Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Nikon v Leica

D700: One ugly melon farmer

M9: One handsome beast

Leica's new, full-framed M9 has caused quite a stir from what I can see, particularly in Ken Rockwell's sunny Californian retreat. As many of you will know, Ken's a "love him or hate him" kind of guy who does an excellent job of polarising opinion. Of course, that's a prerequisite for anyone who wants to drive large amounts of traffic to a website and Ken's a master at it. Since Ken has Scottish blood running through his veins, I'm naturally on his side and I'm a fan of his site. I have to admit, however, that his Leica-love-in has got me scratching my head.

Ken was once dissed by Canon owners who saw him as a Nikon shill but then started reviewing, quite favourably, Canon gear. That shut a lot of Canon owners up but now Ken has thrown his weight behind Leica which is beginning to upset both Nikon and Canon owners! In recent articles on his website, he has been singing the praises of the M9 and even suggesting that it could spell the end of DSLRs. Like a lot of Ken's comments, that was a bit of tongue-in-cheek hyperbole and the DSLRs in question were the top end ones such as the D3X which he considers, with some justification, to be vastly over-priced.

Nevertheless, he states his reasoning for reaching that conclusion and it's worth giving it a little close scrutiny. Read it yourself here (scroll down to September 14). I have to say at the start that I have a kind of bias against Leica cameras - not so much for what they are but more against a certain type of person who buys them. Many Leica users, from what I can tell by checking out photography forums, take some of the most boring photographs around. They are obsessed with mechanical and optical quality far more so than image content. There are, subsequently, lots of technically proficient shots of cats in their on-line forum galleries. Off the top of my head, I can't think of any photographs where I've found myself saying "if only this had been rendered more sharply by a Leitz lens". I can, however, think of lots of forum shots where the cash spent on a Leica would have been better spent on a photography or art course. Another thing I find funny is how some Leicaphiles go on about build quality and reliability and then treat their cameras as if they were made of Waterford crystal. I remember reading about one guy who wouldn't take a particular Leitz lens on holiday with him in case it got marked.

So with that prejudice on the table, is the M9 about to take the photographic world by force? Ken certainly seems to think so. He thinks it's much better than a DSLR for the "serious digital landscape, travel and nature photographer". I disagree. Let's get the price out of the way first. The M9 with a basic outfit of 24mm Elmar and 35mm and 90mm Summicrons is, according to Amazon, $17,100 (I've rounded up the odd dollar here and there). If you can afford that, then clearly price is not an issue. For the other 99% of the photographic population it is. The D700 with 24mm f2.8, 35mm f2 and 85mm f1.8 lenses is $3,615.

I'm more interested in the M9's capabilities for "landscape, travel and nature". Let's pitch it against something that a serious photographer might also consider - my own D700. I would concede (although I haven't seen any direct evidence yet) that shots taken with the M9 and the above lenses would produce results that are sharper than the D700. The D700 produces very sharp images and the M9 may produce exceptionally sharp images but sharp is sharp and beyond a certain level it brings nothing extra to an image. Most photographers know when an image is acceptably sharp. Some Leica users, at this stage, usually interject with the condescending "if you're happy with that level of sharpness then I'm pleased for you." If I wanted appreciably more sharpness, I'd buy a medium or large format kit, not a Leica. Results from the D700 are certainly good enough for professional work so let's put sharpness to one side along with price.

Ken thinks the M9 and a few lenses are a considerable weight saving over a similar DSLR kit. That's what makes it such a good travel outfit, he says. The Leica gear might be lighter if you're looking at the D700 and comparable primes but not if you consider the Nikon and a zoom covering a similar range to the Leitz lenses. An M9 plus the three lenses above weighs around 1.57 kgs. A D700 plus the 24-85 f2.8-f4 zoom (which focuses down to 1:2) weighs 1.54 kgs. I like using primes when time permits but I know from my own experience that having a body and three primes is a bloody nuisance when you're out shooting in a foreign city. Give me a camera with a 24-85mm zoom, or thereabouts, any day. The last time I was in Paris I was using a Pentax K10D and had the 16-45 zoom and 21mm, 40mm and 70mm primes with me. I started out with the best of intentions using the primes but quickly switched to the zoom. I just got fed up having to switch lenses every other shot. You never know what's going to happen when you're walking city streets and you never know what subjects you might encounter. By the time you've stopped to switch lenses on an M9, I've already got the shot on my D700 and walkabout zoom. For travel, a DSLR/zoom combination beats a rangefinder and three primes hands down.

I'm prepared to concede (pending review confirmation) that for landscape work in the very wide to standard or mild tele range, the M9 is superior to the D700 (to a far greater degree, so is a 4x5 camera). Although a large part of landscape work, images falling within these focal lengths still represent only a part of the landscape. (A word of warning though: if you're using a Leica rangefinder for this work, please don't dare compose right up to the edges of the frame as you will have no idea where that point actually is. Not only does the coverage of the viewfinder frameline as a percentage of the actual image area change with every focal length, it changes at different subject distances using the same lens! In extreme cases, there can be more than a fifth of the image area outwith the field outlined in the viewfinder. When Leicas were known as "precision miniatures" back in the '40s and '50s, it obviously wasn't for their viewfinders!)

Many great landscape photographs are taken with telephoto lenses of 200mm and up. If compressing mountain ranges or plucking little vignettes out of a landscape is your thing, the M9 is next to useless. Although a 135mm tele can be used on the M9 it's not really long enough and the area covered by the lens is so small in the viewfinder that accurate framing is difficult and the rangefinder is not much use for precise focusing at wide apertures with lenses above 90mm anyway. Therefore, although the M9 excels in some areas, the D700 is a better choice for all-round landscape work.

This is a strange one. I'm not sure what Ken had in mind when he was talking about nature. To me, it means flora and fauna or plants and animals in plain speaking. The M9? It's useless for both. So useless in fact that you'd need to be certifiable or a masochist (better still, a certifiable masochist) if you decided to use the M9 for this sort of work. As mentioned above, you can't use it with tele lenses to shoot animals or birds so, unless you can creep up to your subjects, you're going to have a very, very frustrating time! Macro shots are another no-no with the M9 because of the rangefinder system and the inaccurate viewfinder. The D700, again, is perfectly suited to plants and animals.

So where does that leave the M9 when it comes to usurping the likes of the D700 DSLR. It's vastly more expensive, no lighter and less convenient for travel work and useless for plants and animals and tele landscape shots. It's also hopeless for sports and general press work: never mind what any Leicaphile says on this subject, just try to find a working photographer covering sport and news with a Leica. Ah, but what about Cartier-Bresson's so-called "decisive moment", pictures of active people doing things in public. Surely it's better for that! That, after all, is what Leicas used to be famous for. Kens says, "I'm not a good enough photographer to capture moving things, like my kids, with a manual-focus camera like the M9. For photos of my kids and general reportage, I prefer any SLR, like the Nikon D40."

Leicaphiles claim rangefinder focusing is superior and faster than anything else but obviously Ken's preference is for an autofocus DSLR when things are happening quickly - and I agree with him. Quite simply, I refuse to believe that anyone can focus an M9 or any Leica rangefinder faster than the D700 can nail focus. With my 35mm f2 or 85mm f1.8 lenses, focusing is almost instantaneous and it's only a little slower with a standard zoom. I couldn't move my left hand from supporting the underside of the camera to the focus ring quicker than the D700 locks focus. And its focusing abilities aren't just quick: they're very accurate as well.

If you read Ken's website, you'll see that he says a lot about the fact that the camera isn't important to good image-making. In fact, he wrote an article entitled, "Your Camera Doesn't Matter." So why is he now banging the drum so enthusiastically for Leica? Could it be that he's a shill for the German marque? That's unthinkable as Ken's incorruptible Scottish roots make that an impossibility. Maybe he's just being Ken and stirring up the pot to keep his website cutting edge and readable. Very possible. I think that's really why he went against the digital trend some time ago and started promoting film in such an enthusiastic manner.

Or could it be that Ken has suffered the same fate as that which has befallen many other Leica owners before him: the joy of using the camera has taken precedence over the image. I can understand why that might happen as the Leica is such a lovely thing to use. I once had an M2 and M3 and thoroughly enjoyed fondling them, in a non-perverted manner of course. But they were too restrictive and I gave them up for Nikon SLRs and though I have sometimes felt tempted to return, I know that it's only because of their tactile and engineering qualities and certainly not because of their versatility as photographic tools.

So, an M9 or a D700? If you like taking pictures of your cat snoozing on the armchair or snapping your mates in a leisurely fashion across the table in a dimly lit restaurant or pub or like the idea that you're cutting a radical figure prowling the city streets taking largely inane photographs of complete strangers or like to photograph things like lampposts or flyposters with the lens wide open to blur the background, then by all means, get an M9. For all else, get a D700.


Louis Berk said...

I like your analysis and a lot of what you say is spot on. A couple of months ago I rented a D700 and 24/2.8 and 50/1.4 lens for a weekend and shot it side by side with my M8 and 28/2.8 and 50/2.8 lenses. Horses for courses and both cameras produced excellent results. The D700 was an absolute charm to use and on that basis alone it was difficult to hand back in. However, I was genuinely surprised at how much more detail was contained in the Leica captures, especially distant objects with lower contrast than the D700 and the 24/2.8. On the other hand, I needed to do far less work out of the camera with my D700 shots which was also a pleasant surprise. The results were far better when comparing results from the 50/1.4. That is a truly gerat lens for the price. Bottom line though, at the end of the weekend I had far more keepers from my M8 than the D700. Of course, that could be down to more familiarity with the M8 than the D700. If I couldn't afford to own a M8 (or M9, which I can't) I certainly wouldn't feel I had second best with a D700 outfit. As it is, I actually don't know if I really can justify the cost of a M9, so it may well be that I will one day have both my M8 and a D700.


I think you've hit the nail right on the head there, Louis. From what I've read of the top lenses for the Leica, then it's exactly low contrast situations where they would shine. Nikon's lenses are good but I'm sure that Leitz lenses are superior. The big question is whether you can afford them and whether the rangefinder is right for you. Having used everything from an M2 and M3, Mamiya Press, 4x5, two DSLRS, a host of SLRs and a couple of Rolleiflexes, my best shots have definitely come from SLRs and DSLRs. They just suit my shooting style better and give me better results. Exactly as you said, it's horses for courses.

Ger D said...

Great article. Unlike Mr. Rockwell's review I find yours makes a lot of sense. The Leica M9 is a object of desire for many; something that can only continue while it is priced outside most people's budget. It is certainly a quality product for what it is, but to suggest the Leica M9 is a better photographic tool than the top DSLR's from Nikon and all is just silly. So many of the Leica (fan) reviews are presented with mediocre photographs taken with the camera. I'm sure the photos are sharp if viewed on the owner's screen at 100%, but who cares when the photo isn't worth a second glance? I own a Leica M9, but use a Nikon DSLR for most of my work. I blush when I read the silly reviews from Leica fanboys. It must be torture to have to constantly convince oneself you have not wasted ten grand on an overpriced camera with some glaring limitations. Personally, I would not buy it again because, on balance, it simply is not worth the 'elite' price tag.

Anonymous said...

For street/travel photography I find you can't beat a single prime lens (in my case a 50mm, 35mm is good too), even more so than a zoom.
In that case the Leica will have the better size/weight/conspicuousness. For most the Leica will also let you shoot at lower shutter speeds, before camera shake set in, but the D700 iso advantage blows that one right out of the water. Price wise its no comparison (say M9 with 50mm Summicron 2.0 vs D700 with 50mm 1.8). However all things being equal I would take the Leica along, as it will fit inside my coat pocket and won't attract too much attention.
I have a D700 and a M3 and M6. When I travel the D700 usually stays at home and I bring a Leica and a digital compact. The D700 has kind of become my 'medium format' digital camera, it's just that bit too big with a lens


I agree that a prime is good for street photography but it's far too limiting for the type of travel photography I do. There are so many subjects to be tackled from wide angle streetscapes to telephoto sunset shots snd close-ups that require a macro capability.

If I'm out and about in a city or doing travel stuff, I'd never dream of having my camera in a pocket: I carry it in my right hand all the time with the strap wrapped around my wrist.

The D700 snd, say, the 28-105 Nikkor is a heavy and bulky combination but if it's all you have with you on holiday then it's manageable. Maybe an M6 with the tri-Elmar and a 90mm in the pocket is the ultimate!

Anonymous said...

Just came across this post and agree with a lot of it. I had an M8 which gave sharper pictures than any camera I used before or since...IF you shot it at ISO 640 or less. And didn't get a red line or a hot pixel. And if you weren't shooting natural black fabrics without an IR filter. And if you had time to line up the shot and approximate the frame lines. And about a dozen other things. My D700, though, shoots pretty much anything, anywhere at anytime and I've used it at 6400 with more than acceptable results. Looking at my old M8 pictures, I'd say the D700 at 3200 is about the same as the M8 at 640. That's a massive difference, and I gather that the M9 is at best one or two stops above the M8 in terms of ISO capability.

Looking through the Flickr groups dedicated to the M9, there are some excellent pictures to be sure, but there are also shots which make you wonder if the shooter has that much money to burn that they'd get a 5-6 thousand dollar camera plus (let's be charitable) a thousand dollar lens to take something that looks like it could have been done with a point and shoot. If I had that kind of kit I'd be embarrassed to post anything less than my very best. Like having a Ferrari and pootling around town at 30 miles per hour. If people insist on having a digital RF which can use Leica glass, the Epson R-D1 is a very nice camera which slays the M8 at higher ISO and has the m-mount. They're quite hard to find, but they're also half the price of an M8.

And as for the street photography argument, see if you can get hold of Scott Kelby's "A Day with Jay Maisel" video where he goes out shooting street in New York with Maisel. Maisel gets great shots using a D3 with a 500 dollar zoom (the 70-300), which is the size of a tank. So much for the Leica fans' argument on that one.


Hope you posted that from a safe house. Leica owners can be pretty unforgiving if you criticise the output from their megabucks cameras/lenses!

Anonymous said...

I'm not worried, Bruce. They'd have to focus on a moving target (me) to catch me first :-)