In this article I want to look at why I have chosen the Leica M9 as my main camera for my wedding and commercial photography.
I have now spent a year using the Leica M9 as my primary camera for photographing weddings and in a large percentage of my other commercial work. And I’m not going back. Shooting with a rangefinder is challenging. Frustrating sometimes. But if you shoot weddings the way I do it’s a liberating camera to use and one that really allows me to express my vision.
Advantages of the M9 for wedding photographers:
* Size and weight.
* Image quality at low ISO’s.
* Simple to operate.
* Tactile controls allow you to operate the camera without looking away from your subjects.
* Sensational quality lenses.
* A huge selection of prime lenses at many focal lengths from 12mm to 135mm
* The M9 is a quiet and discrete camera.
* No mirror blackout.
Disadvantages of the M9 for wedding photographers.
* Not a high ISO camera. Best below ISO800
* No zoom or life size macro lenses or lenses longer than 135mm available.
* Lower battery life. Approximately 400 shots per battery.
* Poor TTL flash implementation. No HSS.
* Limited buffer for high volume photographers.
* You may still need another system to cover lack of macro and long lenses.
You’ll note that I haven’t put down the lack of autofocus as a negative or a positive. To me, the lack of AF is a positive. To most it’s a drawback and a lost art. The rangefinder focusing on the M9 is very accurate and very flexible. I never trusted the AF on my Canons in low light or with really fast lenses. As a result I was coming home with way to many images as I shot the same thing over and over again. I was manually focussing on my Canon 5D2 anyway. And most AF camera aren’t designed to focus well with ultra fast lenses. The ultra-bright screens only show DOF at about f2.8 through the viewfinder so it’s very tricky trying to focus a 50mm at f1.2 on a DSLR. And even the cameras that have optional fine matte focus screens rarely have a split image option for truly accurate focusing.
I find it easier to focus in low light and when your subject is behind other elements in a scene with a rangefinder. When I raise the rangefinder to my eye, everything is clear and I can then concentrate on focusing. Unlike a SLR where only the focus point is sharp and sometimes the whole viewfinder is a blur until the focus snaps into place a rangefinder lets you see the whole scene in focus, so you can more easily decide what to keep in and what to eliminate. The f2.8 nature of the DSLR viewfinder also means when you stop down, unless you use the dim viewed DOF preview function) that you will occasionally find elements in the scene you didn’t want if you shoot at say 5.6 or f8.
But manual focus is a skill. I’ve owned many manual focus cameras and a few rangefinders. I started shooting wedding with Canon A1’s and AE1’s. But even I was rusty when I got my M9. Manual focusing is a skill that needs to be learned and practiced. It’s a use it or loose it kind of skill and it took me several months to get it all back together. Now I’m at a point where manual focus is not holding back my shooting speed and in many cases I’m faster than with AF. I’m also in a better place photographically. Rather than the “spray and pray” method of turning the camera to continuous AF and high speed on the motor drive, I’m looking for the perfect moment and the total lack of any viewfinder blackout and low shutter lag means I’m getting far more “keepers” and far less excess.
What I would love to see on the next M (M10?) is live view. At the moment I also have a small AF system for macro work and long lenses. If the next M has live view then Leica can make a true 1:1 macro lens for the M system rather than the “macro” lens they have now, which is all but useless for ring shots and the like. Although with the rapid improvements in the mirrorless markets it’s now possible to get great macro in a tiny package, like the Sony NEX7 and you can also use all your Leica glass on it as well.
I decided on shooting with an M9 because I was sick and tired of the weight, size and unnecessary complexity of most modern DSLRs. Even cameras that are considered “pro”, like the Canon 5D2 still have all the picture modes and gimmicks of a cheap compact camera. You have to wonder whether a camera that costs $3500.00 without a lens really needs a “portrait” mode just because they want to sell expensive toys to photographers who would be far better off with a camera a third of the price. And here’s hundreds of choices in the menus. There’s even the “direct print” button so beginners can hook the camera up to a Canon printer and print straight out of camera. No one who buys a Canon 5D2 or 3 is ever going to use that function. They’re going to want to process the image so it’s at it’s best before printing. And you can’t even reprogram that button to do something useful.
And then there’s the size and weight. Ergonomics are important, but “pro”cameras are just getting bigger to differentiate themselves from the cheaper models. It’s a badge of honour for a new photographer to have an enormous camera slung off the shoulder, even if that camera is set to the same green square auto mode that’s on a $100.00 compact.
But big cameras can make nervous brides more nervous, more aware of your presence when you’re trying to be discrete. The M9 attracts a lot less attention than a big white Canon zoom. After a little while my brides relax a bit and forget about the camera. It’s small and un-threatening especially in those candid situations.
The main reason I changed is that I just didn’t connect with the DSLR way of doing things. Looking through a tunnel across a mirror or two at a wide open aperture didn’t do it for me. I felt the camera was in the way. I understand how the metering and the focus and the flash work but I felt that I was always having to either secede to the cameras wishes or go all manual and fight the gear. DSLRs don’t do well at manual focus. They like to be in control. If you need 5 frames per second, video or continuous focus then fine. Me, I never use those things. I use single shot, manual exposure (or Av) and manual focus. When I go away with the family I’m likely to use the auto focus. When I’m working I want to be in charge of the gear, not the other way around. And the gear is so heavy that the lens I wanted was usually in a bag down the hall.
I also prefer the small camera because the lenses are also smaller. I can carry five stunningly beautiful lenses in a small waist pouch. A body and five primes weighs less than 2 kilos. My back loves this. And no matter which lens I need, there it is, available. The huge DSLR lenses were usually in a bag in the hall. And don’t, for a second, think the DSLR lenses are superior. They may be tiny, but the Leica, Zeiss and Voigtlander lenses for the M9 system are fast and wonderful. Leica has made some of the finest lenses ever produced and the current range are some of the best lenses for any system. Plus there is so much choice. Leica, alone, make 5, 50mm lenses, all with a different personality. Include Zeiss, Voigtlander and 60 years of Leica compatible lenses and you have dozens to choose from. You really can get a lens with the personality you want, from the technically perfect to the classic warm look.
I reckon if Leica made a true macro lens I could shoot with only three to five lenses and never need anything else. And I’ve chosen “classic” lenses. I love the way they render their subjects with great detail but a smooth flattering fall off. Modern lenses are technically wonderful but often a bit “cold” and sterile. I want lenses that flatter my brides. Sure I can do it in Photoshop, but if I can get they way I want with less work, then why not?
There’s absolutely no doubt that it’s easier to shoot weddings with a DSLR. You lift it to your eye, zoom in and push one button. The camera does half the work for you. You can shoot as fast as you want. And I think 90% of photographers are better off shooting with a DSLR. You don’t need to be as strong technically when the camera is calculating the focus and exposure for you. You can shoot fast and hard with the huge buffers and high ISO capabilities of the DSLR. It takes more thought to shoot with a M9 because you’re in total control and you need to think about exposure and focus as well as the artistic side of composition. It will slow you down a little bit, which, for me, is a good thing. It’s a more considered approach to your subjects. The upside is that your vision isn’t being dictated to by the camera. If you really understand exposure and light then manual can be easier and mor precise. What a M9 does is predictable because the camera is simple, so you know what’s going to happen and it’s easy to over ride that and make your own choices.
The big buzwords in digital cameras now are low noise at high ISO and huge dynamic range. Get a modern DSLR and you can crank up the ISO to some ridiculous number and shoot in virtually no light and have huge detail in the highlights and shadows with very little noise and no blown whites or blacks.
But almost all great images have real highlights and shadows. You need a limited dynamic range, to some extent, or the image looks flat and thin. Personally, I can’t stand the fad of the 2011-2012 season to have no blacks in black and white images. They’re all grey and washed out. How is this fad going to look in 10 years or 20? Me. I’m never going to try and turn night into day. If it’s dark, then it’s dark. The most interesting parts of an image for me are the shadows. Shadows give an image life, shape and texture. And because my lenses are three stops faster than a “pro” zoom lens I can shoot in lower light at lower ISO’s than zoom lens shooters can. Plus the CCD in the M9 has a “analogue” feel to it’s noise structure. It actually looks good in many M9 images to keep the noise in, especially in black and white images. The M9 tops out at ISO 2500 and it’s very noisy. Personally I never go over a 1000 and I love the look of the files. They’re different from any DSLR. They look much more like medium format. Partly because MF digital camera also use CCD sensors instead of CMOS and partly because the Kodak CCD sensor in the M9 was designed to look a bit like Kodachrome in its output.
If you shoot at below 800 ISO i think the M9 produces the best files in the 35mm market today. If you have to have high ISO then stick with your Nikon, Sony or Canon. Although it does seem funny that photographers spend thousands on cameras with no noise and then buy a Photoshop add-on to put “analogue” noise into their images. I don’t need that. I have a M9. But a lot of photographers are stretching what is possible because of these new high ISO capabilities. If that’s you then a Leica, for now, isn’t the right camera system for you. The M10, maybe?
While I do think the M9 files are spectacular at low ISO’s I can’t say I think that’s a reason to shoot weddings on a Leica. Most of our customers can’t tell the subtle differences between any two top end systems. Some scan’t see the difference between a Nikon D4 and an iPhone (and an iPhone can take great images). I didn’t change because of the image quality, particularly. I changed because of the size, weight and usability of the M system. And as I said above, 95% of wedding photographers would only get frustrated by the Leica. The Canon cameras I had before had a file quality that was more than I needed. Even the original 5D is more than capable of producing good enough files for the most discerning wedding client. It doesn’t benefit the client like that. It’s more for you. You either love the DSLR way of shooting or you try something like a rangefinder. And you will shoot differently with a rangefinder. It’s not better or worse, just different. If you are one of the select few who bond with it, then the M9 is the best wedding camera on the market. If you don’t then you’re better off with a DSLR. And if the M9 does inspire you then you’ll shoot better and your clients will get the benefits. And you’ll be a happier photographer. And the one without the sore back.
It’s been said that with Leica you either get it or you don’t get it, which is true. That doesn’t mean that not getting it makes you any lesser a photographer. The M system is quirky, strange and very very different in use to a SLR. For me, I’ve owned dozens of DSLRs and L series lenses over the last 20 years and I never loved any of them. I loved the images they produced but the process was never fulfilling. With a rangefinder, I “get it”. It feels like an extension of me. It feels like the camera isn’t getting in the way of the creative decisions I’m making. I like to shoot in the somewhat limited optical range (12-135) that it offers and I like the simplicity and tactile controls of the M9 itself. What others find limiting I find liberating. What some see as missing I see as a purity in the image taking process.
And I do love the files. They are special.
Some like the swiss army knife approach of the modern DSLR. Me, I prefer the scalpel that is the M9.
Feel free to leave any comments.
Flash Gordon Photography is a Wedding and Commercial Photography studio located on the Central Coast of NSW.