Smooth Transitions: Leica M6 to M9
S M O O T H T R A N S I T I O N S
Change can be challenging,
especially with tradition
at its back. The newest
interpretation of the M line
shares the same genes of its
ancestors, but has a different
way of expressing itself.
When things are going well, why make a change? In Leica’s case, things were not actually going that well. Kodak discontinued its epic Kodachrome film, some camera shops canceled orders for new film, and an era of film photography appeared to be drawing to a close. The fate of Leica film cameras was predicted by many people to be sealed. In an ironic twist of fate, Leica’s full frame digital M9 created a resurgence in film, film cameras, and film sales. This massive contribution is the accidental by-product of creating a digital camera that feels like its film predecessors.
When the M8 was announced, I was not amazed. It was an overpriced imitation of an M camera with a reduced sensor. People I met, who knew I still shot film, could not help but ask, “So what do you think?! M8?” Leica was taking a step in the right direction, but they still needed some time to grow. Fast forward to the release of the M9 and a sigh breathed across the rangefinder community that at last a comparable alternative to our film cameras has arrived.
Many of the M9′s features are like an inside joke, only making sense in context. The detachable base plate, soft release, and manual dials originated over 50 years ago. The roots of Leica’s film cameras are deep, very deep. So when I got the call that my M9 was in stock, I could not wait to see how much re-learning needed to be done.
x 0.58 finder
In hand the M9 feels like a film camera. The body is slightly thicker than the M6 I use and there is no film advance lever to rest my thumb on. Since there is no film, the film rewind button is also missing, giving the M9 a minimal feeling. Holding the camera up to my eye, the viewfinder has a tighter magnification than I am used to. x0.58 is the viewfinder I prefer, mostly because I shoot a 28mm lens. With the lesser magnification, the 28mm is much easier to compose because the frame lines are visible without having to look around the edge of the viewfinder. The M9′s x 0.68 finder pushed the 28mm lines back to the edge of the scene. This was going to make for a little learning curve when using the 28mm.
Meanwhile the 50mm was perfectly suited for the new viewfinder. As a personal trait, I will admit to resisting convention. Leica has paired their 50mm Summicron with their cameras for years in the “Starter Set”. This led me to try the 21mm and 28mm as my everyday lens. Over time the 50mm Summicron kept sneaking its way back onto the camera, until I conceded. It is a brilliant lens and a focal length that any camera sommelier would select for a successful pairing. It spends most of its time on the M9.
T H E ”A”
I found a large A on the shutter dial of the M9, which promised to give automatic shutter speeds. Having only used an M6, the A feature, which is available on the M7, seemed interesting. I was super excited to try out this new option, which allows you to meter a scene, press slightly harder to lock the reading and then recompose the shot if necessary. It was the closest Leica had ever come to the automatic features typically found on DSLRs.
When is it useful…
Walking around cities, waiting to catch some instant moment, I leave the camera on A, set my aperture to 4.0 or 5.6 and feel ready to fire. If something comes up quickly, a picture can be taken without thinking, just focus (or pre-focus) point and shoot. It is wonderful.
8s, 4s, 2s
Like a godsend, the M9 comes equipped with a self-timer (2 or 10 seconds) and exposures on the dial all the way to 8 seconds. In “A” the shutter will stay open for up to 4 minutes but I prefer to use “B” and a cable release for these situations. The dial settings, of multiple seconds, add a level of precision to what used to be the tricky task of counting in my head.
When is it useful…
The difficulty of long exposures is in not moving the camera while pressing or releasing the shutter. A cable release allows for a movement-free release, but what if you left it at home? By using the self-timer and the multiple second presets, low light pictures are infinitely easier with the M9.
- Select self-timer.
- Set the length of the exposure.
- Press the release.
- Brace the camera for the exposure.
- Hold tight until the picture is complete.
Around the World
The added features of “A”, 8s, and faster speeds like 1/4000 make for a very full dial. Leica managed to squeeze all these settings on a dial the same size as an M6 dial. The trouble is, how do you tell what the setting is when you are not looking?
The M6 dial has a few indicators that allow you to know where the setting is without looking. The “Off and B” and “1/30, 1/50, and 1/60″ are spaced closer together than the other settings. For example, if the dial is set to 1/125th and the scene you are looking at is dark, as the dial is rotated to longer exposures you can feel a double click as the dial passes over 1/50. It’s a great way to know that holding steady is very important. Since the M6 dial stops at the “Off” and the 1/1000, it’s easy to tell what shutter speed you are on without looking.
The M9, on the other hand, spins 360 degrees with half steps between each shutter speed. In the M6 days, half steps were only possible in the aperture settings, not in the shutter speeds. So if a scene was half a step off, you had to change the aperture to get the right setting. The added feature is welcomed, but now it’s impossible to tell the shutter speed without periodically looking at the camera. It’s not a big deal, but it takes some getting used to. When I go back to the M6 it’s nice to know where I am without looking, but I miss the additional settings. (Moral of the story: Owning more than one Leica is fun. They all have their strengths and weaknesses).
The day I picked up the M9, my immediate thoughts were to open everything up and see how it compared to the M6. When I tried to remove the base plate, there was no catch. Leica put the opening mechanism on the other side of the camera. The new battery position of the M9 is where the old catch used to be on Leica’s earlier M cameras. Fortunately the M9 base plate does not need to be removed as frequently as a film camera. Instead of 38 images, an 8 GB card usually allows for 422 shots.
The other adjustment Leica made was putting the tripod thread in the center of the base plate. Traditionally the tripod threads were on the right hand side of the camera. When I transitioned from a Hasselblad to a Leica, I thought this was a strange place to put a threaded attachment. It meant that the camera was asymmetrically balanced on a tripod. With a full size tripod this makes almost no difference, but when using a tabletop tripod you must be careful otherwise the solid M body will tip over a lightweight tripod. Over the years, the right handed threads proved to be useful. Whenever I would use the tripod against a wall instead of on a horizontal surface, the M6 would be cantilevered away from the tripod, giving my face plenty of clearance to compose and image.
The M9 has centered itself, both literally and figuratively, to some of the trends of modern DSLRs, namely a centrally located tripod thread. This allows the camera to balance on a tripod. With this small change, Leica has eliminated two problems. Number one, the camera does not pull the tripod off balance by being cantilevered out in space. Number two, when the ball head is released the lopsided camera does not drop out of position. Obviously if the ball head is completely loosened the camera will drop all the way to one side, but with the threads in the center of the camera, smaller adjustments are easier.
Exotic coverings for cameras never attracted my attention. The idea of having some nearly extinct animal wrapped around my shoes or camera does not appeal to me. This is not my rant on animal rights, but I figure, I eat beef. There is no sense throwing the skin away, better to use it. Recently I noticed that Leica said their ostrich covering was not actual ostrich. Good news I believe.
The M6 comes with a standard black leatherette wrap, identical to that found on the M7. It is smooth to the touch and very durable. My camera was built in 1993, was bought used, and still looks new. On the M9, Leica decided to offer the black camera with the traditional vulcanite wrap used on M3′s. It gives the newest addition to the M line a retro look. For those who do not like the textured feel of the vulcanite, the grey M9 has the smooth leatherette cladding that you will recognize from the MP’s. Vulcanite is a heavily textured mixture of silicone mixed with latex. There was some criticism on the Internet that vulcanite was inherently unstable. UV rays supposedly cause it to break down and turn to dust. I trust Leica has solved this issue before wrapping a few thousand M9s in vulcanite.
Beyond the chemical properties of the wraps, I am not partial to one over the other. It is helpful having the M6 and M9 with different finishes. This way the “feel” of the cameras is obvious from the first second I pick them up. If I could ask Leica for my ideal camera covering, it would be the suede side of wayward calf leather. Andy Warhol once had the Parisian shoe designer, Olga Berlutti, make him a pair of shoes. When she asked him what type of leather to use, he said he wanted the skins from cows that were rejected from production for inconsistencies. As a result, his shoes were imperfect from the beginning. This is consistent commentary made by the man obsessed with repeating the same picture, slightly different every time, imperfections and all.
Most photographers who shoot film stick to a handful of film speeds, manufacturers, and film types. My M6 is usually loaded with Fuji Provia 100 slide film. It’s a great all around travel film. The color saturation is strong, but not outrageous. Its grain is small due to the relative slow speed of 100 ISO. And per roll Provia 100 ($6.99 per roll) is more cost effective than Provia 400x ($10-$14 per roll). There are occasions where I would prefer to shoot higher speed films, but the drawback with any film camera is, once the film is loaded there is not much wiggle room to change film speed.
Enter the M9. The setting with the highest dynamic range and color saturation is 160 ISO. This is familiar to my brain and helps me estimate exposure when I need to set up for a shot without using the camera’s meter. I tried using the “A” setting for a while on the M9, but I just don’t like the metering lock enough to use the feature. Using the shutter manually is just my preference. It does not mean you should do it too. Use whatever system works best for you.
The flexibility of adjusting the ISO is a relief. It has allowed me to take sharp pictures in darker situations with a greater depth of field. Unlike the popular trend of shooting everything wide open, I enjoy the challenge of creating a picture that utilizes more of the scene. Being able to bump up from ISO 160 to 640 with a quick flick of the adjustment wheel is a welcomed feature. Even at 1250 the images are surprisingly good. Initially I was skeptical and thought, I will shoot the M9 just like the M6. But by trying to aspire to the greatest saturation, I realized that I was missing pictures. Now it’s more fun to run wild with the ISO.
Some people have asked me, has the M9 rendered the M6 obsolete? By solving the full frame rangefinder dilemma while maintaining Leica’s tradition, why didn’t I sell the M6? Now this can be a difficult conversation to have with someone who has never shot film. Without explaining that film images look different than digital and that the experience of shooting a film camera does not compare to shooting in digital, there is still one area where the M9 cannot compete with the M6, Ultra Wides. The Voigtlander 15mm is not my everyday lens, but when I need it, nothing else does the job.
Because of the close distance between the back of the 15mm lens and the M9 sensor, the peripheral light rays do not make proper contact with the sensor. To explain why that would occur, I will let Erwin Puts explain it. He is much more qualified than me. But the results of a rear element being too close to the sensor mean that the corners of the image go magenta, REALLY magenta. It can be corrected in post-production, but it is strong enough to keep me from using the 15mm on the M9 with any frequency. Ultra Wide lenses like the Voigtlander 12mm and 15mm Heliars perform much better on film cameras. Since the 15mm requires an external finder, I leave the M6 set up for wide angle, while I rotate my 28mm and 50mm lenses on the M9.
For those of us who are used to shooting film, the transition to an M9 is easy. It looks and behaves like a film camera with a few bonus buttons. Picking up an M6 after weeks of shooting the M9 is not too shocking. Leica pulled off a remarkable feat by making a new digital camera that retained almost everything their photographers have enjoyed since the 1920′s. That doesn’t mean it’s a flawless camera and there are not improvements that could be made.
Like most Leica cameras, it comes with its eccentricities. It will not convert millions of Canon and Nikon users and is by no means the “Best Camera Ever.” That, aside from being a profoundly inaccurate statement, implies a hierarchy that does not actually exist in photography. All cameras, in every format and at every price point, come with their pluses and minuses. For me, Adam Marelli, at this moment in time, it IS the best camera ever. Will this change? Sure, but in the meantime, it is doing its job supremely well. Thank you Leica.