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Leica M9 review

Verdict:

A compelling choice for professionals who need a full-frame CCD in a compact body.

Review Date: 18 Jun 2010

Price when reviewed:

Reviewed By: Kevin Carter

Our Rating 5 stars out of 5

The pressures on photographers in public spaces these days means that the need for smaller, lighter and more discreet cameras is higher now than at any time previously. Perhaps that's one of the reasons why 'mirrorless' cameras, such as the Micro Four Thirds Olympus Pen E-P2 and Panasonic Lumix GF1, are so popular. With the Samsung NX 10 and now Sony joining the fray, it's ironic that the bulky SLR was a direct adaptation from the original mirrorless camera, the coupled rangefinder, in the late 1950s.

Leica's iconic M3 rangefinder has evolved into the digital M9. It's the first M-series digital body from Leica to adopt a full-frame CCD, the same size as a 35mm negative. With its physically smaller APS-H size CCD, the M8.2 was unable to fully exploit the original angle of view of Leica's extensive range of highly-regarded lenses. Existing users would have been forced to accept the cropped image or replace valuable lenses with more costly wider alternatives.

Detractors also cited Leica's use of an exceptionally thin hot-mirror filter over the sensor to prevent infrared pollution, giving rise to the occasional magenta tinted skin-tones and mauve tint to black synthetics under certain incandescent lighting. Noise levels weren't great at high ISOs, for instance, but in fairness the M8.2 was capable of the highest quality stills using most of the ISO range, while providing access to some remarkable lenses.

In many respects the M9 can be viewed as an upgrade. Rangefinder lenses sit very close to the sensor, and so are smaller than DSLR lenses, though corner shading is an issue. Boasting offset micro-lenses with a low-refractive index to capture the most oblique rays and to reduce fringing, the headline news is the new 24 x 36mm 18-megapixel Kodak-sourced, purpose-made CCD. There's no anti-aliasing, or moiré, filter, so images are extremely well detailed and the slightly thicker cover-glass is much more efficient at blocking infrared. We couldn't detect any contamination in our test shots and fringing was very low, too.

As well as the new full-frame sensor, the M9 has sensitivity running natively from ISO160 through to IS02500 with a 'pull' setting of ISO80, continuous shooting at around 2fps for eight Raw files and a 2.5in 230,000-pixel screen. All somewhat conservative, but with top and bottom plates made of brass and a shell made from magnesium alloy, build quality is high.

The body is remarkably similar in design to the M8 models, but the small top-plate LCD depicting the battery status has gone. This has been replaced now with an info panel, depicting battery life as well the remaining SD card's capacity using the rear screen. While not as large or as detailed as the majority of panels now on offer, it's size doesn't affect the M-series, clean lines. At the rear, the controls look identical, though some of the functionality has been changed for the better; most notably, selection of EV compensation. You can make adjustments in three different ways now, two of which can be made without taking the camera from your eye.

From our test shots, noise levels have been improved, but even though the sensor is larger, the pixel density remains the same as the previous models. All but the maximum sensitivity of ISO2500 is usable, and even then with very careful exposure it can still be selected in emergencies. While there are no electronic contacts between camera and lens the latest lenses are 'coded', a series of black and white dots are 'read' optically to compensate for vignetting. We saw some evidence of it, though with the superbly mounted, manual-focus 35mm f/2 Summicron lens we had during review, but it's common with 'fast' aperture lenses. Picture quality is excellent overall, with terrific colour rendition, smooth out of focus highlights and superb tonal gradation. Raw file conversions are especially striking in Aperture 3 and in-camera Jpegs are improved over the M8.2.

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