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Friday, 18 September 2009

Leica M9 & X1 - Hands On Preview

Leica M9
Trying out the M9. Photo: Antje Bormann

Yesterday I had the opportunity to have a look at the new Leica M9 and also the X1. The M9 was a final pre-production model, so it was pretty much what you would get if you bought one. However, the X1 was a mid pre-production sample so my comments should be taken lightly until I get a chance to try out a final sample.

A small bit of background info on me; I used to shoot quite a lot of my film work on Leica M rangefinders. I've had the M4-2, the M4P and the M6. My lenses back in the day ranged from the 21mm f2.8 to the 75mm f1.4. I've always loved the quality of the cameras and more so the lenses. The silent approach to picture taking has always suited me.

At 160ASA the image quality is stunning

Alas the M8 put an end to the love affair and I had to definitely close the door on Leica; I just didn't think the quality was there. Terrible image noise when trying to work in low light, a cropped sensor and that silly filters on every lens thing just put me off. I tried the M8 when it first came out and recently a few months ago, and it still didn't do it for me.

Seems that the M9 has put a stop to that though and I find myself yearning to get back to my rangefinder days; well, the recession's kind of getting in the way, as there's no way for me to justify the £4850 price tag, but at least now its not the quality that's putting me off, but merely the cost. As the chap from leica said yesterday, its reassuringly expensive!

This image at 1250ASA is still extremely good and way above the M8 in quality

At first glance the camera's very similar to the M8 but now thankfully has a dedicated ISO button. The interface is usable but no way is it near the ease of use offered by the latest Canon DSLRs. Still, its a big improvement on the M8.

At 500ASA image quality is fabulous

Where the camera really shines though is that it now has a full frame sensor. The cropped sensor of the M8 was a huge disappointment for me. The other huge improvement is that there is much less image noise, so working in low light is again a possibility. Whilst the camera's high ASA ability doesn't come anywhere near matching a 5D MkII, its still very impressive and a million times better than it used to be on the M8. At 160 ASA its faultless; absolutely stunning. I pushed it higher to 1250 ASA and its still extremely good. There's some grain, but it looks right and the colours also look right. I shot a load of tests indoors under mixed lighting and also outdoors in daylight and apart from some shifts in the auto white balance, the colours where great.

Whilst the shutter is no were near as silent as the old cloth shutters, it has several quite modes which allow the cocking to be done on release of the shutter button; this makes operation much more quite.

As far as the quality of the files concerned, I'm extremely happy with the jpegs which you can see here. As the camera has only just been announced, I'm waiting for Apple to release a RAW update so I can have a look at the RAW's using Aperture. If the jpegs are this good, I'm sure the RAW's will be a knock out.

As I mentioned earlier, I'm really happy with this camera; Leica and Kodak who make the sensor chip have done a great job and made the camera usable as a professional tool. With the M8, you got great shots if all the elements were right and the light was perfect; now with the M9, it looks like you can adapt to the elements and not just give up.

My full review of the Leica M9 is now available HERE.

Leica X1

The other camera of note which has recently been announced is the X1. Initial rumours suggested that it was based on the Panasonic Lumix GF1 which is a micro four thirds, interchangeable lens camera. It isn't the case though, as the sensor is a bigger APS-C sensor with a lower crop. The X1 however doesn't allow you to change its 24mm f2.8 lens as its fixed. This 24mm lens translates into 35mm in 35mm terms. I really wish that it was an f2 though.
Its a very handsome little camera and feels nice in the hands. I was rather impressed by the lens as distortion is very well controlled and the optics are pin sharp. However, I must admit that I wish they had made it an interchangeable lensed camera. However, to use this camera properly, I'd seriously suggest an external finder as otherwise its just a flashy compact camera. At 500ASA, the image quality was very good and noise was well controlled. Focusing was sure footed and pretty speedy. My only initial thoughts are that its a shame there is no face-detect, as this would work well when using the external finder - I have since found out that it does have face detect. Although an early sample, I must admit to being very impressed by the image quality.
As mentioned before though, I'm going to reserve full judgement as this was a mid pre-production camera.

For a gallery of images check out my Flickr.

Addendum: You can now read my full review of the Leica M9 in the BJP (British Journal of Photography).


  1. Hello Edmond,

    How can 24mm on the X1 be "far too wide?" My understanding is that it is the equivalent of a 36mm f/2.8 lens on the M9.

  2. Knowledgeable people at the discussion forums says that the X1 sensor actually is the same as in the Nikon D300. That sensor is bigger and more silent then the Panasonics micro four thirds.

  3. The 24 mm lens is a 35 mm on Leica X1

  4. That's a very good point; my mistake! I've corrected the article. many thanks for that.

  5. The sensor size would make sense actually, as the 24mm becomes a 35mm on this camera. Too much guess work, not enough facts I fear on my part!

  6. Leica's press release states the X1's lens is 36mm equivalent.

    The X1 is probably aimed to compete with the Sigma DP1 / DP2 more than any detachable lens camera. The DP1 is wide angle, the DP2 narrow, so the X1 sits inbetween. The thinking behind it is probably to aim at dSLR users who would like a quality Leica compact to complement their kit. It is sensible that Leica is starting to be serious about producing cameras again and not just rebadging Panasonics as there is little future in that.

  7. The Leica press release says that the spec includes face detect, maybe this just wasn't operational on your pre-production model.

  8. Ah, interesting. The chap from Leica said that it didn't have that mode; perhaps as you suggest, it may have been on this early sample that the mode was not activated.

  9. I can't believe that Lieca after puting the F2 lens on the LX3 and making a great inexpensive P&S would not use the same lens on what they probably hope is a premium P&S. Even better if they had put a 1.2 or 1.4 lense on it. What were they thinking?
    I'll keep my LX3 thank you. I'm not normanaly a Panasonic advocate as I don't care for their corpatate policies towards consumers, but they hit the jackpot with the LX3.

  10. Paul, the issue is that the sensor in the X1 is much bigger than the LX3. As a result, the lens would have to be much bigger too. The trade off is that the larger sensor does produce less noise, so f2.8 isn't that bad, but for the sake of bokeh, and a little better low light performance, I would have loved to see an f2 lens. I fear anything bigger (aperture wise) would make the lens huge.

  11. Hi Edmond, Harry from Billingham here. Nice article, i am hearing good things about the M9 from all quarters! The X1 looks like it should find a nice market - i hope it goes really well for them.

    Hope you're well!

  12. Hey Harry, good to hear from you. Hope all's well.
    Many thanks on your kind words about the article; I'm very impressed with both cameras and very glad that Leica have produced a proper M digital. It really is stunning.
    All's well with me thanks :-)

  13. Interesting to see your take on this. I hope you "get back" to the M. I've worked with the M9 for 5-6 weeks now and I'm completely taken by it. I'll be posting a article soon, going something like "One week of shooting with 7 pair of socks, 5 t-shirts and one lens in the pocket." I was just in London for a week with loads of gear, but all I used was the M9. It will be changing my setup I'm sure. You can read my article here:

  14. Ridiculous price and quality of images of D-Lux 4 is better.

  15. I'm assuming you mean the X1? Whilst I agree that it is an expensive camera, I must disagree on the image quality comment. Even though this was an early sample, the quality of the image was stunning and the handling and build quality superb. Naturally I'll have my full and accurate thoughts after a proper test, but my initial thoughts are extremely positive.

  16. Hello,

    I was looking for a compact, light camera with good size sensor and found that leica X1 has features I was looking for. Though I couldn't find some information about Leica X1 and while looking for that I was brought to your site. M9 pictures are great. Some time in the future I'll get it.

    If you have time could you please tell me if Leica X1 can take close up pictures from long distance 100mm-150mm, and if it can take some action/sports - flying birds, kids, etc. And without IS can it give clear details?

    Thank you for your time,

  17. Hi Ema,
    The X1 has a fixed 35mm (equiv) lens, so is really not suitable for flying birds (unless seagulls being fed on a beach!!) and other long distance subjects. 35mm is fine for photographing kids and people, so you'll just have to be a little closer and wait for magical moments to happen. At 35mm, IS isn't so much an issue; also, remember that as this camera doesn't have a mirror, there is very little vibration from the body.
    There is a rumour (and around the lens there is a ring that comes off for this) that there may be additional lenses (converters) that will screw onto the X1 giving different focal lengths; one of these may be telephoto. However, at this stage, its purely a rumour based on teh fact that there is a ring around the lens which comes off.
    I'll just add that you're definitely looking at the right camera as the image quality is stunning :-)