Shooting with the Leica M9-P

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The Leica M9-P with the Summilux-M 50mm/1.4 lens.

In light of the speculation surrounding the upcoming Leica press event in Berlin - expectation is high for an M10 announcement - a few of us here in dpreview's Seattle office took the opportunity to shoot briefly with the Leica M9-P and a selection of current M lenses. In this article we'll share our experiences using the Leica rangefinder system, not in the context of our normal studio tests and analyses, but out in the real world as a photographic tool.

Working with a rangefinder system

As anyone who's ever shot with a Leica M - or any rangefinder camera for that matter - can tell you, doing so is a vastly different photographic experience than shooting with an SLR. Setting manual focus via a 'focussing rectangle' located in the center of the optical viewfinder means that you'll often be using a focus-recompose technique or relying on zone focusing with the lens stopped down to a relatively narrow aperture.

And unlike the 'tunnel-vision' of an SLR, a rangefinder lets you look beyond the scene, with framelines superimposed in the viewfinder.

Seen through the viewfinder, the outer framelines shown here represent a 35mm field of view. These are paired with 135mm field of view framelines visible towards the center of the image.

With a rangefinder you turn the focus ring of the lens until objects in the the center 'focussing rectangle' (shown here in white) appear in perfect alignment in the viewfinder.

Experienced rangefinder shooters can work surprisingly quickly even without all of the electronic focusing aids and multiple metering modes that come standard on other modern cameras. Seeing beyond the edges of the 'frame' allows you to anticipate action and for many, triggers a much more critical sense of composition, in which more options are likely to be considered before releasing the shutter.

The Leica M9-P

The M9-P is a subtle revision of the Leica M9, which is itself the second generation of Leica digital rangefinders. Both cameras are identical in operation, image quality and in nearly all other technical specifications. The only significant hardware difference is an updated scratch-resistant rear LCD on the M9-P with an anti-reflective coating to reduce glare. In a nod to shooters who prefer discretion when carrying around a $8,000 camera, the M9-P also sees the removal of the famed red dot  and the 'M9' moniker from the front camera plate.

The Leica M9-P with (from left) the Summicron 90mm/2.0, Summilux 50mm/1.4, Summilux 35mm/1.4 and Super Elmar 21mm/3.4 lenses.

The design and form factor of the M9-P hews closely to the template Leica has embraced since the start of the M series back in 1954. The M9 and M9-P are Leica's first full frame digital rangefinders. They feature an 18MP CCD sensor that forgoes an anti-aliasing (AA) filter. In theory, the omission of an image-softening AA filter should translate into greater detail resolution. The downside is that without this filter, the sensor is more prone to color moiré artifacts.

A focal-plane shutter with metal blades... ...sits in front of an 18MP full frame CCD sensor.

Of course, a big draw of any Leica rangefinder is its compatibility with the highly regarded (and very expensive) collection of Leica M-mount lenses. Known for their uncompromising optical standards and robust build quality, these lenses have gained a sterling reputation through the work of photographers such as Cartiér Bresson, Elliott Erwitt and Sebastião Salgado, to name but three. The M9 and M9-P provided M lens owners  the long-awaited opportunity to use these optics with the field-of-view they were designed for, on a Leica digital rangefinder.

Handling and operation

The M9-P features a minimalist external control layout that gives you access to critical shooting parameters and nothing more. The viewfinder is largely free of electronic data, save for the shutter speed when in Aperture-priority mode, a temporary confirmation of any exposure compensation adjustment and over/under-exposure indicators in manual mode.

The camera's external controls fall nicely in hand. Build quality is exceptional, with a magnesium alloy frame and solid brass top and bottom plates adding welcome stability without feeling unnecessarily heavy. The camera's compact size means it can fit in a small shoulder bag, and its light weight - compared to a full frame DSLR - means that you won't need to to visit a chiropractor after a day spent walking with the camera around your neck. A bright viewfinder allows for quick and accurate focus even in low light. Engraved depth of field markings on the lenses make zone focusing relatively simple.

The M9-P embodies nearly all of the traits that make film-era Leica M models such great analog cameras. Concessions to the needs and conveniences related to digital camera use, however, are few and far between. The user interface design is where we struggle most with the M9-P. Every other 4-way controller we've ever seen includes an 'OK' button at its center. Here there is nothing but what looks to be a placeholder for a button that was going to go there at some point. Instead, you're forced to continually confirm settings with the 'Set' button which is rather inconveniently placed on the opposite side of the camera body. And the awkward process of adjusting ISO, in which you must continue holding the ISO button while using the 4-way controller or dial to navigate the choices, never ceased to be frustrating.

Both the M9 (shown here) and the M9-P continue the Leica M tradition of a removable base plate. Users will become all too familiar with its removal, as both the SD card and the battery are housed beneath it.

Also on the list of things we'd love to see improved upon in an M9-P successor is a higher resolution rear LCD screen. The 230k dot resolution of the M9-P is quite low by current standards and makes critical image evaluation virtually impossible. The camera is also rather slow in writing to the SD card, which means a delay in reviewing images even in single-shot mode. And removing the entire bottom plate cover just to get to the SD card can lose its charm rather quickly.

Click here to continue reading our article on Shooting with Leica M9-P...

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