It’s rare that a manufacturer updates “a classic” so soon after its original release. For instance, it took the Coca-Cola Company nearly 100 years to introduce its “New” Coke formula in 1985 and we all know how that turned out.
But the new Leica M9-P digital rangefinder is hardly such a bold or, seemingly, ill-advised move as was the New Coke.
Leica’s M9-P is more of an understated, refinement of its M9, which was introduced in 2009 to rave reviews, than a risky overhaul. In my generally positive evaluation of the M9 in the November 2009 issue of PDN, I called the 18-megapixel, full-frame digital rangefinder “critic proof.”
So if the M9, which did a fine job of marrying a traditional rangefinder design with a glorious, 36 x 24mm CCD, is a critic-proof, modern-day classic, what exactly is the M9-P?
Think subtle. Think discreet. And yes, think pricey.
With all its restrained nips and tucks, it retails for $1,000 more than the original M9 ($6,995).
As its name suggests, the M9-P harkens back to the Leica MP of the mid-1950s that sported a similar, understated style. The original MP designation stood for “M Professional” though a 2003 re-release of the camera touted it as “Mechanical Perfection.” Either way, it’s a lofty description.
And like its predecessors, the M9-P is a pretty stealthy looking camera. In contrast to the M9, there is no model name or branding on its front plate; that eye-catching Leica red dot, which has become a picture-taking status symbol, has been removed.
Instead, a scripty Leica name has been engraved on the top plate to remind you, if you’d somehow forgotten, it’s still a Leica. The Leica M9-P model name is also written in tiny white letters on the edge of the hotshoe.
Yes, this is a pretty subtle stylistic upgrade and truly for Leica devotees only. (Some professional photographers might be more attracted to having a less branded camera but I think the market for the M9-P really is collectors.)
Speaking of subtle, Leica says the vulcanite leatherette covering on the M9-P’s body has a coarser texture, making it more resistant to wear and easier to hold. I don’t know about the long-term durability of the faux leather cover since I only had the camera for a few weeks but I didn’t notice a lot of difference in the grip from the previous model.
The other main difference about the M9-P is that it adds a scratch-resistant, sapphire crystal covering on the LCD screen. An anti-reflective coating on the screen is designed to let you see your images better in bright lighting conditions.
I wasn’t all that impressed with the 2.5-inch LCD screen on the M9 to begin with and adding the sapphire glass did little to change my opinion on the M9-P. (More about this later.)
Like its predecessor, the M9-P is available in a silver chrome or paint black finish.
It’s been a while since I shot with the M9 and I’d forgotten how heavy these cameras are. The M9-P is a serious hunk of metal, which, undoubtedly, is part of its appeal. There’s quality craftsmanship in this camera body and you can tell just by holding it that it means serious business. With dimensions of 5.47 x 1.46 x 3.15 inches (essentially the same as the M9), the M9-P weighs a hefty 1.32 pounds without a lens. Since it has no sculpted grip—just that textured covering—holding the MP-9 with one hand is not recommended (unless you have a lot of money laying around for repairs when you inevitably drop the camera).
This is not just a coordination issue. As someone who spends a lot of time shooting photos on the street while testing gear, there’s a whole ritual I go through to seem as inconspicuous as possible. I always try to hold the camera to my side, not just because it keeps it out of sight but because it makes me look like I don’t know what the hell I’m doing. (Hold the jokes, please.)
Then when I see an interesting-looking fellow human doing something that shows off their humanity in a decisively human moment sort of way, I casually swing the camera to my face and fire off a shot. It generally works well and keeps me out of too many confrontations with shy subjects. Though I didn’t notice it when I tested the M9 back in 2009, when I have both my hands on the M9-P and it’s centered in the middle of my chest, people’s eyes are drawn right to it. So much for discreet.
An alternate method is to wrap the neck strap around my wrist and arm like a tefillin and carry the M9-P at my side in a cupping maneuver but this is less than secure. The twisted-up strap also sometimes accidentally covers the viewfinder. Of course, everyone has their own method for street photography and long-time Leica users are, no doubt, used to the M-series’ quirks. In fact, many photographers love these rangefinders for their uniqueness.
I’m on the fence. In terms of usability for street photography, it takes much practice with a camera like an M9-P and its manual focus lenses to make the process subtle, seamless and fast. On the first day of testing, I accidentally bumped the shutter speed dial to an 8-second exposure while trying to photograph a street scene of a vendor selling snow cones and had to wait there wondering what the heck was going on.
When I reset the camera, composed the shot again, and refocused, I had a couple of angry faces staring back at me wondering why I was taking their picture. Obviously this improves with time and by the second day I had a pretty good rhythm going. But for all the M9-P’s discreet charms and generally quiet shutter, I can’t imagine I’d ever reach the level of speed and accuracy I can achieve with a good autofocusing digital SLR.
DEVIL IN THE DETAILS
Since the innards of the M9-P haven’t changed at all from the M9—aside from a few firmware updates along the way—I’ll say the same thing now as I said back then about image quality: it’s outstanding in daylight and mixed light with superior dynamic range.
Of course, Leica’s top notch M-series lenses also help and the two I shot with—the 24mm f/3.8 Elmar M ($2,495) and 35mm f/1.4 Summilux-M ($4,995)—were, um, pretty spectacular. Both produced some of the sharpest images I’ve ever captured and thanks to the bigger sensor, I got very little vignetting or fall off in sharpness when I stopped all the way down.
Having great fast aperture glass helps a lot, particularly because the M9-P, like its predecessor, is not much of a low-light camera. Honestly, I get less noise at ISO 1600 and 2500 from entry-level DSLRs than I do with the M9-P. (The same was true of the M9.) Thanks to lenses like the 35mm f/1.4 Summilux though, I rarely needed to shoot at high ISOs with this camera.
With all the attention to detail Leica puts into its cameras and lenses, it’s with some disappointment that I say the M9-P’s LCD screen is seriously not up to snuff. This didn’t bother me as much in 2009 when I reviewed the M9 but it’s become a glaring deficiency a few years on. I know people don’t buy Leica M9’s for their LCD screens but at this price point, I’d expect a larger-size display with more than 230,000 pixels of resolution. Yes, the anti-reflective coating on the sapphire crystal cover helped a bit when reviewing shots in bright light but there was so little detail on the screen—unless you zoom in—it’s nearly impossible to check sharpness.
Yes, I know it’s all about economies of scale—i.e. Leicas are handmade in smaller quantities than DSLRs—but I’m pretty sure prospective M-series buyers would be as willing to pay extra for a better display as they would to have the red dot removed from the front of their camera. There, I said it.
THE BOTTOM LINE
In the end, the understated Leica M9-P may be as “critic-proof” as its slightly more adorned predecessor was back in 2009. Leica lovers and serious rangefinder enthusiasts are going to salivate for this camera no matter what small deficiencies it has. But while being able to put an 18-megapixel full-frame, 35mm-format sensor in a compact and rugged analogue-style rangefinder body seemed such a triumph a few years ago, it’s a little less scintillating now. By stripping away the logos and paring down the exterior, the question the M9-P seems to be asking is: Who needs scintillating when you can be discreet? If discretion in your photography—even if it’s the illusion of discretion—is important to you then this may be the camera for you.
Pros: Beautiful, understated camera body with a rock solid look and feel; excellent image quality in daylight and mixed lighting conditions with superior dynamic range; when paired with an a high-quality Leica lens, there’s nothing sweeter.
Cons: High ISO images noisier than even those from entry-level DSLRs; 2.5-inch LCD screen too low resolution to judge image quality in playback; not enough upgrades to justify the higher price tag from the previous mode.
Price: $7,995 (body only)