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Leica M9 review: Leica M9

The most impressive camera we have ever tested, the Leica M9 is also the most expensive.

Nik Rawlinson
Nik Rawlinson has been writing about tech since Windows 95 was looking distinctly futuristic. He is a former Editor of MacUser magazine and one-time scribe for Personal Computer World. Nik is a freelance writer and is not an employee of CNET.
Nik Rawlinson
6 min read

Leica's most recent release, the M9-P, builds on the success of its predecessor, the M9. The differences are purely cosmetic. The distinctive red Leica dot has been removed; the company name has been etched onto the top of the case; the case itself is more deeply textured; and the screen coating has been swapped out for scratch-resistant sapphire crystal.


Leica M9

The Good

Superb image quality; Great colours; Ultra-sharp lens system.

The Bad

Very expensive; Takes some learning.

The Bottom Line

The Leica M9 isn't a point and shoot and it isn't the kind of camera you'd usually take on safari to snap the roaming wildebeest. But if you did, you'd record your trip in stunning detail with the most vibrant colours you've ever committed to pixel or print. You'll pay a hefty price for the privilege, but if you can afford it, you'll be very happy with the results.

Under the hood, it's business as usual, producing identical results to the M9, which remains a key part of the digital Leica line-up. That's what we're looking at here.

The camera isn't cheap, and will set you back around £5,000 -- more if you buy it in a combo with lenses.

The M9 Experience

The M9 is the smallest full-frame digital currently available. Strip away the tough metal casing and you'd find an 18-megapixel sensor whose dimensions match a regular frame of 35mm film -- 24x36mm. End to end, the body is roughly the same as a mid-range Canon or Nikon dSLR, but from front to back it's only about two thirds the size. Despite this, it's a hefty beast, tipping the scales at 585g and weighing heavily on your neck if you sling it about on the narrow shoulder-strap.

Its compact proportions make it very discreet, and it certainly doesn't look like it should cost the same as a small family car. The upshot was that we felt far less conspicuous walking around with this in tow than we did a regular dSLR.

Everything is manual, from focus and ISO to picking the best aperture, for both the available light and your chosen depth of field. You can set the shutter speed to auto, but we soon learnt to use this feature as a guide rather than our regular shooting mode.

All framing is done through the viewfinder (for reasons which we'll come to, there's no live view) where there's the bare minimum of guidance to help you frame and shoot the best possible results. A series of framing lines show you roughly what you can expect to capture with the currently-installed lens, and if you've set the shutter to auto you'll also see how long the frame will be exposed.

Detail test

It's easy to control both focus and depth of field using the rangefinder system, allowing you to keep specific parts of your image in sharp focus (click image to enlarge).

For the most part we set the shutter speed manually using the top-mounted dial to accommodate particular subjects, so didn't need the speed read-out in the eyepiece display. The M9 swapped it for a simple exposure guide where a single spot indicates how close you are to the perfect settings, and a series of arrows on either side shows you in which direction to turn the aperture ring -- and how far -- to let in enough light without overexposing the frame. It's a simple system, and one that very quickly becomes second nature.

The controls are simple and well thought-out. We paired our M9 body with a Summilux-M 1:1.4 lens, with a fixed focal length of 35mm, which in common with others in a range stretching back through the decades, is a two-part construction with an aperture control at the front, running from f/1.4 through to f/16, and a focus control taking in 70cm to infinity. Naturally, there's no macro mode.

Detail test
The image above is a crop of the image below, isolated to show the kind of detail captured by the Summilux-M lens (click the uncropped image below to see this in context). 

All but three of the Leica's M system lens library fits the M9, offering an almost unlimited choice. Although our sample lens had a fixed field of view, the company produces models with two or three switchable focal length options built into the same unit.

Vintage lenses remain both popular and highly sought-after, commanding prices up to £15,000. If that's too rich for your tastes, and you decide instead to opt for a current lens, you may still be in for a wait. The glass in the £7,300 Noctilux 0.95/50 takes 12 months to cool, so place an order today and consider yourself lucky if you're shooting with it a year from now.

Using a rangefinder

There's no autofocus, as the M9 and M9-P use the rangefinder system, which relies on you measuring the focal point manually.

Like the exposure system, once you get used to using it, this becomes entirely second nature. The Leica system is built around two windows above and on either side of the lens, each sitting an equal distance out from the centre of the frame. As you hold the camera to your eye, you look directly through the larger of these, with the view from the second smaller window superimposed over its centre.

Focusing the camera is then a matter of rotating the focal length ring on the attached lens until the two images perfectly align. It's easiest to do this when you're looking directly at a vertical line as it provides a sharp contrast against which to judge the alignment. It's a bit of a mindbender if you've spent your life working with a regular manual focus, turning the barrel of a zoom lens to find the sweet spot, but it's well worth the effort, as the results more than repay the time spent getting it right.

The control is extremely fine, with tiny adjustments making dramatic changes to the specific part of the image that remains in focus. This gives you far greater control than you'd have with any regular camera which, when combined with the widest aperture of f/1.4 on our test lens, made it extremely easy to produce some impressively sharp, shallow-focus images.

The rear LCD is used for tweaking the menus and reviewing your shots, as with any other camera. What it's not used for, though, is any form of live view: you'd not be able to focus this way as you couldn't overlay and manually align the view seen through the two framing windows.


Detail test

You won't see it through the viewfinder, but the versatile 35mm lens makes it easy to achieve a beautiful 'bokeh' effect when shooting with an aperture of f/1.4, or a sharp background when shooting at f/16 (click image to enlarge).


Everything about the Leica M9 and M9-P screams quality, from the camera build to the leather cases for the lenses and, most importantly, the images they produce.

The native file format is Adobe DMG, which come out at a whopping 18MB, full of stunning detail. Colours are consistently brighter and more vivid than just about any camera we have used -- ever. Skies look like they've been boosted through liberal use of a polarising filter, while reds and browns are rich and satisfying.

Detail test

Apart from resizing to make them more friendly to download, we haven't edited any of these images. These colours come straight out of the camera (click image to enlarge).
Detail test

Again, there's been no editing here. This rich, vivid blue was created in camera without any filters (click image to enlarge).
Detail test

Even with muted colours, such as this wall cast in shadow, the M9 captures plenty of detail (click image to enlarge).

Our test lens was sharp at all aperture settings, produring crisp edges to our focused subjects and a beautiful velvet blur on those parts that were thrown out of focus at particularly wide aperture settings.

Relying on a physical aperture ring for adjustments rather than a software-driven setting through the camera menus gives you a more responsive shooting environment overall, with the obvious caveat that as you're not looking directly down the lens barrel, you can't see what the result will look like until it appears on the review screen.

Is it for you?

If you can afford it, and you're prepared to spend time getting to know the M9 or M9-P, then you'll be rewarded by some of the best pictures you've ever taken. It's very easy to grab some technically excellent results after just a couple of days' play. Whether they have artistic merit, of course, relies on your own judgement rather than the physical and optical attributes of the camera itself.

There's no getting away from the fact that this is a very expensive set-up, though. The camera and lens combo we tested, which represent a pretty regular pairing, cost £8,500. You could buy 20 iPads or a Ford Fiesta for that and still get change, and that's before you invest in building up a decent stock of lenses with varying focal lengths.

The M9 and M9-P are cameras for none but the uber-wealthy, which is a shame, as we've found ourselves more impressed with the results in these tests than from any other camera, period.

Our review unit is on its way back to Leica; we wish it wasn't.

Detail test

With a slightly wider aperture we have kept more of this image in focus as the subject recedes from the lens (click image to enlarge).