. . . In this review I mention the Fuji X-E1, but all the images presented here are taken with the Leica M-E . . .
. . . Question: What do a Fuji X-E1 and XF35 1.4 lens, a Leica M6, an electric guitar and effects pedal, an iPad and a Cello all have in common?
Answer: That is what was sold in order to finance what is for me, the ultimate street photography camera – the Leica M-E, or to give it its full model designation, the “Leica M-E, Which Is Actually An M9 But Without The USB Port Or Frameline Preview Lever And In A Different Colour. Apart From That It’s Identical In Every Way To An M9.”
Of course that can be a bit of a mouthful at times, so for the purpose of this article I shall refer to it solely as the Leica M-E.
I also won’t bore you to death with the industry-standard approach when reviewing a Leica ‘M’ camera, that being a ‘mini-tutorial’ of how a rangefinder works in practice, endless comparisons to DSLR’s or Micro Four-Thirds and especially how manual focusing with a rangefinder is better or worse than auto-focus etc.
So without further ado, let’s start at the beginning with a good-old photograph of the ‘beast’ in question – albeit a beast costing a four-figure sum . . . Gulp !!!
Naturally with ‘M’ camera bodies, the price didn’t include a lens, though luckily and considering my manic desire to ‘sell sell sell’, I had the presence of mind to keep hold of the wonderful Voigtlander 50mm f/1.5 lens previously mounted to the M6 and M2 (the latter of which I still have – hey I’m not that mad 🙂 )
Truthfully though, there are some folk out there in internet land who would probably say I am mad and with arguably good reason.
The problem stems from the sensor fitted to the M9, sorry M-E. Yes it’s full frame, yes it’s 18.5 megapixels and yes it produces wonderfully ‘leica-like’ images, even at high ISO (in B&W at least). No, the problem runs a little more deeply than ‘a bit of noise’ at ISO 2500 – that being sensor corrosion.
Sadly, since the launch of the M9 in 2009, a proportion of the Kodak manufactured (now Truesense) CCD marvels, with their special UV glass and microscopic offset micro-lenses, have been harboring a pesky secret. Seems that over time and if atmospheric conditions are right, any tiny marks left from overzealous and haphazard cleaning can cause the wafer thin glass to actually corrode and decay. The first that the unfortunate owner knows about it is when their treasured photographs start showing strange blobs and imperfections. Needless to say, a new M9 sensor may leave enough change out of £1000 for a coffee and doughnut.
So why on earth would someone (myself) pour such a large wodge of cash and sweat into purchasing one?
The reasons are threefold. Firstly, this particular example I stumbled upon purely by chance, as until recently I had no idea that Leica themselves sold used cameras. That was until I discovered Leica Mayfair, an online version of Leica’s own store in Mayfair, London. Here they have a good selection of used and ex-demonstration M’s, both film and digital, as well as compact cameras and lenses. What’s more, all of their used cameras come with a 24 month manufacturers warranty (unprecedented) and are fully serviced and fettled.
Secondly, this particular example came with a brand new sensor, fresh from Leica’s factory in Wetzlar.
If all that wasn’t good enough, Leica themselves have addressed the sensor issue head-on by doing the decent and honorable thing (official Leica statement here) – anyone with an affected model (M9-M9P-ME-Monochrom) and no matter how old or how many previous owners, can send their camera to Leica whereby the sensor will be replaced free of charge. As far as I was concerned and taking into account the very attractive price, purchasing the M-E was a no-brainer.
Suffice it to say, the M9 (sorry M-E) arrived, was slowly and excitedly unboxed, the Voigtlander 50 mounted and within a few days, I’d hit the streets of Chester and Manchester.
So far so good and being no stranger to Leica’s and rangefinders, I didn’t anticipate much of a ‘settling-in’ period – and on the whole, was quite confident. However, as with any new acquisition, there IS the inevitable settling-in period, so I’m prepared to bite-the-bullet and show the ‘almost but not quite’ pictures . . . later.
As alluded to above, the M9 (sorry M-E) is my eighth Leica M, so it was a fairly logical and relatively painless transition to the M-E and it’s particular peculiarities.
Of course I’d greatly enjoyed the Fuji X-E1 & XF35 lens that I’d previously owned and used to capture a large chunk of favored pictures, all of which ended up on this here blog. In fact (and this is something you won’t often hear a Leica owner admit), it’s the better camera – Shock, horror !!!
For a start, the Fuji’s quieter. It’s also lighter – much lighter. Then there’s the speed and accuracy of actually taking a picture and the ability to set up the camera so it’s configured to one manual setting for any and all ‘street’ situations. Further, the metering rarely went awry, pictures were almost always in focus and the sensor and lens packed so much resolution and resolving power that you could almost make an 8×10″ print from the tiniest of crops.
Conversely, the M9 (sorry M-E) with the exception of the sensor and lens resolution is none of the above.
It is heavy, especially with the added bonus (?) of that sizable lump of alloy and glass attached to the front. For a photographer such as myself (stubbornly sticking to his beliefs), I categorically refuse to carry the camera round my neck. In fact, I will often endure tiresome wrist pain, so as to carry the camera in my favorite and time honored position, that being in my right hand with the neck strap wrapped in a well practiced figure-of-eight around my wrist.
The Leica is still fairly noisy. Not as loud as the M8 (that was LOUD) but still noisy all the same. Mercifully however the actual shutter ‘click’ is fairly mute, the ‘Discreet’ shutter mode at least allowing the user to take the noisier re-cocking process ‘somewhere else’.
Exposure wise, I initially found the center weighted metering to have an apparent mind of it’s own, though it soon became clear that with 20 or 30 shots under my belt, the camera was suffering from nothing more than ‘operator error’. So used to (as I was) the exceptionally proficient metering system of the Fuji, I had simply assumed that the Leica would behave in a similar fashion – just point and the camera would take into consideration the entire scene. In reality the M9 like the M8 and M6 before it meters a single point of the image, such as someones face. Get that right and the rest of the image will (usually) fall into place.
Now we come to the biggest culture shock and the area where even a previously ‘seasoned’ Leicaphile will spend the most time adjusting and twiddling. That of setting the camera up for the ever changing environment of a busy street.
The Fuji X-E1 was a ‘pussy cat’ in comparison and rather forgiving of various lighting situations, regardless of how the shutter or aperture were set. This was mostly down to the exceptional high ISO performance.
Typically and on an all too regular British ‘cloudy weekend’ and with the Fuji in hand, it would be a simple matter of setting the shutter to 250th/sec, aperture around f/8, with the Auto ISO hovering in the region of 400 – 6400. No problems here – even at such high ‘film’ speeds your images are guaranteed to be sharp and noise free.
With the M-E however, it’s not quite so clear cut (at least not yet). Learning the ropes so to speak, I missed several opportunities, or managed to capture them but the results were so so. As promised here are the ones ‘that could have been’, or ‘if only’. Still, you learn from your mistakes, hopefully.
Nearing the end of the day and with the soles of my feet suitably tenderised like a good steak, I decided for a change to try sitting on a step and shooting people of interest as they walked by. With the light beginning to fade, it was time to adjust the M-E for low light. I had a few options at my disposal, that being 125th – f/5.6 – ISO 400, or 250th – f/4 – ISO 400, or 125th – f/8 – ISO 800.
My problem here was that I was (as I believed) limited by the high ISO performance of the M-E. I was fearful of going too high and introducing undesirable noise into the images. With this uppermost in my mind, I went for the 125th f/5.6 ISO 400 approach. In hindsight, this was a silly choice and I needn’t have worried about raising the sensitivity as my images are mostly converted to black & white. Leica image noise looks like film grain in b&w. I’ll remember that for next time.
These two images could’ve been so nice. Sadly the slow shutter speed coupled with my attempts to zone focus the necessarily shallow depth of field (so as not to appear obvious to passersby), meant that the background is sharp-ish but the subject is blurred and out of focus as they walk by. Shame.
Learning from this, I realise that I could have comfortably raised the ISO to 1250 (2500 if converting to B&W), thus allowing a shutter speed more capable of freezing the action such as 250th/sec and an aperture of f/11 to provide a margin of error in the focusing.
Somewhat perversely however, this is one of a list of reasons why I’ve taken the plunge, sold a kidney (so to speak), given up the simpler Fuji life and bought the camera I have literally hankered after since it’s release on the 09/09/09 . . .
. . . The M9 has an initially steep learning curve, though once one gets one’s head around it’s particular preferences and habits, the operator will be rewarded with a machine that becomes almost an extension of your eye, whereby the mere act of ‘seeing’ a photograph results in its capture. Sure a lot of what I learned with the M8 began to come back to me, but most of it had been forgotten due to the shooting perfection of the X-E1.
Ultimately though, my heart is and always has been with Leica. Not, I might hasten to add, through any sense of superiority or snobbery. More through an appreciation of fine engineering and quirkiness, a particular style of photographic image and a sense of history and belonging, that Rangefinder and it’s focusing method, the weight and solidity of age-old engineering metals and the inherent pride and sense of achievement of owning something so finely made.
Which brings me to the final part of this review/article/test, that of the name of the camera. You may have spotted my little running joke throughout the post, “Leica M9, sorry M-E” and that as it turns out, is quite a pain in the proverbial.
You see it’s an inescapable part of Leica ownership that you WILL be approached on each occasion you take the camera out by one or two well meaning and genuinely interested folk, who will ask “What Leica is that?”
And therein lies the problem which ultimately leads to the same unavoidable response, “It’s an M-E, which is actually an M9 but without the USB port or frameline preview lever and a different colour. Apart from that it’s identical in every way to an M9”.
To that end I’ve rechristened it the M9.
P.S. I’m so relieved that Leica saw fit not to ‘chisel’ the name of the camera onto the front, as per the M6, M8, M9 etc
To walk around carrying a camera with the word ‘ME’ in bold white letters would only reinforce the countless beliefs and opinions regarding Leica owners – not to mention even more questions. 😀
If you are interested in buying a Leica M9, there are often several used examples to chose from here on eBay UK.