANUAL when a non-coded lens is used.
You can now choose between silent mode or signal tones for a number of functions. Exposure compensation can be set permanently through menu options or on a per image basis by setting the dial: here you can choose between using the setting ring itself or a combination of shutter pressure and setting ring when you do not want to accidentally changing the exposure override. A three stops range is being offered. You now can organize your map structure on the memory card with the option of folder management.
Flash functions are identical to what is being implemented in the M8 series. The sensor has the same basic characteristics of the Kodak sensor built into the M8: the noise at higher ISO values is still unpleasantly high. The bigger sensor size delivers a file with a much larger size of course: 18 Million pixels is the basic number. But now you can select a new option: DNG uncompressed which creates files with a size of 34.7 MB capturing the full potential of the sensor. The internal dynamic compression to 8 bits is then overruled. With such large files, the speed of the recording is lower and the battery drain is higher. I used the DNG uncompressed file size on a San Disk 16 Meg card and ran out of power (fully loaded battery) after a mere hundred pictures taken on one day. This may not be typical, but it is recommended to add a second battery to your bag when doing extended day long shooting.
M8 and M8.2
These models are discontinued and might become known to Leica historians as the Leica camera models with the shortest life cycle, with the possible exception of the M6 HM model. Especially the M8.2 has had an effective production life cycle of just one year (from summer 2008 (Photokina 2008) to summer 2009 (introduction M9)). You can still make excellent images with these cameras and any M8/M8.2 owner should carefully consider the options before deciding to buy the M9. The distinguishing mark of the M8/M8.2 models is the required use of the IR filters to cut off the excess infrared radiation from being captured by the sensor. Leica cited that the very thin cover glass of the sensor was required to compensate for the short back focus of the M lenses in combination with the steep angle of the rays at the edges of the field. That was also the main reason for the adoption of the smaller sensor. The M8 camera versions can be interpreted as a bridging act between the M7/MP and the future digital versions of the M line. In the evolution of the M line the M8 is a necessary step, and required for learning the engineering and software requirements for solid-state cameras. But as biology dictates the environment changes and then you have to adapt or die. Does this imply that the M8 buyer has been used as money and experience suppliers for the Leica R&D department. In a sense this question has to be answered affirmative, but we may with some justification also state that the Leica community is used to small evolutionary steps and is very quality conscious. In 2006 the M9 would be impossible to manufacture and to be honest I like the M8 sensor size as it forces me to be very critical about scene selection and composition.
The new sensor has the same pixel pitch as the previous one, which implies that the Nyquist limit of resolution has not changed. The bigger area does accommodate the full angle of view of all Leica M lenses. Technical changes in the sensor design have solved the IR problem (the IR filters are no longer required), but the performance at the edges of the image, especially with wide angle lenses might be not as good as is sometimes claimed.
The differences are quite small and may be due to the statistical variations, which always create a margin when testing lenses and equipment. The image quality of the M9 pictures could be improved when you take advantage of the bigger sensor area: you can get closer to the scene to capture the same angle and this helps in the recording of fine detail. When the M8 is used expertly and within its limits of angle of view, the image quality is very close to that what you get with the M9. In this sense the M8 is not obsolete. The larger sensor and the increased number of pixels helps you to capture the same scene area with more pixels to record the details and this automatically improves the definition of fine detail.
An in-depth comparison between M8, M9 and M7 will be published in the following part of this review.
The M9 in use
The last month (august) I have been shooting exclusively Kodachrome in my M7. In comparison I used the M9 with the same lens. The switch between the two worlds is completely seamless and the intuitive operation of both cameras is exemplary. The M7 is very basic and requires a lot of pre-photography preparation when additional functions are needed, like exposure bracketing. But then the core act of the M7 is the anticipation and preparation of the shoot and the fire-only-one-bullet approach. The M9 offers more options, changing ISO on the fly, changing the exposure bias where required, do exposure bracketing when insecure of the right choice, use the continuous shooting option (up to seven pictures when using DNG uncompressed) to capture the right moment. This list shows what the M9 offers compared to the M7: more options, more flexibility, more influence on the picture captures conditions. The danger is also visible: the subtle shift from the photographer being in command of the picture and the camera software in command of the image. The M9 can accommodate all Leica M lenses from 16mm to 135mm with the inherent and intended focal length. Once you have created your own profile in the camera, the M9 is as simple to use as an M3. This is in my view the strong point of the M9 and worth a congratulation to the Leica designers and engineers. The M9 is the only digital 35mm camera that operates and feels like a classical film loading camera.
The significance of the M9
The M9 is a mature product that can command a serious role in the 20+ megapixel-35mm-style-camera league. The pixel pitch of 6.8 micron allows excellent definition up to 70 line-pairs/mm, which is enough for really crisp prints in A3 format. The list of features of the M9 will satisfy any user who wants that traditional elegancy of use that Leica is famous for. On the other hand the scope of the feature list can convince users who want to adapt the working of the camera to specific profiles based on programmable camera functions. Luckily Leica resisted the temptation to overburden the camera with an endless array of goodies no one can find good use for, from a photographical perspective.
Any M7 user will feel at home and at ease with the M9 and can master the camera within a few hours of reading the book and exploring the camera functions. To get the best of both worlds, one needs an M7 for the fully chemical workflow and an M9 for the fully digital workflow. The Leica lenses can be switched between both cameras with the same basic optical performance and angle of view.The M9 motorized transport operates rather slowly and the buffer is not large. But the speed of operation is faster than what an experienced user can accomplish with the mechanical trigger mechanism of the filmloading M-cameras. I personally find the focus on the highest possible number of pictures per second a bit overhyped. For sports photography it may be an important factor in the choice equation. For a manual focusing CRF camera the speed of the motordrive is less relevant and in itself the speed of the M9 (and the M8!) is quite good. And Leica photography is about selecting the moment, not firing at will in the hope that you catch a moment.If you were looking for radically new features in the M9, you might be disappointed. The camera has the full DNA of the classical Leica CRF and is still completely locked in the M-evolutionary tree. You can improve a camera to a certain level and to the limit of its natural habitat. The M9 represents the final stage of the classical CRF concept for the digital workflow. Some refinements will of course always be possible. A radically new version would require a substantial and fundamental change in the DNA make-up. This then is the significance of the M9. Overall you can sense that the Leica engineers and developers are becoming more in synch and at ease with the demands and possibilities of digital technology without losing sight at the fundamental Leica characteristics as elegance, simplicity and performance. Do I hear someone muttering about the new Mac operating system, Snow Leopard, which has a comparable approach? The Leica M9 is a sensible mix of traditional Leica virtues and state-of-the-art camera features. It is a tool for Leica aficionados who still think chemical, but want to work with a digital workflow.
Next part: the performance of the sensor with wide angle lenses.