Here’s a thing, I swim a lot, but it’s a bit boring. In fact if I have the lane to myself my eyes are frequently shut and I’m often thinking about photography, visualising, planning shoots, considering lighting. Last year I did what for me was a big swim (Dart 10k) and since then I’ve lost the rhythm a bit so most of my sessions at the moment are shorter than they were. But I am still swimming frequently with what I refer to as my bath toys, paddles and fins, I guess you could call it resistance training.
I’d never thought of the term until I was sat in The CoffeeWorks Project in Islington at the weekend and the guy next to me mentioned it. He was a ‘young American’ called Mike, in software, the kind of guy who made a grey v-neck jumper look good. We got talking and I mentioned that I was determined to get on top of the Leica’s shortcomings by deliberately using it outside of its comfort zone. Ah, “resistance training,” he posited.
So what do I understand from his term?
Choose your lens wisely
I didn’t buy the M9 to earn money, I bought it to enjoy photography. At some point I remember realising it was all about the lens and Leica lenses are sublime. However changing the lens is a pain; because there’s no mirror sensor, dust is a real problem so each time you change lens you increase the problem, the same happens on DSLRs but it is less pronounced. A while ago I looked at my Lightroom stats and noticed that most of my Leica shots were on the 28mm Cron rather than the 50mm Lux, I had expected the reverse, so at the moment the 50 is on the M9 most of the time (resistance training).
Not all sensors are the same
Camera sensors nowadays are ridiculously good, I’d like a Nikon D810 but my D800e is still fantastic and in truth my D610 is too. The dynamic range is superb meaning that if I shoot in RAW and ‘stuff up’ there’s good head-room. Grain is marginal, colour balance is generally quite good and matrix metering covers most situations very well.
With the M9 one has a CCD sensor which is lovely but more limited in ability. It draws a lot of power so battery life is relatively poor and once the light levels drop below ideal it gets quite grainy in there; ‘ideal’ for the M9 is way earlier that the Nikons would have to stop playing out. However the lenses are good wide open and excellent stopped down a bit. But for me dealing with the grain has changed recently, I’ve learned to enjoy it. Yes, I always liked film grain, even though I used obscure Kodak B&W films that were virtually grain free I also liked films that got a bit dirty. The M9 seems to lose the plot with the shadows when things get difficult but it’s the colour noise that offends most. So at the moment when processing in Lightroom I rarely touch the noise luminance, instead I just tweak the colour, which means the grain is clearer but still there. Interestingly to my eyes the M9 files don’t seem to like a lot of sharpening either so I apply very little sharpening to the M9 files unless it’s for effect. Most seem to agree that the M9 CCD gets messy above ISO-640 but again recently I’ve been running it up to ISO-1600 and I like the results, but, there is grain. There is no doubt in my mind the the native ISO-160 will give the best demonstration of the lens quality but I’m trying to work beyond that much more at the moment (resistance training).
Centre weighted and manual
Unlike the Nikons the metering on the M9 is limited to centre weighted. There is an ‘A’ setting which makes the camera aperture priority automatic and this is a way that I am generally comfortable to work to, most of my photography is aperture led. The M9 will auto-ISO but one has no idea what ISO has been chosen when looking through the viewfinder, there really is very little to see particularly in full manual mode. Recently I’ve gone to full manual, (I flip it into ‘A’ if I give my 16yo daughter the camera), the ISO is really easy to reset on the fly with the jog wheel on the back. Once mastered it seems a quicker way to work, whereas in ‘A’ mode one might meter, half press the shutter button to lock the meter and then re-frame, setting the exposure to what you want and re-evaluating the scene as it develops seems to work. I might nudge the ISO up a tad as the day’s light fades but in essence I am merely taking control of things, planning a bit too.
Something that has caught me out since I’ve owned the M9 is the exposure compensation set up. I’ve lost count of the times that I’ve accidentally nudged the camera up or down +or- 1/3, 2/3 or even more. I’ve now set it to set it to ‘menu only’.
Controlling the colour
People often describe the M9 CCD as being superb for skin rendition but I seem to struggle a bit. However recently I’ve made some profiles with the X-Rite Color Checker Passport although to date I seem to be getting most change with some of the blues rather than the magentas and oranges that I had expected. I did recently shoot a casual portrait in mixed lighting and gave up with the file, I tried everything to balance it. Subsequently I hauled Karin upstairs to do a late afternoon window-lit shot to prove to myself that the camera could come up with the goods, I did use the WhiBal G7 card which I had bought this when I bought the M9, however over the years it had migrated to my studio strobes case.
Buffer, what buffer?
Finally the buffer issue, I admit I often wish I had bought the M9-P. The buffer is really small and slow and don’t dare to think you will speed things up with a fast card, the M9 is happiest with the slowest SD card you can find. So to aid things I’ve recently stopped using my RAW +JPEG system that I use with the Nikons. The M9 will produce fantastic in house B&W JPEGS by the way but for now I’m using compressed DNGs only and they seem to work. I feel bad about the compressed bit and the mono JPEGs that it produces are superb so I may re-visit this decision at some point.
So to recap:
- I’ve turned the auto preview off to conserve battery life, I will preview but not all the time
- I’ve gone to full manual exposure to regain the control
- I’ve learned to deal with the grain differently and enjoy it
- I’ve stopped backing up the DNGs with JPEGs to speed the buffer, this may change though
- I’ve started using compressed DNGs to speed the buffer (over 1000 images on a card)
- I’ve put my WhiBal G7 card back in the Leica bag
- I’ve created some specific colour profiles
The original design ethos is still valid
This is the camera that in the last month has accompanied me to Paris, Amsterdam and London, I did take a Nikon and it came out once when things got really dark, I shot a couple of frames with it. And make no mistake there is a lot of sense to at the D610 with a 50mm ƒ/1.8. It is small (ish) and the quietest camera that I have, I would genuinely recommend this camera to people, it’s also not so much to risk ‘losing’. But the Leica is smaller and the bottom line with travel is that the camera you will use is the one that you are happy to haul round with you all day, this after all is what drove Oskar Barnack to design the original Leica in a form that has pretty much endured to this day.
Prior to buying the Leica I remember reading ‘your photographs will be different’ and to a point I agree with this. I have shot street markets in Palermo with the D800e and then been surprised that I used it when checking the files later but there is something different about shooting with the M9, and I do enjoy its diminutive size when travelling.
If anyone wants to buy me a viewfinder magnifier for the M9 I’ll be happy to receive one?
Gallery of Leica M9 London Street Photography
These images were taken over a couple of days in London using a Leica M9 and a 50mm Lux (ASPH) with ISO up to 1250, and were processed in Lightroom only. The café silhouette had LR grain added.