Leica M9 Digital Rangefinder

Leica M9 Digital Rangefinder

Leica this week announced their new Leica M9 Digital Rangefinder – a camera that many will lust after but few will afford. Priced at around $7000 USD this is not a camera that most will be realistically be putting on their Christmas wishlist but it’s certainly a camera worth us taking a moment to profile.

Leica-M9.JPG

Leica are promoting it as the world’s first full frame digital rangefinder camera – of course there’s not a lot of competition, not many manufacturers are making rangefinders these days. It’s also the smallest full frame camera currently available.

The Leica M9 takes most Leica M lenses, has a shutter speed of 1/4000 to 32 seconds, 2.5 inch LCD, ISO of up to 2500 and has an 18 megapixel CCD sensor (developed by Kodak).

Expect this camera to be impeccably crafted – I’ve had an opportunity to ‘play’ with it’s predecessor (the M8) and it was simply beautiful. Leica does = Luxury, Craftsmanship and Refinement, but you pay for it.

Keep in mind that this is a Rangefinder not a DSLR – when lining up the shot you’re not looking through the lens itself but a separate focusing screen. The system does have some advantages (smaller and quieter – less moving parts etc) but it does taken a certain skill to use one as there’s no auto-focus, there are fewer options with telephoto lenses etc.

Rangefinders are one of those types of cameras that you either love or hate – but then most of us will simply have to admire the M9 from afar.

If you have a spare $6995 – Pre-Order the Leica M9 at Amazon.

We hope to post a review of the Leica M9 when they become available.

Update: see our review of the Leica M9-P

Leica M9 News Release:

New: The LEICA M9

Digital photography enters a new dimension.

Leica Camera AG, Solms presents the LEICA M9, the world’s first digital rangefinder camera with a full-format 24 × 36 mm sensor. As the world’s most compact full-format system camera, the M9 extends the legendary heritage of the Leica rangefinder M System and unites over 50 years of continuous technical improvements to the system with the best in cutting-edge digital technology.

The successful combination of an extremely high-resolution image sensor, the superior performance of M lenses and sophisticated processing of the captured digital information ensures the best imaging results in all photographic situations. With its wide-ranging technical specifications, the camera adjusts to all fields of photography – from reportage and ‘available light’ to the capture of discreet and fine-art images alike. The M9 is the ideal tool for all photographers who demand the highest standards in image quality and a freedom of composition.

The 18-megapixel CCD image sensor, specifically designed and developed for the M9, enables the capture of the full 35-mm film format without any compromises.

All M lenses mounted on the LEICA M9 therefore offer the same angle of view as with film camera models, meaning the enormous potential performance of the current M lens portfolio with focal lengths from 16 to 135 mm is now fully available in a digital camera for the very first time. In addition, most Leica M lenses built since 1954 can still be used on the new M9. Once again, Leica Camera AG proves their commitment to full system compatibility and the enduring value of the M series.

The sensor of the M9 features a newly developed glass cover that is designed to guarantee the suppression of infrared light in practical photography, avoiding the necessity of mounting special UV/IR filters.

Concentrating on essentials, its simple handling is a significant feature of the Leica M System. In the case of the LEICA M9, the handling has been further improved by simplification of the menu navigation: setting the sensitivity only requires holding down the ISO button while simultaneously turning the dial to select the required setting. All other functions important for everyday situations are quickly and easily accessible by pressing the set button. Furthermore, the menu also offers a snapshot profile option. In this mode, the M9 automatically sets as many settings as possible and provides a valuable aid to spontaneous and discreet photography. The camera also features automatic lens recognition via 6-bit coding. On the basis of the coded information, the M9 can compensate for any system-inherent lens vignetting effects (darkening in the image corners).

Despite the considerably larger sensor, Leica has been successful in making the LEICA M9 body comparable to the compact size typical of M cameras. With its compact dimensions of only 139 × 37 × 80 mm (5.47 × 1.45 × 3.15 in), the LEICA M9 maintains the ideal size of the M series and is now the world’s smallest full-format digital system camera.

As a working tool for professionals and ambitious amateur photographers, all features and functions of the LEICA M9 are designed for absolute dependability and endurance. The one-piece, full-metal housing is made from a high-strength magnesium alloy. Additionally, the top deck and bottom plate are machined from solid brass blocks providing perfect protection for the precious inner mechanisms. The digital components and shutter assembly of the M9 are similarly constructed with extreme endurance in mind. For photographers, this means absolute reliability for decades of use.

The LEICA M9 is now available in two different finishes: a standard version in black and, for the first time, a version finished in steel-grey. The two models also have different finely-structured leather coverings.

The sensor
The CCD sensor specially developed by Kodak for the LEICA M9 has been optimised to fully exploit the particular qualities of the Leica M lens system. As a result, the LEICA M9 achieves highest resolution values that guarantee outstanding image quality.

The image sensor of the M9 employs further-advanced and meticulously designed micro lenses with a low refractive index. The micro lenses at the sensor edges are laterally displaced towards the image center to precisely match the characteristics of M lenses. This optimized micro lens design, based on many years of precision optical engineering experience, captures and concentrates even the most oblique rays on the sensor and reliably prevents image brightness fall-off at the edges and corners of the image. As a result, all existing Leica M lenses maintain their full performance when used for digital photography.

The intentional decision to exclude a moiré filter, which optically filters out the finest image details, was made to permit full the exploitation of the superb resolution of Leica M lenses. Any moiré patterns occurring with the M9 are eliminated in the camera’s digital signal-processing software. The optimized signal–noise ratio of the CCD image sensor reduces the need for digital post-processing and ensures that images possess an unrivaled, natural visual impact. This results in high-contrast, particularly high-resolution exposures with natural color rendition from corner to corner.

The lenses
All Leica M lenses mounted on the LEICA M9 offer the same angle of view as with film camera models. Therefore, for the first time, the immense performance potential of the lenses is now maintained and can be fully exploited for digital photography. In line with Leica’s renowned commitment to extreme system compatibility, most Leica M lenses built since 1954 can be used on the new M9. As a result of the high mechanical and optical precision and extraordinarily good imaging performance, and particularly that of the current range, Leica M lenses are now ideal for use in digital photography. Performance criteria, such as the individual coating of each element, have long been a Leica standard, and there was no need to develop and implement any special measures for ‘digital lenses.’

The efficient image sensor on the M9 demands a particularly high spatial resolution that is, above all, offered by the latest M lenses. The excellent correction of optical aberrations and high resolution make them all the more suitable for digital use. The current M lenses are supplied with a 6-bit code on the bayonet mount that is scanned optically by the M9. On the basis of the coded information, the M9 can compensate for any (almost negligible) system-inherent vignetting effects if necessary. In addition, the lens type is recorded in the EXIF data of the image files and, when using the latest flash units like the LEICA SF 58, automatically adjusts the reflector to match the focal length of the lens attached.

The viewfinder / rangefinder
The Leica viewfinder / rangefinder system sets the LEICA M9 apart from the market-dominating SLR and compact digital cameras and makes it particularly suitable for vibrant reportage photography, ‘available light’ exposures and discreet portraiture. Photographers become part of the action and frame whatever they wish to capture in the viewfinder – a scene, a mood, a moment. Simultaneously, the photographer still perceives what is going on outside the viewfinder frame. The decisive moment can be anticipated, and can therefore be captured at precisely the right instant. This results in particularly authentic images that are not impaired by the presence of the photographer.

The clear view of the subject remains even during exposure and, even in the most adverse lighting conditions, the bright, high-contrast viewfinder guarantees extremely fast and precise focusing. In combination with the minimal delay between releasing the shutter and capturing the shot – in digital photography too – the combined viewfinder / rangefinder system positions Leica M cameras among the fastest cameras in the world.

In contrast to SLR photography, where focusing must take place through the lens and focal length and aperture determine focusing accuracy, the rangefinder base of the Leica M remains precisely the same and independent of the actual lens being used. This is the reason why its focusing precision is immensely superior for shorter focal lengths. The high-contrast, rectangular RF spot in the center of the viewfinder guarantees fast, precise and pin-sharp focusing, even under adverse lighting conditions.

The frame selector lever allows photographers to simulate different compositions with alternative focal lengths and assess the most appropriate lens for the shot without changing lenses. Because their position is automatically adjusted by automatic parallax compensation depending on the focusing distance, the six different bright-line frames always show the precise image framing. The bright-line viewfinder shows all other information relevant to the capture of a perfect image and the peripheral area around the envisaged subject, thus providing ideal conditions for spontaneous and unobtrusive photography.

The shutter
The LEICA M9 features a new, microprocessor-controlled, particularly silent, metal-leaf, focal-plane shutter that enables shutter speeds of up to 1/4000 seconds. This allows the photographer to maintain complete creative freedom by using a selective focus at maximum apertures, even in bright situations. The short flash synchronisation speed of 1/180 seconds enables daylight flash exposures with selective focus.

Together with its compact form, the camera’s virtually silent shutter is another keystone for discreet and unobtrusive photography. Additionally, photographers can select the appropriate moment for re-cocking the shutter. When longer exposure times requiring an extremely steady camera stance are essential, a slight pressure on the shutter release button in ‘soft release’ mode is sufficient.

Intuitive handling
The LEICA M9 concentrates the photographer’s attention on photographic essentials, not on setting the camera. Particular diligence, many years of experience and a vast knowledge of how professional photographers work have all influenced the handling concept for the digital functions of the LEICA M9. The result is a simple, clearly laid-out and intuitive user interface that concentrates purely on essentials; multifunction buttons and complex menu hierarchies have been avoided.

The key control element is an intuitive four-way switch and dial combination that enables fast menu navigation. Pressing the ‘set’ button activates the capture parameter menu on the 2.5″ monitor screen. The most important image-capture settings are quickly and easily set in this menu: sensor sensitivity, exposure correction, white balance, image-data compression and resolution. Free profile storage spaces are also available for fast access to frequently used or application-specific combinations.

The menu button is also used for changing more permanent, values outlining basic controls in the clearly structured system menu. The photographer can also choose whether the captured image is displayed immediately for assessment on the large monitor, how long it should be displayed and whether an additional tonal value histogram is shown.

The LEICA M9 has a delayed shutter release function with a choice of two countdown times – 2 and 12 seconds.

The technical features of the LEICA M9 allow it to quickly adapt to its intended use. Its sensitivity ranges from ISO 160 (PULL 80) for wide-open apertures on bright days to ISO 2500. At the same time, very low noise and finely detailed images are achieved throughout the sensitivity range, even at the highest settings. The very low noise characteristics, a bright viewfinder / rangefinder, low-vibration shutter and fast lenses make the M9 the perfect camera for ‘available light’ photography.

Innovative flash technology
The M-TTL flash technology in the LEICA M9 enables both precise and creative control over flash and mixed lighting effects. Prior to the actual exposure, a measuring flash is emitted that is metered through the lens. The flash power is then precisely determined with consideration for the natural lighting conditions, ensuring that natural lighting is maintained as much as possible In combination with the aperture priority exposure mode, the auto-slow sync function ensures subtle lighting of the subject, whereby the longest shutter speed may be set manually or, when using 6-bit coded lenses, automatically, according to the 1/focal length rule of thumb.

Image assessment with the tonal value histogram
As a professional digital camera, the LEICA M9 naturally offers an RGB tonal value histogram, which can be displayed at any time for the assessment of stored images. This feature is also available in conjunction with the automatic image review function. A useful additional aid is the indication of overexposed image areas by means of a so-called ‘clipping warning.’ These two quality control tools are updated for enlarged views and thus allow the quality of even the finest image details to be assessed. Pressing the info function button displays all photographically relevant settings, including additional metadata stored in the image files. These functions enable full control over captured results at the shooting location of the digital images.

Digital workflow
The M9 comes with Adobe Photoshop Lightroom, a professional digital workflow solution for Apple Mac OS X and Microsoft Windows. The software is available as an online download for all LEICA M9 customers. This also ensures that the latest release is always readily available. Adobe Photoshop Lightroom offers a vast range of functions for the management, processing and presentation of digital images, quite independent of image format. If the images from the M9 are saved as raw data in the standardized and future-proof Adobe Digital Negative Format (DNG), Adobe Photoshop Lightroom, with its sophisticated and precise processing options, guarantees direct and extremely high-quality image processing with maximized image quality. The 14-bit-per-channel color information captured by the image sensor is then processed at a16-bit-per-channel color information until the final presentation, and ensures that the most delicate tonal differentiations are preserved in maximum quality after completion of the post-processing sequence.

Materials, finish and dimensions
The tough and resilient top deck and base plate of the M9 are machined from solid brass blocks, while the full-metal body is manufactured from a high-strength magnesium alloy that ensures a long and reliable professional working life. The rechargeable battery and the SD card slot are protected from dust and moisture under the base plate, which uses a specialized locking mechanism effectively preventing unintentional opening and the subsequent loss of the battery and SD card. In addition, this long-established construction concept, already employed for decades in the Leica M System, significantly increases the structural stability of the camera body.

The experienced technicians at the Leica factory in Solms, Germany are responsible for the hand-assembly and hand-calibration of M9 bodies and the precise testing of all mechanical and electrical components. The experience gathered over decades of maintenance and repairs by Leica Customer Service creates a solid foundation for long life and enduring value. Even today, the service department maintains and repairs all M cameras built since 1954.

Sensor cleaning
The LEICA M9 offers a special function for manual sensor cleaning: selecting the appropriate item from the menu and pressing the shutter release locks the shutter open to allow access to the sensor for cleaning purposes. Due to the short register of Leica M cameras, the sensor is easier to access than in DSLR cameras in which the sensors are located behind the mirror box and shutter assembly.

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Darren Rowse is the editor and founder of Digital Photography School and SnapnDeals. He lives in Melbourne Australia and is also the editor of the ProBlogger Blog Tips. Follow him on Instagram, on Twitter at @digitalPS or on Google+.

Some Older Comments

  • Jeremy September 23, 2009 07:15 pm

    Its the lack of anti-alias filter that's the prize piece on this "toy". seamless pixels flowing into each other. marvellous!!

  • PRH September 20, 2009 10:13 am

    @K. Praslowicz
    on your first point...
    I don't think it had a collapsible lens but I don't have the camera anymore to check. Tragically, I lost the camera in a move a number of years ago. Even with the focus issues that I had with it, it held a lot of sentimental value being my first camera. Everything on it was manual so it taught me all about the relationship between light and exposure.

    on the second:...
    I actually prefer the frame lines when shooting spontaneously and hand held...

    I don't remember the frame lines but it goes to show that one person's disadvantage is another's favourite feature :D

  • K. Praslowicz September 20, 2009 07:08 am

    @prh, again. ;)

    On a rangefinder, the image would be exactly the same so you would have to guess at how much of the scene you are actually capturing. I don’t know whether the modern rangefinders have some sort of compensation for this.

    Most rangefinder's built since 1950 will have appropriate framing lines that pop up to match the field of view of whatever lens is on it. Not as precise as an SLR, but the root of the old SLR - Rangefinder debate point of "I like to see exactly everything as the lens sees" vs "I like to see outside the frame lines to anticipate action"

    I actually prefer the frame lines when shooting spontaneously and hand held, and prefer the full view of an SLR system when working slower and more thoughtfully on a tripod

  • K. Praslowicz September 20, 2009 07:01 am

    @prh: I wonder if per chance the came had a collapsible lens on it, you didn't realize it. Many of the Leica lenses between the 30's-60's where designed to collapse into the body for more compact transport. Failure to realize this, and then shooting with the lens while collapsed, or not properly extended pretty much guarantees that nothing will ever be in focus.

  • PRH September 19, 2009 03:54 pm

    Hi John, here are the differences...
    Rangefinder:
    if you look at the image of the M9 you'll notice that there is a small window next to the M9 label and a larger viewfinder window on the top right hand side of the camera. When you look through the viewfinder the image from the smaller window is overlapped onto what you can see. You manually rotate the focus ring until the two images align.

    DSLR and film SLR:
    use a system of prisms and mirrors to redirect the image that's coming through the lens itself through to the viewfinder. What you see is essentially what you get.

    In my opinion the biggest advantage of an SLR is that when you change lenses (or focal length when zooming) you will see this through the SLR's viewfinder. On a rangefinder, the image would be exactly the same so you would have to guess at how much of the scene you are actually capturing. I don't know whether the modern rangefinders have some sort of compensation for this.

  • PRH September 19, 2009 03:37 pm

    I used to own a film Leica rangefinder many years ago that my mum gave to me when I was 11 or 12. I never took a single in-focus shot with it! I don't know if that was because the camera was already 30yo when I got it and the rangefinder optics were out or if it was something I was doing wrong. I did love the retro look of it though.

  • john b pettitt September 19, 2009 02:59 am

    hello there would you explain the difference between rangefinder and dslr. by the way leica cameras
    are the rolls royce of all cameras, i have a leica r9 camera luvs it
    cheerio for now john b

  • rich September 18, 2009 09:11 am

    Yes, it might be a good camera, but it's a silly thing from another age. If you put Leica images in a basket with any other digital cameras images - I defy you to tell which ones were shot by a Leica. A rangefinder???
    Wow! How about a re-make of a Hudson Hornet? Exactly what would make a person spend 7K on a camera like this, other than making a fashon statement?

  • Silverzz September 18, 2009 05:01 am

    Not something I would buy, even if I had the spare money to do so.

    It seems more of a novelty and for $7000 I don't think it really offers anything special.

  • Jurie September 18, 2009 02:00 am

    *drool*

  • old but new September 16, 2009 01:21 am

    I'm selling off my M8 and getting this one alright ! I got money to burn and cash to spend .... hahaha

  • Gert September 15, 2009 04:10 am

    I am a beginner in the field of photographyt, it must be said before I comment on this camera. I do appreciate that Leica is the Porcsche 911 Targa SC, 1971 model, of cameras, That gives it a certain sentimental value, and that I understand, but seeing as I did not grow up with Leica - what value proposition does this bring? How dies this camera take better pictures? I ask these questions not to be sarcastic, but to try and understand this a little bit better!

    Love the site!!

  • gerdez September 15, 2009 12:30 am

    Some street photography with the Leica M9 - Chris Weeks and others. http://vimeo.com/6497905

  • K. Praslowicz September 14, 2009 09:14 am

    #will burn

    The image you speak of is here. http://theonlinephotographer.typepad.com/the_online_photographer/2009/09/the-worlds-most-compact-fullframe-digital-system-camera.html

  • Will Burn September 14, 2009 01:28 am

    @ Pat:
    There's a really interesting first look at the M9 here, which suggests that it has no problems at all with ultra-wide lenses. However, until anyone's spent any significant amount of time using the camera (it was only launched last week), no-one's in any position to comment on strengths or weaknesses. However, I'd still like one. A lot.

    Somewhere on the interweb there is a lovely picture which allows you to compare Canon's 35mm f1.4 with the Leica equivalent. If anyone can find it, it's proof enough of why the SLR is not the be-all and end-all of photographic equipment.

  • Pat Bloomfield September 13, 2009 06:37 am

    Ah this is beautiful but guess it is something I can only dream of :-)

    Getting a full frame sensor in to the camera should overcome most of the problems of its predecessor.

    It will be interesting to see tests especially how it copes with ultra wide angle lenses - I suspect this will still be a weakness.

    Pat
    Inner Beauty Photography

  • Darren September 13, 2009 05:33 am

    I have seen a few reviews on this camera and it is indeed retro gorgeous.

    Just one thing - How about somebody reviewing the image quality and posting some shots!?!?!?!

    I'd love to see where your 7 grand goes.

  • Karl September 12, 2009 06:38 pm

    Khürt, check out http://tinyurl.com/m3akxx for info on rangefinders.

  • K. Praslowicz September 12, 2009 02:00 pm

    Ahh good. Glad it is 1/4000th instead of 1/400th. I love my M6 to bits, but I rarely drive it slower than 1/500th. 1/400ths would have been a huge step back for such a pricey piece of gear.

    That said, given my current shooting habits, I can probably shoot the M6 for mare than a decade before I run up $7000 in film costs.

  • Zim September 12, 2009 01:03 pm

    This camera is to photographers the same iMac is to designers!
    Though interesting, I'd go for other kind of gear if I had a budget around that number...

  • Darren Rowse September 12, 2009 12:49 pm

    thanks Mike - fixed

  • Khürt L Williams September 12, 2009 08:12 am

    I have no idea what a range finder camer is. Someone please provide some reference material.

  • Ed V. September 12, 2009 08:06 am

    I want one if only for its looks. Something has to be said about classic camera design. I've often fantasized about a digital camera that didn't look like one. Alas, the kids' college education comes first...

  • Mike Wood September 12, 2009 07:51 am

    I think you meant to write 1/4000th of a sec in the post body Darren. :) Damn thats a cool camera. put it on the wish list with a Hasselblad too :)