When I first saw the pictures from the M9M Monochrom I was jealous. At first I assumed it must be film, because I was sure digital sensors couldn’t deliver such a depth of greys, with deep blacks to deep whites and with everything in-between. Or at least, not with such natural contrast and also while keeping so much detail. But I had also never seen film deliver this quality of true white and true black. So I demanded to know what the film-stock was and how it was being shot and developed, because I wanted results like this too. In fact, I even felt jealous of these true blacks and whites and the depth and contrast of these images, something that had never happened before. When I found out it was the M9M, I was pretty shocked.
On the other hand, I was also not about to give up on film. I had bought the M9 a few months earlier to try it out, but I immediately sold it afterwards. First of all, it was substantially fatter than the M6. It also had a smaller viewfinder and it just sounded clunky because of the buzzing of the shutter-winding motor after every picture (not very stealthy). What I disliked most though, is how many pictures I took with it. One of the things I loved about film, is how selective you become before taking a picture. As a result you have much less pictures to sort through afterwards, and more high-quality pictures. But with the M9 I just started to shoot, because I could, and then I had to look through what felt like an endless amount of pictures. I know I could have just not done that, but when you know theres no real consequences to making more pictures - like filling up a roll - you just do, even if you don’t want to. The colour pictures were good, very good, but I felt the B&W conversions didn’t live up to my shots taken on film.
Also I don’t like the M9’s glossy finish, it’s too shiny.
However, after seeing the pictures from the M9M I do have to admit I was intrigued. It’s pictures looked like film, even to me, and I was pretty sure I had a trained eye. OK, if you look closely you don’t see any grain, but what I mean is that the images make the same impression on me as B&W film, it had that film effect. Maybe... the images were.... maybe they were even better. I didn’t want to admit it, but in many ways they are.
As I explained in my short M9 story I still had other reasons not to switch to digital. However, around this time I was about to move to Edinburgh for a year, and I thought I might need to switch to digital anyway as I would not be able to take my scanner, chemicals, and other film-developing equipment with me. But it would only be for a year! After that I would sell the M9M and switch back to my M6 obviously, there was no doubt about that.
And so I bought the M9M. First of all, it’s much better than the M9, mostly because of it’s matte finish and other 'M9-P' attributes, like the lack of a Leica logo. This makes the camera much more sleek and cool looking, and the sapphire crystal back screen - the same material they use for the faces of some Rolex’s - is also a big plus. It’s not like I was going to scratch the back screen anyway, I take good care of my camera’s, but it’s just cool. My favourite feature though, is the fact that the DNG’s - aside from their incredible resolution - are delivered in black & white only. Coming from film this was a big plus for me. I didn’t like having the option of colour on the M9. It meant that I would check if pictures looked good in colour too, and I didn’t want to be doing this. I liked being limited like the M6 limited me, colour is just a distraction and I wanted none of it.
When it first came out the M9M was promptly compared to medium format. In normal camera’s multiple pixels (each of which will colour blue, green, or red) need to work together to create the impression of one colour. Because the M9M sensor is optimised for B&W, it means that each pixel can be dedicated to one shade of grey. Although this doesn’t translate directly to higher resolution images, it does make images look like they are higher resolution, Leica have a visual example on their site. Hence, the result of the M9M’s specialised sensor is incredible resolution and many many shades of grey, combined with those true whites and blacks I wanted so bad. This creates next-level detail and contrast, which I actually think looks better than film, and that’s really hard for me to admit! Also, for the first time it allowed me to zoom into a picture and still have an amazingly detailed picture. I liked this, it was pretty useful for if I want to snap a moment but I don’t have the time to get in close.
Even though the M9 and M9M are very similar, the more premium 'M9-P' build of the M9M just makes it feel that much more premium. I don’t know if theres actually a difference, but he M9 felt cheap and not well built by comparison (probably placebo). For the rest, other than the smaller viewfinder, bulky build, and clunky shutter, this is a classic Leica M camera. The viewfinder is still a joy to use, the shutter speed dial is firm (but not too firm) & clicky, and it has been built to probably outlive you. Well, that is if you get the sensor replaced. Sensor corrosion is a major issue of the M9, and the M9M. Luckily Leica replaced the sensors of the M9’s for free for 5 years, so most will have a new sensor. I got unlucky though, more on that later.
So now I was the owner of the M9M. The only problem was that this was a super expensive camera for me, I barely dared to use it. I was so scared of dropping it or damaging it, because of how much value I would then loose. I had gotten a really good deal on this camera, and could easily sell it for a few hundred euro’s profit. So I tried telling myself it was ok if it got some damage, and that camera’s are made to be used! Nevertheless, it took me a good month and half before I really got comfortable with this camera.
The image quality of the M9M, as I have mentioned earlier, baffled me. On one hand this gave me deep satisfaction, on the other hand I was annoyed that a camera could do what film could - but not completely. I would argue that film is still better for pictures that are more personal, like for portraits. The warmth of a nice semi-grainy film can really make an image glow, and in comparison the digital files of the M9M can feel a little more cold. However, for almost all other uses, I liked the M9M more.
Over time I also started to appreciate being able to take as many pictures as I wanted. From film I had still learnt to be selective of when a picture is (probably) worth taking. On the other hand, only taking one or two pictures of a moment with a film camera meant I sometimes just miss the moment I was looking to catch. Now with the M9M, if I found an interesting subject I could take multiple pictures to increase my chances. Yes, this does mean more pictures to edit in post-production, but as long as I made sure I deleted every picture except only the very best one (of that moment), I could still keep the number of pictures on my PC to a minimum. I like doing this because otherwise you never look back at your old pictures… because why would you? When there are so many pictures on your computer and so few that are worth looking at!
Being able to take more pictures gave me more confidence as a photographer, which in turn made me a better photographer. I became more daring in my street photography, and willing to try new things, or different angles. Because when I took a picture with my M6, I knew that I had a limited number of frames in my roll. That for every roll I would need about 1-2 hours to develop and scan that roll (not even including post-production work in Lightroom). I loved developing and scanning pictures, and I also loved how all of this made me pause and think before every picture. But now, after a few weeks with the M9M, I didn’t really want to go back to that. I felt like I had learned what I needed to learn from the M6 and that I was now ready for faster camera, ready for the next level. I think that the main reason for this was that I thought my pictures were becoming better. Check out my M6 review, what do you think?
I never really switched back to film, it’s sad really. In total, I think I’ve shot about three rolls of film since my switch to digital a few years ago. I do want to go back to my M6 and use it more, but since Edinburgh I have been moving around basically non-stop, and all of my developing stuff and scanner has been in storage. But now I plan to really do it, and I’ve finally taken everything out of storage! I think it would be good for me to get away from digital every now and then, remember how it is to take things more slowly, and how fun it is to see your pictures only after developing them. I’m pretty excited, but we’ll see how it goes and if I actually use it again. I’ll definitely never get rid of my M6, film is still the best medium to take pictures of family and friends - strongly personal pictures - and I will eventually succeed in my mission to really start shooting film again.
I digress, back to the M9M. There are three more aspects of the M9M I could really appreciate coming from film. First of all, the low-res screen. Theres no point checking the picture on the back because the screen is so bad. It’s good enough to check exposure and composition, if you really need to, but that’s all it’s good for, which is perfect! This made me chimp less. Actually I never chimped, because the M9M taught me not too. Second, the menu and button layout is great, it gives you only the bare minimum when it comes to options, just like a Leica M should. Third, being specialised for B&W the M9M’s sensor works very well at high ISO’s. This could be a real blessing in dark Scotland, also because I was using a 24mm f/3.8 lens. High ISO allowed me to take handheld pictures in what was basically the dark, with an f/3.8 lens.
People tend to complain about the battery life of the Leica M9’s, but I had no trouble with mine. My batteries were also a few years old, but I could still easily get through a week, and sometimes even two, if I was shooting this camera like I did my M6 - whenever the opportunity arose in my day-to-day life. With more heavy use, on vacation for example, I did notice that the batteries could empty pretty quickly (within a few hours), but that was usually when I forgot to turn the camera off. If you leave it on, then yes it will empty quickly. Also, never forget to bring a spare!
One thing I really didn’t like was the on-switch. When turning the switch you have three options: first ’s’ for single; ‘c’ for continuous; and then a little clock for the timer. The on-switch is too easy to over-shoot and not get the ’s’ setting, and let’s be honest, how often will you use the ‘c’ or ‘timer’ setting on a Leica M? I’m happy they removed this in the newer M models, now theres only ‘on’ or ‘off’.
This camera is also pretty slow, at least by today’s standards. It does take about 1.5 seconds to start up, and I admit that this has made me miss images a few times. I really noticed this when I upgraded. The M246 and M10 are a much faster, about a second, and it makes a big difference. Although, the real winner in this regard is my M6… it doesn’t have any batteries for the shutter, it’s always on.
To sum up:
1. Legendary B&W files - so many greys! True blacks, true whites!
2. High ISO capabilities - night vision
3. High-quality & sleek design of the M-P
4. Digital - Take as many pictures as you want!
5. Low res screen good against chimping
6. Simple, no frills, menu & button layout
1. Big fat body compared to M6 (& M10)
2. Smaller viewfinder
3. Takes 1.5 sec to turn on, and you often over-shoot when turning the ‘on’ button
4. Clunky shutter - bad for stealthy shots
5. Digital - you have the very real danger of taking too many pictures!
6. Not as good for personal pictures as film
I got unlucky though. My M9M had a sensor corrosion problem, but it only developed very slowly. Apparently, if the camera’s get more use the corrosion problem develops more slowly. I only found out when I upgraded to the M246, and tried to sell it. A potential buyer asked me about corrosion and I did a few test-shots to find out. There wasn’t much corrosion, but it was definitely there. Then I tried getting it fixed by Leica, but I was 1.5 months over the 5 year guarantee. If I could have sold the camera with a new sensor I would have still made a small profit from the sale I made over 1.5 year earlier. But now the camera was worth half the price, if I was lucky. I did end up selling it (to a buyer that eventually wanted to replace the sensor), but for much less than I’d hoped. So be careful, because sensor corrosion will ruin your day!
But I have to give the M9M Monocrhom some credit where credit is due. I couldn’t do the M9… after a week I actually found myself hating it. The M9M on the other hand, I could do. It was the right combination of improved design & extra limitations, which I needed to have in my first digital M. Since then I have changed. Now I even like having the option of colour on my M10! But back then I’m pretty sure that the M9M was the only digital camera I could have tolerated. And because of it, I am a better photographer today.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that this is a fantastic camera. I love the concept and I love the images it produces. If you think this is a camera for you, then don’t hesitate to get it (just make sure it has a new sensor!).