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Leica M9 review: Leica M9

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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.

8.8 Overall

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.

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
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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). 
Detail test

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.

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