Using the Leica M9 for Documentary Wedding Photography (part 2)

In my previous post I talked about getting the Leica M9 for the first time, loving it, and then 2 weeks later having to send it to Germany to have it fixed! Well, I got it back after about 5 weeks and have now had a chance to shoot with it at some more weddings over the summer.

So, in no particular order, here are some thoughts and notes about the camera…

  •  Its fun to use. Just having a small, light, mostly mechanical, manual focus camera, is different enough from my super high-tech SLRs to make shooting fun again. I find myself wanting to shoot as much as possible with it.
  • Manual focus is very accurate, even wide open, and its easy to see when the exact thing you want is in focus. Whereas with my Canons, I might shoot 3 or 4 frames, refocussing between each one, to make sure that at least one of them is sharp, with the Leica, if I think I got it, I almost always did.
  • High ISO performance was never going to be as good as the Canon 1D MkIVs, but is actually a bit better than I expected. Its perfectly fine at 800ISO and still useable at 1600ISO, I try not to go up to the max of 2500ISO though. Avoiding underexposure is important.
  • White balance is a bit hit and miss. It seems to be very sensitive to light sources in the frame which will throw the auto white balance wildly off. This can almost always be easily fixed with a click of the "auto" button in Aperture though.
  • Similarly the exposure meter is very sensitive and will massively underexpose if there's a bright background or light source in the frame. Manual exposure or auto exposure lock can solve this problem.
  • It would be better if the camera displayed the selected shutter speed in the viewfinder when using manual exposure. Its all very well being able to easily change the shutter speed with your eye to the finder, but not being able to see the shutter speed you're choosing is a problem.
  • Outdoors in good light the colours can be really beautiful. This is one of those things that contributes to the different "look" of the Leica files. Colours can be really natural and subtle and more "real" than the Canons.
  • I'd forgotten what a difference a full frame chip makes to the way the pictures look. There's a three dimensional look and depth that is very different to the 1.3x crop of my Canons.
  • The Zeiss 50mm f2 Planar is a fantastic lens. Very sharp at every aperture and with a nice manual focus feel.
  • The Voigtlander 28mm f2 Ultron is also great. Its sharp wide open with a little bit of vignetting (which I don't mind). I use mine with the Summicron f2 lens coding and there's no noticeable colour cast in the corners. It does slightly shift focus backwards as you stop down. Having tested this with a LensAlign test chart I don't see it affecting the practical use of the lens for f2.8 or f4. Its very slightly noticeable at f5.6, but by f8 the depth of field covers any focussing error.
  • The Voigtlander 90mm f3.5 that I bought secondhand front focusses quite a bit. I'm going to have to get this one adjusted at some point. Its unusable wide open. Not a problem with the camera though.
  • Even with a Sandisk Extreme  60MB/s SD card, the camera is pretty slow at writing to the card and displaying pictures on the rear LCD. This is not a camera for fast shooting of extended sequences.
  • I wear glasses and the 28mm frame lines are quite difficult to see. You can't really see all the corners at the same time.
  • The battery seems to last for around 500+ pictures. I can fill a 16GB SD card with around 400 pictures and there's still a fair bit of battery power left.
  • The shutter makes a nice, quiet click, but the motor that recocks the shutter makes a whirring sound that's a bit annoying. I'd love to see the next version of the camera have a manual wind-on lever, but I doubt that will ever happen.
  • The rear LCD is frankly a bit rubbish. For a modern camera its way below the quality of everything else on the market and amazingly Leica haven't even changed it in the latest Monochrom body. Having said that, the slowness of the camera, combined with the low quality of the screen means that I actually don't look at the screen as much as I do on the Canons. This is probably a good thing and means I'm not spending my time doing that instead of looking for pictures!

So, those are some of my thoughts so far. In an ideal world, the high ISO performance would be a couple of stops better, the "computer" side of the camera would be a bit faster, and the rear LCD would be better, but really the camera is great. The ergonomics, image quality and lens choices are fantastic and above all its an enjoyable camera to shoot with. I'd like another one, but with the M10 rumoured to be announced very soon, I think I'll wait a while.

Wedding photography at Priston Mill, Bath (Leica M9, Voigtlander 28/2 Ultron)

Documentary wedding photography at Priston Mill, Bath (Leica M9, Zeiss 50/2 Planar)

Documentary wedding photography by Simon Ridgway (Leica M9, Zeiss 50/2 Planar)

Wedding photography at Priston Mill, Bath (Leica M9, Zeiss 50/2 Planar)

Wedding Photojournalism by Simon Ridgway (Leica M9, Zeiss 50/2 Planar)

Using the Leica M9 for Documentary Wedding Photography

Transient

So I finally broke down and purchased a Leica M9 digital rangefinder and some lenses. I shot with a couple of film rangefinders for a few years as my personal cameras - the ones I used for fun. I had a Voigtlander Bessa R and then a Leica M4-P and a few lenses and really enjoyed the rangefinder approach to photography. There's a feeling of directly seeing the subject and having complete control of the camera. Nothing is automatic, so if the picture is no good I know its my own fault and not the camera's. Unfortunately, with the rise and rise of digital photography, its become impractical for me to use film for my daily work and so the film cameras were sold.

I've had my eye on a digital rangefinder since the first M8 was announced. That model had too many compromises for my liking, but then the M9 pretty much fixed all the problems and the only thing stopping me getting one of those was the money. These things are not cheap. But all good things come to those who wait and, two and a bit years after its introduction, secondhand prices have started to fall. With no other urgent equipment purchases on the horizon, I decided to go for it.

So, why the Leica M9 and not, say, the Fuji X-Pro 1, or the X100 or one of the other smaller cameras?

I got very excited at the prospect of the new Fuji X-Pro 1 when it was announced, thinking like a lot of other people that it might be the camera that could replace the Leica M9 as the perfect small, high quality camera for unobtrusive documentary shooting. But after reading lots of reviews and trying one in person, it just didn't "click" for me. It seemed like another small black plastic computer with a lens on the front. I'm sure its an excellent camera if you get to know it properly and I've already seen excellent work being produced with it, but it just wasn't for me. I was still looking for that tactile, mechanical feel of the Leica - a camera that I would enjoy holding and using, as well as it being a tool for my business.

As for all the other Micro 4/3rds and similar cameras, none of them appealed to me. I wanted a proper viewfinder and fast accurate focussing. The M9 gives me both those things. Yes, the focus is manual, but its very accurate and after a bit of practice, quite quick. When I focus using the M9 rangefinder I can choose the exact thing I'm focussing on and I know when its in focus. This is not as easy or reliable as you would think with even the best of the high-end DSLRs. I use Canon 1D MkIV bodies alongside the Leica and there's frequent times when the camera's AF misses the focus.

Now I have the best of both worlds - the super-fast, indestructible, high-end digital SLRs with lenses from 17mm to 300mm, and the small, quiet, beautifully constructed Leica, with its tiny, razor sharp lenses.

Unfortunately my budget doesn't stretch to Leica lenses, but there are other really excellent lenses available from Zeiss and Voigtlander. I've gone with the Zeiss 50mm/f2, Voigtlander 28mm/f2 and 90mm/f3.5. So far the Zeiss 50 is my favourite.

So, what's it like using one for wedding photography?

Well, so far I've only had the chance to use it at two weddings. Since I'm in the process of reacquainting myself with the rangefinder approach to shooting and I need a bit of practice at going "all-manual" again, I've been using it fairly sparingly, and only when I know I'm not going to miss a crucial picture. The Canons are still used for all the important stuff and will continue to be used when I need a wider or longer lens, or I need the speed of the motor drive and autofocus. But I've already really enjoyed the ability to wander around amongst the guests with the Leica and snap away unnoticed. The pictures are beautiful with a different "look" to them and I can see myself shooting more and more with the Leica instead of the Canons whenever possible.

The bad news is that after two weddings and plenty of personal test shooting, the lens lock button fell off! So its had to go back to the dealer for repair. I'm hoping to get it back very soon as I'm itching to get shooting with it again.

While I would love to post some pictures from the two recent weddings, I have a policy of not posting pictures online until my clients have had their album. I think its only fair to them that they get their pictures first. So, in the meantime, here's a few shots I did in the process of testing and getting to know the camera. Stay tuned for some actual wedding photos soon.

Shooting film

One of the advantages of travelling around the country photographing weddings is the chance to visit new places and take some pictures for fun. At the moment I'm doing this using an old, manual film camera - a Fuji GW690. Its a large medium format rangefinder that shoots 6x9cm negatives. It requires a completely different approach to the equipment I use to shoot weddings. Everything is manual and there's only 8 frames to a roll, so it forces me to think and shoot more carefully than a digital camera. The disadvantage of film is the time you have to set aside to sit down and scan the negatives. Here are a few pictures from a trip to Aberdyfi last year. I've got a bit of a backlog - there will be more soon.

Aberdyfi-4
Aberdyfi-2
Aberdyfi-3