Over the next little while, I am looking forward to comparing and contrasting the Leica M9 experience with the Fuji X-Pro1, a rangefinder style camera that in many ways is the Leica M9s contemporary, yet has shown Leica the way forward. Last year, I stepped into the Fuji X-mount waters with the X-Pro1 and its been a revelation in so many ways.
So, when I recently found a Leica M9-P in my hands through a surprising transaction, the opportunity to do a reverse experiment of sorts was in place. My goal here is to seriously give the Leica a chance now that I’ve had a little over a year with Fujis, a camera system that has absolutely rocked my world and placed a series of shots across the bow of camera companies world wide. So, what I hope to do over a few posts is assemble a prospectus of sorts that describes in the context of a year with Fuji cameras, whether or not the Leica systems make sense to invest in.
Will the Leica win my heart back? We’ll see. There is much to be passionate about not only the Leica performance, but also the long heritage of finely tuned cameras and optics.
First light from the Leica M9 was inauspicious… Though this was not the cameras fault. I had picked up a Voigtlander Nokton 50mm f/1.1 and was having a horrible time trying to get focused images. As I struggled to figure out what was going on, I naturally assumed that somehow my eyes had aged over the past 20 years and focusing was less precise than when a Leica M6 graced my hands back in college. I loved that M6 and the 50mm f/1.4 Summilux lens that went with it as focusing was precise and fast, and it was a mistake to sell it. However, tuition had to be paid and that was one of several items that went to cover the bills. Yet, after having shot with that M6 years before, there was something about that experience that still tugged at the photographer strings in me. When a Leica system is right, it is comfortable and just so right. In many ways, buying the Fuji X-Pro1 was the answer to that paean for my long lost Leica M6 and I’ve been very happy with it.
But the focus problem I was having on this Leica M9 had me totally flummoxed. What I was seeing in the rangefinder lens was not what was being rendered on the sensor. Thankfully, there was another Voightlander 28mm f/1.9 lens sent to me by a friend that was perfectly sharp. That combined with a little trip down to Pictureline to try out some other Leica bodies and Leica lenses confirmed it. The camera was fine, it was the Nokton that was borked and it has to be fixed. All that really has to be done is correct the error as when the lens is in focus, it is crazy sharp. Way sharper than I expected it to be, but given how thin the plane of focus is on an f/1.1 lens, accuracy of focusing is critical. Because of this, the lens is effectively unusable as you constantly have to guess at where the focal plane is going to be as you try and correct the unfocused image in the rangefinder. My hopes are that this is an easy fix as the lens does seem to have the potential for being amazing. Its fast and, perhaps sharper than I remember the Leica Noctilux being (I had a weekend fling with one once). So, when that issue is resolved and I have more than a single lens to use, I’ll report on image quality and all the things associated with the image. For now, its first impressions…
Camera: Leica M9
Focal Length: 50mm
Sure, there is always going to be a market that can afford the Leica, but my central question in going back to the Leica is: is the Leica experience and image quality worth it?
There are clearly some issues of Leica ownership that are more complicated than owning Canon, Nikon or Fuji gear. Aside from the astronomical price of the body and lenses, service is awkward and expensive. One of the things I was entertaining with these focus issues was having to send the Leica in for service to make sure the focus prisms were calibrated. Though I never had to calibrate my old M6, this is apparently an issue with the Leicas and often means sending the cameras to a central service center in New Jersey or in Wetzlar, Germany. Your average camera shop, even the Leica approved distributors are not allowed to do these kinds of adjustments. As you can imagine, this takes time and… money. I was told that calibrating a Leica lens can run $350, a process and price that seems outrageous to me after having shot with Canon gear for 20 years and Fuji for the last year and a half. Perhaps its like owning a Porsche vs. a Toyota… We’ll see.
First impressions are always part of the calculation of “worth” and both Fuji and Leica understand this with respect to packaging. Both the Leica M9 and the Fuji X-Pro1 are beautifully packaged. In fact, I’d say that the Fuji has better packaging with nicer materials, magnetic clasps, and a better sequential experience in unboxing than the Leica does.
Once out of the box, there are some immediate perceived advantages with the Leica M9 over the Fuji X-Pro1. First up is holding the Leica. The M9 is thicker than I remember the M6 being but there is a solid feel to the Leica that the Fuji X-Pro1 just seems to miss out on. Though both cameras need an ergonomic addition in my opinion that is nicely fulfilled by the folks from Match Technical with their Thumbs Up. It is interesting that the Fuji X-Pro1 almost “feels” closer in size to what I remember the old film based M6 being.
As to the actual controls, as nice as the Fuji X-Pro1 is, the switches and controls have a more solid and robust feel on the Leica. That is not to say that the Fuji X-Pro1 is not well built, because it is. For example: Last trip to London, I dropped the Fuji X-Pro1 from my shoulder onto concrete in a crash that made every photographer in the room (David Hobby, Zack Arias, Joe McNally, Greg Heisler and Keitaro So) cringe with the knowledge that I’d just done something truly bad. Turns out, everything was totally fine and I shot this image of Keitaro So immediately after. So, the Fuji cameras are rugged, the controls just don’t *feel* as solid as the Leica ones do.
The Leica M9-P is certainly a bit heavier than the Fuji X-Pro1 and that may contribute towards some of the feeling of solidity, but weight is the enemy as far as I am concerned and why I started carrying lighter weight cameras more often as of late. Though I find the Leica M9 pleasantly solid and the weight is just about right. Finding the right balance between heft for handling and lightness is a challenge.
The Leica M9-P also has a sapphire glass screen cover, a notable improvement over the Fuji X-Pro1 LCD cover which scratches relatively easily. Though one can buy lots of Schott glass covers to protect the Fuji for what the Leica cost differential is. It would still be nice to have a better LCD glass like the Leica M9 or what Fuji has done with the X-T1, though the LCD itself on the Leica is atrociously bad.
Probably the biggest issue found before talking about actually making images in later posts is comparing and contrasting the two cameras revealing the beautiful simplicity that the Leica M9 has over the Fuji X-Pro1. The controls are simpler and far fewer in number as are the menus on the back of the camera. It really is shocking how complex menu systems on modern digital cameras have become and picking up the Leica M9 has reminded me that camera companies need to put more effort into the design of the software interfaces that control their cameras. Honestly, Fuji is not the worst offender. The number of nested menus on my Canon gear is astonishing and Nikon is just as bad. But over the past few years, I’ve deliberately avoided Sony cameras, particularly the NEX series because of a truly horrible interface. Using this Leica for the last couple of days has shown how wonderful a simpler menu system can be, even if there are some odd implementations. The Leica immediately is intuitive and menus are not a series of nested submenus. Each thing in the menu is a function, and not an introduction to a list of sub-functions. Fuji could learn something here, if even something as simple as how battery information is displayed on the Leica.
Though, once you fire the cameras up and look through the viewfinder, the Fuji shows the brilliance behind their hybrid optical viewfinder. The option of having a heads up display projected onto your optical view is wonderful, but the solution to the biggest problem of using interchangeable lenses with a rangefinder style camera is Fuji’s implementation of a slide in electronic viewfinder. This was a revolution when the Fuji X-Pro1 came out in 2012 and here, two years later, its still a better solution than Leica has. By far.
The Leica also has slower processors on board making for more deliberate image processing and reviewing and you can only use SDHC memory cards, a frustration that occupied an hour or so of my time until I got the manual back out. There is a history of finicky SD card support with the Leica and what I did not realize was that the SDXC cards I was trying to format with it are entirely unsupported. This is still true with the current Leica ME model, though the new Leica M240 supports SDXC cards now.
I’ll refrain from discussing image files or quality or aspects of the optics in this post as I’ve not really been able to get a reliable series of images from the Leica yet. Early indications are that there is something magical about the Leica images I’ve had that were in focus. Like the Fuji X-Pro1, there is no aliasing filter on the sensor and the Voigtlander lens that is currently on it can be incredibly sharp, its just that few of the images are in focus where I want them to be in focus. Look for discussion and comparison of images in future posts after the lens issue gets sorted. For now, you can download a full size image of the flowers on my desk to look at here. I had focused precisely upon the flower, but as you see, the plane of focus was significantly behind the flower. If however, you look at the plane of focus on the mason jar, note that the Voigtlander 50mm f/1.1 wide open is pleasantly sharp, particularly for an aperture this wide. I’ll look forward to getting this lens fixed ASAP and get back to exploring images made with it.
Update: 03/03/16 The Leica Experiment.