Leica M9 Hands-on preview
The M9 brings only one subtle physical design change over the M8, that is the small cut-out portion of the top-panel which helps to reinforce the sculpted box of the rangefinder and gives the illusion of a slightly smaller top panel. This makes the camera look more like a film M (and arguably rather prettier) but comes at the cost of the small top-plate info display, which showed shots remaining and battery status on the M8 (this is now on the rear LCD). Another fairly significant cosmetic difference is that the M9 isn't available in Silver, instead Leica have gone for this almost Titanium colored 'Steel Gray' option (as well as Black). The other small (but welcome) change is on the rear; the central button to the left of the LCD panel has been re-appropriated for ISO, hold it and turn the rear dial to select the sensitivity (now in 1/3 EV steps). The PROTECT function that lived here on the M8 (and hardly used in reality, I imagine) has been transferred to the SET button.
From the front it would be difficult to tell that this is a digital M, it has the same proportions as the M7 with the now classic Leica rectangular proportions and almost dead-center lens mount. Above this are the distance meter viewing window, bright line illumination window and the large viewfinder window. Around the back is a straightforward and logical layout, the large 2.5" LCD monitor flanked by five buttons on the left and the menu, control dial and direction buttons on the right. On the top of the camera (not shown here) is the main power / drive mode switch, shutter release and shutter speed dial.
Materials and build quality
Just like the M8 the main body is made from a two-piece magnesium alloy cast (shown below). The top plate which contains the viewfinder chamber and controls is milled from a single block of brass, likewise the removable base (which covers the battery and SD compartment) is also made of brass. To say that the M9 is well built and robust is perhaps an understatement, the M series of cameras have a reputation for their longevity.
Side by side
Below you can see the M9 compared to the M8.2. Other than color differences, the subtly modified top plate design and the new metering stripes on the shutter blades are the most obvious differences from the front, and at the back only the ISO button has changed.
Below you can see the M9 beside the Olympus E-P1 (whose sensor is a quarter of the size). While the designers of the E-P1 were going for the retro-look to echo Olympus camera's of old, the M9 is a classic example of form defined by function, using an 'optimal' design and layout for a full-frame rangefinder that has been refined over generations.
In your hand
Comfortable semi-circular sides are the trademark of the M series design, and they really do work, surprisingly easy and comfortable to hold, despite the camera's weight and lack of a molded grip. On our recent trip to Solms I was introduced to the Match Technical 'Thumbs Up CSEP-1', which is a simple grip that slides onto the flash hot-shoe and helps to balance the camera when held in the landscape orientation (last two pictures below) - a personal recommendation for any M owner.
The M9 features a 2.5" 230,000 pixel (320 x 240 x RGB) TFT LCD monitor with a perspex protective window and a slight anti-reflective coating. Compared to the M8 the M9's screen is noticeably brighter and easier to use outdoors. As with the M8 there are a total of five brightness levels to choose from. We have to say we were just a little disappointed that Leica weren't able to implement a higher resolution LCD this time.
The M9 is a rangefinder camera, this means that instead of looking through the lens as you would in an SLR you look through a dedicated optical viewfinder which indicates the image area using frame lines. Focusing is carried out using the rangefinder field, a super-imposed image of which appears in the center of the frame.
The M9's viewfinder view is huge, bigger than you're used to seeing even if you use a full-frame SLR, it literally fills your vision (switching back to an SLR is like looking into a tunnel). It's also very bright with 'bright line' frames which appear as light overlays on the frame and the rangefinder 'metering field' (a rectangular area in the center of the frame) provides accurate manual focusing.
Bright-line frame view
The M9's viewfinder has bright-line frames which appear in the viewfinder depending on the lens used. They are displayed in pairs of 25 & 135 mm, 28 & 90 mm and 50 & 75 mm. This means that if you are using a 50 mm lens you see two frames, one for 50 mm and one for 75 mm, this may seem odd but is fairly easy to learn. You can also manually move the frame selector lever to see if the scene would be better suited to a different lens. The frames (and metering field) also move depending on the lens focal length to compensate for parallax error (because the viewfinder axis is offset from the lens axis). The largest field of view you can see through the viewfinder is just over 28 mm.
Because the angle of view of all lenses changes on focusing to a greater or lesser extent, the size of the framelines has to be chosen to give accurate framing at one specific distance. More distant subjects will end up with a slightly 'loose' composition, closer ones may potentially be cropped. The M9's framelines have been optimized for subjects at 1m - this is different from both the M8 and M8.2, at 0.7m and 2m respectively.
|35 & 135 mm frames||28 & 90 mm frames|
|50 & 75 mm frames|
(background image in diagrams above deliberately darkened for clarity)
Viewfinder LED display
Along the bottom of the viewfinder view is the status line which includes four LED digits, with two dots, a light balance indicator (two triangles with a dot at the center) and the flash ready indicator. The digits are used to indicate shutter speed, exposure compensation (when being altered), a countdown for long exposures (those longer than 2 seconds), under- or over-exposure warning and buffer full message. The smaller dots between the first and second digit indicate exposure lock (top) and exposure compensation warning (bottom).
The two arrows pointing inwards towards the circle are the light balance indicators which are used during manual exposure (manual shutter speed selection) to indicate under- or over-exposure (or correct exposure). The LED display adjusts its brightness depending on ambient light.
Distance metering / focusing
The M9 uses a rangefinder metering field which provides a bright superimposed image in the center of the frame. Very simply you adjust the focus manually until the double image becomes one, this then means that the part of the frame covered by the rangefinder metering field will be in focus.
|Distance meter area shows a double-image, this part of the frame is not in focus||After adjusting focus we have a single image which indicates a good focus here|
How it works
There are three windows on the front of the camera:
- Distance meter viewing window - provides the image for the bright rangefinder metering field (above).
- Bright line illumination window - gathers ambient light to produce the bright lines frames in the viewfinder view.
- Viewfinder window - provides the main image for the viewfinder, this image is combined with the bright line frames, rangefinder metering field and LED indicators.