Using the Leica M9 For Senior Portrait Photography
By Chris Routt
High School Senior Photography is important in the Midwest. Pictures are shot before or during their senior year of high school. I have been shooting professionally for 11 years. I started with Hasselblad 500s in the late 90s with film backs and eventually transitioned to shooting Phase One Digital Backs on the Hasselblads in the early 00s. The challenge with the early Phase One Backs is that they had to be tethered to a computer. Over the years obviously technology with cameras has come a long way. My primary camera has been the Nikon D3 for the past few years. The D3 is a camera that produces excellent files.
Aside from being a professional photographer, I am a high school history teacher. With the price of Leicas you need two careers. I have always been enamored with German history and technology. I started researching Leica cameras a few years ago. I discovered some artists who had shot with Leica during their career: Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank, and even Annie Leibovitz. Their images seemed to have a different feel and quality to them. While my style does not consciously lend itself to any of my images, they have been influential.
I enjoyed shooting with the Zeiss glass from my Hasselblad days. The lenses I had were made in West Germany. I missed the feel and build quality of the Zeiss lenses. As strange as is may seem I missed manual focus lenses. I was anxious to see if manual focus would work for me in the camera room as it did in the late 90s. I decided to invest into the Leica M system. My first purchase was a Leica M6 that I actually bought from Steve Huff. Ironically my first lens was the Zeiss 50mm F2. I am currently testing the new Kodak Portra 400 film with the M6. The grain is amazing on this film. It looks like 160 speed film grains.
After looking at the M8s that were available on the market I was reluctant to purchase due its lack of a full-frame sensor. Once the Leica M9s became more available in 2010 I decided to give it a shot. The build quality is top notch. Two of the main issues I have had with the camera are the lack of a grip (which can be remedied with accessories) and the terrible LCD. Aside from the horrendous colors mine seems to scratch easily.
Coming from the D3, shooting with the Leica is a transition, especially when it comes to speed. During a typical senior session, approximately 2 hours, I shoot roughly 300 images. With the Leica M9, I shoot less than 100 images in 2 hours. I find myself slowing down and thinking more about what I am doing. As most readers here will attest there is something different and unique about shooting with rangefinder cameras. It creates a unique experience for both the photographer and client. In future versions of the M I would love to see some sort of focus confirmation (not sure if this is possible) and obviously an LCD that warrants the price of the camera. Another benefit with the M9 is the weight factor between it and the D3 and its big lenses. I can tell a difference, physically, after shooting all day with the D3 as compared to the M9. The size and weight of the M9 is a benefit.
When looking at lenses for the M9 I looked at two of Leica’s better lenses, the 90mm Summicron F2 and the 50mm Summilux 1.4. After reading multiple reviews these lenses seemed to deliver what I would need. The 50mm would provide the natural eye’s view while the 90mm would be the portrait lens I would need. I will spare you the technical data on both lenses. There is plenty of information available. Both these lenses are awesome. From a portrait perspective I prefer the 90mm, however I prefer shooting with the 50mm. The glass is sharp, produces great bokeh, and is a great combination with the M9 files.
I shoot in raw and process the files in Capture One. I have noticed a movement toward Lightroom. I have never been a fan of Adobe’s raw engines, in either Lightroom or Photoshop. I think Capture One provides the best color on the market, especially with Nikon files. Even when I shoot the D3 I primarily shoot in manual mode setting the shutter and aperture manually. I even use a Minolta light meter. Capture One gives you two stop of exposure either way but I would encourage you to nail the exposure in the camera. To take advantage of Capture One you need to shoot a grey card. This is essential. One of the challenges I have seen with the M9 is having to adjust the color in Capture One. This seems to be of debate amongst different photographers. I sometimes have to lessen the yellows and oranges and boost the blues in Capture One.
I am still getting used to the Leica system. I am hooked! I love the glass, the build quality, and the detailed files that come out of the M9. At www.mrfoto.com you can check out my senior work.