Never meet your heroes. Isn’t that what they say?
I’ve always wondered what that really means. Perhaps in ancient times it meant that upon meeting that big brave knight you discover that he’s actually scared of little spiders. Perhaps in modern times it means that upon running into the actor who played that delightful character in your favourite feel good movie, you discover he’s not a delightful character and doesn’t make you feel good at all.
I guess fundamentally, meeting your heroes means that whatever preconceived ideas and connotations you have about someone, they’re unlikely to be borne out in reality.
This is entirely fair enough, especially with celebrities. After all, you don’t know them, you know their work. Just because a song makes you feel a certain way, it doesn’t follow that the song writer will too. Just because an actor/actress plays a role that fires up the willing suspension of disbelief of your imagination it doesn’t mean the person will, in fact in real life they may not be anything like they are on screen.
Don’t let me discourage you. No sir. Queue for hours for that signed book or T-Shirt, buy those tickets for An Audience with ____ but once you’ve interacted, asked your question, thanked them for being them, got their autograph, then it’s time to go. These are real people, but they don’t occupy a tangible place outside of your imagination.
Cameras can be a little like this no? What’s the best camera in the world right now? No, not necessarily which camera would you personally like for Christmas, but thinking purely about what makes a camera good, which is best?
It doesn’t matter what you answered, but the chances are that you picked a modern, current, and hot of the press camera.
Did you say the Sony A7Riii? Maybe. Why didn’t you say the original A7? Because it’s old. Because the newer variants of this camera are better, better featured, better IQ. Simply better in every measurable way.
But what happens if the camera you want is in its twilight years? How is it if for whatever reason you didn’t own a camera when it was hot, not even when it was tepid and now positively cold so much time has passed?
Like buying the car you dreamed of as a teenager when you’re into your forties or fifties – are you being stupidly sentimental or will you actually have a car that you can trust to drive every day?
I don’t know the answers. But these questions were certainly flying round my mind as I signed the DPD delivery electronic box thingamy and eagerly opened something that I’d wanted for quite a while.
Y’see… I’m mainly a Fuji guy. I love my X-Pro cameras. I won’t bang on. I have a whole website for that… except to say that the X-Pro2 is good at pretty much everything and excellent at very little. A true Swiss army knife of modern mirrorless.
True be told, I only really discovered the digital Leica Ms after I read reviewers comparing my original X-Pro1 against them.
Back then I kinda had Leica down as a lens company that still made film cameras.
I was, at the time, rather free of this modern ‘the camera as a celebrity’ culture. I spent the 1990s and most of the 2000s shooting film on a SLR. In the late 2000s I finally relented, I bought a DSLR.
And the thought process I used to select it was pretty much the same as people use to choose common, everyday practical medium sized cars from well-known manufactures.
My Nikon was like a Ford Focus to me and it served me well. It didn’t get me joining Nikon forums or craving FW updates. It got me out taking pictures.
The good ol’ days huh?!! Things have changed a bit since then.
So this Leica, this camera that you don’t even see in the regular camera stores, the camera that reviewers loved to compare my X-Pro1 against. What was it all about?
As someone who likes wristwatches, I’ve no axe to grind about things that don’t do a great deal more than their more commonly found stablemates other than have an unnecessarily high level of build quality and cost, but even so… happy with my Fuji.
Time went on and the newer Leica M developed closer to the spec of the other mirrorless cameras.
I started to pick up on the Leica world debate of the M9 sensor Vs the M240 one.
I’ve no dog in that fight, but looking at many M9 images…. Including the ones from fellow DS’er Paul, which you can see here. Well I have to say, to my eye, I saw a lot of charm in them.
Not every image of course, but the ones taken by people whose PP choices and subject matter matched my own tastes. I can (and do) say this about many images from many cameras, but the M9 files certainly seemed to have a ‘something’ about them
Eventually, after about three years the time came to own one. My very own M9.
Pretty much at the lowest ebb of its depreciation curve (I hope) and just back from ‘the mothership’ with fresh sensor, CLA and rangefinder calibration. I paired it with a 50 ‘cron (debated the 50 summilux, but that’s rather expensive and I’m not sure that F1.4 and rangefinding were going to work out that well for me)
It was at that moment I got the idea for this article. I was about to meet my “hero” and I had already had many warnings about this particular hero….
Then, if all of this wasn’t alarming enough… there’s the Leica-Rhetoric, that goes something like this.
Leica shooter: “Pah Canikon / Sonuji? Far too complicated. You need a simple camera to shoot with”
The Leica shooter often then goes on to explain this ‘simplicity’
“You won’t be able to make it work. It’s a special skill using a RF. There’s no auto focus you know, are you sure you can cope?”
I didn’t sign up for all of this!
I just wanted to make pretty pictures! I knew how to focus a RF, the mrs has a small collection of 60s/70s film ones.
And this boils down to my real reason of wanting a nigh on nine year old (design) digital camera.
It’s not just the legendary M9 secret sauce IQ – I want off the merry-go-round. Not forever. Just now and then.
Fuji are about to release a new FW update for my X-Pro2. I don’t really care about the 4K video. But I will install it, I will test it and I’ll almost certainly write about it.
One assumes that they’ll be an X-Pro3 at some stage. I’ll probably buy it.
When the X-Pro3 lands, the first questions people will have will be about the ISO and AF performance.
Owning (and especially writing about) a modern digital camera can be quite an involving affair. You need to know or find out the best application to PP the files, to keep abreast of any bug fixing and feature adding FW releases. You need to learn the tips and tricks to maximise your RAW with your ISOless sensor.
You might even find yourself writing a whole website about all of these things…
We truly live in exciting times. But some days, I just need a break.
Do you know what future FW features I’m expecting for my M9? None.
Do you know what secret tips there are to use an M9? None.
Do you know how many film simulations the M9 offers? Two – colour and monochrome.
In terms of blogging and discussing the M9, there’s simply nothing to say. It’s been said already.
There’s only one thing the M9 is really good for, and that’s taking pictures in plentiful light.
Perhaps we can say that the files from the M9 are a little filmic.
But what we can definitively say is that is that using an M9 in 2017/18 is very “filmic” in that there’s very little to care about other than focusing on and exposing for the picture you want to take. No face detection, no ‘sudden motion’ tracking AF, no instant share Wi-Fi. It’s just a camera.
It’s been three weeks now… so I’ve had a few chances to use it. But equally it’s only been three weeks, so it still has plenty of time to go wrong 🙂
One of the first things you’ll notice about the M9 is that the shutter makes a noise as it re-cocks. I’ve read people referring to this noise with great affection, but for me it’s a bit annoying and feels like one day it will stop… and I don’t mean that in a good way… it sounds like there’s a clockwork mouse in there!
This noise can be delayed, by engaging discrete mode. This stops the shutter from re-cocking until you release the shutter button. Although sometimes it doesn’t re-cock, keeping you waiting a while…. Which is pretty scary. A quick google reveals “they all do that mate” but still it would be nice if it worked consistently…
SD Cards, well I only own modern ones!
Rangefinder focusing. I have OK eyesight. It’s pretty easy – look for things that work well with the split window that are where you want focus to be. Pay attention if you’re using focus and recompose. Not everything has to be wide open. F4 and 1 meter gives shallower DOF than F2 and 5 meters anyway… it reminds me of using film cameras. I’m enjoying it.
Menus! Spartan. But more complex than you might think! The wheel/D-Pad to navigate is on the right; the button to select things and save changes is on the left. You’ll need two hands and the camera away from your face to change anything!
The settings are also on two different menus. (Set and Menu)
I started off by setting it to DNG only. However, the preview jpeg is pathetic, I mean it’s tiny. Like a windows thumbnail! So I set Monochrome jpegs and it turns out I quite like them and they’ll take a bit of editing.
Metering: it has one mode – centre weighted. It works well… But I’m still finding my feet with it. For example metering can be very different between holding the camera in portrait rather than landscape . Look where the light is, adjust to suit.
Exposure compensation: It has this! Something that can be set in the menu or made to work with the scroll wheel. Personally I haven’t bothered…. I look at the histogram in playback and if it’s bad I take another shot with a revised SS!
ISO: Yes…. 640 is ok. Best not to pixel peep…. You can just about get away with 640 and about 2 stops of lift in post. But best to shoot accordingly. This isn’t a modern camera; you can’t expose for the street lights then lift the street 5 stops in post. If you want a dark picture with some light bits in it then you can work with it
The DNGs: Early days. I’m sure my PP of them will evolve. After 3 weeks my current thoughts are that DNGs from this camera broadly fall into 2 camps. Virtually perfect straight off the card, do very, very little and hit ‘export’ or nope no good, don’t bother – push them hard and say hello to banding. I mean they have latitude, don’t get me wrong. But you can’t expect your raw editor to get you out of all sorts of bad exposure decisions with this camera. The AWB is a bit of a mixed bag. Sometimes sublime, sometimes polar, sometimes a bit warm.
(I’ve always been of the opinion that you have to work a bit for an acceptably exposed shot, either in camera or on the computer. With the M9 it pays to take the former approach)
Battery life: Fairly pants to be honest. A bit better than my X-Pro2 but 5-600 shots is about what I’m getting (I usually get 450-500 from the Fuji and let’s be honest a modern mirrorless has the sensor running if it’s turned on, the M9 has its shutter closed the whole time you’re not shooting a frame)
Base plate thing… It’s funny in a sort of not very funny way. Like being the butt of a practical joke. No I’m just kidding, I think all cameras should have a detachable part than you need to store in your mouth while you rummage through your bag for a spare battery or card (not)
Leica cachet: I took the Leica out on a day trip to London. A surprising number of people stared at it (usually people holding DLSRs) so I black taped over the part that says ‘Leica’ and this stopped happening.
Nice little touches: The buttons are not labelled. Instead the label is engraved and paint filled on the body above the button, so your fingers won’t rub the paint off over time.
Tactile stuff: Everything is pretty good. Everything is easy to turn but not loose enough to get turned by accident. The SS dial has different strength clicks for 1/2 stops and a big space click for A.
Cheap feeling: The shutter action is quite abrupt and ratchety – it works well enough though
OK, that’s it folks – that was your review!! Longer than you expected? Well my X-Pro1 and X-Pro2 reviews are about 100,000 words combined and counting…. You got off lightly!
For an emotive review, well that’s a little harder. At the very start I asked if we should meet our heroes, and I specifically meant, would owning an old camera actually be rewarding or a let-down?
But more importantly, the files…. I saw a lot of charm in other people’s M9 work. Would this turn out to be solely the result of their skill or did the camera lay the foundation for that skill to come into play?
The files are a little different to my Fujis and other cameras (bayer sensored ones) I own, but frankly some targeted PP towards a ‘kodachrome*’ type colour and you wouldn’t be a million miles off. Of course the M9 has a CCD sensor and nearly all other cameras are CMOS, so fine details are handled a bit differently. But that’s pixel peeping, not image making.
(*of course Kodachrome was available in many flavours from its introduction in 1935 and discontinuation in the 2000s, so I don’t think there’s an actual Kodachrome look, more like a how we think it should look look)
The Fuji (and the Sony and the Canikon etc) offer you many more possibilities, both in useful focal lengths, focus acquisition and in areas where you can take natural light pictures, eg >ISO1000
But that’s not the point of the M9. The M is very good at a narrow range of working.
I’ll give you an example.
I wanted (and succeeded) in shooting my five year old on a swing the other day.
How I would go about this on the Fuji: either use tracking AF, or use manual focus and focus peaking. But the snag with focus peaking is that it turns off when you half press the shutter, so you have to anticipate when to hit the shutter button (no big drama)
But the M doesn’t do this. When the two rangefinder images are aligned, you have focus so I simply had to watch her swing through a few arcs then set the focus and when I wasn’t looking at a double image, hit the shutter (which is pretty much lag free) and it worked.
The mirrorless cameras viewfinders are full of info to help you. Is the focus peaking showing focus where you want it, is the green AF lamp lit up? You have to commit some attention to this in order to get the shot. Don’t get me wrong, it’s very easy to work like this!
By contrast the M has nothing going on in there. Some LED numbers in Aperture mode for the SS that look like they came off an 1980s calculator (I’m wondering if there’s a way to get them to spell 55378008 like we did in school) and in manual mode, an exposure meter that looks a tiny bit like Morse Code (which I find a bit dot dash dash / dash / dot dot dash dot to be honest 🙂 )
Basically, when the image in the VF looks good and there’s no LED flashing at you it means hit the go button. This is the inverse of my other cameras where I’m looking for them to tell me when to take the picture, rather than the Leica which is telling me when not to take the shot.
I like this methodology. But let’s not get carried away on a sea of minimalism, and a less is more narrative – it’s a camera, not a tax bill… each system I own makes it possible to get a shot, and the mirrorless cameras with EVFs can tell you some very useful stuff. (Framing, exposure, and remaining battery life to name three)
The Leica is a simple tool. I (currently) have only one lens for it. The only place it will confirm focus is in the centre of the VF. It only has one metering mode. If I want to get away from central compositions and metering, I need to get creative… no wrong word… inventive. The Leica is literally a fixed point and I must pivot around it to get to where I need. This couldn’t be my only camera, but for many applications it is indeed a nice way to work.
I don’t get home with a card full of images and find some where I think ‘oh I should’ve used spot metering for that, silly me’ like can happen with the Fuji/etc. I’m not agonised by the choice of numerous mono and colour choices in post (I’m glad to have those choices with my other cameras though)
In short this old world; SD card cranky, clockwork shutter camera is indeed a hero, an hero from an earlier age, in so many ways it can’t compete in the modern world – the kids (including the M240/M10) run rings round it, you take what few features it gives you and look to yourself to find more, if you over exert it’s buffer with a spray and pray shooting style it’ll keep you waiting for a very long time.
But in the right light, with the right attention paid to its usage, it can still hold its head high. 18mp is enough, the correctly exposed files can certainly sing and the whole process of shooting it is enjoyable. I’m getting a real “I made that” feeling to my favourite shots with it.
The files are nice, a bit painterly sometimes, but I’m finding I want to believe them and that’s always been the hallmark of good story telling – a willing suspension of disbelief and the files certainly deliver that to my eyes.
Ultimately though it’s early days. I wouldn’t even say honeymoon period… frankly we haven’t even taken the ‘do not disturb sign’ off of the hotel door or opened all the wedding presents yet.
So ask me again later…. Ask me after we’ve lived in each other’s pockets for a while.
But one thing’s for sure, the M I have will never be anything more than it is now and it can only ever do what I figure out it can do. I’m happy with that and I either stay happy or I don’t and move on.
And in so many ways, I can’t think of a better way to have a bit of down time every now and then from the modern world of high tech cameras – 10 jpeg settings for better RAW / How to make your custom Fn buttons work for you. None of that is applicable here
Meeting my hero? Well – he’s an OK guy. I’m not in his intimate circle, I haven’t seen him get mad, and maybe he does yell at his staff when his latte isn’t just right. It’s too soon to tell. But we’ve been hanging out together and as long as I do things his way, he seems happy enough to have me around.
Image Notes: All images shot with the M9P and 50mm Summicron. Images taken in the UK (central London, along the Grand Union Canal in Buckinghamshire, and Bletchley) and Portugal (Porto). If you’ve ever in Bletchley, I highly recommend the Bletchley Park Museum – if you think I’m bleating on about old world tech being good enough for the job in hand, then you have to see what these folks did with 1940s tech to crack code, it is truly inspiring.
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