The Myth of the Leica M9 - CCD vs CMOS Sensors
You could say I had an obsession with CCD digital sensors. Ever since I discovered how much better Fujifilm Provia 400X and the current version Kodak Ektachrome E100 rendered when digitized on the Fujifilm S5 Pro, I’ve been hooked on CCD sensors. In fact, you could say that I’ve went off the deep end digging deeper into the troves of formerly unloved CCD digital cameras. To my dismay, only the Leica M9 has a full frame CCD sensor of sizable resolution. Everything else were cropped frame, topping out at 6 megapixels.
So over the many months, I’ve been trying to find a way to digitize slide film (and even negative film) on the Leica M9. The fact that the M9 is a rangefinder, there is no practical way in which I can acquire focus with any precision when digitizing film. For that reason, my deep dive ventured off the beaten path into the world of second hand TTL medium format CCD sensors. First I got myself a Hasselblad H3DII-39 and Hasselblad HC Macro 120mm f/4 lens. After that, I got myself a Leica S2 - certified with a replaced CCD sensor.
Unfortunately, Leica does not make a 1:1 S-mount macro lens. So at the moment, I’m still waiting on a Leica S-mount to Hasselblad H-mount adaptor, which I have been informed is an item that must be ordered specially from authorized vendors. Even so, I haven’t figured out how to digitize slides with a medium format setup, since much of what I am doing relies on adapting either a Nikon ES-2 Film Digitizing Set or a number of ragtag Leica film copying paraphernalia dating back to around the era of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
However, my deep dive did not end there. Over the months, I had been on the fence with the idea of getting a Leica M9 Titanium set. Initially, my search started as a desire to find a Leica 35mm f/1.4 Summilux-M ASPH Titanium orphaned from its Leica M9 Titanium set. It was a crazy idea, since I didn’t think anyone was going to sell the camera and the lens separately. But after I located a Leica 50mm f/1.4 Summilux-M ASPH Titanium orphaned from its Leica M7 Titanium set, I thought the possibility wasn’t so unattainable anymore.
That said, I never did find an orphaned Titanium 35 Lux. But as luck would have it, a Leica M9 Titanium Set did become available at a very reasonable price. It didn’t have a box and it was missing a leather accessory that I was never going to use. However, the sensor was replaced which saved me a pretty penny. For someone like me who intends to brass this titanium set, what more could I ask for? So I pulled the trigger and made a lower but reasonable offer - which was accepted right away without a counteroffer. How amazing was that!
Of course, the realization that I had just splurged a big chunk from my recent DSLR selloff on a single camera set began to set in. To do something so excessive, justification and a good helping of soul searching had to be made. So immediately, I started to put this titanium set to work for daily use. I mean, if I were shooting with it everyday, the splurge couldn’t be looked upon as a whim - right? As such, regular photowalks with this set alleviated any doubt that I had made an impetuous decision - which really I did diving head first.
At this point in the narrative, you might be wondering why I’m disclosing all this to you. Thing is, I want you to know that I have a vested interested in wanting to believe that CCD sensors are better than CMOS sensors. After all, I’ve gone off the deep end with new commitments in medium format CCD sensor systems and a vanity special edition titanium set. And, I did all that because of how impressed I was with the way the Fujifilm S5 Pro digitized positive film, when compared to the latest full frame mirrorless offering from Nikon.
I mean, if after all this, a CCD sensor isn’t significantly more satisfying in rendering than a more contemporary CMOS sensor, which offers much higher ISO and live view capabilities, then what is really the point of waxing poetics over it? To express myself in common vernacular, “I can kill myself” if CCD sensors are not decisively better than CMOS sensors. With the amount of time, energy, and resource that I had expended over this deep obsession, CCD sensors had better perform at a different level of standard than CMOS sensors.
Alternatively, I could always live in a world of fantasy and lie to myself. But, I had to know for sure. The only way to know with any real certainty is to conduct yet another Leica M9 versus Leica M10 head to head (which I’ve already shot side-by-side before on a previous blog entry). However, I have never seriously made a conscious effort to compare the rendering of the two image sensors. Plus, I also have a much better idea of what to look for - now that I’ve been shooting in film for the better part of the current calendar year.
Well, I’ll be the first to say it. I really want to believe that the Kodak CCD sensor in the Leica M9 is significantly more satisfying in rendering than the CMOS sensor in the Leica M10. But on first glance, I really did not see a big enough difference for me to prefer one over the other. To my eyes, the differences are not exactly leaping off the screen. I mean, they are there if you go looking for it. But I do not believe it’s enough for me to make a fuss over it. At the very least, I’m having second thoughts towards the commitments I’ve made.
But to be fair, there are noticeable and material differences, when you start to look for them. For example, the M9 does appear to render colors with a greater red and magenta bias, which makes rosy cheeks look rosier than they really are. For Western portrait photographers with a largely mainstream clientele, this could be regarded as an advantage. However, this color bias can reproduce a pinkish magenta cast if the dominant colors in frame are tertiary colors - meaning brown - which can look rather unnatural in documentation.
In contrast, the M10 seems to bias towards yellow, which tends to render tertiary colors more naturally. But for most, this yellow cast could give the subject in-frame a somewhat jaundiced appearance, which normally is not favored by photographers typically biased in favor of primary and secondary colors other than yellow. That said, this yellow cast can easily be remedied in post or with the added step of consulting a ‘Shirley Card” or white balance card before shooting. But seriously, who does that anymore, except for professionals!
In addition to rosier reds, the M9 seems to have lusher greens and deeper blues than the M10. For landscape photographers, this can be seen as an advantage. After all, it would make all fields and streams in addition to all manner of forests and skies appear more pure in hues - making the image capture more idyllic. That said, I suppose the M10 would have an advantage during the golden hour, when photographers seek to intensify the warm glow of the dying light. What the M10 lacks in rose color glasses, it gains in warmth.
Also worth noting, I am of the opinion that black clippings seem more black in the M9 too. Perhaps that is why certain primary and secondary colors appear more pure in hues. That is to say, reds are more red, blues are more blue, and greens are more green (in case you’re wondering what I mean). The purity of the colors do not seem to be impacted by the characteristic yellow cast of the M10, which seems to have a tendency to dilute pure hues into versions of brown, like wilting leaves, scorched grass, and hazy daylight skies.
Still, with everything the M9 appears to excel over the M10 in color reproduction, I can just as easily adjust in post processing regardless of sensor. And, that’s the point. The M10 isn’t all that different from the M9 in color reproduction. So, does that mean that the M9 is worse than the M10? Well, other than a lack of high ISO, faster buffer speeds, and live view capabilities, the M9 really isn’t all that different from the M10 in actual use. In fact, I really can’t say that I miss shooting the M10 at all - having shot the M9 for almost a month.
Still, whether you believe the CCD sensor in the Leica M9 is better and more satisfying in rendering than the CMOS sensor in the Leica M10 is really a question of your sensitivity to differentiation and your own personal biases. I mean, the differences are there. But, is it really that different or material or even better? Only you can answer that yourself. Personally, I don’t believe there is enough of a difference for me to abandon the Leica M10 in favor of the Leica M9, given the benefits offered by a contemporary CMOS sensor.
Besides, if I want distinctness in rendering, I can always shoot film. But I suppose if you want something in between, the Leica M9 is a logical compromise. After all, CCD sensors were the transition between film and CMOS sensors, which by inference should make it closer to film than CMOS sensors.
IMPORTANT - If you do plan on getting a second hand Leica M9, please make sure you get one with a replaced CCD sensor. I have two, and they both corroded. The cost of repair is no longer free (and was only free for an interim because of legal action in the US). If you get stuck with one without a replaced sensor, it will cost you anywhere from US$1600 in the US to over $2000 in Hong Kong.
Some images have been tweaked very VERY slightly in Adobe Lightroom with regards to exposure and white balance.