January 09 2010
Leica, über camera maker to the gentry and celeberati, recently entrusted me to take its newest baby, the £6,000-with-a-lens Leica M9, on a three-week trip to China.
I’ve been weighing up how to describe the M9 experience. Let’s say it’s like going on holiday with the woman (yes, yes, or man) of your dreams – the most unattainable Hollywood star you can think of – and discovering things you didn’t expect. They snore. And hog the bathroom. And are arrogant. And quite annoying, actually, when you share every waking moment with them. When they’re at their best, which is 85 to 90 per cent of the time, you are swimming in pleasure. Yet a couple of times a day, you wish that you were with someone a tad less demanding, a smidgen less full of themselves. So read my tabloid kiss’n’tell about my life with the M9 in the knowledge that I still love it so much that it was like the best Christmas ever, but in reverse, when they came to take it away.
Like the very best of gadgets, the Leica M9 doesn’t just do what you ask to perfection but it actually eggs you on to take more photos because it’s such bliss to have in your hands. It headlines as the world’s smallest full-frame digital, as its 18 Megapixel sensor is 24mm x 36mm, like the old-fashioned 35mm film frame. This humungous sensor, along with the peerless (and unchanged) Leica lens range and the much improved camera software, accounts for the startling, punch-you-in-the-face quality of its photos. They are better than film. Amazing.
But don’t let this “smallest in the world” thing deceive you into thinking the M9 is a small-boned beauty. (Leica has one of those coming out soon – the X1.) For while the M9 is smaller than full-frame professional digital cameras, it’s still a fair handful – not one to be slipped into a handbag. It’s partly made of brass, for Pete’s sake.
The Leica’s downsides, then. The manual focusing, a charming quirk when you first go out with this babe, becomes a royal pain when the fling becomes a relationship. However skilled you are, you’ll still miss pictures. The same goes for the manual exposure mode, which you’d use most of the time since the automatic is limited.
Then there’s the viewfinder, which is one of the best features of this kind of camera. The M9’s gives only an approximation of the picture; surely something could be done to improve this after more than 80 years of Leicas coming pretty much in this form? The LCD viewing screen is also iffy – too dim to be useful, plus playback of big files is poor. The camera’s functionality is not very instinctive, either.
Overall, the M9 makes you work by being incredibly simple in principle but fiercely hard to drive. It’s a camera that makes you make pictures, you might say, rather than just take them.
But please do understand that I forgive it everything. The finest mechanical Swiss watches are also a pain, and every well-bred car I’ve been out with has a dozen annoying features. Just be aware that the M9 is no pretty doormat. It does look damn cool, though – even when it misbehaves.