Home Features Medieval construction site. Medieval Leica digital

Medieval construction site. Medieval Leica digital

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Artisans who work just as they did 1,200 years ago and a camera from the earliest days of full-frame digital photography. This could be a nice fit, I thought. So, I snatched the opportunity to try out an M9 on a day-trip to one of the most interesting historical projects here in South Germany.

The camera dinosaur met the Campus Galli, a site where professionals and volunteers try to build a monastery following a plan from 800 AD, using only the tools and materials known in these early days. Read here how it worked – and what I think about buying an M9 in August 2020 because, as you know, Leica has recently filled in the diggings on the old CCD sensor.

In a way, I was too late for the M9. When I fully entered the Leica world, the M (Typ 240) had been around for some time, and my starting point was (after trading in lots of Canon gear) the Monochrom (Typ 246). True, the M9 was revered, even in those days, as a pioneering concept. It was the first full-frame rangefinder camera ever made.

But It was for its unique rendering that had the pulses racing. However, it was also outdated. So slow, so inadequate in low light, so small the low-resolution display. Long story short, the M9 did not attract me at all.

Old lovers and new admirers

The M (Typ 240) came and went, the M10 arrived, to be joined was this year by the M10-R and M10-P. In the meantime, the legend of the M9 continued to grow. This camera must have something exceptional, judging by the many online reports by photographers who are highly committed to the M9 and who would never seek a divorce.

At the same time, this old lady of Wetzlar seems to have found new admirers in dotage, evidenced by climbing used prices. At the time of writing, in August 2020, a well-kept (more on this later) M9 might cost more than an M Typ 240 which is technically superior in all respects.

Is there an “analogue” character?

What’s it all about? It’s hard to understand at first take. The release and shutter cocking sound is, let’s put it like this, special. It’s somewhat archaic, reminiscent of the motor-powered Hexar RF – and that leads us to the point. For a digital camera, the M9 feels surprisingly analogue. In a way, this might be true for all M models.

But in the case of the M9, the “analogue” haptics also fit nicely with the alleged “analogue” rendering. A retro camera that produces retro images, thanks to that CCD sensor. It is often said, they have more of the film look, more glow, more texture. In short: more character.

At this stage, let’s skip the question of whether or not “a film look” exists. I find the difference between a modern Kodak Portra 160 and a 1980s Fujicolor film in terms of character far bigger than the bandwidth between contemporary full frame out-of-camera data.

Perfect imperfections

So, let me put it in the words of Ed Sheeran. He lauds “all your perfect imperfections”, and that seems quite appropriate to the M9. The imperfections are poor high-ISO performance, a ridiculously bad rear display (actually, more or less the same as that used in the contemporaneous X1 fixed-lens compact), a not-really-articulated central setting dial, just okay-ish frame lines in the viewfinder.

On the other hand, 18 megapixels is no problem for me as I try to frame carefully and to compose the full image space. General slowness does not bother me either as I try to get my shots right away and thus almost never use the continuous firing mode.

A test drive into the past

To discover the claimed magic of the M9, I combined two exciting history projects: Photographic history in the form of the M9 and cultural history in a visit to Campus Galli. Campus Galli is a fascinating site, about 45 minutes drive from the northern shore of Lake Constance.

A team of professionals and volunteers is building a monastery following plans from over a millennium ago. The drawings had been preserved because, luckily, monks of yore had used the back of the plan to record the legend of St. Martin. For centuries, the parchment was considered to be more precision than the content.

Campus Galli: Antidote to modern consumerism

If you are a real fan of the early Middle Ages and ancient craftsmanship, you will be fascinated to discover what motivates people to work on a project that most of them will never see come to fruition. The duration of the project is estimated to be between 60 and 80 years.

At Campus Galli, you discover something very different from today’s consumption-driven paradigm. The people who offer guided tours are endearingly enthusiastic. Indeed, everyone who works there is eager to tell visitors what they do and why they love their work.

Some are trained carpenters or potters; some are long-term unemployed who get the chance to progress back into a regular job; some are volunteers who donate two or three weeks of their holidays to be part of Campus Galli. They all are eager to tell the visitors what they are doing and why they love their work.

The Irish link

Campus Galli derives its name von St. Gallus, who was one of the first monks to bring Christian faith to our area. One of his companions was St. Columbanus. They all came from what is today Ireland, and they founded many monasteries. The island of Reichenau in Lake Constance, today classified as a Unesco World Heritage site, developed into one of the centres of scholarship, with a library that must have been breath-taking.

Today’s Swiss town of Sankt Gallen (St. Gall), founded around the abbey of the same name, still has its wealth of hand-written books. It is worth a visit in its own right. As this is a photography blog, I will leave it at that. But a helpful starting point for your personal discovery is here.

The past in view

Back to the M9. It proved uncomplicated in handling, the rangefinder was more or less adjusted, and ISO 800 was sufficiently sensitive for most situations. I would not go further because there is simply too much noise in the images at ISO 1600. The character of this noise might be pleasant, but it is still noise. The colour saturation was set to standard, and the photos have nice, rich colours when shot with the sun from the sides or back and a somewhat dreamy palette when used in backlit conditions. Really nice!

Sharpness is good, but this is of course mainly the merit of my highly esteemed 35mm Summarit. The otherwise great 90mm f/2.8 Elmarit-M (latest model) proved a bit trickier than expected to focus. Or better: It proved almost impossible to check the sharpness on the rear monitor. After an hour, I turned the monitor off completely and enjoyed a “-D”-feeling including the waiting to see results on my Mac.

Away from the mainstream

Overall, image quality is outstanding. There is something true about the M9’s “analogue” abilities in terms of both camera handling and results. It’s hard to believe that this camera launched eleven years ago. As a living fossil, if you wish, the M9 turned out to be more attractive than I had expected. It has all the qualities of an M camera, and it has some rough character traits that make it pleasantly different from the mainstream – even from other Leicas.

I would buy one, if only for historical reasons but also because of its unique position in the development of the Leica M system – if…

But then comes corrosion

… if it weren’t for the sensor issue. We all know of the corrosion problems that the M9 many CCD sensors have exhibited. As I understand, not all sensors show them, and I heard that there is a fair chance of getting an M9 with a replaced sensor (on warranty or paid by the former owner) that is supposed to be immune to the disease.

But who knows how these latest sensors will behave in the next five years? This is all the more important since Leica announced, some days ago, that they have no more M9 CCD sensors and that the replacement programme is at an end. You might find yourself with a great camera that will let you down when you want to use it what it was made for – taking pictures. And without hope of remedy.

Expensive lottery

Does that mean that buying a second-hand M9 is generally a bad idea? No, it doesn’t. Get one from a trustworthy source with a complete record of repairs and a recently replaced sensor (ideally installed after the start of 2018 because a new version arrived), and you could have an excellent investment that gives you a significant return in the next few years.

I would never recommend buying an M9 from a questionable source or with its original sensor. It could turn out to be an expensive lottery. In Germany, there is insurance offered by some authorised photo dealers. It can also cover sensor corrosion I was told in the Leica Store Konstanz – but this covers only cameras that have never had the sensor replaced. However, I am not sure if Leica’s recent announcement of the end of the replacement scheme will bear on this.

Ask Leica, they’ll tell you

The camera I used had an unclear history. I shot against the bright sky with f/16 (maximal depth of field show dust and faults on the sensor quite clearly) and saw ugly spots. I think it was just sensor dust, but I was not able to exclude the notorious corrosion. An inquiry at Leica revealed that the sensor had replaced in 2015.

By the way, the people there are very accommodating. I sent them the serial number and got a reply within hours. Mind you, in most of the pictures, shot wide open or showing something less uniform than just blue sky, I did not see the ugly spots at all. When the critical zones are full of rich details such as plants, you will hardly find the artefacts even if you search. So, you can also take your chance and hope that your subjects are less critical. And that the corrosion does not grow and take over more significant areas of your sensor.

Special camera, special images

Bottom line: For me, the M9 seemed to be an attractive legacy camera that is still capable of superb results, provided, of course, that its user is also still competent.

The images indeed look somewhat special, and they are definitely attractive. If you have an M9, or if you can get one with a relatively new sensor (from a reputable dealer), use it as often as you can.

The pleasure may be transient, but this can even increase the appeal of course. Whatever you are shooting, any use is so much better than letting the sensor corrode while the camera sits in its fanboy’s display case. I, however, still stick to my M Typ 262. It has the same, wilfully reduced, features as the M9 and it is even more versatile in use. And the pictures? To be honest, I find them just as beautiful.


All Campus Galli photos were taken with Leica M9 and 35 Summarit or 90 Elmarit, (c) Jörg-Peter Rau; product photos with SL and 24-90

Read more from Jörg-Peter Rau

6 COMMENTS

  1. Dear all, thank you very much for all your kind comments. As you can imagine, I had a really interesting day, and I would be happy to repeat it any time.
    @Jason, I agree that the “CCD magic” is not so easily visible, and some of the shots are missing it completely. I would not go so far as to say the M9 is overrated but you read im my conclusion that I am absolutely happy with my M262. I bought it a couple of years ago with quite some signs of wear and I can only agree with our host Mike Evans who wrote at that time that the M262 is probably the true digital rangefinder as opposed to the M240 with its function overload.
    @William Fagan, I did put in the Irish connection with exactely you in mind, really. I thought it might be a nice tribute to our Irish readers… and you are the only one I know of. I was in Ireland only once exactely 30 years when I was 18, and I saved up all my travel money during the trip and bought a second-hand Olympus-OM2 in a Dublin store (I still have it, it still works, but sees little use). If you should really be heading for Campus Galli one day, let’s get in touch via Mike Evans.

  2. A lovely write up, Jorg-Peter. I love these sorts of projects, the attempt to recreate practices from centuries ago. The willingness of many to be in character dress is a nice touch.

    Interestingly, for me personally, I don’t quite see the “ccd magic” in many of these shots. Certainly not like I’ve seen in other M9 shots over the years. The closest in tone , warmth and a feeling of ‘texture’ is probably the Cross. It may just be the resolution of the internet, or I wonder if its due to many shots having to be taken in shade and/or higher iso’s with tricky lighting. I had a ccd Pentax K10D that produced very distinctive photo’s in sunshine and good light, but felt very flat in less ideal conditions and was positively horrible above ISO640.

    I’ve long wanted an M8 or M9. I will get one, one day, and risk the technology failure. As much for the classic handling experience as anything, which is timeless. You only live once.

  3. What a wonderful article, and images, I have often pondered this camera, I even hovered over buying one, and then defected to the Nikon Df – yes night and day different. But I love the Df’s files, and low light capabilities. It in itself, is unique.

    I would love to use an M9 as you have, and see what I could do with it. For me it would be a wonderful experiment and experience. Not sure I would do it justice, but you know, one can dream.

  4. I had and loved the M9 (ME actually) and was an early adopter of the M Monochrom (M9 version), which is still my favorite camera.

    These remain excellent cameras, and I am confident in the new sensor cover glass not corroding (my M Monochrom had new sensor in 2018).

    That said, like I you my color M remains the M 262, which is more than good enough that I neither want an M10 series nor another M9.

    Nice pictures by the way.

  5. Thank you Jörg-Peter for this interesting article. Speaking from the perspective of having worked for decades in construction I am often surprised by how many ‘medieval’ techniques are still used, or were so until the advent of powered hand tools. I once set out a state of the art glass wall using a plumb bob with the weight in a bucket of water to damp down its rotations. A technique from before the building the pyramids. Or the use of a water level for example (details on request). Give the people hard hats, boots, gloves and reflective jackets and they could work on a site now. Come to think of it I’ve seen people on sites in the Middle East with less.

    As for the M9 I suppose it’s also a tool that still works so why not enjoy it whilst it lasts? There may be a analogy between the changes in use in hand and powered construction tools and analogue and digital cameras. Two fields, similar development in tools. Speed of result sure, quality of result- maybe not so noticeable.

  6. Lovely article Jeorg-Peter. I will risk the displeasure of the editor by talking about the Irish aspects of St Gall. While St Columbanus was definitely Irish, there is some debate here as to whether St Gall was Irish. ‘Gall’ means a ‘foreigner’ in our language. Some think that St Gall was born in the Vosges or Alsace region, but was of Irish descent. Anyway, he was supposed to have entered Europe as a companion to St Columbanus and it is right that he is still remembered today as having lived in Alemannia (modern day Germany) with St Columbanus.

    Moving on to cameras, I see some carpentry equipment there. The carpenters should certainly be able to put together a ‘camera obscura’ for you. While Gall and Columbanus were pre medieval, after the Middle Ages artists started to use a camera obscura as a tool. Such devices had been used in earlier times for various purposes, but Da Vinci gave the first clear written description of such an instrument. From about 1600 onwards the instrument was used by artists as an aid to drawing. Many great artists used it and some like Canaletto (the inventor of Photoshop?) altered their drawings back in their studios to give a more pleasing perspective or to eliminate unsightly objects. People such as Thomas Wedgwood and Humphry Davy experimented with photography concepts in the late 18th Century, but it was not until the 19th Century, thanks to the work of Niepce, Daguerre and Fox Talbot, that it was possible to produce fixed images. However, the cameras which the 19th Century people used harkened back to the camera obscura designs from earlier centuries. If you wanted to produce a medieval type camera something like a wooden camera obscura with a pinhole would suffice and you could use either sheet film or sensitised glass plates to produce images.

    While you are getting that made, an M9 would be just fine. In fact you could practice pinhole photography by putting a tiny hole in a body cap.

    Well done with the lovely article. It looks like a location to go on my ‘must visit’ list when Covid is gone.

    William

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