PetaPixel

Review: Leica M Monochrom is Not Quite a Black and White Decision

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“Monochrome is the new color” The world was introduced to color photography when Kodak introduced the revolutionary Kodachrome film in 1935. But fast forward to 2012, Leica decided that “monochrome is the new color”, and wants to turn back the clock with a digital rangefinder that shoots only black-and-white for $7,995. At this point, I can hear you screaming, “That’s the silliest way of spending eight grand!”

To which I will prove you wrong, because I discovered Louis Vuitton sells a LV “Limited Edition” skateboard for $8,250. It comes with a Louis Vuitton trunk and it’s limited to 3 pieces in the world (probably because there are probably no more than three rich brats who will pay for that). So there – I’ve conclusively proven you could do worse than spending eight grand on a Leica M Monochrom.

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Components as vintage as the design

Assuming you are not a brain-damaged skater boy with eight grand in your pocket, you may actually contemplate buying a Leica M Monochrom. Based on the Leica M9, the Monochrom retains all the weaknesses of its DNA donor. It uses the same small 1900 mAh batteries, which compels you to buy extra batteries if you are a heavy shooter. The 2.5” LCD display has a 230k resolution that is very impressive – in 2005 that is. It’s a wonder Leica can even secure stocks for such an outdated LCD display, and the pathetic resolution makes it difficult to judge critical focus during playback.

But the deadliest genetic flaw the Monochrom inherited from the M9 is the ridiculously slow writing speed and small frame buffer. I’ve lost track of the times when I missed photo opportunities because the camera was busy writing data to the card after shooting 4-5 RAW frames continuously. The camera simply locks up and flashes its middle-finger red light for 12-15 seconds while the decisive moment fades away.

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If you have used any of the digital M cameras, you will take to the Monochrom like duck to water. It operates mostly like as the others, with the same familiar layout, buttons and menu layout.  In other words, you are getting virtually the same stuff as the original Leica M8 in 2006. Father Leica doesn’t like to make haste (or new camera components for that matter).

In the time that I had the Monochrom, I never had the chance to complain to anyone about its shortcomings. Because nobody ever stopped me to ask about the camera – the soulless, unbranded, matte black chunk of metal around my neck. There isn’t any red-dot Leica logo nor any fancy Leica script engraving on the top brass plate, and even the hotshoe is blacked out.

The camera is black chrome instead of glossy black paint that will wear off in time to show a beautiful patina, preventing any Henri Cartier Bresson wannabe from sandpapering the edges to age it. It is the antithesis of the beautiful black paint Millennium M6 TTL, and it is simply gorgeous in its own way.

Simple and understated – the Monochrom looks like something Bruce Wayne would order for his à lacarte Leica. In other words, it’s the ideal Leica for the street.

Highlights of new sensor – or the lack of

It would be difficult to think of another brand (except PhaseOne) with the gall to launch a monochromic camera, and Leica must be given due credit for the audacity to push the envelope of sanity and sensibility (yours, not theirs). It is akin to Lamborghini producing an expensive track car that is brilliant on the racetracks, but unusable on the roads with its rock hard suspension, roll cages and lack of air-conditioning.

The Leica board of directors must have balls of steel to approve such a niche project, knowing full well that their heads will roll if the camera flops and becomes a subject of ridicule.

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At the heart of the Leica M Monochrom beats a full-frame 18-megapixel CCD with its Bayer Color array filter removed, resulting in a sensor that is more sensitive and responsive to light. In theory, this would result in a purer monochromatic signal and improve image quality. The ISO range of the Monochrom reflects this higher sensitivity, starting at a base ISO 320 instead of the ISO 160 of the Leica M9, and hitting a top range of ISO 10,000 compared to the M9’s ISO 2500.

There is however a steep price to pay. Unlike the traditional Bayer Color array setup where the image is captured in three channels (red, green and blue), the monochromic sensor has only one channel. The implication is that clipped highlight details cannot be recovered from Monochrom images, unlike the colour sensors that may still retain data in any three channels for recovery. This is a well-documented issue by the Monochrom users, and it is advised to slightly underexpose Monochrom images to retain highlight details.

Does the Monochrom emulate film grain?

When a brand so steeped in photographic history launches a product that is a throwback in history, it is tempting to associate it with something classic. The moment the press release went live, the online community was abuzz with talks that the Leica M Monochrom will deliver film-like images?

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Well, the answer is not as black and white as you’d expect (pun intended). At the base ISO 320, the Monochrom delivers extremely crisp and sharp output that will not be mistaken for anything other than digital. Push it to ISO 1600 or 3200, and the digital grain does resemble Kodak Tri-X processed with a high acutance developer. Beyond ISO 6400, the digital noise is visible and reduces the contrast in the shadows. But most surprisingly, at the maximum setting of ISO 10,000 the images continue to hold up well with details, even though the blacks become weaken through the disruption by noise artifacts.

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In my opinion though, it is not just the “grain” that makes the Monochrom look more film-like, but the way it captures mid-tones and highlight that is reminiscent of film. Many monochrome images look digital with the way they render the tonality of mid-tones and the capture of the highlights. The Leica M Monochrom comes closer to emulating film with its monochromic sensor and higher luminance value per pixel, provided care was taken to ensure that the highlight details are not clipped.

It still does not have the exact same character of film, and neither does it pretend to be film. The Monochrom wants to be a Leica digital rangefinder that delivers very capable black and white images through a very versatile ISO range. For monochrome film photographers who felt limited by the relatively low speeds of ISO 400 film, the Leica M Monochrom is godsend with its amazing ISO latitude.

Where the Monochrom fell flat

When the first images of the Leica M Monochrom were posted online, everyone was quick to deride them for the grayish tones – the monochrome images were flatter than a salt plain. And although the images contained a wealth of subtle tonality, they were still disappointing for an online audience used to high-contrast, punchy and arresting images. For someone looking at the raw files of the Leica M Monochrom for the first time, the flat and muddy images are bound to shock. “Arghh… I paid eight grand for this?” will be a common reaction.

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Just like how a DSLR image looks flat compared to a digital compact camera, the “flat” files actually allows for a wide latitude in post-processing. So if you are inspired by the works of award-winning Magnum photographer Jacob Aue Sobol with the Leica M Monochrom, you are looking at extensive post-processing work on the flat native files of the camera. From my experience with the camera, the files require work on two levels – the conversion from RAW files and post-processing in Photoshop. And perhaps it is for this reason that Leica included Adobe Lightroom and Nik Silver Efex Pro software in the box.

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Working with the RAW files in Lightroom (or whatever conversion software you prefer) allows you to manipulate the contrast between the highlight and shadow areas in the pre-production stage. This is important for me because it allows me to avoid aggressive levels and curves adjustment later. Once imported into Photoshop, I will further tweak the contrast and levels with curves before I decide if I want to further massage the look with Nik’s excellent Silver Efex software.

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The ability to use color channels with the Leica M9 is a huge advantage for many photographers, and that is the way I prefer to work. It emulates built-in color filters when converting images to black and white, letting me selectively direct attention to certain elements within the photos. The Monochrom does not afford me this luxury, and require the photographer to actually use color filters in front of the lens during exposure to accentuate contrast. While this is fine for leisurely genres of photography such as landscape, it is not a practical option if you are shooting street. As a result, the files may end up lacking in contrast, and that is where the Silver Efex software steps in.

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If you have not tried Silver Efex before, you will be astounded with its incredible ability to create astonishing monochrome images with just its presets. The powerful controls within the software also allow you to adjust numerous perimeters to fine-tune your image, giving you both speed and finesse in your monochrome image creation. Even the great street photographer Daido Moriyama is a fan. Processing your Leica M Monochrom images with Silver Efex is like added carbon dioxide to syrup drinks – you get instant fizz and pizzazz! You do not have to use it, but the Silver Efex software should be seen as a darkroom tool instead of a “cheat” for creating great monochrome images. Indeed, it takes some skills and experimentation to derive the most out of it, and you can even create your own distinctive signature look.

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Conclusion

At the end of the day, many folks out there considering the purchase of the Leica M Monochrom will be asking themselves – should they get the Monochrom or M9?

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If you are happy with the Leica M9, and you shoot a mixture of color and monochrome, then by all means stick to the M9. There is a definite advantage to converting the M9 files to black-and-white, which gives you color channel control. The Monochrom on the other hand delivers fantastic ISO capability that is way out of the M9’s league, making it the Leica to go for if you are a dedicated monochrome photographer shooting in challenging lighting conditions.

There is enough difference between the two cameras for Leica to justify having both the M-E and Monochrom in their current line-up, so it is up to you to examine your shooting style and requirement to discover which is the right Leica for you.

And if any of you readers will be kind enough to buy the Louis Vuitton skateboard from me, I’d be happy to order a Leica M Monochrom today.


View all the images I’ve shot with the Leica M Monochrom (some of which are not featured in this article) in this YouTube slideshow (Click on the 720p or 1080p option to view in HD resolution):

You can also find higher resolution versions of the photos featured in this post in this Flickr set.


About the author: Nelson Tan is a photographer based in Singapore. Check out his Facebook, blog, and his photo gallery.


 
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  • superduckz

    no…. just no.

  • Jason Dunn

    Interesting choice, Leica.

  • Rabi Abonour

    Releasing a monochromatic digital camera is bold, but not unprecedented. If the images are actually better (which seems like a tossup at this point), then I think it is a product that makes some sense. However, the fact that the rest of the camera has not been updated from the M9 is inexcusable.

  • Fab

    film still looks better

  • whitecatcud

    LV Skateboard thing was just… LOL.

  • MMielech

    ah….hahahaha….ha

    People are so gullible to marketing.

    Listen, Lightroom is about 125 bucks. Process your files from a much cheaper, and, well, better camera through one of their many B&W conversions. Hey, modify one to be our very own!

    Ah,,,,hahahahaha. Say, I have this bridge for sale. pssst, over here………

  • dannybuoy

    New? It’s been around for ages.

  • Andrew

    Well at least they have plenty of chunk change to be gullible about . I suppose you don’t, hence the sour grapes post…

  • Oliver

    I think a huge key to this camera is the change in shooting style by having to see the world in ‘black and white’ and hence the photos would reflect that. That’s the biggest difference between the Monochrom and any other camera, the temptation to shoot colour.

  • MMielech

    Uh, didn’t you mean to say, “chump change”?

  • nocamerabutcamera

    the experience will always be different – whether b/w or color – the camera itself just wasn’t designed to be a leica film camera – and the medium on the monochrome leica is not interchangeable

  • Mark O’Brien

    You could just shoot b&w film, ya know. I’m sure a used MP is a lot less $$.

  • Len Day

    Imagine investing all that money in the Monochom only to find a year or two later Leica come out with an updated version with 3 sensors – one each for shadow detail, mid tones, and for highlights. I’d be hoping mad!

  • Stanco55

    I certainly wouldn’t mind giving it a go- but how many B&W purists (the supposed demographic for this Louie XIV vanity production) can actually afford the damn thing?

    I’ll stick to Tri-X and Nikon, thank you.

  • olafs_osh

    ummm…. you see the world in b/w with your eyes. buying a special camera for that somewhat pays out, if you spend more time chimping than actual shooting the world around you.

  • lololalallll

    My Fuji X100S laughs at this.

  • Jay

    His post is not sour grapes, it’s a very true observation. Nothing in the pictures from the Monochrom that you couldn’t achieve with a different camera & Lightroom. Oh, and in case you’re wondering, I could easily afford several Monochroms. But just because you can do something doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.

  • aa

    the same goes for my sigma dp1 merill

  • ahmad

    this is only stupid decision !!!

  • John

    Woah, a monochrome kamera where it’s recommended to use Silver Efex to postprocess the photos… Nice… NOT!

  • James David

    Go home, Leica. You’re drunk.

  • MS

    Really? Sounds like you have not used the Leica. While photos from both may look similar at this small web size, a decent sized print would show a dramatic difference. The Leica Monochrom resolves detail more like a medium format camera. It also is a true rangefinder. It also allows the use of the extensive, wonderful line of Leica M glass.

    While the fuji is an excellent camera, the only laughing it would be doing is a nervous, envious laugh. Seriously. I own a Monochrom and and Xpro. I have pixel peeped and printed from both and the Leica is is a class of it’s own.

  • Genkakuzai

    I honestly wouldn’t mind owning one… however there is not a chance in hell I’d ever pay that price for it. Silver Efex Pro is great by the way, been using it for quite a while now.

  • Joan Ollé

    I definitely love this camera, still, I don’t understand why people complain about flat files, at the end, don’t you have flat results when shooting color with a for example a 5D and RAW? you don’t expect the perfect photograph shooting color and RAW don’t you? here is the same isn’t it? I’m sure I might be wrong, at least it’s my point of view. Still have in mind I’ve never shot with a monochrom.

  • MS

    Yes, pretty much…just yes!!

    Rear LCD be dammed, this is about as close to shooting a digital M7 (loaded with any BW film you can think of) and you can get. It’s beauty is in its simplicity, not to mention the stunning huge prints it can produce.

  • MS

    Silver Efex is recommended to add a variety of different film grains, as well as dodge/burn areas of choice. And yea, it’s pretty nice.

  • Nik.C

    I use my Panny LX3 in B&W mode, it has a Leica lens and cost me £150, I post process the files in Snapseed on my ipad….! Cheap as chips! I also shoot film in my Zorki 4 with its rather fine 50mm Jupiter lens, or my Oly 35SP with its excellent 42mm 1.7 lens, it’s rather good viewfinder and spot metering, and then there’s my OM-1 which is as great a feat of camera engineering as the Leica, with much superior viewfinder, and cheap OM lenses, which are of superb quality, don’t let these Leica cultists brainwash you with £i€$ ! Get an OM-1 hold this baby in your hand, as small as a Leica, and just as cool, for a 1/10th of the price, sure it’s not a rangefinder, you’ll get sneered at by fashionistas, but inside you’ll know the OM-1 kicks ass, and if Kanye West wants to dance, you can knock his teeth out with it, and shoot him picking them up afterwards, because its built like a tank…
    And if I wanted a digital rangefinder styled camera, I’d get the X100s, and have the choice of colour or B&W! Don’t get me wrong, the Leica looks really nice, and oozes quality, but I’m a pragmatic person, I could get an X- system with a few lenses, and an X100s, and a nice holiday in say, Mauritius, fill my SD cards with amazing shots doing amazing things and have the memories of a lifetime ( I have) all for the same price as the Leica…. Nope not for me…!

  • Henri

    No one is telling you it is for you. But aren’t you at least glad it exists?

    Lame car analogy: You can buy a Mitsubishi Lance Evo, it does most things a Lambo can do. But aren’t you at least happy that Lambo makes cars too?

    Anyway, I want Mauritius shot with the Monochrom. Aim for the stars. ;)

  • superduckz

    Why spend so much in order to mimic the artistry of B&W film when you could just, you know, shoot B&W film?

  • Nik.C

    Shooting Mauritius, a land of rich colour,with a Monochrom would be a crime! At least shoot in colour and post process!!
    There’s a few shots of Mauritius here, half way down, easy to spot, shot on various formats, Lomo, digital, DSLR.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/35008548@N03/

    And, yes, I suppose I am glad Leica exist, I’m not blaming Leica, I just get sick of about them, 80% of articles on Steve Huff are about Leica, which is a rather disproportionate amount compared to the cameras we all use

  • Will Mederski

    can we please see example images that haven’t been vignetted like a teenager with an iphone?
    thanks.

  • Will Mederski

    sooo… is your point that you should just shoot with an M7?
    because that’s what i’m hearing.

  • jkantor267

    95% of Leica owners use them for vacation snapshots. They will buy anything with the Leica logo on it if it costs enough to impress their friends.

  • Zizo

    I can’t understand why someone justifies buying an outdated technology for 8 grand and at the same time makes negative remarks about someone who’d spend 8 grand on LV. I’d say the Limited LV is a better investment choice because in few years it might fetch more money than the Leica, when the its technology becomes obsolete. In the end, it’s your money and you spend it as you wish. Why be derogatory to others for their choice?

  • Michael Toye

    This is a terrible article, not even remotely impartial. And why not compare use with an M 240? Removal of the beyer is a positive attribute allowing the capture of pure luminance – why on earth is that bad when you want to capture B&W?!

  • Michael Toye

    My Leica doesn’t have any logo. i use it almost exclusively for street photography. my friends are impressed with my images and not my choice in camera. are your avatar’s breasts fake? good choice of vanity product ;-)

  • Jordan Butters

    I don’t think he was wondering. Or anyone actually. But subtly done.

  • Eugene Chok

    if i had the money… oh man!

  • Jay

    So you know what every single person who read my comment might or might not have been wondering about? You possess impressive psychic abilities. Subtly done.

  • Felix

    It is curiously interesting that people like to slam the admittedly useless burst mode on the digital M bodies.

    I mean “useless” in another way too because I have yet to use burst mode on any camera at all.
    Not with my friend’s D700 that I borrowed to cover concerts, nor with my Lumix GF1 (first interchangeable lens cam), nor with my Leica R4 (sans motor drive anyway) and neither now with my M8.
    Regardless, I am happy with my hit-rate and friends/family/clients have all loved the output thus far.

    It is my personal opinion that using burst mode on a rangefinder is really missing the point. I’m not expecting everyone to agree, I’m just putting it out there.

    My opinion aside I like this review and the images.

  • decisivemoment

    I have to ask Leica, why spoil such a great idea for a camera with eight-year obsolete electronics? Write speed and LCD are basics in a digital camera, and while a rangefinder like this is not your sort of machine-gunning or chimping device, I can’t help feeling that Leica decided this was a cost-cutting move they could get away with given their core photographers. Whatever it is, it doesn’t exactly “grow the platform”, doesn’t broaden its appeal.

    I guess at least it leaves the door open for a competitor to take the Bayer-free improvement in high ISO monochrome performance and put it in a better camera body.

  • MS

    Film is great, don’t get me wrong. But so is digital. Having unlimited shots loaded onto memory saves me time developing and scanning. Not to mention if I could even get scans from my 35mm negs with as much detail, tonality and resolution as the Monochrom. It would mean drum scanning every shot.

  • Scarlet_Billows

    The highlights are blown in almost all photos in this article.

    If I were ever in the market for a digital Leica, however, I might consider the Monochrom M because it is the only digital M that delivers photographs which don’t look overly digital, as opposed to the ridiculous results of the colour digital Ms (and every other digital camera on the planet). Soulless junk.

    But I’m not and will happily continue with film. Each to their own, of course.

  • John Galto

    Oh, now I know why I bought one. Seriously I have owned a number of Leica cameras from the III f to an M6 and they satisfy my love of image making. But it seems now film is ending its reign and digital is the world we are in. So embrace it. As for monochrome, of all the ways to create an image, it reveals the form and structure of our world. The high ISO is a creative bonus.

  • dalethorn

    I just received the Monochrom and Noctilux lens. On the issue of shooting silently in very dim light, I feel I have a tool that can not only do that, but do so with very high quality results.

  • Jos L Knaepen

    I’m happy with my M film cameras, even with my old IIIf, you can have your digital stuff..
    happy post-processing..:-)

  • Jos L Knaepen

    absolutely right !

  • Jos L Knaepen

    Oops..film is ending..?!.. I’m afraid you won’t live to see the last roll of film….but your digital camera is obsolete in 4-5 years ‘cos its sensor is used..

  • Asiafish

    The Monochrom has no logo.m I use mine everyday, around town, and yes, for vacation too. Everything I point it at somehow looks better.

    My friends have no idea what it is or what it costs, and that is just fine with me.

    Expensive yes, but worth every penny.

  • Asiafish

    Outdated? How will it be outdated? It will work just as we’ll 5 or 10 years from now as it does today.

    My M8.2 is four-years-old and still provides amazing results. I’m sure I will still love the results from my M Monochrom long after the money I paid for it has been forgotten.