Geartalk: First impressions of the Leica M9

Providence. A few weeks ago, i posted on a European friend’s Facebook page that it was my dream to shoot with the Leica M9, as a comment to one of his many incredible photographs. Then, out-of-the-blue, i’m contacted by a gentleman who is also a friend of the person who lives in Europe (on whose wall i posted the comment). We start chatting, and he turns out to be someone with a degree of influence in Malaysia’s very own Leica Store.

After a few more chats, it is revealed that enjoys a good cigar, just like me. In an off-hand comment, i tell him, i’ll trade him some cigars for a Leica M9. The next thing i know, the Leica Store Malaysia calls me up, “Sir, where would you like your Leica M9 delivered?”

I nearly fainted.

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Thank you, sir. Thank you, Leica Store Malaysia (their Facebook page), for this glorious opportunity.

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I’ve had the M9 for a few days now, and i’ve tested it with 3 different lenses — the Leica 35mm f/2 SUMMICRON-M ASPH, the Leica 28mm f/2 Summicron-M ASPH, and the Leica 50mm f/1.4 ASPH SUMMILUX-M. All three lenses are amazing, and have character; almost like a wild beast, it takes some effort to break them down, before you draw out the results you want.

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For my eye, the 35mm f2 SUMMICRON is the sharpest of the three, however, i wasn’t comfortable with the focal length. Presumably because i’ve never used a 35mm before, usually staying at 28mm or at 50mm. The 28mm f2 SUMMICRON is an amazing wide angle lens. Zero distortion, parallel lines are ramrod straight. However, the lens itself blocked part of the bottom right hand corner of the viewfinder, which became distracting for me. The 50mm f1.4 SUMMILUX — what can i say that hasn’t been said about this amazing lens? The best 50mm lens EVER invented? Possibly. Bokeh is delicious, easy to focus (i found the focusing ring’s nob suited me very well, made it easy to focus quickly), and it didn’t block the viewfinder.

Shot with the 35mm f2 SUMMICRON – click on the images for the larger versions on Flickr.

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The colour saturation and sharpness is mind-blowing.

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How about the camera itself? I think the perception that manual focus is “difficult” is a product of a generation accustomed to the expectations of snappy Auto Focus, the faster the better. In fact, many brands claim to have “the fastest AF in the world” as part of the marketing messaging; do it enough times, and pretty soon people begin to believe that that’s the way to go, the only way to go.

Shot with the 28mm f2 SUMMICRON – click on the images for the larger versions on Flickr.

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Notice the lines along the edges, completely straight. Distortion free on the subjects despite the very short range.

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Being brought up on a diet of MF Nikons as a boy, the manual focus experience isn’t new to me. The very first photograph i took required me to line up the split prism in the viewfinder. My dad taught me that. I still remember the lesson. A good memory. So in way, i’m probably nostalgic and that lends itself to the appeal it has for me.

The only grouse i have about the M9 from a usability perspective is that i’m a left eyed shooter. The viewfinder, being on the left side of the camera, therefore, squashes my nose against the LCD, and completely removes me of my peripheral vision.

But besides that, focus is easy, made doubly so by the smooth focusing ring dampening of the lenses. In some case, focus is faster, and even more accurate (because i decide the focus point, not the processor) on the M9 than on an AF camera.

Shot with the 50mm f1.4 SUMMILUX – click on the images for the larger version in Flickr

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Back to Leica’s roots, B&W photography

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The other thing i like about the camera is the simplicity of it all. Have you seen the new Sony’s being released in Photokina 2012 this week? They look like they have enough buttons on them to start a nuclear war! Getting lost in the menus would be very easy. Ditto the other Japanese brands — there seems to be a love affair with squeezing in as many options/menus/buttons as possible. Not to say that they don’t have a good purpose (i use them extensively too), but it just means that the learning curve is steep. With the M9, because the menu system is threadbare, almost embarrassingly so, i figured every out in 10 minutes (seriously) and within 15, had setup customized settings to suit my own shooting style.

And once you start shooting, the need to mess with the buttons again is minimal. EV compensation is probably the most of what is generally required, and this is done with just a one-button push.

I’m sure there is a lot more to discover about the Leica M9, and i look forward to the discovery. Time to go for my holiday. Istanbul, here i come!

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