Down Mexico way with a M9, 50 and 28 by Christian Herzog
A few days ago, prompted by all the talk about the Mayan calendar ending (and a sweet, good-looking woman 😉 ) I filled my bag with a M9, Summilux 50 ASPH and the tiny Elmarit 28 ASPH and left my small and snowy Austrian hometown for a trip across the pond to warm and sunny Mexico. With me came only the Leica, the lenses, a few memory cards, 2 batteries and a Voigtländer 28mm viewfinder to help composing when wearing glasses.
I expected the brass and metal construction of the Leica to turn some heads at the air ports security checks and I was not let down. During my travel I was at a checkpoint 6 times, every time I saw the scanner operator making a face and talking to the other security people whizzing around. Three times I was asked for a little show and tell and once (ironically in Frankfurt – close to Solms where my M9 was assembled) they took the camera for a drugs and explosives test.
After arriving in Mexico and settling in, the trip led us to Guadalajara to see some Mariachi. I chose the 50mm and we went to explore the city centre and after walking around for a couple of minutes I was pleased. No. I was delighted! The low weight of the camera compared to my previous DSLR was such a relief to me. It was almost like the camera wasn’t there even though objectively, at over one kilogram, it’s pretty heavy! When you sling it across your chest though, it doesn’t really feel that way. The weight distribution due to the slim form factor sees to that. I think no words have to be lost on the 50mm Summilux. It’s nearly perfect in every way. The only critique I can think of is the weight (especially the “chrome” version) and the stiff focusing, a concession to the amount of glass that needs to be moved.
Soon night started to fall and the Summilux which shone during the day with its crisp, contrasty images and its smooth bokeh, was being pointed at the dimly lit food stands that framed the path to the famous musicians.
The M9 is often faulted with its not-so-great low light performance and from a technical standpoint that certainly is true. However, I feel that nowadays many pictures taken in the evening or at night often tend to lack something: darkness. The current low light specialists can turn night into day! You can’t help but marvel at the ability to shoot in what is basically pitch black! But… do I really want that? When it’s too dark to see, what do I want to photograph? Doesn’t the eerie, spooky feeling of darkness and night vanish when you suddenly have detail in every shadow? Would the shot above benefit from more details in the shadows? I don’t think it would – a better composition, yes, more light not so much… To me the high ISO performance of the M9 isn’t all that bad as it’s made out to be. The limitations are definitely there, yet when coupled with a fast lens and the excellent noise reduction in Lightroom I have only really run into serious problems in fringe cases (see further down).
But the Leica doesn’t suffer from ISO woes alone! At a place with several Mariachi bands my luck struck out. It was then and there that the focusing system of the M that was so precise and reliable only minutes ago failed me catastrophically…
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After having had 2 Tequilas I was faced with a mysteriously progressive misalignment of the range finder! The images went from sharp to soft and from soft to studies of the lens’ bokeh… So unfortunately I have no pictures to show of the musicians… Ay caramba!! By the next day though my focusing problems were resolved, very strange… Probably the weather?
Several days later on a guided day trip to Chichén Itzá I relied exclusively on the Elmarit hoping that the wide-angle would make the ruins look even more imposing. What I didn’t know of was a surprise visit to a limestone cavern which was used by the Mayans as a sacrificial site. An interesting location in many ways, however it quickly highlighted the limits of my chosen equipment combination for the day. Since the cavern was only dimly lit by a hole in the roof and some rather small spotlights, I had to shoot fully open (a mere f2.8) and up the ISO to 2000 to reach a meagre shutter speed of 1/30. The images therefore are not really useable for bigger prints and due to the high ISO show quite a bit of noise (which responds well to Lightrooms noise removal though).
Above ground however the Elmarit and M9 redeemed themselves again. I even went to take a picture of some wildlife. Yes! Wildlife! With a wideangle… and a rangefinder! 😉
I’m very fond of the Elmarit, the size and feel of it wins me over every time (and say what you want: rectangular hoods are really cool). It’s absolutely tiny. Take off the hood and you could be forgiven when thinking it’s a toy. Its performance however – even fully open – is bereft of any toy like qualities! Beautifully sharp and wonderful contrast. Keep in mind though that when shooting at f2.8 even with lens detection on it tends to vignette quite a bit. Personally I like it but others might disagree.
Another – system inherent – issue are the 28mm frame lines in the M9. I rely on an external viewfinder for framing with the 28. As I said: I wear glasses but even with contacts I still don’t like the eyeball acrobatics required to compose the frame.
This solution works very well most of the time but it can be hard to get a really exact alignment of your subject like you can see quite clearly in this shot:
I was standing ever so slightly off the proper axis to get that shot. Unfortunately I didn’t notice that until I was back at the hotel.
All in all I massively enjoyed the shooting experience with the Leica, it works wonderfully well as a travel camera, just like you would expect. Would I have been able to get the same images with a different camera? Yes, that’s an undisputable fact. My friend used an E-PL1 with the 20mm Panasonic and she produced some equally great shots (Her shots from Chichén Itzá are better than mine I think).
However: would I have had the same fun with it? No way. It’s a completely different shooting experience and I much prefer the slower, more deliberate way of shooting that the Leica forces onto you. The M9 goes out of your way when taking pictures, it won’t interfere, but equally won’t help you much. It forces you to think about the image, the focus, the exposure, depth of field, the composition… If the image doesn’t turn out, I always feel like I messed up, not the camera. I didn’t focus right, I chose the wrong aperture, I misinterpreted the metering. No excuses. If it does turn out though, it’ll give you a strange sense of accomplishment. You really did make that image, the camera didn’t, you did. The Leica is a harsh mistress that will frustrate you, but when you put the effort in, it will reward you with a wonderful experience and delightful images.
So finally, what wisdom did I acquire that I can pass on to you? I lost 2 pictures (no problem, they were rubbish) due to the SD Card. The batteries held up quite nicely but you really should have a backup one ready. The world will not end on December the 21st so keep your jobs and…. oh, yes! Don’t try to focus drunk!
see the whole set on Flickr (including a Panorama 17700px wide Pano of Guadalajara):
All images were shot RAW and later processed in Lightroom 3
I keep coming back to the image of the elderly gentleman looking straight into the camera. I wonder, is this an image of a real person or a wax likeness?
The reason I ask is when I visited the Musee Grevin in Paris, I was stunned by the likeness of their wax figures, and some images I took of wax models of famous people there have proved to look so life-like that I have been questioned by friends who couldn’t believe I’d actually met such famous people. Well, of course I hadn’t, but I get a lot of amusement showing the images!
It’s a wax figure of Pablo Picasso, it was on exhibit at the wax museum at Ripley’s. They had some pretty convincing figures there!
Really interesting and honest article, coupled with some excellent pictures. Very very nice
The cave shot is very nice.
Gorgeous. All of them. Love.
This is aboslutely beautiful.. Love the pictures and love the story.
Pretty average pics for such a expensive camera.
Hey, average is one step up from bad! 😉
Very nice set. I have precisely the same combo, just recently got the 28 and I must say, that after seeing your pics I can’t wait to travel with this kit.
Very beautiful and inspirational pictures with awesome colors.
Cheers from Switzerland
Great post with great pictures.
Super quality, with beautiful colour.
Very good writeup! Your thoughts aligns well with my own experiences with the M9.
PS. I am happy to finally see a post with pictures which are not photoshopped to death also.
I hate airport security checks. Where is the integrity?
Anyway, nice pictures. I can´t find a 50 summilux ASPH were I live. I want that lens.
Christian, an excellent narrative and a sane and balanced view of what an M9 is good at and an admission of what it isn’t. No signs of apologia for it. Oh, and I nearly forgot the images!
Where I will beg to differ, and all of a sudden a lot of people are posting here decrying the use of high ISO (is this a defensive mechanism because all know this is the area where the M9 is admittedly poor?) but which used sensibly does not necessarily lead to floodlighting a night scene or peering into the darkness with a night vision camera.
Correctly implemented, that is expose for the highlights, and with a camera capable of high excellent high ISO performance, it should still give a more or less natural view but the image will exhibit less digital noise and may even be sharper as it permits hand-holding a faster shutter speed.
For those decrying high ISO, what will they be saying if, on 10th May, it does turn out to be an M10 with significantly improved high ISO performance? It is just what an M digital needs, but of course, they won’t use it on principle. We’ll see.
You are absolutely right and I think we both understand each others viewpoints 🙂 But let me elaborate a bit on what I mean by lack of darkness.
First of all: there is certainly a real need for good high ISO performance! You have already pointed out all the right reasons for it. I too would like to stop down the lens in bad light from time to time!
Undoubtedly, the M9 pales in comparison to more modern sensors and I expect to see pretty clean ISO 3200, 6400 or more from the next M. (although I’ll skip the M10, I like my M9 ;)) Nevertheless though, even with the sub-par ISO performance of the current M9, things aren’t necessarily all that bad as they seem.
I feel that darkness (or lack of light) is not an enemy but rather a stylistic choice that one should make use of. When you look at great black and white work from the film days, you’ll find that big patches of nearly featureless black aren’t necessarily detrimental to the image.
I used to obsess about pulling every little bit of detail out of the shadows and wanted “clean” files. However I specifically selected the M9 because I like the way the digital noise looks! Call me crazy! 😀
My views on image quality changed radically after starting to print my images myself on an Epson R2880. I realized that the huge dynamic range of the image on the back lit screen just will not translate to the reflected paper. (paper is my favourite medium to view my images) This revelation had a massive impact and radically changed my view on making pictures. I can only urge you all to try and print some of your shots yourself. 🙂
So to drive the point home: all of that can not and should not hide the fact that the M9 is an old camera with rather poor high ISO performance. However, I feel that even with these issues, it is capable of producing absolutely stunning images.Luckily the limiting factor in my photography is still me, not the gear. 😀 😉
+1, 100%. When I did my own b/w developing and enlarging using my M3, M6 and Rolleiflex 3.5F, I’d expose my prints to retain highlights and let the black fade off into infinity. At the time, this was counter to what was the perceived wisdom, to retain detail in the light and dark areas. But bringing up the black levels to reveal detail made the image look unnatural to me and didn’t look “right”, and certainly these lacked punch as by doing this the dynamic range in the print was reduced.
Great article, I never really thought about the effect of high iso performance at night but you make an excellent point! Fanmtastic work!
Toller Erfahrungsbericht; viele Dinge wirklich charmant auf den Punkt gebracht (und das in English noch dazu ;-). Gratuliere.
Liebe Grüße aus Judendorf
Die Welt is a Dorf!
Schöne Grüße aus Köflach 😀
Hilarious; I loved it. Thank you!
I don’t know why you seemed to limit yourself to 1/30th with a 28mm lens. I urge you to try 15/th or even slower if braced against a wall – it’s amazing how low you can get useable shots with an M9 and wide-angle.
My top tip is to have a Nikon V1 for the tequila days and leave the 9 somewhere safe, for so many reasons!
I hope you post again one day. Made my weekend.
Excellent article, wonderful images also on flickr, I admire you for keeping your kit so minimal. In the past I was one for taking everthing with and killing my neck and shoulders just to create a record of a trip or holiday. Would love a M9 but very happy with my M8 and 21.cv + 35 cron.
I really enjoyed your post Christian… and the flickr set.
I couldn’t agree more with your comment that evening or night photos often lack “darkness” and I can’t help thinking that this very often leaves these photos lacking the mood / ambience that would have contributed to the photographer wanting to take the picture in the first place.
Similarly, I feel the current trend of pulling every last iota of detail out of shadows just because there is a tool that allows you to do so results more often than not in washed-out, bland and un-engaging photographs.
Your photos have a lovely depth to them and I enjoyed them very much.
Thanks for posting.
Great write up Christian! I enjoyed it very much. Is that “sweet good looking woman” on the 2nd to last photo? 🙂
yep, that’s my girl! 🙂
Again and again I read people raving about the lightness of a Leica outfit versus DSLR. Forgetting -probably – that a not-too-big DSLR with a couple of prime lenses is no way bulkier than a Leica with its Summarits or Elmarits. I know Leica’s and I think that using my PentaxK5 plus tiny Limited lenses and in non-autmatic mode very much emulates the ‘leica shooting experience’
Great post…and am happy to see other Austrian shooters here
I’m surprised that there are that many Austrians hanging around here! 😀
Very nice images. Also, I commend your willingness to limit your kit to a small and manageable size. Taking everything is always a temptation for me.
Finally as you found out focusing and being drunk drunk do not mix. Well not well they don’t. That is why it is called Ta-kill-ya.
Really nice photo and wordings. This is such a great site! I am inching further into a Leica system, I wonder if anyone can point to me a guide on all Leica lens name?
Absolutely fantastic images! Thats what i’m after. No sony sensor from a Nex or whatever has ever produced images that grab me like the M9. Thanks for sharing. I seriously wonder how leica can top it self with the M10.
Fantastic!! Thanks for sharing the pictures, and your experiences. It’s so refreshing to read this type of thing.
Wonderful photos – all of them, also the rest on Flickr! Thanks for sharing these.
Very nice. Absolutely LOVE the picture of the old Chevy.
Me, too! The grillwork/bumper plus emblem is exquisitely designed and executed: Practicalities aside, where do you see such a well-conceived aesthetic expression in contemporary automobiles at any price? Not even in a Jaguar, now, alas. And this is “just” a Chevy — devices made for the masses today virtually never demonstrate such characterful artistic expression. iPhone, iPad? Pullleeease!
Great shots! Lol makes me miss my m8 but it had more limitiations than the m9 and I’m glad cause I can have a fully kitted out ep3 now. Film Leica and money left over :)! And film rf shooting experience even more rewarding.
Leonard, as a new owner of both Olympus m4/3 [and eying the OM-D] and Contax G systems (and having been out of this game for the previous 18 years) I’d be very interested to get your opinion of how your [appropriately] scanned (and digitally processed) film Leica results compare technically — and with respect to emotional impact — to what you achieved via the Leica digital camera route. Steve wrote that his quick run through with the Contax G2 yielded “better” than digital results (circa 2010), but did not elaborate on this. Thanks!
I really enjoyed the set “Mexico” on Flickr. Thanks for sharing.
Excellent !!! The 50 is really a gem !! I personnally prefer to add a 35mm but 50+28 is great combo !!!
I really like the photos #3,5,6. #5 is with the 50 lux right ? amazing rendering in BW !!! Well done
Thank you. #5 is indeed the Lux.
I like the photos and I like what you say.
I only use 50 with my M9, seeing what you do I shall use my 35 also … one day.
Great shots !! My own favourite travel kit is the M3 with 28/3.5 CV and 50/1.5 Summarit lenses. And the CV 28 metal finder. Samples: http://www.imagepro.dk/foto
Really enjoyable post, thanks for sharing.
I agree 100% on the overblown comments about ISO performance. A lot of what the DSLR shoots do as they crank up the ISO is make those night time images look like well-lit pictures. Exactly as you say….great insight.
I agree… Crime Scene Investigators need to light up the shadows… I dig photos that have real black in the right place. I think that is as important as having correct white balance. Very nice photo work, in my opinion.
very very very nice 😉