The Leica M9 experience
The Leica M9. Whether because of its performance or its price tag, it’s a sentence unto itself. At £4,950 and crowned the world’s smallest full frame digital camera, it’s not something anyone ever expects to understand. In fact, for most - and that’s us at Pocket-lint included - the entire Leica brand is sub-consciously summed up as dream kit that we’ll simply never get any closer to than a picture. So, when Leica called us up with the offer of a place on the company's M9 Experience workshops, we didn’t just bite their hand off, we swallowed their camera case too.
It’s 10 o’clock on a bright Tuesday morning and Pocket-lint is trotting its merry way along the cobbled backstreets of Mayfair; the kind you only know about if your chauffeur has driven you down them in which case you were probably unaware of anything outside of your Bentley in the first place.
On the way down from Oxford Circus tube, we’ve been trying to look at the streets of London with new eyes. With product and still life photography so much a part of what we publish on Pocket-lint, it’s been a while since it was all about the art and, with just a few hours with such a hallowed piece of kit, the last thing we want is shutterbug’s block.
Fittingly tucked among shops selling high priced rarities and works of art pokes the simple red circle of the Leica Store with its almost darkroom styled interior. The walls and floor are a purposefully forgettable shade of shade with the only colour in the room the blood red backdropped cabinets inside which the sacred relics sit on display. There’s a moment to check that we can’t afford a single one of these exhibits before heading upstairs to the meet leading Leica M camera expert and photographer, Brett - he has no surname (professionally speaking) - and our fellow students in the workshop.
Four of us sit down around a white circular table with a large Mac display at one end, Brett at the other and an assortment of teas, coffees and executive class biscuits somewhere in the middle, but it’s the beautifully retro-chic M9 rangefinder cameras behind us that occupies our thoughts; two black and two chrome, and it’s the classic looks of the latter that Pocket-lint’s got its fingers crossed for.
But before we get a chance to get our hands dirty it’s a quick round of introductions. The two girls to our left are both freelance professionals looking to become part of the Leica team - photographers to work for the company in the shop. Each has plenty of experience assisting as well as projects of their own and plenty of hands-on time with Hasselblads and the professional end of the Nikon and Canon fleet but neither has used a rangefinder camera before and their anxiety becomes clear when it turns out that, for them, the workshop is the practical portion of an interview.
The final member of the quartet is Argan, a late to middle aged man with a scattering of grey scale in his hair and beard ranging from deep blacks at the roots to the a slight haze of over-exposed silver. Travelling the world with just a 45-litre backpack and a deep regret that he unknowingly threw out a Leica camera many, many years ago, he is, in fact, the reason we’re really all here.
“The M9 is the closest you can get to a digital film camera,” explains Brett as he takes through his own superb portfolio on the oversized computer display, each jaw dropping shot punctuating his words as he goes.
“It’s the smallest full format camera system ever made.”
We see a beautifully rendered shot of a old blue rowing boat on the low tide shores of a remote Scottish island.
“It has a 35mm size sensor that’s designed to capture images like film but won’t necessarily take the most correct or the best shots;” a virtually fully desaturated image of a blond haired woman in front of a waterfall. Her tumbling curls mimic the stream behind her.
“But what it’s probably best know for...” a cigar smoke sepia still of the back of an elderly gentleman on a busy city street framed with his tweed fedora in the centre of the image; the world melting into the background.
“..is the bokeh effect.”
If you’ve ever spent any time trawling through photography forums looking for advice on which lens to buy next, then you’ll be certain to have come across the word ‘bokeh’. Coming from the Japanese meaning blur or haze, bokeh refers to the quality of the area outside of the depth of field within a photograph. The place where the subject of the shot isn’t.
“The area of defocus is just as important as where the photograph is sharp,” come Brett’s words of photographic wisdom that hang in the air for moment before wedging themselves firmly into our collective unconscious.
While most large aperture lenses will result in shots with plenty of bokeh, it’s the quality of that on a Leica that’s often most highly praised. It’s a smooth, silky swirl; perfectly even throughout the frame with no shade of a harsh fall off at any point across the picture; the softness of a watercolour rather than the coarse daubs of an oil painting as Brett describes it.
The effect is down to the high quality Leica lenses, the cheapest of which will cost you as much as the body of a professional grade DSLR. All but three of the entire collection since 1954 can be used on the M9 including a range of vintage glassware which produce a look to match - the only way of getting a true old-style photograph look according to Brett.
Of the modern lenses, there are three main types - Summicron, with a maximum aperture of f/2.0; Summilux, which open even further to f/1.4; and, finally, the prized Noctilux, aka the ‘King of the Night’; the fastest aspherical lens in the world with a maximum aperture of f/0.95 making your camera so light sensitive that you can shoot handheld with only a single candle flame for illumination. Better than the human eye at low light, it’s yours for around £7,300, 12-month waiting list to get hold of one notwithstanding.
Brett lets Pocket-lint have a quick play with a Noctilux but it’s a simple enough 35mm fixed Summicron we get to for our lesson attached to the front of our chrome and black finish M9 complete with one-piece, full-metal housing made from high-tensile magnesium alloy, and top deck and bottom plate machined from blocks of solid brass. Funnily enough, it feels great in the hand. Chunky. Weighty. Reassuringly expensive. We’re pretty much in love with the thing already; not something we’re proud of from a journalistic standpoint but this is one of those pleasures that’s just achingly hard to resist.
“The M9 is well known as a street camera but it does much more than that. It’s for documentary photography,” explains Brett as we familiarise ourselves with its curves and controls, the latter of which there are surprisingly few.
“It’s not a camera for single frame shot to blow up and put on the wall. It’s to record an event and tell the story as if the viewer was there themselves. That’s the benefit of shooting at these wide apertures with large unfocused areas. It gives you the impression of being in the scene. It’s how we see.”
Brett takes us through a collection of his wedding photography to explain the point. There’s no group shots or staged happy couple twosomes. Instead each one is a moment captured through a crowd; the small size and quiet click of the M9 allowing him to dart in and out of the action stealing thoughts from his subjects before they’ve had time to notice.
“I’ve never used a DSLR,” he proudly tells us. “I shoot weddings with my M9 and a 50mm lens. If I can’t do the commission on an M9 then it’s not a commission that I want to do.”
Charged with inspiration, Brett leads the four of us, along with Leica Akademie administrator Heather, out to the streets but with even the two professionals amoung us a little lost for what to do, there’s plenty of on the job tutorial to take in.
The M9 is a back to basics camera. ISO, aperture and shutter speeds are the only settings to consider and one of the reasons so many of the DSLR weary are drawn to its refreshing simplicity. The natural ISO of the sensor is at 160 - even though you can get down to 80 if you wish or even pump it up high for the very best high ASA film-like grain that we’ve ever seen on digital.
Taking the camera at its natural best and a decision to shoot as wide as possible to really enjoy that bokeh, it’s only the silver shutter speed wheel we need to notch up and down as our captured previews on the 2.5-inch rear monitor dictate. There is an automatic mode but, apparently, it’s simply not to be used, and the exposure indicator arrows at the bottom of the viewfinder should be ignored at all costs.
It might sound daunting but it’s not. The part that really requires concentration is the focus. Auto-focus simply doesn’t exist on the M9. It’s a rangefinder camera and that relies on turning the focus ring on the front until the two images in the centre of the viewfinder line up perfectly as one. When that’s spot on, you’re good to go, and spot on you absolutely have to be when working at wide apertures with such narrow depths of field.
Pocket-lint and the three other students stand scrutinizing the details of our frame for 5 or 10 seconds per shot only to find our subjects - usually each other - have moved on. In contrast, Brett skips between us snapping our pained expressions in the blink of an eye with us stock still and stuck in the mud.
“You have to practice to focus,” he says as he disappears off to find his next scene, still childlike in his enthusiasm for his art.
“It’s like playing snooker. You won’t stay sharp unless you practice.”
We start to get the hang of it but suddenly the markers disappear. It turns out we’ve accidentally covered up one of the two image finders that the rangefinder system requires to work. In fact, we’ve been holding the camera completely wrong, as it turns. Unlike a DSLR with the grip built on the right, the weight of the M9 should be borne by the palm of the left handing, leaving its thumb free to turn the focus, with the right hand positioned purely for shutter speed settings and the release button itself. By the same token, portrait position is left hand down - the opposite to the way to which you’d naturally use other cameras.
“The big mistake that most people make at first is to take lots of shots with the focus at the centre of the frame,” says Brett firing off a round from the hip as he catches Argan crouched in unusual pose trying to take a shot of his own.
“Sharpen up on your focal point, then move the camera. You need to see the frame before you even start looking down the viewfinder,” he adds as he leaps off again, his impossibly sage words hovering where he once stood. There is no spoon.
Before long the four of us have relaxed into it and “chimping” at our results, as Brett puts it, like we’ve been doing it all our lives. A quick turn of the shutter dial here, a new subject there and we’re beginning to work the angles as if we were using our own gear only without any of the strain, without the headache and none of the bulk of a DSLR body in the way. There’s simply less camera between you and the world - the very thing you’re trying to capture. There’s fewer modes, options, filters and frustrations. If you miss the focus you get the satisfaction that it was you that didn’t shoot it right and not some 11-point AF set up that just couldn’t differentiate your subject from the background.
It's not long before we're back in the studio for a little bit of “photo finishing rather than editing or post production” as Brett describes it.
“We really don’t need to do that much, perhaps just touch of vignetting to frame the subject and some desaturation of the colours is all I do.”
Brett shoots in compressed DMG and JPEG files on the camera with the JPEGs only for the purposes of in-camera review. The first thing he does when he gets back to his computer is to delete them leaving the larger and more versatile raw image files which he can put into his speical edition Leica Adobe Lightroom collection. The program comes as standard with any Leica digital camera purchase and, for the master’s final tip of the day, he suggests putting images in folders starting with the date when your session took place only with it written in reverse to make sure that the years run chronologically when listed by your OS. '110706LeicaWorkshop' and we’re done.
The other three class attendees filter out as Brett wraps it up and Pocket-lint stays back for a while to pick his brains. There’s no doubt that we all enjoyed our morning with the M9 but who can afford to actually buy these things?
“Argan’s down in the shop right now picking one out,” he says to our gob-smacked surprise as if parting with £5,000 plus who knows what on glassware is an everyday purchase.
“Does that normally happen?” we ask.
“Yeah, every workshop there’s one or two who are here, just like Argan, asking all the questions before deciding that they want one. He’s typical of the people we get who’ve fallen out of love with DSLR photography and are looking to get back the beauty of taking photos again.”
It’s easy to understand what he’s talking about and we’d be lying if there wasn’t a part of us that felt exactly as Argan did before he arrived at the Store. It's liberating. There are no worries about the likes of exposure control, flash and white balance - the last of which Brett confesses is far better done in post; just you, a dial in each hand and the simple soft clunk of the shutter.
Perhaps, it’s the just chance to go out on a workshop with no products to capture and no family members hurrying us along or perhaps it’s this glorious designed piece of luxury camera kit in our clutch, but that flame for what this art is all about has been stoked for Pocket-lint just before we even realised we needed it to be, and we’re slightly ashamed to admit that there’s a roaring fire now burning in our hearts for one of these cameras. We’ll be waiting for that lottery win.
What's your dream camera kit? Let us know in the comments.