My Leica Story #2: The M9 (English Version)

[Note] This is a long-overdue, paragraph-by-paragraph English translation of the Thai version that I posted on September 30th, 2013.

This is a continuation from first part of the story (The M8), but more of a user review/impression story than a very personal story about photography like the previous part. You may want to read the first part if you haven’t.


Prelude

Not long after I go the M8, Leica did something they’d been telling people they couldn’t do: a full-frame digital M. They, naturally, called it the M9 and was announced on a very special day, the 09/09/09.

I wasn’t interested in the M9 even one bit when it came out. The main reason was the I still didn’t know how to make good photographs with the M8. I thought it wouldn’t be worth whatever price they were asking. You can read more about this in the previous part of the article, I won’t repeat those things here.

Things changed, after the M8 changed me. (And it took years).


Leica M9 Body

Leica M9 in Steel Grey, taken by the previous owner of this camera.


About photos: All photos in this article were shot as DNG RAW and were processed in Adobe Lightroom as I normally do in real life situations. None of them was straight out of camera, unless otherwise specified. All photos (and more from M9) were posted in my Flickr album [Compilation] Leica M8/M9. EXIF (camera, lens, exposure, date) were programmatically added as watermark in the photo for your convenience.


Leica M8.2: The M I Didn’t Care

Before talking about the M9, I want to talk about this a little bit. September 2008, Leica announced “a new M”, and it was an upgraded version of M8. They called it, curiously, the M8.2 (Why “.2” and where was “.1”? Does this make the original M8 automatically M8.1?). The changes included newer, quieter metal blade shutter that had to sacrifice its highest speed, dropped from 1/8000s to 1/4000s, the more durable sapphire glass on back LCD that’s still has the same size and resolution, a more accurate frame-line that took crop factor into account.

All the rest, everything else, remained the same. Oh, I forgot that it got the new “black paint” color (black M8 was black chrome) and the new “vulcanite” leather, and the “black dot” instead of red.

Some felt those were justifiable changes, even brilliant. Some said that the shutter sound alone worths the upgrade cost. I could never understand that feeling. But I’m ok with those who felt that way. It’s all personal. Anyway, let’s cut it short, I wasn’t interested in the M8.2.


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Smoke of incenses

Little Bit About the M9

As I read more and more on the internet, I learned that the differences between the M9 and M8 weren’t all that great, from my perspective at that time. The biggest of them in my opinion was the change from 1.33 crop sensor to the new full-frame sensor, still a Kodak CCD.

This resulted in immediately more sensor surface area. Therefore, if we keep pixel size and density the same, we would have more pixels. That’s exactly the case for the M9. Keeping the same pixel size, the new sensor got almost doubling pixel count: 18 MP, upped from the M8’s 10. Also, with a few years gap in technological advancements and processing algorithms, the M9 sensor has about 1-stop advantage over the M8 in ISO performance (meaning ISO 1250 became really usable).

One another big change is the M9 sensor now has IR-filter (yay!). So, all the lenses no longer need the IR-cut filter on them for the M9. Black cloths are no longer the purple!


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At night, in my office.
Usable ISO 1,000.

The shutter is the same one from M8.2, which suppose to be quieter, but also max out at 1/4000s. The back screen is unfortunately the same old one from the M8 (duh!!!). Meaning nothing other than composition and general exposure can be checked on the back screen. Focus check? Highlight check? Shadow check? No. The slight improvement was an option to set it to “Brighter Output Display” in the menu.

Can the M9 be much better than the M8? In my thought at that time, it’s a big “No”. Even when I found that people love the M9 very much from reading reviews, impressions, hand-ons, stories, comments in forums. I even thought of it as a form of expectation bias: “It has to be good since they just spent a lot of money on one”. In other words, self-justification. The changes were so insignificant on paper.

Oh, and the color and finish: Black paint and new Steel Grey paint. The Steel Grey is gorgeous though. (2018 note: I still think it is the best looking digital M to date. But it doesn’t “brassing-age” well).

Even though I felt that way, I kept on reading about the M9 once in a while. I didn’t know why I did.


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On Shoulder of a Giant

The Turning Point

As the M8 gradually changed me, and I start getting more personal keepers from it, I started picking up my interests in the M9 once again. The price was still out of my comfortable league. Also at that point in time, there were so many interesting cameras coming out with a “classing/retro/vintage rangefinder style”, most notably the Fujifilm’s offerings.

So, my money went to the X100 and an X-Pro1 with 35/1.4 and 18/2 lenses instead. (2018 note: at that time, I started seeing cameras as things I love playing with, rather than gears for improving my photography. I also wrote reviews for both before writing the original Leica Story. I won’t translate them from Thai to English now as they became irrelevant, and I hold no special feeling to them like I do to all my Ms. I may write a review for X-Pro2 at some point in the future). Deep down, though, I still yearned for the M9.

Then, Leica announced 3 new camera models

  1. M Monochrom the B&W-only M9. Essentially M9 without Bayer filter array on sensor. Less is more, as it cost even more than the M9. I interested in this one quite a bit, but as M9 was expensive for me then, this was price-forbid for me.
  2. M the all new M. The actual model name was “M (typ 240)”.
  3. M-E or M “Entry” model, essentially the M9 without some features (forgot what), and a new Anthracite Grey color. The actual model name was “M-E (typ 220)”


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Flowers in temple

Notice that Leica changed the way they called their cameras. Instead of “model+numbering” (like M8, M9, X1) it became just “model” (like simply, M). So, if it continues like that, from then on there wouldn’t be an M10, M11, M12 …. there would be just “M”.

How do we distinguish each model? Maybe Leica thought along the same line as cars. A Camry is a Camry, and an Accord and an Accord. Then we use year for distinguish them apart, like Accord 2008 and Accord 2013. Leica uses “Typ” for this. So, we have to look at the additional “typ” number. Like M (typ 240), M-E (typ 220). Yikes!! That’s tedious and inelegant. (2018 note: we all know by now, it doesn’t work that way. We just called the M typ 240 the “M240”, so we ended up with longer number).

Leica also introduced a new line into M family, the “E” line for Entry, and it seems Leica wanted to do like what Apple did with their iPhone line at that time: the E-line will be the ex-top-of-the-line model that will be moved down when the new top of the line comes out. (2018 note: We have yet to see the new M-E based on M240, instead, they keep selling M240 as is. The X2 did become X-E, though).


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Sitting in temple

Why did this matter? Well, it did drive the price of the M9 down, both new (albeit in the form of the M-E) and second hand as supply became more available due to people started selling theirs to finance the new model, and demand became less as some people changed their interests to the newer Ms. As the price came down, my interests in getting the M9 went up.

Instead of getting a new M-E, I did the same as what I did to get my M8: finding the second hand M9 Steel Grey (I just had to have this color). It came up once in a while, but it wasn’t so easy to get one. Maybe because not so many people were getting the new M240, either not getting yet (waiting list) or not getting it at all due to the change of sensor from CCD to CMOS, coincide with the drastically different look in resulting images (more on this later in the M240 article). So, not as many M9 were put up for sale as I hoped for; people still kept theirs.

How about getting the M240? My heart said “Why not?”, but my head said “No”, and it was another triumphant for the head versus the heart.


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Temple Cat

Getting the M9

I began digging the older listings in second hand forums, and finally found one listing of a very good, very pristine M9. The post was quite old and fallen very deep in the paginated listing. I thought the poster/seller forgot the close the topic, mark it as sold, as an M9 of that condition (only around 2,000 exposures, no marking of any kind on the exterior) should be gone in hours. I contacted the person, and to my surprise, it’s still available. Before long, I got home an M9.

Since the M8 and M9 use essentially the same body (albeit minor differences, more later) it felt so familiar. If you know how to use one, you already how to use another. I started to understand the longevity of Leica design that stood the test of time. The most noticeable change, apart from the cosmetics, was the shutter sound. It sounds so much better than the M8. Still not as quiet as I would like it to be, but much better. The 2-step shutter mechanism was still there. Menu were even the same (maybe some minor differences, but irrelevant in practice).


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Flowers, flowers on the wall. Who’s the fairest of them all?

Unfortunately, that also means many bad things got dragged along. Most notably the back LCD screen that kept the same resolution and size with the M8. For the M8, it was kind of acceptable as it was Leica’s first attempt and it came out in 2006. However, dragging that LCD into 2009 was bad, and dragging it along to M-Monochrom and M-E in 2012 was absurd. All the compact cameras including the cheap one that came out in 2012 gave us better screens.

Back to the shutter a little bit. As mentioned, the M9 top shutter speed was lower than the M8’s. In practice I had a bit of problems shooting fast lens wide open during day time. Eventually I got used to that, but it’s one thing that I had to adapt to.

One thing I didn’t really like, was the removal of battery and remaining shots indicator from the top plate and put them both into the “Info” screen, accessible via a button on the back. One the plus side, the information are much more detailed and more accurate compared to the M8’s. (2018 note: I got used to it and even liked it, and after M240 and currently M10, it feels like home). As a side result of this removal, the shape of the M9 body looks nicer to me than the M8.


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Monk’s robe

Metering was still the same center-weighted (what else could we expect?). However, Leica did something clever here by using two-shades of grey to reflect light for metering instead of just one (2018 note: we may now expect 50 shades of grey). Lighter one in the middle, surrounded by darker one. So light reflects on them differently, and as a result, more accurate center-weight metering.

There are many smaller differences (that might be big to many), like the more accurate frame lines, the ability to do exposure bracketing (never used it on the M), the ability to control exposure compensation from the back dial instead of having to go into menu, etc.

Last, but not least, was the new dual processor instead of single one like the M8. This is logical as the pixel count went almost doubling. That means: almost double the amount of data to process. So, to maintain responsiveness, you need twice as much processing power. Otherwise the M9 will feel sluggish or even craw when processing data, render photo, etc.


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A friend, who’s now also an M9 owner (2018 updated photo).

M9’s RAW

I loaded RAWs from first shooting session with the M9 into Lightroom, and I was totally and totally in awe. Telling myself “Wow. If I only knew this, I’d have bite the bullet on this one long ago”. This doesn’t mean the M8 RAW was bad. In fact, M8 RAW was good, just the M9 topped it in every imaginable aspect. And, out of camera? I wouldn’t imagine that with the M8. The M9 RAW, however, was so good “out of camera”. Especially the colors and contrast were really really spot on. Most photos I took with the M9 need minimal post-processing, if any at all.

This is very subjective though. M9 colors and contrast out of camera being good for me doesn’t mean someone else will like it. Also, as M8 and M9 have very different color profile, therefore it is only natural that colors came out differently. If you like M8 colors, try adjusting camera profile in your RAW converter. Me, I love the M9 RAW files the way they look with the default Adobe Standard profile in Lightroom, especially for Asian’s skin tone and red channel. (2018 note: Even today that I love flatter RAWs from many cameras, M240, M10 and various others included, I still feel that the M9 is something special because it has the best “out of camera colors and contrast” RAWs that need minimal post-processing).


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My wife. Straight out of camera RAW.
Directly converted and exported in Lightroom.

Since M9 is finally a full-frame camera, that means I can justify investing into the best lens for my favorite focal length, the Leica 50/1.4 Summilux ASPH. I didn’t think of getting this lens while I was using M8 because it would be a short telephoto and I didn’t want that. As I didn’t have a full-frame (or a film) M, and I didn’t know if I would ever will, I didn’t invest into it. Getting the 35/1.4 Summilux for use on the M8 was even more expensive option and since 35mm isn’t my favorite, doing that didn’t sound good to if one day I ever get a full-frame Leica.

Now I got one. The M9 gave me a reason (read: excuse) to buy that lens which eventually became my favorite and my most used lens of all time, almost never leave my camera. (2018 note: It eventually got relieved of duty by the 50-cron APO).


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My daughter (2018 updated photo).

I was a happy man. But the time was short. One day, not so long after I got the M9 …. I found “spots” on the photos I took.

The Sensor Problem

At first, I thought I got dusts on sensor. It’s normal; “Nothing to see here, move along” kind of normal. So I did what people normally do: using the blower to blow away the dusts. It didn’t work out. Didn’t to wet-clean the sensor myself, I took it to the best Leica place in Bangkok (AV Camera, Bangrak — I didn’t know this place when my M8 had problem with the rangefinder).

The technician who accepted my camera looked into the sensor and immediately told me “Cleaning it might not work, the sensor might have corrosion”.

What? Corrosion? A corroded sensor? I’ve never heard of that before, never heard of that from any other camera manufacturer/brand. Waiting in the coffeeshop nearby, I searched the internet for the M9 sensor problem, and found this to be common problem of the M9 sensor. The worst thing is: it’s not production defect, which might only affect some production batches, but rather problem-by-design of the sensor.

Problem by design? Similar to the M8’s lack of IR-filter that turned black into purples, but this time a different class of problem. The M9 sensor was designed to use certain materials that eventually corroded (they didn’t know this at time of design).

A few hours passed, and I went back to the shop. They told me “I’m sorry, your sensor really has corrosion problem”.


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Let’s do some canal-scape

To be fair to the previous owner, he didn’t sell me a lemon. All the photos I took right after I got camera from him were fine. The problem started not so long after that (I think maybe I took less than 500 shots with it before it started). As it’s the problem with the very design of the sensor, it will eventually happen, and potentially to everyone.

The shop offered to send my M9 to Leica for sensor replacement service, since this is a problem Leica officially acknowledged, but it has to be sent to Singapore. OK, fine. But here comes the bad part: the sensors were short on supply. They could not make enough of it. So I would have to wait indefinitely if I choose to send it to service.

(2018 note: Leica offered free sensor replacement program for many years, and many of my friends had to replace the sensor more than twice. They finally found a permanent solution, a material that wouldn’t corrode nor crack with normal use or with time. So, free sensor replacement program came to an end. You can read more about this in many places, including Leica’s official statement on their website).


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All my bags are packed, I’m ready to go

I decided not to send it in just yet. I thought that avoid shooting blank sky, shooting only wide-open may help. I thought it was like sensor dusts that if you shoot wide-open, you can hardly see them. I was totally wrong. This was ways nastier than sensor dusts. You could see them regardless of what you shoot and how you shoot. And it’s only the beginning, it will become worse.

I took it back to the shop in the following week, with estimated wait time of 6 months.

Note to readers: if you’re getting your M9, M-E, or the M-Monochrom (basically, anything with the M9-based sensor) second hand, please make sure that you’re getting the latest CCD sensor.

The Decision

What do I do now?

As I still had the M8 with me at that time, I thought I could continue using it until the M9 returns. However, after a week of using it with the 50/1.4 Summilux, I had a very weird feeling with the focal length. (Oh, man, I just understand how the film M users felt about the M8 crop factor and frame line …).

One more thing is the ISO. The ISO is really an evil beast. Once you get a taste of the ability to shoot in darker places and lower light situations, it’s hard to get back to not being able to do so. You see enormous more photographic opportunities, the beauty of the darkness. The M9’s ISO 1,000 did make me feel that the M8’s ISO was even more limited than it used to. (And yes, I got spoiled from ISO 3,200 from many other cameras already).


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In a university I used to teach

I decided that I wouldn’t be without an M9. So I basically had 2 options:

  1. Buy a new M-E, since it’s basically an M9 without a few things and a new color. And when the M9 comes back, decide later which one to sell.
  2. Find another used M9, find a cheap one. It’s ok if it’s in bad condition, even gone through a war. It just has to be an M9 and it just has to be cheap enough. Sell it after getting my M9 back.

A thought came into my mind: “what about the M (typ 240)?”. Well, trying doesn’t hurt. So I went to local official Leica shop at Gaysorn Plaza to try it out. But it turned out that something put me down and so I didn’t try anything much: “the waiting list”.


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Cloud Wave

The length of the list (both in term of how many people and how many months) really shocked me. They (the official Leica shop at Gaysorn Plaza) told me that first quarter of the next year would passed before I could get one. Asking my favorite shop, AV Camera, and they told me that their list contains more than 30 people, and they only getting like 1-2 cameras a month. Wow.

It was OK, though, as getting the M240 wasn’t even on my original list of options, and I love the results from the M9.

So, back to the 2 options I had. I called AV Camera again to ask about a new M-E, and they told me they got a few of them in stock. While I was finding a time slot to go there and have a look, I also kept browsing and refreshing the second hand websites, maybe one day someone will sell his M9.

And I got lucky. Really lucky.


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My father-in-law’s favorite dog
(2018 note: now this dog is resting in peace. RIP Sandy).

The Decision II: Lucky Draw

I found a post selling an M9. The condition was OK, but the price was very cheap (and I mean very, for that time). It was an old post, as old as the post that I bought my M9 from, maybe even older. Normally (most of the time), this means the poster forgot to mark as sold, but some times that’s not the case; the item is still available for sale, like my M9.

I texted the poster, asking about the M9 she posted. I got the answer I expected: “sorry, it was sold”.


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Boring shot of my garden (2018 updated photo).

Downbeat, but then the next message came and made me feel totally opposite: “but we also have one unused silver M240, interested?”.

I should be surprise, of course. That’s a camera with a very long waiting list of over half a year. So, for once, I didn’t need reason or asking my head, I texted her back: “sure”. Just like that, we had an appointment.

I talked to her a bit about how come she’s selling her M240. Her answer was pretty reasonable. As she sold the M9 (quite a while ago), she already had the M240 on order, and since she knew the list would be pretty long, she asked her brother who’s living in another country to also order one M240, and see which one she’s getting first, then just cancel or sell another one. So, instead of canceling it, she decided to sell it for a little profit. Make total sense to me (and nothing wrong with that in my book).


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BFF (Best Friends, Forever)

The way I’d been getting the Leica had been a polar opposite of how I’d been getting the Nikon. For Nikon, I always get the latest models soon after they came out (unless I want to skip). However, for the Leica, I got my M8 just before the announcement of the M9, and I got my M9 after the announcement of many newer Ms (like I mentioned earlier in the article). And I was very happy with the M9. Maybe it would be years before I want the M240, if I ever wanted one.

However, as I got series of unfortunate and fortunate events, I told myself: “Get the M240, and done with it. At least you know that there won’t be any new M that you will want in years”.


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Buddha

Well, at least if I found that I don’t like it, I could still sell it when my M9 comes back. I believe many people would still be looking for one at that time. Maybe it would be faster than waiting for their turn in the waiting list.

So, how’s the story going? Please wait for the next installment.


2018 Update

Note: This section does not exists in the original article.

Years after I sold my M9 to a very close friend (and it started his own Leica journey, ignited his passion for photography, and now he’s the owner of a great film shop), had years of productive photography with M240, sold the M240, and got the M10, I finally got an M9 Steel Grey once again.

Second time’s a charm, they say. The condition wasn’t as good as my previous one, but it’s OK. The M9 is the camera I’d been missing the most. Maybe because I didn’t have that much time with it, maybe I miss the look and feel of its photos right out of camera. But it’s like a feeling of missing a girl who you had a very great short time with. The M9 still reigns supreme in this aspect above all.


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My wife with her M9, taken with the M10.

Pretty much like my wife. She was my love for a short period of time when I was a teenager. I lost her for years, but I never stopped missing her. I eventually found her again. We got married. She’s really the love of my life. So it is very suitable that this M9 now belongs to her, who’s learning photography. She loves it very much. And I’m so glad I have it once again.

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