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 However, it was also outdated.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.
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.
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.