Nikon D800 vs. Leica M9 Review – Battle of the Titans!!
I have owned a Nikon D800 DSLR since it was first released in May 2012. I was very happy with the D800 performance but by the end of the summer 2013 I was looking for something new. I bought myself a Leica M9 35mm digital rangefinder as the small form factor attracted me. I was blown away with how much I loved this little camera and use of the D800 suddenly ceased.
(Leica M9 Model Photography in the Studio)(Same shoot, same model, different camera)
A few months on, I have used the Leica M9 for wedding photography, model photography / fashion photography, event photography, travel photography and even macro photography! Using only the Leica M9 has let me appreciate the strengths of both the Nikon D800 DSLR and the M9. As a result I think my photography has also matured. Now the initial hype of my new Leica M9 toy is starting to settle I thought it was time to write a comparison review between my two main cameras. The Nikon D800 and Leica M9.
Like any experienced craftsman I can now select the best tool for each photography job from my camera bag.
Topics I will cover:
When would I use the D800?
• Studio Photography
• Asian Wedding Photography
• Macro Photography
• Telephoto Photography
• Portrait Headshots
• Beauty and Fashion shots
• Sport Photography
• Wildlife Photography
• When shooting in the rain
• Children Photography
When would I use the Leica M9?
• Location Fashion Photography
• Environmental Portraits / Lifestyle Portraits
• English Wedding Photography
• Travel Photography
• Street Photography
So when would I use the D800 and why? – I explain my reasons for each below:
• Nikon D800 for Studio photography – The D800 lenses let you crop in closer so the photo concentrates on the model and excludes areas behind her that you may not want in shot. The D800 has a large 3.2 LCD if quick effective review of images and you can also shoot tethered to a laptop. The D800 has a PC Sync port build in and is also compatible with most flash triggers so strobist work with the D800 is easy.
• Nikon D800 for Asian Wedding Photography – The same as the reason above, Asian weddings I have covered are very often in a marquee or temples that do not look great in terms of architecture or photographic interest. The couples themselves wear very beautiful colourful detailed garments so all the focus is on them and not the surroundings. Another problem I found when using the Leica is Asian weddings often have a video team of 3 or 4 people and multiple photographers so potentially 8 people in total wielding a camera. Unless you crop close the chances are one of these people will be in your shot most of the time! Using an 85mm f1.4 lens on the D800 lets me separate the couple from their surrounding when I need to.
• Nikon D800 for Macro Photography – DSLR cameras and lenses let you focus very close to your subject via a dedicated macro lens, extension tubes or a clip on/ screw on magnifying lens.
• Nikon D800 for Telephoto Photography – I currently use the D800 for any focal length longer than 50mm. Examples lenses being 85/f1.4 or 200/f2.
• Nikon D800 for Portrait Headshots – I use the D800 for head shots as the lenses and focusing system let me get much closer to my subject so that the head fills the photo with most lenses not just telephoto ones. Obviously longer focal lengths can give more flattering photos but I can fill a frame with a head at 35mm if I would like to.
• Nikon D800 for Beauty and Fashion Shots – The D800 is 36MP so fine detail beauty shots where you can see every pore makes editing very easy and the resulting images very sharp.
• Nikon D800 for Sport Photography – I rarely do sports photography but the auto-focus of the D800 together with ease of using longer lenses makes the DSLR more suitable than a rangefinder camera. With a DSLR it is also possible to use a tele-converter (“TC”) to extend the reach of your lens. I use a 1.4x TC on my 85/f1.4 to give me 120/f2 (approx) and on my 200/f2 to give 280/f2.8.
• Nikon D800 for Wildlife Photography – I used to do wildlife photography with a Nikon D700 DSLR. The auto-focus of the DSLRs together with ease of using longer lenses makes it more suitable than a rangefinder camera. As mentioned for sports photography, with a DSLR it is possible to use a tele-converter (“TC”) to extend the reach of your lens. I use a 1.4x TC on my 85/f1.4 to give me 120/f2 (approx) and on my 200/f2 to give 280/f2.8.
• Nikon D800 for Shooting in the Rain – The D800 is reasonably weather proof and many of the telephoto lens have large hoods to keep the rain spots off the glass. Example lenses – 85/f1.4, 80-200/f2.8, 200/f2. I normally just wrap the body in a plastic bag to be safe.
• Nikon D800 for Children Photography – As the D800 has auto focus it makes taking photos of moving kids much easier when there are limited light levels indoor and a wide aperture is selected.
So when would I use the Leica M9 and why?
• Leica M9 for Location Fashion Photography – Although I would chose the D800 for studio fashion shoot I tend to prefer the Leica M9 for location fashion shoots. The M9 Kodak CCD sensor renders the background details beautifully and the photos are more about the overall image content rather than just a close up of the model. A second advantage of using the Leica on location is if I am shooting by available light I can travel very light with a tiny camera bag and yet still pack a trio of prime lenses.
• Leica M9 for Environmental Portraits / Lifestyle Portraits – The M9 frustrates me for many portraits as I cannot focus nearer than 0.7M using the rangefinder focus system. I normally work much closer than this with the D800. So because there is usually space either side of the model / person in Leica portraits it suits environmental portraits or lifestyle portraits where the photo captures the subject in their environment. For this style of portraits it works great.
• Leica M9 for English Wedding Photography – For me English weddings are as much about the venues such as the church architecture as the couple getting married and their guests. I like to use a wide focal length such as 28mm or 35mm to capture reportage style / documentary style wedding photography images showing people interacting in their environment rather than just a head shot of one person isolated from their environment. This is why I have separated Asian and English weddings for my particular wedding photography style from the experience I have had of both. Unlike Asian weddings, English weddings often only have one photographer so I have no one getting in my shots if I use a wide focal length. I tried taking my Leica wedding photographer style to a few Asian weddings and it just was not working. I felt I needed a longer than 50mm focal length all the time and there were always video or photo guys in many of the photos captured. As with my Asian wedding explanation, if the wedding venue is unsightly for any reason I would using my longest focal length and get as close as I can to my subjects so the images are solely about the people. And accordingly if an Asian wedding is in some jaw dropping temple then of course I would shoot wide as much as possible and try to work in front of the videographers / photographers with their DSLRs and often 70-200 long lenses.
• Leica M9 for Travel Photography – Due to the small size of the Leica M9 I can pack the camera body and 3 prime lenses such as 15mm, 35mm and 50mm and still have lots of space in my bags for non-camera equipment. The second benefit is when travelling on day trips the camera bag is less bulky and also it does not draw attention to itself when compared to a large DSLR.
• Leica M9 for Street Photography – The Leica M9 is renowned for being THE street photography camera. The M9 is small and noticed far less than a large DSLR meaning candid street photography photos are much easier. When combined with the tiny Voigtlander Nokton 40mm for example it can pack easily into a large coat pocket when not in use.
I am sure there will be a part 2 and part 3 to this D800 vs. Leica M9 blog post but for now the above gives you a quick summary of how I use each camera and why. The explanations are based entirely on my experience with both cameras and for the photography I do. I tried to cover a number of common topics even though I work mainly as a wedding photography / fashion photographer. Since owning the Leica M9 I have thrown everything at it, even styles of photography it was not designed for such as macro. It is a great little camera and owning one has made me appreciate how good the D800 actually is.
So, in Conclusion
Here are some advantages of each camera (from my experience / taste):
Advantages of the D800?
• Weather sealed
• Auto focus (if required)
• 36MP so allows for creative cropping and super sharp images
• SLR style viewfinder so can use any lens and still focus it (such as a Lensbaby, tele-converter, extension tubes, macro lenses)
• No requirement for extra viewfinders for different focal length lenses (such as wide or telephoto lenses)
• Build in PC sync port (useful for speedlight photography)
• Many reasonably priced lenses available for every occasion
• 1080P Video (if needed)
• Large 3.2” high resolution LCD display for reviewing images (including Live View)
Advantages of the Leica M9?
• Small size yet full frame sensor
• Does not draw attention to itself
• Kodak CCD sensor film-like rendering***
• Ability to use small size high quality lenses such as those made by Leica, Voigtlander and Zeiss.
• Less common (everyone has a DSLR now!)
***For me the biggest selling point of a Leica M9 is the Kodak CCD sensor. I feel the rending of Leica M9 images places the photos it produces between digital and film. I shoot 35mm and medium format film photography so to have instant near film looking photos for me is a big plus especially using the Leica M9 in black and white JPEG mode that I use most of the time.
The Leica Myth
I think it is funny that everyone wrongly believes you have to be rich to own a Leica. I picked up a used Leica M9 body on eBay and paired it with the very reasonable priced Voigtlander Nokton 40mm f1.4 lens that I already owned (came on the Bessa R3A film camera). The total price of that setup was less than the original price of my new Nikon D800 and say the Nikkor 35mm f1.4G prime lens. I currently use all Voigtlander and Zeiss glass on my M9 and I don’t feel like I am missing out a huge amount by not having Leica lenses. Yes I my get some Leica glass in the future but that can be something to save towards. I realise the Nikon D800 is not a cheap camera either but I don’t smoke and rarely drink so enjoy my photography and drive a small car instead!
Some more comparison photos
(Stephen is a fellow Leica photographer that I met on the Facebook Leica Group)
UPDATE* I can already feel the need for a D800 vs. Leica M9 Part 2 Post. Additional topics that will be covered include:
• Low lights photography – the benefits from each camera
• Colour photography
• Landscape photography
• Rendering – sensor or lenses