Leica M9: First digital full-frame gets new lease of life
There is something odd going on in the world of Leica. The once troubled M9—remember that sensor corrosion issue?—has had a resurrection. This is largely down to the effective and rapid display of support from Leica Camera AG. After a slow start, the factory got behind the problem and guaranteed the future of the M9. The result was that confidence returned to the market. Yet I suspect there is more to it than that.
Whether that renewed confidence is a major factor or not is debatable, but there has definitely been a strong resurgence of interest in Leica's first full-frame digital camera.
Of course, there are some fans who will argue persuasively for the non-live-view CCD sensor as the basis of a superior art form over the newer and now almost universal CMOS. But I suspect the real reason lies deeper than that.
It is indeed only part of the story. Form factor plays a a big role here. The M9 isn't much smaller overall than its successor, the M240, but, crucially, it feels as though it is. The step down in the top plate, the couple of millimetres shaved off here and there, the 100g weight saving, the feel in the hands, all serve to produce an illusion that the M9 is actually a significantly smaller beast. If you didn't know, you would swear it was more M7 than M240.
People like the M9 despite its age. I know several friends who have returned to the M9 because of its relative simplicity and purity of purpose. The rear screen is good for little more than displaying the menu, there is no live view and owners are left with a pretty pure-in-purpose digital rangefinder. Chimpers are not amused. But this single-mindedness is somehow addictive. Indeed, it can be argued that the M9 is not far removed from the simple approach promulgated by the decidedly unusual but likeable M-D. That is currently my favourite Leica M.
Hamish Gill over at the excellent 35mmc web site, has acquired an M9 as his principal digital shooter. He's a film man at heart, as his regular readers will know, but he dallied with an M8 for some time. He found the 1.33 crop factor frustrating, lengthening as it does the focal length of popular glass, including his beloved 50mm f/1.5 Zeiss Sonnar (which transforms into a 66.5mm focal oddity on the M8). Hamish did an excellent review, covering all his pros and cons and you can find the link below.
The M9 is now a seven-year-old design. The latest colour versions of its CCD sensor (the monochrome versions continued for a time after the arrival of the M240) are now four years old. It is relatively inexpensive but becoming less plentiful on the secondhand market. A year ago the dealers’ shelves were groaning under the weight of M9s but in recent months there has been a run on the M240's predecessor. Many retailers, including Red Dot Cameras, now have very few examples to show you. This sudden resurgence has been fuelled partly by European bargain hunters taking advantage of the fall in the pound sterling, but the fundamental reason is that the M9 is simply becoming more popular.
The M9 is now backed by Leica's sensor warranty and there isn't much to worry about when buying a used version. It does have poor ISO performance—think about about topping out at 1600—compared with the later M, but is is still capable of some stunning work.
As a digital alternative to a film camera it makes a lot of sense. And for the rangefinder photographer it is still a delight. I suspect there is a sort of contrarian delight in discovering that this older M can still produce outstanding results.
With even the M8 still doing its stuff after ten years, Leica's digital are holding their own on the used market. There is a certain cloud hanging over the old M8, though. Rear screens are now difficult to find and some retailers are refusing to take in the cameras for resale because of the worries over warranty. But they are still plentiful on the private market and, if you are inclined to take a flier and can put up with the crop-factor, it's still a great camera.
In terms of depreciation and current value relative to new price there isn't actually much difference between the M9 and the M7 film camera. In fact, the M9 has lost slightly less value over its seven years. Even the M8 and, certainly the M9, can produce images you will be proud of. With later cameras you get more bells and whistles but many photographers, especially some traditional Leica fans, prefer a more simple life.
I confess I am tempted to buy another M9 if one comes my way; and the M9-based original Monochrom is also a camera that, in general, I preferred to the later CMOS version largely because of its lighter weight. One of these at the right price could be tempting. Contrary, admittedly, but there is decidedly an attraction about the M9 and M9 Monochrom that tickles the photographer's fancy.
All photographs by Mike Evans.