Taking the Leica M9 Off the Streets and into the Wild by Louis Stevenson

Taking the Leica M9 Off the Streets and into the Wild by Louis Stevenson
Since sharing my experience with the M9 on the Overland Track in Tasmania, I was eager to take it out once again on an expedition, not only to gain confidence using a crazy expensive camera outdoors, but also to feed my soul with what I call “phototherapy”. You know what I mean, just holding your fave cam to your eye, composing, focusing and… Release! The world is beautiful again.
Destination:  Kota Tinggi Waterfalls, Malaysia. This time I was pushing it. A friend called me insane. Another said, that was the last of it. Because I was trekking upriver where 70% of the track was wet and one slip would cause a heart attack not even a heart surgeon could survive.
Weapon of Choice: Leica M9 + 35mm Summicron Asph. Wait the Cron?? Could have just brought the CV 35mm 1.4 or even the 28mm Ultrons since it proved mighty well in Tasmania. And its 5 times less expensive. Screw it, might as well go all the way! And as usual, the Panasonic FT3 waterproof cam for all-purpose shots. Read on to find out if the M9 made it out…
The terrain is uneven and slippery, with loose rocks covered with algae strewn all over the stream. They are not dangerous, but considering that I was carrying precious cargo, I was pretty nervous. 
Some areas, the water level could reach up to waist level with slippery loose rocks underneath. The slightest dip would be devastating! 
Sometimes a picture may seem mundane at first. But before you move on to the next one, try converting it to B+W, instant revival! This turned out to be my fave. 
I opted for the 35mm over the wider 28mm because the sceneries were mostly flanked by forests. Not so much vast landscape to capture. 
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There’s some pretty cool climbing involved. Not difficult but can be dangerous due to slippery rocks. Always had a firm footing before whipping out the M9!
As for the Cron, I love the crisp and bright images that came out. I’m glad I made the choice to go ahead with the Cron. 
So did the M9 made it out unscathed? Or fell victim to every non-weather sealed camera’s worst arch nemesis: water. Safe to say that there were no fatalities, In fact, not a single scratch! Here are some precautions I took to ensure a dry and happy M9. Its all common sense really.
Wrist Strap. This turned out to be safer option than a neck strap since the M9 was kept in the cam bag when not in use. Carrying the M9 on your neck exposes it to water spray, bumps and tangles.
Cam Bag. Leave your Billinghams at home! I used the Lowe Pro Apex 120 Aw sling bag which was actually more than enough to fit both the M9 and FT3. I would recommend something smaller, but it did work well for me. Slung it high and close to my body for passing through waist level water.
Leather Case. The Ciesta case which comes with grip was essential. Without it, the M9 could easily slip off my hands.
Usage. 3 Golden Rules:
1. Keep it! I kept it even if it means taking 3 steps to another shooting position across water.
2. Strap on! Secured it to my wrist before lifting it out of the cam bag!
3. Stop and shoot!
So here it is, my experience of taking the M9 off the streets and into the wild. The only gripe I had was that it did not have a flash for taking shots at night when we camped over. Yes, sometimes I secretly wish there was an in-built flash on the M9 which most purists might deem an unholy thought. Nonetheless, the M9 is a good digital full frame option for such treks, and I dream that Leica would introduce weather sealing into the M10, better ISO, and in-built flash. =)
And as always, thanks to Steve, for this great site!
More pictures available:
My other Outdoor experience with the M9:

38 Comments

  1. Great pictures Louie. I’ll me in Malaysia in two weeks from now with my M8+summarit 35. Did you take a “guided” treck or it was all let to inspiration for this adventure ? Just wondering, I really need to put the final touch to my travelling program now 😉

    • Hey Xavier, this was a guided track, and i’m actually the guide (unofficial unpaid one). =) I came to know of this track back in school where we organised camps for fellow students up there. Unfortunately, it is very difficult to describe the way up to the campsite as it is off the beaten track. No map, no compass, just based on memory and some tapes tied to trees to guide us.

      Within the vicinity, you will find the official Kota Tinggi waterfalls where most tourists go. There are resorts, restaurants, viewing platforms, etc. I have never been there, and i don’t think i ever will.

      • What a pity… We’re not that much into the “mass tourist resorts” and your treck was the kind of “off-road” we enjoy. Any other advices ?
        BTW if you’re around, it could be nice if we can chat a little bit about Leica or anything else 😉

        • I’m actually from Singapore ;). Off road experience is definitely better! I have not explored other tracks in Malaysia but if you have a few days to spare, try Mt Kinabalu in Sabah. Its one place I’d definitely go sometime. If you are into diving, they also have one of the best dive sites in the world.

  2. Of course a P&S wouldn’t have resulted in anything like these images.

    Award-winning creations? Perhps not, but they’re your photos of your trip, and the look is very 9.

    Incidentally, I thought my M9 had died in a sudden thunderstorm several hundred metres up a mountain in Cambodia. It turned out to be the SD gremlin. I never delete in-camera now nor try to review while the buffer light is still flashing.

    Enjoy taking pictures and taking the beast wherever you please

  3. There`s only one camera I would take in the wet and humid jungle on cross-country trekking for a weeks time.. Nikonos II or III with 35mm, selenium seconic studio and 10 rolls of 400 neg film. Pity Nikon doesn`t revive it in digital version.

      • Waterproof to 50m, optical cell of the lens spring loaded thus impervious to the shocks recived by the lens barrell. 35mm usable under water and on land. Guillotine two blade shutter reparable with swiss army knife. 28mm wide and 80mm tele splash proof for land land use. Yes mister, wow!

  4. Hi Louis,

    i wouldnt be to discouraged by any negative comments regarding using an M9 outdoors or outside the street environment. Your pictures are enjoyable to look at, and have a 3D pop that any cheaper p+s will not be able to do. I have travelled on many occasions, with the same compact combination of the 35 Cron or 21 super elmar, and M9, when i go on my fly fishing/ wading trips. Its ability to resolve almost medium format like for landscape and portrait type images is really versatile. Being able to carry a full frame camera without having to deal with the bulk of an SLR when hiking is immeasureable. The weight of a bigger camera and lens will also lead to a higher centre of gravity and poorer balance.

    One thing i thought would be useful for outdoor buffs with an expensive camera is proper waterproofing. i have tried the roll down bags only to have them leak while wading, destroying an A700 body. Even the Simms camera bag has seeped abit thru the improper closure of the internal ziplock despite rolling down and clipping it. Mind you i wade and stand in the water for extended periods.

    The best i’ve found is this:
    http://www.sagebrushdrygoods.com/product_info.php?products_id=27
    Elaine and Robbie Garret are nice people who make superb products that are totally immersible in their little outfit in Alaska and ship them world wide.
    They are tough, internally padded and light.

    Here are some more landscape pics by the 35 cron and 21 SEM that i enjoyed shooting with just last month.
    http://www.thecompleatphotographer.com/Other/2012-Commonwealth-Fly-Fishing/21570111_LPmnQn#!i=1720092741&k=rxW99Mg
    http://www.thecompleatphotographer.com/Other/2012-Commonwealth-Fly-Fishing/21570111_LPmnQn#!i=1720097154&k=XDkP443

    warmest regards,
    David

    • Thanks David,

      That kind of bag looks perfect! waterprrof zips, foam paddings.. i only used the lowepro cos that was all i had leftover from dslr days..

      negative comments are most welcome, especially when they are constructive! I think that the camera is much much more capable of taking special photos and its up to skill and creativity! So fire away!

      The bulk to quality point for a digital cam is a great factor for taking the M9 outdoors. More and more this reason is drawing me towards film, like the xpan.. i know that it is just a matter of time. =)

    • I’ve had excellent results using the ortlieb zip city as a waterproof/airtight camera bag. Affordable, doesnt look like a camera bag, stiff zipper makes pickpocketing impossible. I sometimes drop the foam insert from a lowe bag into it when i need more protection.

      To anyone inclined to push the limits of the water resistence of their leica: i use mine in rain and snow and in the tropics regularly. I had to have extensive repairs made after one year (leica covered it) and now am overdue for another overhaul, this time on my dime. This isnt surprising; i killed my 5d before that. But these days, if i have a choice i take the m6 when it is raining, which is far more resilient.

      Be aware that cameras usually dont die from water damage instantaneously; it tends to catch up days or weeks later, so dont assume that because it still shoots it is all good–use dessicant whenever possible. Also, in warm wet conditions fungus can destroy even non-electronic lenses–i lost several of my favorites that way. Dont take chances if you cant live with the worst outcome. (all my gear is completely insured.)

  5. I agree with Jorge about the weather sealing. I shot my M9 with a 28mm elmarit in light cold rain for about 4 hours around Indianapolis wihout a single issue. I just pulled my jacket over the camera when walking. My Billingham worked perfectly too. When the rain was too hard for my comfort I put my camera away and walked around for a few more hours. My shoes filled up with water but my Billingham remained dry.

  6. Leica M are great cameras for travel and hikes, although those who want to shave off every unnecessary gram will surely find better options.

  7. I’m trying to be respectful…but somehow I think this still isn’t going to come across right….
    Based on the photos you posted in my opinion you would have been better off using a much cheaper high quality P&S like a Fuji X10 or Canon S100. Much less risk and you could have gotten similar results. Nothing you shoot was with very shallow DOF so I think the smaller, cheaper P&S would have been a safer option.

    Just my opinion…and all that matters is that you’re happy with the results. Happy shooting.

    • This is what i secretly think to myself sometimes.. but I’m really attached to how the M9 operates as oppose to PNS cams. And you are right, not many opportunities for shallow DOF shots on the move because by the time i stop to take out the cam, my mates have moved out of range.

    • @Clint Dunn – “Nothing you shoot was with very shallow DOF so I think the smaller, cheaper P&S would have been a safer option.”

      I am so tired of hearing, and so frequently on this site unfortunately, the oft-repeated shibboleth that Leicas are intended to be shot “wide open” all of the time. What nonsense. HCB didn’t walk around shooting with an ND filter so he could always shoot at f2 (and then carry on ad nauseum about things like ‘perfect bokeh’). And nether did Robert Frank for that matter, nor the many hundreds of other classical photographers who established Leica’s reputation in the first place. For them getting the shot frequently meant shooting at something like f/8 and 1/1000s if they were going to get the shot at all.

      This obsession with wide-open shooting and shallow DOF is becoming fetishistic.

      Louie – Nice pictures, from someone who also likes a little adventure. I think you’ve captured some interesting moments, and I like especially the man descending the rope, which could be a feature shot at a place like Outside Magazine. Shows the range of this camera, and now I look forward to taking my M9 and 35 ‘Cron with me on my next wilderness trip.

      • Daniel, of course you are right…Leica’s don’t have to be shot wide open all the time. With that said, IMO that is what Leica rangefinders/lenses do best….ultra sharp wide open photos. My point was why would you drag around $13,000 of gear when a $600 X10 could have created these pics?? It’s not an insult…just the truth…he didn’t need fast primes to get these shots…and the manual focus certainly wasn’t helping with anything.

        Hey, I’m a Leica guy too and yes, I even shoot some of my M8 pics at f8….just not that often:)

  8. Nice shots! The m9 might not be “weather sealed” but mine’s been thru desert dunes in south america. Light rain for about an hour. just the other day i was shoting about three feet away from a firefighter trying to put out a 35 ft tall wooden monument. Ashes and heat, with the spray hitting the m9 hard, and thou i feared for it a little i had a little voice inside of me reminding me that it is time to put the reputation to the test. My m9 is still find after two years of humid climates and the ocasional light rain that catches on the streets. I figured it si pretty weather sealed as it is. The battery and memory card door are the best i’ve seen. Ever seen a film M leaking light after 50 years? The only thing i would remove from the side is the little rubber door for the usb connection. The only other place where big heavy drops can get in is thru the release button, and thru the bottom the the shutter speed dial. All this given that you hold the camera in vertical position. As for the buttons and dial on the back i guess that leica could gives us some comfort by putting some seals there for the next M. But mechanical perfection ( MP) get it? Gives you tight tolerances which gives little space for water and dust to get in. Sloppy plastic fitting and a camera made from 100 peices are the ones you should worry about weather sealing.

      • DigitalRev showed how even the entry level CaNikon cameras can withstand a beating. I like to imagine that the supposed quality of Leica cameras would make them at least as durable as that 😉
        Then again, I may be adventurous with my M6 because I can still shoot it even if I destroy the meter.

  9. Cool pictures, looks and feels like pictures from an Indiana Jones movie!lol! Man I wish I could afford the M9! ~= )

  10. Great shots, thanks for sharing. Did you consider using one of those camera condoms on the M9? I occasionally use one made for DSLRs on mine when shooting in the rain, works pretty well especially if you’re using a lens with a focus tab. The only tricky part is if you’re shooting in a humid environment you have to wipe down the camera and dry out the baggy every once in a while.

  11. “Sometimes a picture may seem mundane at first”

    Not sometimes, not only at first. To my eye these images, wonderful as the trip will have been, are no more special than the rather mundane tourist pics I took long ago on my holidays (FM2), before I got bored of them. I bought postcards instead.

    I can’t even click on these to get the better res image.

    Still, I’m sure the M9 is a great camera and the 35 Summicron a great lens, so why not take them there?

    • Why would you want to look at the better res image of rather mundane tourist pics? Go to the store and look at postcards, you’ll probably like them better, especially since your bored of your own memories…

    • Yes, special photos are very difficult to take, even with a Leica M9 + Noctilux! But i’d still look at my own pictures over a postcard 50 years down the road..

      • @ Louie: no disrespect intended, and everyone should be proud of the gear he or she uses, and take that gear anywhere, regardless of purchase price.

        I just thought the images were not very special, but “normal” tourist pictures. Nothing wrong with that, but certainly not bringing out the “special” quality that your post appeared to bring us.

        @ John: not bored with the memories, just unable to make an interesting (original, not postcardlike) picture of all the places I went to in particularly the SouthWest of the US in the nineties. Death Valley anyone? I’m sure it happens to all of us.

        • No none taken at all Michiel! I do get what you mean about ending up with touristy pictures. You know, posing by monuments, group photos, depends on what touristy to readers mean really. But I also agree that those shots while touristy to others, hold some meaning to those who shot them. So I am aware that your critique is based on the pictures alone as a third party stranger.

          In this series, i picked those pictures that convey the kind of terrain that the M9 had to endure. This is a niche that i have come to enjoy immensely as oppose to shooting in the streets, weddings, etc. Cheers!

  12. I find this batch of photos supportive of the claim that the photographer makes the photos and not the camera. It’s usually claimed at cheap cameras, though it’s true at the other end as well.
    Taking an M9 for a hike, shooting casual photos and focusing the attention to its strap and bag?
    I’d leave it at home and use the Panasonic water-proof instead.

    -eyalg

    • I could not leave the m9 out of these little adventures cos she’s part of the reason i love the outdoors! I’m not a pro photographer nor intend to work as one so casual photos is really all i take! And yes, wrist strap, cambag, grip, focusing, framing, anticipation, editing, uploading and sharing are all part of phototherapy to me.. Most fun stops after.. 🙁

  13. You are deffinately a brave man for carrying your Leica into such terrain. Excellent images and thanks for sharing, looking forward to veiwing your Flickr…..

  14. Beautiful photos. The Leica seems like it should be for this kind of photos when portability and weight can be an issue, yet it’s not weather sealed hardly at all. I hope Leica addresses this issue in the near future.

    Was the 35 Summicron fast enough for most situations? I have the 35 Summarit and people claim it’s sharper than the Summicron. Honestly I’m just not seeing it and tempted to return my 35 Summarit.

    • The cron was great in daylight but when it came to dusk, it was difficult to get a focused handheld shot! I haven’t had encounters with the summarits so i can’t give a fair comparison. But when compared with the CV 35mm 1.4 or 28mm f2, the sharpness is only slightly noticeable, and i’m still thinking which 35 to hold on to..

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