Focusing fast with the Leica Rangefinder M9

If you are here because you are about to buy the M9, read on. 

If you are here because you are about to ditch your M9, chances are you are tired/fed up of manual focusing. That is because you are not taught on how to train manual focusing in the first place! If this is you, please jump straight to section (2) (Manual Focusing) onward. 

If you are here because you love your M9 but you are having a love/hate relationship, i have only one word that is probably 99% of the cause of it : Manual focusing, please jump straight to section (2) (Manual Focusing) onward. 

The 3 things.

You have probably read many reviews and tried using the M9 for a short time and your heart is calling out for you to part with your hard earned cash. Now before you plunge into the world of range finders, please take time to read yet another thought that is shared out by a fellow owner (me). Don’t worry, i am not going to discourage you to own one, but i think you owe it to yourself to read this review that has no commercial value nor advertising attached to it. You won’t even be asked to click on a link to a buying site.

First of all, let me do a very short introduction of myself. I am Marcus, i have been in photography since 2009 and i have collected and used niche cameras like the Sigma Dp2, SD15, GXR, Nikon V1 and M9. I am just trying to convince you that i am not an idiot and therefore you should read this article with some confident that i know what i am talking about up to an acceptable extent. If you ever used the Sigma Dp2 to capture images, you would know what i mean.

I have spent some idle time trolling on Dpreview on the cons of M9 as part of my self discovery journey. I have since reached a stage where i fully comes in term with my own preference that M system will be my main system and my “logical” brain does not argue with it.

Section 1 : Knowing your needs

Ok, now do you like the following genre of photography :

i. Macro

ii. Birding / wild life

iii. Sports

If you do, then do not get the M9. There is nothing in the range finder that will allow you to do this satisfactory, any $200 compact will do a much better job than the M9. If you come across some amazing images of such claims, they are exception and not normal and the same photographer would have done a much better job with much less work using any DSLR. You can stop reading now and be happy that you just saved a ton of cash.

In short its going to be a very painful experience  to buy M9 if you love any of the 3 above.

Now that leaves us with very interesting genre of photography like portraits, street photography and various things that you will need to be there to capture.

SECTION 2 : Manual focusing

Are you prepared to train yourself in using manual focusing? It requires training and in this section i will explain how you can train so that this expensive tool don’t end up sitting in the closet.

There are 2 things that you should be aware of .

i. What you see on your viewfinder, is not what you are going to get exactly. This is because the image that you see are directly from the viewfinder to the the outside world. On a DSLR the image you see is DIRECTLY from the lens so what you see is what the sensor will see.  On the range finder there is a very small margin of difference, for e.g if you purposely position your subject behind a background that has a pattern, once the image is taken you will notice a very small difference in the position of your subject and the pattern behind.

ii. Even with the best practice, you will not be able to be faster than a modern DSLR focusing in normal scenario, unless you opt for zone focusing. I totally disagree on setting your M9 to use F8 or small apertures and using high iso so that you can “capture” the moment. This just turns your M9 into an expensive compact. If you want to capture everything this way, go get yourself a Nikon V1 and 10mm 2.8 lens, you will save a bundle enough to buy original softwares and a new MAC. Unless you are doing scenery, we use Leica M9 so we can use FAST primes so stick to F4 , F2 , F1.4 and for some…F0.95!

The good news is once you speed up your manual focusing, some scenarios like “backlighting” which is challenging to autofocus is a no brainer for you.

i) Proof And Images

Manual focusing is FAST enough to be able to do whatever you want and once you practice and follow the guidelines below.

For example, i participated in this public photo shoot whereby i am the only rangefinder and the model has no idea i have to manual focus. In short, she did not wait for me to focus etc, she moved around and treated me just like another one of those dslr users. I am using mostly f 4.0 here and you can see the results here.

Here are my latest images taken using either f2.0 or 4.0 max on my recent visit to thailand. Some are zone focused and some are very very quick shooting. Some are so quick that if i were to be a bit slower on the manual focus, i would have missed it. Basically you can see from these images that, with just some practice that anyone can do, the M9 manual focus is not an issue.

A moving bus…


Now i have the following add ons that i suggest you get…since i am using these myself, i can only suggest training using similar accessories that i am using myself.

1. Leica 1.4x magnifier

This magnifier allows you to open both eyes while focusing. Unless you master using both eyes to focus, your focusing speed would not be as fast. Opening both eyes while focusing also have other advantages. You can see exactly what is happening or about to happen not just within the confinement of the VF but as it is. You tend to be more “relax” when you focus with both eyes instead of stretching that muscle on your face to close the other eye. This translates to even less “shake” from the camera.

As for the issue with frame lines, i stick to only 35, 50 and 28 mm lens and you just need to get familiar with how big/far the frame lines are pushed within the VF. The rangefinder focusing is always on the centre anyway, so if you plan to do compose, focus, re-compose, you only need to see only 2 frame lines at most. For me, i find that often i don’t care much about the frame lines as i can always crop (welcome to the digital age shall we?, its not paper we are cropping here).

* i do find myself occasionally closing one eye only to realize that i don’t need to, this bad habit will be broken as time goes by

2. The thumbs up grip or other kind of grip

Often you will need to shoot in portrait mode. The  grip allows you to hold the camera in a much more comfortable way and  this translates to less “shake” and fatigue in using the camera.

Here is how you train, the good news is, you don’t need to turn on the M9 to train. The VF and range finder system works without the need to turn on power, you can train as much as u like.

i) Open BOTH your eyes and try focus on 3 different object located in 3 different distance. You can close 1 eye to “double check” if your focusing is spot on. Do it for around 1 hour, you will notice that you can easily focus with both eyes open. This takes practice and gets better and faster. 

ii) When focusing alway choose VERTICAL lines instead of horizontal.

iii) When focusing on 5-10 meter away, human portrait,  focusing on OUTLINE of the head is better than focusing on the arms or clothing. If the portrait is near, just focus on the outline of the eyes.

iv) Memorize this sequence, TURN CLOCKWISE means you want to focus NEARER.

v) Memorize this sequence, TURN ANTI-CLOCKWISE means you want to focus further.

Practice (i-v) and you should be able to utilize and enjoy using Manual focusing and your M9.

So what are the 3 things? For those who have been keeping count, that is just a title to attract readers i don’t really have 3 things more like just few things to share, but research shows that if you put “3 or 5 or 7 things blah blah blah” people tend to read it.

🙂 Happy shooting.

2 thoughts on “Focusing fast with the Leica Rangefinder M9

  1. I had the magnifier and havent used it until now.
    I like your advice with the two eyes open and am finding it is faster and more acurate.


    1. hi ross,
      glad to hear that u can put it to good use now 🙂 it takes some time but after a while u get so used to it that with both eyes open u can tell if its focused or not easily.


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