Almost all photographers fantasise from time to time, about having a brand-new Leica M, perhaps with the idea that Henry Cartier-Bresson’s spirit will suddenly possess us and guide us towards capturing decisive moments in every corner and with every shot we take.
If we look beyond the precise and beautiful design of these machines, the famous brand with the red circle has managed to tap the imaginations of us photographers with some great and subtle marketing campaigns. And so, almost without realising it, these cameras, without any apparent technological advances, totally manual and costing astronomical prices that very few people on earth can afford, have become an object of desire.
I believe that it’s this desire that makes us earthlings who can’t afford the new M10, question whether we should invest in some of the also expensive but more accessible previous models such as the mythical M9 and its CCD sensor.
Since it’s a question that has circled my mind from time to time, I decided to finally take action on the matter and went to a local store to rent one. Here are my thoughts and conclusions:
I want to begin by saying that I have used rangefinder cameras in the past (always film) so for me, its use is not complicated. However, fellow earthlings, if you are considering buying one of these babies and have never used a rangefinder camera before, I do suggest you try one before committing because it’s not all that easy. Like with everything in life, with some practice you’ll get the hang of it, but there is a learning curve that you will have to face that I think is worth mentioning.
That said, part of the charm of using a Leica and its process lies in just that: in its complexity and the fact that it challenges you. We’ll go into this aspect a little further in a moment, but first, let’s talk about technology.
The Leica M9 is a digital camera with an almost 10-year old sensor which, even back then, did not give great results at high ISO’s. Its processor is slow and the LCD display leaves much to be desired. Funnily enough however, one of the reasons why the M9 continues to be popular is because of its sensor.
Together with the brand’s fantastic lenses, the M9 produces incredible colours that are reminiscent of the film used by the great masters of the past. It provokes a nostalgic feeling within and visually seduces, me at least, into wanting one of these cameras.
So, what about the process?
Well, when my students ask me if they should buy one camera or another, I always tell them the same anecdote: some years ago, when I started learning to play the guitar and I was looking at different models, I asked a musician friend to recommend one. He, a brilliant guitarist, told me that what I should do was buy a guitar that I liked, that as an instrument I would find appealing beyond its acoustic quality since I would play it more and therefore learn more and better.
With cameras, the same thing applies. Today all cameras give good results in terms of image quality, but if you have one that inspires you and makes you want to go out and take pictures, you will enjoy it more and you will become a better photographer for it, not because of the camera but because of the practice.
No doubt the M9 (and any M) is a camera that invites you to take pictures, perhaps because of HCB’s spirit possessing us and all that, but in that case, is an M9 what we really need?
We have already said that, lenses aside, as a digital camera it is not great and if what interests us is that ethereal quality, that X factor that reminds us of the great masters of the past and the unique colours, why not buy invest in Leica M analogue camera instead of an M9?
To be honest, I have reached this conclusion while writing this article, but the more I think about it, the more it makes sense to me. An M6 for example, is not cheap but you save about 1000€ vs. an M9, money that you can invest in good lens or rolls of film. Undoubtedly the experience of shooting will be the same if not better, plus an analogue M camera will very possibly last you a lifetime as opposed to the expensive digital M camera that despite maintaining a high price in the second market hand, will eventually become obsolete.
So, would I buy an M9 today?
The answer to that question, as everything that has to do with Leica, is ambiguous. If I had deep pockets, which is not the case, I would certainly buy one or perhaps one of the brand-new digital M’s. An analogue M however…
What are your thoughts? Would you buy an M9 today?
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