MY GEAR CHOICES
When it comes to choosing the gear I shoot, the name or logo that’s on it usually doesn’t factor in all that much. I have a unique opportunity as a writer for several websites to test and review a lot of different gear, giving me the ability to be very selective and precise with what I actually purchase and own. The gear that I do choose to actually own and shoot with is the gear that I feel does the best job of creating the images that I want to create. As a wedding and portrait photographer, I am always shooting in different conditions, completely different than that of a studio photographer. I shoot both Nikon and Canon systems, and well as film, using each to their advantages, each completely different. I don’t keep gear around that I don’t use and if there is something I need for a particular shoot that I don’t already own, I simply rent it.
Recently the smaller bodies of the mirrorless systems started to catch my interest. The Fuji and Sony bodies in particular, but unsure of how I would like them compared to my DSLRs, I had been hesitant. Knowing a few wedding photographers that love their Leica rangefinders, I was convinced to give the M9 a try. Knowing that the M9 is extremely popular with street photographers, I was curious how I would like it for my wedding work. At this same time, I was also interested in the new flagship Nikon DSLR, the D4S. With a busy month ahead of me, I rented the Leica M9 and received a Nikon D4S to test and review. The plan was to test each camera with real shooting, on paid shoots, weddings, and personal work. Both completely different cameras, but both cameras to be tested with one thing in mind...seeing if either would win me over enough to stick around. Prior to receiving both cameras, I had never shot a Leica of any kind, and never shot a larger bodied flagship DSLR.
BIGGER ISN'T ALWAYS BETTER
I currently own a Nikon D800E, Nikon Df, Canon 5D MarkII, and 5D MarkIII. Ever since purchasing the Nikon Df, it has quickly become my favorite camera. A big reason being its smaller and lighter body compared to the others, so I was very interested in seeing how I much would like the even smaller body of a rangefinder. On the other hand, the D4S is a beast of a camera, but the same image quality of the Df that I love, as well as speed and an AF system that is unmatched by any other body I own. Knowing that the price of each was much higher than any of my other camera bodies, both over $4k, it was going to take a lot to impress me. So, what happened at the end of a month of shooting each? Well, one stayed and one went back. Which camera won me over? Let me explain...
WINNING ME OVER
Right off the bat, the D4S won me over, with its blazing speed and the awesome IQ that I’ve come to love with my Df. On the other hand, the Leica M9 being completely new to me, and a completely different beast, I had to spend some time getting used to it. As anyone that has shot a Leica before knows, the manual focusing took some getting used to. After a couple weeks of shooting though, my feelings started to change...drastically. Shooting with the M9 started to grow on me, the focusing got easier, and the light body made the D4S feel like I was carrying around an old VHS video camera. At first it seemed like new technology versus older and slower, but that idea started to fade as the smaller size of the M9 started to make me question why we are still shooting with such large DSLR bodies. But it wasn’t just the size that started to win me over, there was something about the entire shooting experience of the M9. Much like shooting the Df, I found myself simply enjoying the shooting experience. Not only do I personally enjoy shooting it, but my clients feel a different experience, and are more intrigued by what is taking their picture. Not once did I have a client show interest in the $6500 D4S, but bring the Nikon DF or the M9 and they almost always become more engaged and interested in what the images look like.
THE LEICA PRICE
Being that Leica is known for being extremely high price tag, along with the history and “mystique,” as some would call it, it is a system that is either loved or hated. It’s also been considered the Rolex watch of cameras, a more expensive way of simply telling time, and a camera priced more for its name than its actual performance. Leica is expensive, but I can tell you this, there is more to a Leica than just its name. As an artist, the Leica M9 was refreshing to shoot with. Just like my medium format film cameras, it made me slow down. A unique shooting experience that is much different that of a DSLR. It inspires me and ultimately makes me a better photographer.
The rangefinder is different from the moment you pick it up and put it to your eye, no longer seeing through the lens like you do with an SLR. But for me, it’s not just about the experience, it’s also about the images that the M9 produce. The images have a unique look to them that I personally have fallen in love with and so far, my clients have too. While it isn’t great at low-light and high ISO performance, when shot in good or decent lighting, the M9 shines. The M9 has a full frame sensor, which packs an 18 megapixel CCD sensor made by Kodak, which also lacks an AA-filter like that of the Nikon D800 line-up. The images are crisp and have a lot of character along with pleasing and beautiful colors, providing a look that I find authentic and similar to film. Yes, the lenses have a lot to do with the images it kicks out, and a lot of die hard Leica fans will say that I was missing out by not shooting Leica M glass. Well, I was shooting with two very popular “budget” lenses, the Voigtlander 35mm f/1.4 Nokton Classic and the newer Voigtlander 50mm f/1.5 ASP. Both of which couldn’t have impressed me more when paired with the M9.
One thing very special about the M9 is that Leica stayed true to its older technology from its early days, and while it is in fact all manual, it is very simple to use. The focusing system is the same as it was with their film cameras of old, which is much different than that of an SLR, and takes a little getting used to. There is no top LCD screen to see your settings, and the aperture settings are done on the lenses. The digital features are extremely simple and options are minimal to say the least. There aren’t any menu banks with tons of options to choose from, just one menu. Once set up, it’s a camera that you simply pick up and shoot. It does its job without getting in its own way. It lets the photographer do something that is often lost with all the newer technology, and that’s using their vision, imagination, and ideas to create an image without having technology interfere.
THE ARTISTIC APPROACH
As an artist before I got into photography, I loved being able to use different mediums to push my creativity. Whether it be pencil drawing, oil painting, charcoal, or watercolor, each requiring a unique skillset, each creating its own experience. Using different mediums in art not only helped make me a better artist, but enhanced my creativity. I found photography to be very similar, and while classical artists may have disagreed for many years, it’s a medium. As a photographer now, pushing my creativity is no different and the gear that I use is not only about the images being created, but the experience that goes into it. Whether it be film or digital, as a photographer, we have never had such a wide selection of equipment to use as we do today. Choosing which to use as a creative tool can be challenging sometimes, especially when the cost of technology isn’t cheap. Leica is one of the most expensive names in the game, with both its cameras and lenses, but the price of used Leicas, especially the older M8 can be well within your budget.
IN THE END
In the end, I chose to keep the M9 and let the D4S go. It offered a fresh new look along with a whole new shooting experience. It can’t shoot at extremely high ISOs and may not be able to capture every moment as it plays out in front of you with its blazing speed, but that’s not what I bought it for. I bought it to use as a tool, a new medium, to help bring a vision or idea to life. The M9 is more about the experience for me and creating unique images. It forces me to slow down. It gives me a chance to see things, feel things, and more importantly be creative in the process. I’m extremely happy with my decision to not only finally try the Leica, but purchasing it has made me truly enjoy photography again.