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Leica M9 - for wedding photography

Leica M9 – perspective of a wedding photog

Much as been written about the Leica M9 being suitable or not for serious, fast pacing, professional work like wedding photography. There are few who use the M9 primarily for weddings and some use it in compliment with a DSLR.
In this post I would like to share some personal experience of how the M9 has worked for me.

Back in the film days, when I was a travel photographer, I used mainly the Leica R6 but switched to Nikon when I was forced to become part of the digital era.
I used to shoot my weddings with two Nikon D700 bodies and about 3-4 primes. Lately I started to implement my M9 which I used only for my personal work before. Finally, I thought I have got enough experience to overcome the rangefinder difficulties.

So what can I tell you that has not been written in many Leica discussions before. You will not hear any groundbreaking news, the M9 has been around for some time. But for me and my decision to buy and use the M9 stories of the personal experience of other professionals have been of great help, so here you get another one.

The non-issues:
• The batteries hold not that long, I need 2 for one wedding, with a third as a back up. But they are small and fit easily in my pants pockets so I have no problem with that.
• Manual focus is, as long as the subject is not moving too fast, also quite OK, even at 1.4, which is my preferred aperture most of the time. At close range and moving people this is of course quite another issue.
• Manual exposure is my preferred setting anyway, even with the Nikons. For me it is much more reliable as I often shoot under challenging lightning conditions.
• The LCD display. Yes, it´s bad, but I rarely chimp, and if then only for exposure control. For that the screen is sufficient.

What I love:
• The feel, built-quality and overall haptic of the M9 is just great. Together with the size of the camera and lenses it makes the best camera available in regards to ergonomics, at least for me (with the addition of some pimping – see below).
• The optical quality of the lenses, I just love the rendering of my 35 Summilux – though, I have some negative points about it as well – it´s quite prone to colour fringing in extreme light conditions.
• It´s unobtrusive, and yes, I have made the experience that this matters even in an controlled environment like a wedding, where people expect their pictures being taken. They seem much more at ease and relaxed when I use my M9 at close range. This is a very big plus for me, as it makes it much easier to capture authentic feelings and relaxed candids. Sometimes, at bigger weddings it takes a bit until the people recognise that I am the main photographer.
• The rangefinder viewfinder. I love seeing the picture at the time of exposure. This is not a big advantage at, let´s say, 1/500 of a second, but if you use long exposures with flash for dance shots (like 1-2 seconds) and you try to pan the subject, this becomes a very valuable feature.
• Cult factor: There is a saying that I love: Amateurs worry about gear, pros about money and artists worry about light – anyway, I have to admit that I am not free of the cult around Leica. It is just cool to shoot a Leica. Now I have said it, go and throw stones.

What I don’t like:
• No weather sealing. Supposed you have a relative cheap camera, where it wouldn´t matter that much if it broke because it is easily replaced, weather-sealing may be an like-to-have feature, but for a really expensive camera (like 10.000 bucks) I think it´s mandatory that it is weather sealed. Yes, I have an insurance.
• The easily misaligned rangefinder. This is a big issue for me, as mine was misaligned twice within a year of use. I quite often test my combo by taking a photo of something like a Kellogs-box at a 45 degree angle and check the result magnified at the LCD-screen – a quick way to check the rangefinder calibration. I also learned to roughly adjust the rangefinder by myself, just in case of an emergency.
• The parallax effect. Because you see the subject through the viewfinder and not through the lens itself you have a parallax error in what you see. For many this is not a big issue, but for me it is. The M cameras compensate for the parallax mistake by shifting the frame-lines in the viewfinder, but that is only true for objects in focus. I quite often put something close in the foreground of the picture, shooting through leaves of a tree or something like that. These foreground subjects are sometimes as close to the lens as a few centimeter. Gives great effects in the picture – but composition in such a case with a non through-the-lens view is plain guesswork (have become OK at this).
• ISO, for me it works OK up to 800, but it is barely usable above that. In B&W you may push it to ISO 1600. Yes, Leica has fast lenses, but other brands has as well. When it gets too dark, reception covering for example, and the subjects move fast, like dancing, I need to use flash (long exposure, makes nice light trails in the picture)

Pimping the M9:
I said that in my opinion the body ergonomics of the Leica M9 are second to none. But with a few modifications:
• When holding the camera close to my eye I make contact with my eyebrow to further stabilise the camera and having the best view through the viewfinder. When doing so I found the upper corner near the eyepiece of the M9 quite protrusive and pointy, it started to hurt after hours of use. So I just grabbed a fine file and carefully removed some of the metal. Much better so. (disclaimer: please don´t do this at home, you may file through the top-plate).
• Because I work in manual mode exclusively and the shutter speed is not displayed in the viewfinder I filed a nick into the shutter dial. Now I can feel at which position the wheel stands and therefore which shutter speed I have. Of course you can also look at the numbers, but I prefer to work by feel.
• The M9 is quite clumsy to hold if you are not using a third party „thumbs up“. So I had one in the beginning. I also tried the Leica grip but didn´t like it at all. The problem is when you use the „thumbs up“, you can´t use flash anymore because the hot shoe is occupied. Because of the sub-par ISO capability of the M9 I use flash with long exposures with dance shots. The solution for me is, that I taped two carefully shaped pieces of wood to my M9 which function as additional grips. When using TESA power-strips the grips stay in place without even moving a millimeter but are very easy to remove without leaving any traces on the body when necessary. With these two grips the Leica just handles absolutely perfect.
• In my opinion the Leica neoprene strap is the best camera strap for lightweight cameras. The problem is it is designed for binoculars so the connection to the camera is clumsy and not very aesthetically pleasing to say the least. I just sewed the ends to a loop, problem solved.

… my very own and very personal conclusion:

Do I miss sometimes shots that I would have got with my Nikon? Yes, I am afraid.
Are the negative points deal-brakers for me? No
Are the ISO and Parallax issues sometime a pain in the a…? Yes
So, what now? Will I use my M9 at weddings? Yes (I hope so)
And even more, some of the issues will be improved/solved in the new M. There are lying some great times ahead of us.
I firmly believe that when taking pictures, weather as a keen amateur or as a pro, it is more than just the outcome that matters, it is as much the process in itself.
It is often stated the camera is JUST a tool. Right – it is a TOOL.
Can you imagine Van Gogh working with a paintbrush-gun?

I think working with the Leica involves me more emotionally – and this is a good thing when trying to create something artistic.

Heiko
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