Leica M9: The cupboard is as bare as Old Mother Hubbard's
I have just scratched a long-bothering itch. I acquired a low-mileage Leica Monochrom, the Mk.I, M9-based camera that had been written off by the cognoscenti less than a year ago.
As you know, I've had my eye on an outdated, secondhand old Leica M9 for months. I've been biding my time. You see, there’s been a resurgence in demand for this old 2009 snapper over recent months. Leica digitals appear to defy the theory of digital rot as I wrote only last week. And older models are being recognised as a good buy: They took good pictures when new, they take the same good pictures now.
The old girl went through a bad patch about 18 months ago when her sensor started corroding and owners were faced with a €1,000 repair bill. Shock, horror ensued, egged on by a great wailing and gnashing of teeth from various forum denizens. This was followed by a massive unloading of used M9s and a corresponding drop in prices. It was a true bursting of a bubble and, at one stage, some dealers were refusing to buy M9s or, even, take them in part exchange.
Knight to the rescue
Then Sir Wetzlarhad rode in on his white charger and assured all M9 owners that their sensors would be exchanged free and would be fully warranted for the future. Relief. Everyone started buying back their M9s, many maintaining they had always preferred the non-live-view CCD sensor and the enhanced creativity that comes with an ISO sensitivity that blushes mightily at a modest 1600.
This heralded a rebirth of the M9 (and its derivatives including the Monochrom and M-E). There were shocking stories of people trading in their belled and whistled M240 videomatic wonders for the perceived simplicity of the M9, Leica's first full-frame digital. I have several friends who have gone backwards like this. How could this be?
This love affair with the M9 is showing no signs of abating. Last Saturday I called in to Red Dot Cameras in London for a chat, not intending to buy anything. Was I still interested in an M9 asked salesman Ash Smith: “Because if you are we don't have any”. The cupboard was as bare as Old Mother Hubbard’s, despite the arrival of several new display cabinets from Leica. Ash offered to bear me in mind if one came in, but they are getting hard to find he warned.
What a turnaround from last year when serried ranks of M9s were lined up at Red Dot like so many dusty terracotta warriors marching to oblivion.
Some of this lack of stock is down to European and other foreign bargain hunters lured to British web sites by the fall of Sterling. M9s (along with most other used Leicas) suddenly became bargains and were snapped up. But more likely it is the new beatification of the M9 that has cleared the shelves.
What Red Dot did have, though, were three Mk I Monochroms: A smart silver number and a couple of black beauties. I decided to put my money alongside my admittedly large mouth and came away with a pristine and very low mileage black MM (1,000 actuations to be precise). Now is the chance to do a repeat of my original Monochrom review. Will I still be enthralled? Is it better or worse as a photographic tool than its successor, the M246 Monochrom？
What I do know is that it is different, but different in a rather appealing way. It's smaller, feels better in the hand and somehow just more right — more film camera that the rather portly M240 and its M246 derivative. It seems to be barely bigger than the M4 and MP film cameras I've been using these past couple of weeks, although we know this is not true.
It differs in use, also, with its extra noisier shutter and rather endearing "discreet" and "delayed" mode which enables you to take a relatively unobtrusive shot, keep your finger on the button and walk a few hundred yards down the road before release: Whir, whir, all out of earshot of the unsuspecting subject as the shutter resets. Now why didn't anyone think of this before? Street photographers loved it but, sadly, this feature didn't find its way to the M240.
In common with my screenless M-D, the M9 is definitely not a chimper’s delight. The M9 screen is small and bordering on useless, a disappointment for in-camera editors everywhere. It does make a good menu window, though, and will suit me. I remember writing some four years ago that a new MM owner, having spent the best part of £6,000 on the camera and taking a look at the first shot on that toy screen would be tempted to slit their throat. But get the SD card home, open the file in Lightroom and all is forgiven. Suicide would indeed have been premature, as is usually the case. Simply because the Monochrom is a delight.
Some examples from the original test in 2013 (click to enlarge)
In business again
I dug out my M9 ThumbsUp grip, slapped on a wrist strap and I was in business. I even found a couple of spare batteries in my sundries box. Such is the advantage enjoyed by the retronaut.
As an experienced Mk.I Monochrom owner I dialled down the exposure compensation by -0.7EV because I know that this camera hates highlights but loves murky, darkly depths. You can do nothing with a blown highlight but you can draw detail from the jaws of hell with this monochrome sensor. I remember David Slater of Leica in London explaining to me in great detail how the CCD monochrom sensor displays an extraordinary dynamic range. It was all something to do with layers of information, most of which sailed well above my head. But he has a point, as any Monochrom Mk.I owner will confirm.
What is beyond dispute is that a monochrome sensor dedicates every single pixel to shades of grey. With a colour array, copious pixels are hived off to render colour. It stands to reason, then, that there are benefits in having every pixel singing from the same grey hymn sheet. A monochrome sensor can punch above its weight in comparison with a colour sensor; and that is the secret of the Leica Monochrom.
Lens? What other than the 50mm Apo-Summicron-M, the sharpest knife in the box, a lens which was introduced specifically to complement this first-generation Monochrom when it was announced in Berlin four years ago in May 2012.
I also tried out the vintage 1950s 28mm f/5.6 Summaron button cell for a shot or two. Look out for the distinctive vignette in the riverscape. The pictures from the 2013 test of the Monochrom were largely through the glass of the 50mm Summicron (not the Apo) and the 75mm Apo-Summicron.
I can now wallow in bucketfuls of nostalgia with my Mk I Monochrom. I've owned it before, I've owned the later Mk.II M246 Monochrom. All have gone in favour of the M-D, until this weekend my sole M digital. You may think me mad, but I see a certain "keeper" aura about the first Monochrom. It remains to be seen. First I have to decide if it matches up to my original review conclusions in 2013.
While I've taken a rather lighthearted view in this first impression article, I realise that black-and-white photography is not for everyone. It is definitely specialised. But if you like B&W and need to get the best out of it, a monochrome sensor is the way to go. In fact, I am surprised that four years after the launch of the Mk.I Monochrom no other manufacturer has produced a black-and-white sensor. Again, Leica came up with something we didn't think we needed. But we like it.
If you're in the market for an M9, M-E or Monochrom you have to look a little harder these days. At least I know that Red Dot Cameras currently have two Monochroms on the shelf. I doubt they will be there for much longer. For an M9 you might have to put your name on a waiting list. M9s on back order in 2016, whatever next?