Is a $10,000 Leica M9 setup worth it?

Marco Arment rented Leica's well-loved but expensive M9 digital camera, and a similarly top-shelf lens, to see what the fuss is about. The bottom line: great glass, but a frustrating and surprisingly low-end shooting experience. I wonder if Sony's new full-frame compact is going to eat their lunch.


  1. He says that the Leica lens is shockingly good, even at $3k plus, and that he’d buy it if it was a Canon lens. But wait a minute. He compared the Leica lens to a $150 Canon lens? I bet you for $3k you can get a Canon lens that is every bit as good as the Leica. So what is he waiting for?

    1. you are right! The allegedly best 35 mm available for EOS is the brand new Sigma 1,4. it costs 900 € which is an awesome price as well!!

    2. Because of the long registration (flange:focal) distance required (due to mirror clearance issues) in SLRs you can never make a wide lens as small, as simple, nor as sharp for your Canon – regardless of how much money you throw at the problem. You’re forced to go to a retrofocus design.

      EDIT: I rather suspect the upcoming mirrorless revolution is going to face a lot of resistance from people who are used to equating size with quality when in actuality a large number of the aspects we associate with “professional” cameras are physical limitations .

        1. There is still a shutter, and without the mirror flapping, air movement inside the camera body will be less.

    1. I’ve been blessed with a hefty dose of aesthetic apathy, a trait that has saved me thousands of dollars and uncounted heartaches on cameras, monitors, speakers, and the like; but it should be noted that the ‘Monochrom’ is pretty much the only game in town for what it does.

      Since CCDs and CMOS sensors are monochrome only, all color cameras have a permanently fixed filter(usually Bayer, sometimes a different pattern) to allow them to infer color. It’s a trivial software matter to desaturate the result; but the sensor is still behind the filter whether you are shooting color, B/W, or enworsening the world with ‘sepia’.

      Leica’s oddball unit doesn’t have that filter, pretty much the only camera designed for handheld use(as opposed to, say, industrial machine vision applications, where dedicated B/W cameras aren’t that uncommon; but also aren’t exactly equipped to be taken out and happy-snapped with) that doesn’t.

      As noted, I’m far too much of a philistine to notice the difference between a decent sensor behind a filter, results desaturated, and a genuine filterless sensor; but it isn’t merely a goofy firmware tweak with a hefty price tag.

      1. Agreed. I can even think of useful applications beyond just taking pretty B&W photos. But this ain’t the camera I’ll be using to snap photos while I’m wandering the streets of L.A. At least not until I win the Lottery.

  2. If you take a look at his photographs, you can’t really take seriously anything he has to say about photography. Not that I think the Leica is anything great – it isn’t, there are many better ways to spend this kind of money.

    1. Even worse, the guy is clearly a techie.  Nothing wrong with that in general, but the photo world is plagued by people who love fancy toys but can’t make a good image to save their life.  Gear reviews are all but worthless without bona fides by way of a quality body of work.

      His wife is a pro photog, but her work is fairly run-of-the-mill washed out wedding fare.  Nothing wrong with it (well, depending on who you’re asking), but nothing special either.

      For such a famous and well-reviewed camera, this is an odd review to choose.

  3. … yeah right …. thinking that ANY Canon lens is even close to a Leica lens tells us all we need to know about the comment & commenter!

    as for the article, leave the leicas for the Professionals as the rank amateurs haven’t a clue, especially even mentioning a Sony in the same article… GAH!

    1. I’ve never seen a gallery of Leica shots done by a professional, just photos of celebrities holding Leicas.

      Can you post a link to yours, to demonstrate how superior it is?

      1. Try half of Life Magazine’s or National Geographic’s iconic photos. Google “Magnum Photos” for the most famous photojournalism agency of the 20th Century and then realize that most of those people used Leicas. Try Bresson’s “The Decisive Moment”. Try Nick Ut’s photo of a Vietnamese girl running down the road in a napalm attack, or David Douglas Duncan’s shot of Marine Captain Ike Fenton in Korea, “Thousand Yard Stare”.

        The manual focus rangefinder has largely been replaced by autofocus SLRs for good reasons, but the implication that it’s only for “celebrities holding Leicas” is wrong.

        1. Oh, you’re talking about film! Well that’s quite different.

          I was under the apparently mistaken impression that the article was about contemporary DSLRs, not 20th century film cameras.

          1. If you were under the impression that the article was about contemporary DSLRs, you (1) do not understand that a Leica is a rangefinder, not a DSLR, and (2) shouldn’t have thrown in your dismissive comment about celebrities. No one’s asserting that they are the tool of choice for pros these days (that’s the Canon/Nikon DSLR), but they’re hardly celebrity only toys either. They’re specialized tools these days, not because they’re expensive but because the rangefinder itself is a specialized tool.

            Try Sebastio Salgado for someone who’s using Leica in the 21st Century. 

          2. Has Salgado switched back?

            He’s a perfect choice if you want to demonstrate that, while Leica film cameras were/are excellent, their digital cameras made him abandon them when he went digital. 

            In every interview I can find he says that he first switched to a medium format Pentax, and now uses a custom-modified Canon 1D.

            He has expressed hope in interviews that Leica will one day make digital cameras that he can use, and that the S2 seemed promising but it wasn’t there yet.

            I’d love to see images he has taken with a Leica digital if you can find a link.

            Thanks for mentioning him though – here’s a sample of what he’s producing with digital now:


  4. I find it telling that the two comments defending Leica don’t address any of the issues brought up in the article. Weak tea.

    1. Would it be churlish to suspect that there might be a dose of audiophile-style psychology around the Leica?

  5. Is a $10,000 Leica M9 setup worth it?

    No. Absolutely not. But I don’t have $10,000 so the question may not be appropriate. Thanks for asking though.

  6. So.. the M9 is not a quick point-and-shoot camera, and an expensive lens is sharper than an inexpensive lens. Got it.

  7. I’m a trained photographer who owns an SLR I never really use and with which I am afraid (as a single male) to be seen walking around snapping things. I haul it out for occasional documentation of something I’ve made or a snap of an unusual bird, but otherwise it sits neglected. I doubt the world needs more moody shots of rusty gates, so I don’t bother.

    On the other hand, my phone camera is always on me and generally does the job, regardless of lack of aperture control or zoom.

    1.  “I am afraid (as a single male) to be seen walking around snapping things.”

      That’s just sad. The paranoid state of society is preventing you from creating art.

      1. I’ve gotten some serious stink-eye just for wandering around town with a camera on my neck. But since I don’t take pics of kids and have never had the cops called on me I figure fuck’em, I’ll keep doing what I want to do.

  8. I don’t own a Leica, but as a photographer since 1974 I deeply understand the tug. Primarily, the Leica world is about ultra-high-craftsmanship with a large overlay of nostalgia. And both of those things come with quirky limitations, which is (as with most tool obsessions) part of the allure.

    Leica photographers swear that in many (but not all) situations, they can focus quicker than an autofocus camera. I myself also prefer manual focus in many (but not all) situations, so I’d like to explain that. (The blogger, Marco Arment, obviously doesn’t, so he’s the wrong person to be reporting on the technique.)

    I have the newest Canon 5D-III, but I prefer my older “mark 2” model — because it accepts a manual focus screen and, hence, fits my shooting style better.

    The key to manual focus is to know your focusing ring and to know your distances. Leica lenses have superb focusing rings, which us Canon/Nikon users can only dream of. The key to the Leica focusing ring is that it goes from closest-to-infinity in a set quarter turn; it is a very precise, physical, action. With experience, you know from the knob on the ring whether it’s focused at 3′; 6′; 10′; etc. Walking around, you KNOW before you raise the camera, with greater-and-greater accuracy over time, WHERE it is focused. DSLR lenses typically give you no sense whatsoever from simply holding it (without looking) where its focus is at any given moment.

    Also from experience, judging distances — and becoming a continuous, nearly sub-conscious, assessor of distances — will becomes second nature: my subject is 4′ from me. (The same sort of ongoing assessment of light also becomes second nature for manual-operation photographers; a good friend of mine swears by manual exposure.)

    I most often shoot with a small, prosumer grade, 28mm 1.8 lens. I like small; I like wide. It isn’t the “glass” that gets me my shots; its the good handling of a small, sturdy lens. I generally set it for abundant depth-of-field (f.11 or 16, typically). I set my focus for 2.5′ (conversation distance), and I know that a very small nudge counter-clockwise will quickly get me to 6′ (casual standing distance); any further away than that, the subject is what we call “background.” With that technique, I can see, frame, and shoot a situation very quickly — especially if my subject is not centered in the frame (which has become standard placement in the era of auto focus).

    But the “abundant depth-of-field” part of the equation is currently out of fashion. Today’s photographers are big on “bokeh,” which requires a very shallow depth-of-field, which makes quick manual focus all the more difficult. (Personally, I’m big on depth because setting tells the story, with foreground, midfield, and background narrative elements. Subjects isolated within blur don’t have a lot of story, in my sense.)

    A tremendous amount of photo history has been shot with Leicas. Very little of it has to do with Leica “glass.” The Leica was and is a very good functioning tool that operates quickly in experienced hands. And history happens quickly, in “the decisive moment.” But the photographers used the tools of their time. Today’s top photographers use the tools of their time. It isn’t the camera, or the lens; it’s the photographer.

    1. On f/16, if you focus your 28mm lens at 1.66m, everything from 0.83m to infinity will be in focus. On f/11, you set focus at 2.34m and everything from 1.17m will be in focus. Considering how much depth that is, it should be easy for you to shoot with manual focus, even on the 5D3 (or not focus at all — just preset focus on the hyperfocal distance and off you go).

    2. it’s focused at 3″; 6″; 10″; etc.

      Your comment is great, easily the most informative one so far, and I clicked the “Like” button myself, but I want to point out that if you keep using quotation marks to mean feet you’re likely to wind up with a Stonehenge monument that is danger of being crushed by a dwarf, as the saying goes.

      1. Thanks! Fixed. (It won’t make much sense to newcomers — seeing ‘ rather than ” in my post — but, assured, your comment goes to eleven.)

  9. From what I gather around the net and from a friend who has an M9, there are 5 things that really (supposedly) make these cameras stand out from the pack of other DSLRs

    1) The CCD/CMOS sensor has a color curve built in that is tweaked to get that “Leica” look: slightly saturated in the darks, great mids, and good seperation on the highs. People could get close to that in “post”, but as my friend said to me he said he “almost never had to do post” because of the great saturation from the hardware.

    2) Leica lens are the envy of most of the photography world because of their precision,  sharpness, and (most likely) rarity of their lenses.  All hand-crafted and some have waiting lists over a year or so long. Some you can never get, ever again.

    3) It’s built like a small tank with a small form factor. It just feels really good in your hands and you know this is build well. The small form but full sensor (for the time since Sony and others that are now catching up) really lends itself to street photography instead of lugging around what looks like a video camera in people’s faces (like the 5D II).

    4) “Slow” photography. If you want to learn how to REALLY learn to shoot photography without all of the bells and whistles (such as auto-focus, looking through the lens instead of viewfinder, etc) this is a great way to go. Like the poster above, you’re going to have to learn how to judge distance vs. depth of field on manual for bokeh, or learn how much light really works with certain iso and shutter/aperture It’s brutal but once you get over the curve you can really get fast and great photos.

    5) The camera doesn’t do everything. It’s great in certain situation while other cameras such as the 5D II/III will blow it out of the water in others (low light, sport photography) etc.

    The new M10 (or just plain M) is now coming out with a much better sensor, video capable, etc, etc, so many M9s are now going half-price. For 3 grand I’m now pretty damn tempted to get one of these pups with a great knock off lens since it’s not that much of a jump $$ from a Canon 5D III and an older M9.

    1. Re 1) The Leica uses only CCD (not CMOS) and the sensor pixels are packed much closer together. This makes it more sensitive to light, but slower and more power-hungry.

      In a CMOS sensor, each pixel has transistor connections, requiring them to be spaced further apart. The result is a much faster and power-saving sensor, but one with less light sensitivity built in.

      1. The physical size of the photosensitive part of the photosite is not higly relevant in a stacked sensor with microlenses.  Few photons get wasted due to the on-sensor wiring and non-photosensitive components.

        DXOlabs publishes both normalized (subsampled data which equalizes values to an image level) and straight-up per-pixel data.  You will see comparing like-to-like that CMOS stomps all over CCD today.  A large part of this is the fact that manufactures have made great strides in moving the ADCs closer to the photosite, Nikon/Sony have moved the ADCs on-die to even more significantly reduce noise levels. That can’t be done with traditional CCD technology.

        Regardless, all the high-sensitivity sensors are CMOS today.  The fact that medium format CCD sensors can’t achieve the light sensitivity (on an image, not pixel level) of an inexpensive APS CMOS sensor despite a significant physical advantage only underlines the point.

  10. I think the main problem for this test was that he is used to shooting DSLRs with (fast) auto focus. The Leica, as he noted, is a Rangefinder that is pretty much completely manual.

    Personally I prefer rangefinders over SLRs and I find most SLRs too big and heavy to be really “fun” to shoot. I rarely take mine out because of this reason.

    Of course Leica does ride on the Leica name. Just go to Japan or talk to Leica collectors. They buy each new model and then never take one shot with it. In large part Leica has become just another collectible. But then there are people out there who go out and shoot with them and those people will most likely have shot film Leicas before and for them the low tech appeal is exactly that.

    I admit, if I had the money I’d buy a Leica too and load up on glass, but I am (relatively) poor so the Fuji XPro-1 is my “Leica Knockoff” of choice (for digital) or one of my old Russian Rangefinders (also a Leica Knockoff) or my Contax G2 (also film).

    Simply put: You need a certain mind set to shoot Rangefinders. If you’re used to “fast and loose” as most dSLRs try to make you behave, the Leica and pretty much any other Rangefinder out there will drive you up the wall.

  11. I’ve owned the 35/2 he used, among other Leica lenses from when their prices were more reasonable. All amazing. But incredibly specialized, and so all sold (with a big profit, thanks to crazy Leica inflation) with the money used to get more practical DSLR kit and lenses I can make money with, plus a nice 6×7 system on the side just for fun. (Which blows away any 35mm system. Leica included.)

    Leica survived the digital transition by making themselves a luxury company more than a camera company, which is a shame because despite their iffy digital cameras, they make genuinely great lenses. But come on, a new 50mm f2 lens for $7k? They’re just priced far outside the reach of mere mortals.

  12. People don’t by Leica because it’s good. They buy it to show off they have money. Just like expensive watches or bags or shoes that cost 10x to 20x what they are worth. Leica is far more a fashion statement than anything. Heck, in Tokyo they sell them in the top men’s fashion stores to go along with your $6k shoes $2k wallet etc…

  13. Leicas were the best cameras available for a few mid-century decades, but they were always expensive. I think lately they came to be what they were fighting in the beginning.
    Leica was created to be a cheaper, lighter alternative to the systems before it. It was revolutionary. Now, lighter, cheaper and smaller alternative are becoming more and more available. In the last 4-5 years image quality from other established brands has been much better than Leica’s in every way, at a much smaller price. Fuji and Sony are coming out with exciting rangefinder-style cameras. Nowadays, digital Leicas are more bling than tool. 

  14. It’s rather like complaining that a Schwinn cruiser does not have 21 speeds. People who buy a Leica camera aren’t looking for the same kind of experience as people who buy modern SLRs.

  15. I use both cameras regularly and can contribute that the quality of the image is different on each, not only because of the lenses but also because of the differences between CCD and CMOS.  The Leica may be slower and have less battery power, but it’s CCD produces a sharper image. 

  16. “There’s also no autofocus, and since you aren’t looking through the lens while composing, the only ways to know if you’re focusing on the subject are to estimate distance or line up a ghosted clone of the image in a portion of the viewfinder.
    It’s a very manual experience. While there are some other advantages to the rangefinder design, I think this is most of their modern-day appeal: nostalgia, retro fashion, and “slow” photography. As so many will say, even after I became proficient at focusing, the Leica does indeed force me to spend more time setting up each shot.”

    How do you become interested enough in photography to rent a Leica, refer to lenses as “glass”, comment on chromatic aberration, and not already be “proficient” at manual focusing, rangefinder or not? It’s not ‘nostalgia, retro fashion, and “slow” photography’, it’s elementary photography. It’s as basic as it gets in photography, aside from exposure.

    Also, for those fleeting moments and spontaneous cuteness, try zone focusing. As for the parallax issues, you should probably read pages 131-134 of the M9 manual and look at top half of page 2 of the M9 & M9-P Technical data.

  17. He says “Most fans describe Leica’s benefits in vague, unverifiable terms, much like a wine aficionado describing the taste of a $200 bottle of Pinot Noir.”

    I’d say his review reads like the review of a $200 bottle of Pinot Noir by someone who has only ever drank the $15 a bottle stuff from Trader Joe’s.

    Some people buy Leicas because of the name, sure. Some buy them because of the glass, although I think that’s a silly reason–any of the other top brands will deliver the same quality for less money.

    I have two M8s. I would like an M9, and might end up getting one at some point. My main reason to shoot with Leica rangefinders is that–the rangefinder. Modern autofocus is fast, but only my brain does exactly what I mean. Arment says: “But that also means that it’s very difficult to capture fleeting moments
    with it. For spontaneous cuteness and family memories, the Leica is
    barely usable unless you have a very patient family.” Well… wrong. If you know how to operate a rangefinder well enough that it becomes second nature, a Leica is by far a better camera then an SLR for that kind of photos.

    The Leica M is the only camera that I feel “disappears” in my hands. I forget that I am operating a device, and it’s just a little rectangle in front of my eye, and a click that “happens” every now and then. I think THIS is the reason to own one.

    All this said, when people ask me about it, I recommend they get a Sony, Nikon, Canon or whatever else. A Leica is only worth it if you already know rangefinders. And if you really want a rangefinder, a good way to start is to spend $50 on an old Canon Canonet on ebay, and burn a dozen rolls of film through it. After that you’ll know if that way of shooting is for you.

    I drink mostly cheap wine myself, BTW.

  18. In the era of film cameras, where the tonal curves, sensitivities and colour renditions were entirely the domain of the film manufacturers, one looked to cameras for mechanical reliability, lens mount quality (maintaining precision alignment over time), shutter precision and of course lens characteristics such as resolution, sharpness and distortion control.

    Leicas were rangefinders built for lightness, and had focal plane shutters that permitted interchangeable lenses.  Leica mechanical shutters were extremely accurate and required little adjusting and maintenance. The cameras were robust and reliable, which made them suitable for photojournalism or other outdoor extreme conditions. Of course E. Leitz lenses were renowned for their quality, but mainly it was perspective control and sharpness that distinguished them. The ‘Leica look’ right off the film is flat, a preference for black and white, where you control contrast mainly in the processing of the film in the darkroom. Compare this to the much more contrasty Nikon lenses, that were designed to work the best with Kodak reversal colour films. 

    One only needs to look at Olympus to understand Leica attributes. In the 1950s, Olympus had as a goal to be the Japanese Leica, and the result was the PEN half-frame, a focal-plane-shutter rangefinder that permitted much more compact lenses. Olympus also wanted to make an SLR with the attributes of Leica cameras, and the OM series came about as a result. These were extremely robust cameras, and the most compact at the time. One cannot really dispute Zuiko lens quality, as the designers had hoped to actually do better than Leitz and in many examples they clearly did. Yoshi Maitani, the Olympus designer responsible for this approach, is revered in Japan.

    So my advice would be to take long hard look at today’s Olympus PEN… the latest cameras are using a very high dynamic range sensor (from Sony), the lenses are superb (expensive, yes, but not as expensive as Leitz), and Olympus is still known for being one of the most robust cameras out there. As a bonus, you can use virtually any old glass, (including Leitz) with an adapter.

      1. Yes…for want of a better term off the top of my aging head :-) To elaborate…Leitz lenses due to their  design had perspective distortion about 10mm better than their rated focal length. A Leitz 40mm produced perspective about the same as 50mm on an SLR. 

        Perspective distortion is (roughly) a function of focal length (magnification). With wide angle lenses, closer objects appear closer than distant objects (expanded perspective)… with telephoto lenses perspective is compressed. This is different than say, the typical barrel or pincushion distortion that you see produced by wide angle lenses.

        An ideal lens would be able to produce the same perspective and field of view as the human eye. Using the 24×36 frame as a reference, a 30mm lens gives (roughly) the same field of view, but a 70mm lens the same perspective. The compromise is the standard 50mm.

        1.  Perspective is simply a matter of where you stand — nothing a lens can do can affect that (other than tilt/shift, which I don’t think you mean). To get perspective equivalent to that perceived with the eye, you simply make a print of the right size and viewing distance to match. The “compromise” normal lens is generally about right for a 8×10 at arm’s length. For perspective to appear normal for a wider lens, you need either a larger print or to look more closely. Likewise, for a photo from a longer lens to look as the real world does to our eyes, it needs to be smaller or further away.

          I don’t think there’s anything particularly magical that Leitz lenses could do to change this.

          1. Your link doesn’t defend your claim.

            Perspective distortion is solely a matter of the ratio of distances in a composition.  The distance ratio depends on the camera placement. 

            Retrofocus lens design does not impact on either of these factors.

  19. I can’t speak to the M9, I have a used M8 I picked up four years ago, but here’s my take: 

    First let me agree with the critics, Leicas are absurdly expensive. It’s a combination of the Leica “name” (sometimes called the “Leica Tax”), the collector’s market and the fact that they are still hand manufactured by the “Gnomes at Solms.” The rangefinder in particular is a complicated mechanical part, as is the linkage between the rangefinder and lens. The lenses are similarly made (I hear it takes a year to make a Noctilux). Luckily you can find lenses on the used market (advantages of keeping the same lens mount for 50+ years) and Cosina/Zeiss make some nice, cheaper alternatives to the Leica glass.

    Technically, digital Leica rangefinders are also well behind the times. High ISO performance is poor compared to the latest and greatest in the SLR world.

    That said, I enjoy shooting with my Leica more than any other camera (aside from the Epson R-D1 that got me started in the rangefinder world). It feels comfortable in my hand. The weight is right for extended use (I carried it around for 12 hours a day on a trip to the South Caucasus with no discomfort). The lenses are tiny, so the whole kit fits in a small bag. I find focusing with the rangefinder suits me, since you can see beyond the frame and I find it easier to pinpoint focus (I can’t say I’m very fast though). I also like the physical controls (shutter speed, aperture), and I have learned a lot about photography from using them.

    I also find I like the images I produce with the Leica more than those I take with others. I think it encourages me to be more deliberate in my shooting, and some combination of the lenses and sensor gives a rather appealing rendition of my subject (you might be able to get the same look with a Lightroom profile, but I haven’t found it yet).

    So, basically what I’m saying is this. Find a camera you like using and stick with it. I have more fun and get pictures I love with my under spec-ed and overpriced Leica. If you don’t like it, don’t use it.

  20. It is going to take more than a few days to determine the Leica rangefinder is a useful tool. Marco needed to rent it for a month if he is serious about it.

    Some people find a Leica rangefinder reconnects them with their love of photography, for instance:

     Leica M-E – why it’s worth the money – Guardian photographer Sarah Lee on the camera that has reinvigorated her passion for photography, and how to justify the cost attached to it


    Personally I’ve always been more of a b&w film SLR person. Those cameras were alot smaller than these modern DSLR tanks we can haul about now. Thus one’s direct involvement with the scene, and the making of an image was one that was more connected than the DSLR experience.

    So I am a bit intrigued with Leica’s M Monochrom offering:

    Although early on, the ability to  see a scene more clearly directly through the lens I use, was my preference. Considering too that Leica’s were never cheap in the currency of any day only made my preference easier to live with, while noting that Leica’s seemed to be more of a fashion accessory for the glitterati once I noticed them about.

    I was a bit unnerved yesterday when I saw a comment that the old Leica lenses used whale oil, so they tend to fog with age. Personally I quite prefer the company of whales to any Leica lens I might be induced to desire.

  21. you can have a camera hand assembled in germany, or you can have a camera thrown together on a line in china/thailand. your choice

  22. This bothered me (amongst many other things):
    “The M9 is obtuse in other ways, too. It has almost no controls and zero convenience features.”

    What does he mean it has almost no controls? Aperture/focussing ring are on the lens, there’s a shutter speed dial on the top, and there is an ISO adjust button (which you use with the menu ring). The only thing I can think of that’s not easily to-hand is the exposure comp – that is a bit of a nuisance as it’s a submenu but usually I set it once for the scene at hand and leave it at that…

    /M9 user who is not a celebrity or a member of the “glitterati”.

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