Overpriced. For collectors only. A dentist’s camera. Not for real photographers.
These are comments often associated with cameras produced by the German brand, Leica. While it is extremely true that the cameras that they produce are prohibitively expensive for most people, it is also true that they are one of the few companies that produce photographic tools that are unique. In a world where everyone seems to be obsessed with digital single lens reflex (DSLR) cameras, or within the last 5-10 years mirrorless cameras, the penultimate camera that Leica has been known for throughout the last 70+ years is the M.
A little background for the uninitiated the M is short for Messucher the German name for “rangefinder” which appropriately is the category of camera that the M is in. Unlike SLR, DSLR, or Mirrorless cameras in which a person “sees through the lens” to focus in a rangefinder a person focuses by aligning an overlaid superimposed projection in the rangefinder patch with what they see through the viewfinder. A person can also focus (with practice) by zone focusing as most rangefinder lenses include both distance scales and mechanical focusing for repeatable results. These are two of the most key features that made the M extremely popular with photojournalists, artists, street photographers, and for candid photography.
So where does the M9/M9-P fall for me? Well it’s a bit complicated if one were to solely look at these cameras from a value perspective. If we are being objectively honest a DSLR or Mirrorless camera is infinitely more flexible. For one, you can’t get a M lens wider than 10mm or one longer than 180mm. While this may not seem like an issue as this range covers everything the average person would need, the reality is that because of how rangefinder cameras work one would need extremely good eyesight to focus with fast lenses longer than 90mm accurately and most rangefinder camera require external viewfinders for focal lengths longer than 90mm and wider than 28mm to accurately frame the image. There are some notable exceptions to this back when Leica (and other film rangefinder manufacturers) offered optical viewfinders of different magnifications. There also aren’t any auto focus systems on board. Manual focus will be the name of the game if using a M camera from any era. Even still, I’d say that the ideal focal lengths for most rangefinder cameras will fall between 28mm and 50mm because one can compose and still see a good bit outside of the frame lines at those focal lengths to capture the image they intended to fill the frame with their desired subject. This is just my opinion based on my personal experiences… objectively speaking of course. The M, and in reality all rangefinders, are truly an emotional choice in camera because they are really fun to use. This is true even with all the mechanical and technical limitations that one places on themselves when using them. As such many don’t mind spending a premium for them simply because they are so much different from other cameras and require a different thought process to use them most effectively. I own digital cameras from both Sony, Leica, and Panasonic. I’ve owned DSLR’s from Canon in the past. I own a couple of film cameras still as well (Mamiya C330 and Minolta SR-T 202). The M9 and the M9-P that I owned in the past are probably the first cameras that I ever “loved” despite the limitations. I can’t completely explain why I loved them in light of all I just typed to specify why they aren’t a great choice for most people. If I had to explain to most people my rationale would be this for those cameras in particular - it was a combination of the image quality at base ISO, the excellent lenses available in the mount that provided a different look to the more modern lenses of today, the company’s heritage and commitment to human rights dating back from helping Jewish workers escape Nazi Germany to support for the American Civil Rights movement, a level of exclusivity, and a way to execute my photographic desires seamlessly.
So if you are paying attention then you noticed that I don’t own the Leica’s any longer despite all I said about them in the last paragraph. If I had to answer why I don’t then I’m have to attribute it to pragmatism. The point I made about the lack of flexibility comparatively to the modern DSLR and Mirrorless cameras is and was a real concern. Essentially I made a non-emotional decision to sell my Leica kit because it didn’t fit all types of my photographic needs any longer. If money were no option I would never sell them but it is as I’m not independently wealthy (like most people) yet.
Would I recommend them today for a person looking to jump into a M camera? Well that is a bit of a difficult answer but it comes down to a person understanding what they’re getting into. The M9 family of cameras had a bit of an issue with corroding sensors. In fact I had to have both of mine, that I previously owned, repaired for this issue in the past. Also the high ISO/ lowlight performance wasn’t great even by 2010 standards let alone modern day ones in 2020 but your mileage may vary as they say. If you can afford it I’d recommend the M10 family of cameras instead as it’s the current model at the time of writing and corrects many of the issues with the older M cameras. For those that aren’t concerned about these limitations, then the M9 family will provide years of great images to a capable photographer. It is and was a great camera in 2009 when released and still is in 2020 with a few quirks that may not may make it a viable choice for every single person. At the very least I encourage all remotely interested in rangefinder photography to rent any M camera with a lens or two to give it a reasonable chance of winning you over.