Sunday, June 13, 2010

My Gear, Part II: The Leica M9

Since I'd switched to digital several years ago, I've never been all that satisfied with the photos.  Sure I've taken some good pictures, but it was never the same somehow.  Dynamic range and tonality of digital files (at least from early 2000s) were not even close to film's.  In the last few years with full-frame sensors, they sure brought back some dimensionality to the pictures.  The cameras themselves also changed a lot.  ISO can now be freely adjusted from one shot to the next.  Colors are more camera dependent, rather than film dependent like before.  White balance is a whole new frontier in digital photography! Pro's DSLR are now capable of ultra fast autofocus, virtually lag-free shutter, and they now shoot HD videos.  I can't help but wonder what these cameras will do in a few years.  Wash your clothes, maybe?
Leica's first attempt with digital started with the M8 and later with M8.2 which were flawed in their own ways.  Despite those flaws, Leica engineers must have learned quickly and produced the M9 the way the M8 should have been.  

Moving from DSLR to a rangefinder was a big risk for me, but a calculated risk nonetheless.  Rangefinder cameras have their own attributes that differ somewhat from pro DLSR.  Attributes like manual focus only, no-mirror, basic center-weighted metering, and no full auto exposure can unacceptable to many photographers.  But for others, these attributes are attractive.  

With the Leica M9, I am more 'photo conscious' and I look for the opportunity to shoot more often.  When I carry the M9 along, I think mostly with the 35mm frame line in mind (my 'default' lens).  Other times, I react to the environment around me and the M9, despite being almost full manual, let me do that quite quickly.  It sure is very different to be shooting prime (MF) lens on a rangefinder than DSLR with autofocu zoom lens.   With a rangefinder, there's no viewfinder black-out (mirror interruption), less vibration (again, no mirror flipping up and down), fixed viewfinder with frame lines so I can see outside the frames, small foot print, manual focus works even in low light where AF fails, and the list goes on.

A lot of things have already been said (and written) about the M9 technicality.  I will not repeat especially when I'm not a tech expert.  What I can say and confirm, is that the M9, due to its smaller dimension, helps bring out the neutrality of your subjects more than professional DSLR.  Being smaller and lighter also means I carry my M9 around much more often than I do with my DSLR.  I  have three M lenses, the 24 Elmarit, 35 Summilux, and 50 Noctilux, and I use them all.  I cannot say the same with my old Nikkor AF-S 70-200 VR.

With the M9, I shoot exclusively in RAW (Compressed DNG).  This works exceptionally well with Aperture 3 and my iMac i7.  RAW format brings out the best of the M9 especially in dynamic range department.  Aperture, and I'm sure LightRoom, plays a big part of mimicking that film development experience, minus the chemicals and smell.  

A Leica M is truly a special equipment.  It certainly isn't for everybody.  Some may find its features as limitations.  Some may never get used to the manual focus.  Some may crave for ISO12500, HD video, and GPS navigation from their pro camera.  But if you love photography and want to get back to the basics, give a Leica M a try.  No matter it is film or digital.  

Now I understand full well what it means when someone once said, 'Shooting with the M9 is like taking a step back technically, psychologically, and financially. 

The photos below show just how practical the M9 can be.  Given practice, it can do action shots as well as portrait shots.  


Even when the 35mm Summilux isn't shot at maximum aperture,
there's still plenty of depth and sharpness.

Our recent trip to Hong Kong Disney, I shot this one to test the camera's metering and the lens bokeh.  Both performed very well.

This night shot on the Main Street is a straight output, no processing whatsoever!

A photo from a series of 3-4 shots.  Without any mirror interruption in the VF, I don't miss opportunity like this.

Buzz LightYear ride was a perfect challenge for the camera and myself alike.  Most autofocus systems would have failed in this situation.

A friend, also a Leica owner, and his lovely daughter.

Practice makes perfect.  Action shoot with the Noctilux.  

My daughter is now good friends with the M9.

With an optical finder and manual focus, low light shoot is not that difficult.

Have a good week,


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