Since the Leica M9 has come up multiple times, I believe it is worth exploring the reality of this digital rangefinder as being a contender for the best ‘all around’ pick, and as a walking camera.
It appears that the M9, from initial testing, is capable of producing images on par with the well-known +20MP DSLRs. This is nothing spectacular, but nothing to scoff at either. Having beat up a few Leica’s over the years, I can attest to the quality of the lenses as being on par with anything offered by any glassmaker. But, it takes more than great glass to make a great digital camera.
For those who don’t know, a rangefinder is lighter and smaller than a DSLR because it lacks a reflex prism and mirror, which also means that you don’t look through the lens. You see no optical effects of focal length (compression, distortion, etc.) or have the ability to optically preview depth of field via the viewfinder. In addition, compositions are only approximate due to parallax and focusing can also be troublesome for the person new to a rangefinder or during fast motion, or in low contrast situations.
But, with a digital RF, you do have the ability look at the display after an exposure to check these things. This seems like a decent compromise, assuming you have more than one chance to get the shot. And although I prefer the large negative (yes, negative) and aspect ratio of the Mamiya 7 rangefinder (my main walking camera), a digital Leica may be a perfectly fine option. But, this convenience comes at a price. $7,000 to be exact. And another $3,000-$4,000 for some glass.
Quite nice, yes. But, before more drooling or depression from the price ensues… Lets compare it to a more versatile DSLR of a similar sensor-size. The heavier, bulkier, full-frame Canon 5DmkII will produce a comparable image at less than half the price of the Leica M9. The Canon lenses will be a fraction of the cost as well and will have world-class auto-focus. It will shoot HD video and be compatible with an immense lens set. One would also find the high ISO quality better in the Canon… quite useful when traveling without a tripod, shooting action or in low light.
Just like UL backpacking, it’s always about compromise… weight, cost, function, durability, etc. Is a camera that is less versatile worth over twice as much because it’s lighter, smaller (may I say, sexier?) and sports a red dot? That’s up to you. Personally, it’s not on my wish list. Though, it would have been impressive a few years ago… or maybe now, if it were half the price.
Keep in mind… both of these cameras will produce images that will far exceed the needs of 99% of the readers of both this, and even photo-specific forums.
As has already been mentioned, the lighter DSLRs, high-end compacts and micro four thirds seem to be the most appropriate for the discerning walker looking to preserve memories, the aspiring amateur on a budget or the professional/semi-pro choosing an inexpensive lightweight kit that will still satisfy many editorial clients.
Fortunately, if you fit into the above categories, your options are both lighter and cheaper than the average ‘pro’ kits. Lucky you! You should be able to achieve great results.
So, while there is no best 'all around' for everyone and every subject... there probably is a camera that's best for you... in most circumstances in which you will wish to use it. The only way to know what's best for you is to test, test, test. Just like a tarp, a stove or a pack.
For those few, like myself, who are often unwilling to compromise exactitude for weight and price, we willingly pay for it with our backs and our bank accounts. We consider it simply part of the job to carry the right tools… whatever they may be, given the subject and circumstances.
It would though, be very convenient for me not to carry my view cameras, my Hasselblads or even my Mamiya 7s in the field, but great images are rarely born from convenience. They are more often born through hard work and sacrifice.
And sorry, even Leica can’t build a perfect camera for all seasons.