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Open Letter to Leica — 10 Ways To Improve the M9 Rangefinder

Leica M9
Leica M9

Last updated with reader comments June 24, 2011.

See my 67-page Guide and Review of the Leica M9 in DAP. And for the camera that Leica ought to study for good ideas, see my Fuji X100 review.

Dear Leica,

The Leica M9 is now 18 months old. I have used it extensively for 18 months, and with some great results from a variety of great lenses, as I show in my Guide and Review of the Leica M9.

I have invested in not a few of the best Leica M lenses, on the assumption that Leica would put some serious effort into a future M camera that would make shooting M glass more productive and more reflective of the lens potential— and bring “M” into the digital age beyond just a dated sensor and a lousy LCD and 80 year frame line technology. I did not invest in the M9, I invested in the lenses.

Instead, Leica has squandered its R&D efforts by straying into highly competitive medium format territory, rather than making “M” the best it could be. A grave strategic error in my view, even though I know Leica can sell every one of the very few lenses Leica can produce (how does a company grow and make money by having no lenses to sell?).

The M9 felt like 2 year old technology the day I got it, with many disappointments. The usability problems I discussed in my review back in November 2009 remain unaddressed. Look, 1950’s technology is not good for digital, even if that red dot still commands a premium for the time being.

1) Use the M lenses to their potential — What is the point of a world-class M lens built to the highest specifications when the sensor is inadequate to record the resolution the lens can provide, and dumps “Christmas tree” colorized dots all over fine details? Get a 28MP or 36MP sensor into an M10, which will not only deliver more detail, but reduce the excessive aliasing problems.

2) Focus matters— the rangefinder idea is tolerable for some uses, but not for high resolution digital. And by the way, the M10 could be the world’s most desirable landscape camera, not just a “street shooting” camera with a tiny audience. Take a look at how the Fuji X100 operates, and be scared that if Fuji or Sony NEX offer a 24MP version, what’s the point of an overpriced M9? Add an electronic viewfinder which incorporates some kind of Live View type functionality because when focus isn’t exact, all that Leica lens goodness is just a fart in the wind. Especially with f/0.95 or f/1.4 and f/2 lenses, which demand pinpoint focus. And by the way, not everyone has 20/20 vision and can see like an eagle at dusk. Solve this basic usability issue and grow your customer base. Add focus assist, add Live View, add EVF.

3) The frame lines are a disaster — anyone looking for even semi-accurate compositions will find the frame lines a frustrating experience, though I find after taking 5 frames or so I can usually achieve something close to the composition I was after the first time, 10 times usually does the trick. Not everyone shoots “loose”, or wants to. And not everyone wants to drink the purple KoolAid on rangefinder technique. The anachronistic frame lines are so grossly inaccurate they are a cruel joke, though they can be kept as a sop to rangefinder lovers. Go electronic with a combination EVF/OVF as done with the Fuji X100.

4) Put a great LCD screen into the body — the M9 rear LCD was a low resolution disappointment 18 months ago, and it looks positively ancient by today’s standards. A Leica deserves at least a 1 MP LCD, if not 2 MP, for a high quality review experience. Do I really need to explain this point? And why should a $7K camera have a small LCD that scratches easily?

5) Image review — zooming in on an image offers exceptionally poor quality, inadequate even to check focus accuracy. Make it faster, make it go to high quality actual pixels (please, no embedded JPEG zoom), make it useful. So at least accurate focus can be checked after the fact, even if a Live View feature remains a technical obstacle.

6) Speed it up — camera response time is inferior to a $100 point and shoot when reviewing images and the like.

7) Sensor noise and dynamic range— Sure, the CCD looks good at ISO 80 and 160, and that’s about it. By ISO 320, the noise is inferior to a $500 DSLR. And pictures into the sun just don’t work with weird brightness spikes characteristic of CCDs. Look into CMOS. And by the way, a $7K camera ought to have better dynamic range than a $500 DSLR— it ought to be true 14-bit, and it ought to offer lossless RAW compression too.

8) High ISO — Why can’t I use ISO 3200 with superb results on an M full frame sensor when a APS-C camera (Fuji X100) yields excellent results at ISO 3200? The M9 sensor is a hope and a prayer by ISO 640.

9) Long shutter speeds — let me program in exposures to 30 seconds at least, preferably 2 minutes or more. The 8 second limitation is inadequate for many photos at dusk (which I sidestep with A mode, which goes to 32 seconds, proving that the limit is just a mechanical dial limitation that firmware could address with a new feature).

10) Cost — bring the cost down. There is no reason the M9 has to cost $7K. Or if it has to cost $7K or $10K, see points 1 through 9! After all, you’re selling every one you can make. But it would be best to bring it down to $4K, and ramp up production of the M lenses.

— Lloyd Chambers, DIGLLOYD.COM

Readers comment on my Leica M9 letter

The wicked folk out there are already attacking me personally for writing the above, the usual trolls who make a camera a personal ego trip, who think my letter above is a review, and have never bothered with my 67 page review. A camera is a tool, and that’s what my commentary is about.

The Online Photographer

I have to say what needs saying regardless of the howls, but oh boy it’s nice to get some public support, and even for those out there who don’t like my viewpoint, this post over at the (recommended) site The Online Photographer is very funny!

One of the cardinal rules, which is that you're not allowed to criticize current Leica products. Only once they've been replaced can you talk frankly about the flaws of the earlier versions. Until it is replaced by Leica, every current Leica product is by definition unimproveable. That's a fact of life—a Universal Truth. Axiomatic.

I promise to sit in the corner later today, while I mull things over with a good glass of Cabernet.

Daryl O from down under writes:

You hit the nail on the head, my experience is with the M8. It was so frustrating to see beautiful portraits ( good lighting, subject and background come together) only to see focus on the ear instead of the eye, or the composition had a 20% error from the viewfinder framelined composition. I sold the M8 and purchased a Panasonic GH1, although this camera is a big disappointment also. The M8 was a joy to use but disastrous as a tool to achieve photographic results.

DIGLLOYD: the M8 has the same issues, and a few more. Indeed, the gorgeous Noctilux, so ideal for portraits, has proven a serious focusing and parallax challenge at its closest focusing distance.

Jack Flesher of getdpi.com writes:

You hit it all. There is absolutely no reason in this day and age for Leica to produce a digital camera without some form of electronic focus confirmation -- especially in a camera with no mirror to begin with! Their mechanical RF linkage is complex and fraught with tolerance issues, that precise focus with fast lenses is a pot-luck gamble more than anything. Frankly, they could also implant electronic framelines pretty easily, and what’s wrong with a zoom finder that still shows the perimeter outside the lines that we all love in the M to begin with? I abandoned the M two years ago because my eyes were no longer up to the task of manually focusing my M9 accurately enough to do the files justice. The lenses are stellar and deserve better support and integration with the body, the sensor is perfectly adequate for what I used the M for, but the rest of the body package needs to be upgraded to 2004 standards and be set free of the limiting 1954 technologies it is currently stuffed with.

DIGLLOYD: I hear a lot from potential and former Leica M9 users on the difficulty of focusing— less than 20/20 vision, or even perfect vision when the light gets dim and/or subject matter becomes visually difficult all make accurate focus a serious challenge, plus focusing can be done only in the center of the frame, which forces the focus-lock-and-recompose dance I discuss in Making Sharp Images. Not to mention rejiggering any tripod composition after one has oriented the camera so as to be able to focus at all. It severely restricts the convenience and accuracy for some types of photography— and who the heck puts the subject in the dead center of the frame all the time?

Jim Radcliffe of BoxedLight.com writes:

I read your article and could not agree more.. in every respect. I owned an M8 for a year and found it horribly lacking in many ways. The Leica M series could be so much better but I am afraid Leica is content to gouge its customers and sell "Special Edition" models to those who view $20K as I would $20.

For years I have suggested a "Digital CL" as an entry level M system but what do we get? The X1.. overpriced point and shoot with a large sensor. It's crap compared to the M system, which, by the way, could stand more than a few revisions as you have pointed out.

The pricing of Leica gear is embarrassing to those of us who have been fans of Leica over the years. The price of the M9 body, for what it is, is laughable. I have always appreciated Leica cameras and lenses (since the 1960s) but today I find they have totally lost touch with the world of photography, not to mention economics and marketing.

DIGLLOYD: The M9 is not much different from the M8. Having used the X1, I greatly prefer the Fuji X100 for its image quality and usability, and indeed, even the lens.

Matthew P

Great piece - I don't actually agree with you on many of your findings, but just wanted to add that the M9's meter is also borderline useless. I love the spot meters on the film cameras (I have a M6 and MP) and find it completely baffling that Leica went for a more general meter, given the lack of dynamic range in the sensor! Perhaps it was something that they felt the useless 'automatic' exposure setting needed. Anyway I don't use the meter in the ($7k) camera - amazing when you think about that, really..!

DIGLLOYD: I shoot on manual nearly 100% of the time because I’ve found I cannot rely on auto exposure with the M9.

Renato L

I tend to generally agree with you on the focus indicator (lack of) issue on the Leica M9. What's the point of buying all those sharp expensive lenses, if you cannot verify focus? Daft if you ask me.

DIGLLOYD: I like to shoot wide open as I show for example in Landscape Photography at Wide Apertures, but the inability to check accurate focus even after shooting is a fundamental design flaw.

Markus H

My own wishlist woud be a slightly re-ordered summary of your open letter to Leica:

1) Get LV + EV
2) Get better sensor, DR and high-ISO (prioritise between the two as a personal preference)
3) Get more MP

Though (2) and (3) could be interchanged. Likely (2) would result out of (1), as likely would (3). Higher speed and better LCD would also result out of (1), as the speed would be required for LV/EVF anyway.

Some chilling comments on Leica's sensor choices are given by Joseph S Wisniewski (sometimes painting with a broad brush but whose gist is generally correct):

“If you ask for a quote on FF, you'll find yourself paying $3,000 for the sensor, and there's no way you can get your camera to the market for under $10,000. Leica sells about 10,000 M9 rangefinders a year, so they manage to beat it down to $6,000.”

I think the best hope would be for the current Sony A850/900 sensor (without Nikon's secret sauce), getting whatever successor Sony is cooking up would be heaven for Leica.

DIGLLOYD: The sensor is a major challenge for Leica, the existing sensor being one with special micro lenses to counteract the extreme ray angles from the exit pupil, which causes both vignetting and color shading. If there is no immediate solution to the sensor issue, then there is still an compelling improvement that can be made: an M9 with a minimum 1-megapixel LCD and fast actual pixels high quality zoom-in would at least allow focus confirmation after the image is taken. The current M9 has such a low quality screen and preview that a focus check cannot be made for critical focus, only a check for not being way, way off.

Jeff M

Note that Jeff’s experience is with a Leica MP3 film camera.

I loved your open letter to Leica re: the M9/and M10. I think you nailed the shortcomings. For all the squeals and howls of protest you receive, just remember it's a human failing to equate expense with worth.

While I love holding and listening to my MP3 Leica, my Nikon FM3A does everything better (except perhaps shutter noise): the viewfinder is more accurate, it has a titanium foil shutter, manual speeds up to 1/4000, it's smaller etc etc. I honestly can't see any difference between shots from it and the AIS 50 1.8 and the MP3 with a Summilux on the front, except the Nikon is a damn sight easier to focus...

One point you missed with the M9 is the loud 'wind-on'/shutter recocking, negating one of Leica's legendary strengths. My D3 is quieter.

DIGLLOYD: it is true that the M9 shutter cocking is awfully loud, and rather defeats the entire validity of the claim of a quiet shutter.

Roy P

Roy is using his M lenses on his Sony NEX-5 with a Novoflex lens adapter for Leica M lenses.

I was amused to see your comments about the M9-P and your open letter to Leica about the M9. I had reached similar conclusions about my M9 a few months ago, and I decided it was time to stop being a Leica apologist – I sold my M9. You can't compose, you can't focus, you can't review what you shot, heck, you can't even see what you're shooting, if you use any of the faster lenses.

What else the f**k is a camera supposed to do again?? It's like the question, "Apart from that, Mrs. Lincoln, did you enjoy the show?"

FWIW, it fetched me >90% of my purchase price, which after about 18 months of use, was pretty darned good. Probably the best thing I could say about the M9. There are people ready to buy these.

My decision was triggered by the availability of the NEX-5 and Novoflex adapters to the M lenses.

As you have correctly pointed out, the M lenses are superb, and I kept all my M lenses. For now, I use a $600 Sony NEX-5 as a digital back with my Leica M lenses, with FAR better results than I ever obtained from my M9. Over 90% of the photos I take with my new combo range from at least reasonable to very good. I reject fewer than one in 10 for less than satisfactory focus accuracy.

BTW, the NEX-5 is half the size of the M9, and the new version of it, called the C3, is supposed to provide manual focus assist, by highlighting what is at the sharpest focus in the frame. Really cool feature.

See the following, with NEX-5 + Noctilux @ f/0.95 – I would NEVER be able to shoot this with an M9. This is the full frame, uncropped.

Or see the one below. Forget about composing this looking through an M9's viewfinder, I wouldn't even know there was a fricking door knob there!

I couldn't even grip an M9 properly without the Leica add on grip and thumbs up. The real cost of the M9 body is more like $7500, and it is very unhelpful as an imaging tool.

The only negatives to the NEX-5 are that it has an APS-C sensor (but its high ISO performance is far superior to the M9's), and also, it has no viewfinder, only an LCD back. I am hoping sooner or later, somebody will come out with a full frame camera that I can use as a digital back with my M lenses.

When the M9-P came out, I thought surely Leica would have fixed many of the problems. Instead, it turned out to be an even bigger joke. They slap on a sapphire crystal on top of the crappy LCD monitor and want a $1000 more??

These guys are decoupled from reality. They know their lenses, but that's about it.

BTW, I can also use my NEX-5 with all my Nikon and Zeiss ZF.2 lenses. The image below was taken with my Makro Planar 2/50. I just need to find a full frame digital back now!

DIGLLOYD: I’ve ordered a Sony NEX-5 with the 18-55 zoom and 16mm f/2.8, along with the Novoflex lens adapter for M lenses. Rebates exist through July, with August bringing the Sony NEX-C3 with a slightly higher-res sensor.

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