Gear: Around the World with a Leica M9
Update March 30, 2015:Please read my article about potential issues with dust scratching the Leica M9 and ME sensor before making any purchase decisions. This is not covered under warranty.
Update: Read the mistakes I made when buying a digital Leica.
Three months ago I started a trip around the world. I have no specfiic "around the world" flight plan but I'll be traveling, writing, and not working a full time job for the next one to two years.
My camera for this trip was originally a Fuji x-Pro1, later swapped for a Fuji X100S, and finally swapped for a Leica M91. After buying the Leica M9 I never looked back. People say that the Fuji's are just as good as Leicas: that's bullshit. The Leica is by far the best camera I have ever owned.
What makes the camera so good? Lack of distractions, phenomenal lenses, and fully manual controls that your hands learn to use without thinking.
Lack of distractions
Leica M9 Image Quality
The image quality on the M9 is phenomenal. With other cameras I've rarely seen a marked difference in quality between lenses — they are all similar. With the Leica the images seem to breathe and have depth. These are the first lenses that have characteristics to them and that draw images.
Check out this swirly, dreamy bokeh from a 50mm Summilux F1.4 (mine is the pre-Asph version).
The Leica also does a great job separating subjects. Look at how these women appear to hover in front of the background like it's a matte painting. This isn't a strong image technically but it's included to show the example.
Another example of subject separation from Shanghai, China. This pair on the motorcycle stongly stand out from the background. Shot with a 50mm Summicron F2 (mine is used from 1981, it was less than $700 and works fine).
The manual controls on the M9 are killer. No other full-frame digital SLR that I've found lets you manually set aperture, shutter speed, and focus distance without looking at the camera. Most modern lenses for Canon and Nikon lack focus scales and aperture rings, so although you can manually focus the lenses you can't do it without peering into the viewfinder.
In my opinion, manual pre-focusing without looking into the finder is essential for great candid street shots.
This shot was made in almost pitch black. No SLR would have been able to autofocus, but my hands know how to pull focus on the M9 without looking through the finder. I was able to set focus a few meters away and slowly pull in the focus to catch these guys at the right instant.
This shot was made in the middle of a field when a farmer walked by with his cattle. On a normal camera I could have pointed this and hoped it autofocused on the cow's face. With the Leica I set the focus scale to 2 meters, pointed the lens, and took the shot without even looking through the finder.
Won't it get stolen?
Surprisingly few people know a Leica when they see one. The most common question I'm asked is whether it's a film camera, and about one person per month asks if it's a Leica.
My camera, lenses, and all of my electronics are fully insured through TCP Insurance for about $500/year. The insurance covers accidental damage, loss, and theft. As a result I fearlessly use the camera in public.
Manual Metering with the M9
About two weeks into my ownership my light meter broke so the Leica no longer works in aperture priority mode. To get it fixed I'd have to mail the camera to Singapore for eight weeks. That would really dampen my tirp, so I have decided to just use the camera manually for now.
At first it was a pain to setup shots but now it's a blessing, I quickly learned to guess ISO, shutter speed, and aperture for almost any situation within one or two stops. At the beginning of the shoot I make a guess for the right settings, shoot a test frame, and adjust as needed.
I prefer the Summicron because it's much lighter, much smaller, and has a manual focus tab. The manual focus tab has become essential for setting up a shot without looking through the finder.
Technically my camera is a Leica M-E or Leica Type 220, but it's functionally identical to a Leica M9. ↩