The M9 Sensor is more than adequate by George Sutton
This post is a response to the recent DxO report on the Leica M9 sensor. I chose to respond this way because I can include photos. Photos are, after all, the final word in this whole discussion.
The overpriced and under featured M9 body only exists because it has a full frame sensor and mounts Leica M lenses, but that is enough to be one of the best cameras made. The M9’s biggest drawback is a lack of versatility but in circumstances where it performs well it produces some very good images. I am not disputing the DxO results but to me the take away is that there is not a great deal of difference between high end sensors in actual use. I say that after owning and using a M9, Canon 1Ds, 1Ds III and now a 5DIII, and an Olympus OM-D. To me, the telling thing is the big diss DxO gives the 1Ds. When it was first released the 1Ds was probably the best camera made. It was way ahead of anything Nikon offered (they have played leapfrog since) and it even surpassed medium format cameras for detailed image quality (there were no medium format digital cameras at that time). Yes, that was then and now there are better cameras but the 1Ds still produced great photos. What I have learned in the meantime is that the single most important factor in a camera’s quality is the lenses. The biggest drawback to the 1Ds was the soft to unusable corners in many Canon lenses back then. Nothing, in my experience at least, equals the quality of a Leica M lens. The following illustrate this point.
One of the toughest camera tests for me is shooting a city at night.
The shots below are all taken at f8 and the camera’s lowest ISO on a tripod with cable release and are close to 100% enlargements for the Leica and Canon and about a 125% enlargement of the OM-D. I selected f8 because it produces star like effects around lights and is typically the sharpest aperture for any lens. The images are somewhat flat because it was hazy and I was shooting from a few miles away. The shot with the Leica was taken with a Leica 90mm f2.8 that I bought used. My guess is that the lens is 10 to 20 years old. The shot with the Canon 5DIII was taken with a new 24-70mm f2.8 II zoom at 70mm. That lens is generally regarded as the best medium range professional zoom currently made and it is very sharp corner to corner. On the OM-D I used a Lumix 12-35 f2.8 zoom at 35mm (equivalent to 70mm on a full frame camera), which is generally regarded as the best medium range zoom for a 4/3 camera. Detail in the buildings is close for the Leica and Canon. The OM-D is worse but that is mostly due to the smaller sensor. Printed 8×10 these differences would be barely visible. The biggest difference is the lights. Note the clear multi point stars produced by the Leica. The Canon is close but the rays emanating from the lights are slightly less distinct. The OM-D is the worst. The star effect is there but the lines are distorted and broken with what appear to be concentric circles radiating out from the light. The star effect can be eliminated by shooting the lens wide open. Wide open the Leica and Canon both did a great job of capturing the light as it was. The OM-D did not do as well. I tried different lenses on the OM-D including a prime and got a similar effect each time. If I were shooting this for sale, I would shoot it with both the Leica and Canon and pick the best. If I could only shoot one it would be the Leica.
I offer these only to illustrate the point that in use the M9 sensor is quite adequate to get a great shot. I am including one more shot to make this point (the last landscape image). The landscape is cropped from the original by about 30%. It was taken with the M9 on a tripod with a Leica 35mm f2 lens at f11. I don’t know if this can be seen in the image here but I have printed the cropped image at the largest size my printer will do, 17×22, and individual bushes about a foot wide can be clearly seen on the desert floor more than a mile below. I haven’t used every camera and lens made but of those I have used I have never seen this level detail from any other camera. That is mostly due to the lenses but the sensor has to be up to the task as well and in my experience the M9 sensor is more than adequate for the job.