Paul Lester says “I’m interested to find out what Paul Butzi’s account of the M9 will be as he is waiting for his to come in. He usually has a pretty straight-forward, unbiased opinion and doesn’t hold back in his assessment of the tools that he uses.” Paul also links to this open letter by Michael Reichmann, about what Leica ought to do to the M9 to produce a really good camera.
I’m eagerly looking forward to getting my hands on the Leica M9. So, to throw a bone to all three of the people who might be interested in my evolving view of the M9, I’ll get started telling my story now, before I actually have an M9 in my hands on a permanent basis.
To begin with, this purchase doesn’t mark my entry into the world of Leica M photography. Amongst the huge pile of idle photographic gear that I sold to generate the cash for the M9 purchase were two M6 bodies, heavily used. And by heavily used, I mean heavily. For a surprisingly long period I carried an M6 with me pretty much everywhere I went, and I made a lot of photographs with those two bodies. Now, for different people “a lot of photographs” means different things. So, let me put it this way: at the peak of my Leica m6 activity, I was exposing 5-10 36 exposure rolls of TMY or TMZ per week, and the restraint on that volume was not the camera or my willingness to make more photographs but my inability to come up with a workflow that let me handle all the exposures.
In other words, I made a lot of photos with those two M6 bodies. Along the way, I discovered that the M cameras existed in the form they did (and do now) because they are very, very good for the sort of thing they’re good for, and they’re not very good at everything else. That is, if the photography you are doing is the sort for which the M6 (or, I hope, the M9) is suited, then no other camera even approaches the utility of the M6. And if you’re doing any other sort of photography, the M6 will likely be a frustrating, irritating set of limitations that will tempt you to hurl the camera into the nearest deep body of water.
Here’s what makes the M6 so good at what it does: it has the following controls: a film speed setting, a shutter speed setting, viewfinder frame selector, and a cocking lever to cock the shutter and advance the film. There’s a rangefinder, which lets you adjust the focus, and there’s a built in light meter which measures light reflected off the shutter curtain and helps you adjust exposure. Aperture and focus are done by the lens. The rangefinder is built into the viewfinder, which has frame lines that show the framing for various focal lengths.
In actual use, that boils down to : film speed, shutter speed, aperture, focus, shutter. That’s it. There’s nothing to play with: no multiple metering modes. No depth of field preview, no autofocus with multiple modes and predictive tracking. For a camera that uses interchangeable lenses, the M6 (and by extension, the M9) is minimalist. And, for the people who find that helpful, that’s a very good thing. You do not spend much time showing off the capabilities of your M camera to a friend, because it only takes about ten seconds. You do not spend time memorizing how to activate the various features of the M6, because there aren’t any. What you do with an M6 is make photographs.
And the M6 is/was a camera that was, although somewhat dorky looking, highly refined ergonomically. It fits in my hands just right. It weighs just the right amount. The lenses are small and light, and typically quite fast. Learning to use an M6 doesn’t take long, although focusing with a rangefinder is a skill that is enhanced by practice.
And the reason I want an M9 is this: I recently held a friend’s M9 in my hands, examining it. I looked up, saw a nice expression on my friend’s face, and noticed the way he was aligned against the background. And without thinking about it at all, l lifted the camera to my eye, adjusted the aperture, tweaked the focus, and pressed the shutter release, all in one motion. What happened? The shutter didn’t fire, because the camera was off. And my M6 reflexes kicked in – the reason an M6 shutter doesn’t fire is because the shutter isn’t cocked – and my thumb reflexively moved as if to cock the shutter and advance the film. That’s not magic, that’s the result the M9 feeling like an M6 in my hands, and of running so much film through an M6 that all my interactions with the camera are governed by neural pathways worn smooth and deep with repeated use. The significance of this silly mistake was not that the M9 is rather a lot like an M6 except you can turn it off; the significance is that so much of the M9 is identical to the M6 that when I’m holding it, all of the habits and behaviors I built up with the M6 are triggered without any conscious thought.
And, for the photography I want to do with the M9, that’s a good thing. Or at least, I’m betting it is.