Unscrambling The Egg: The Leica M9 Monochrom

When Leica announced “Henri”, the M9 Monocrom on May 10th, it caused a lot of fervor on blogs and photography websites. The all black camera, named after the legendary black and white Leica photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson was devoid of almost all Leica markings and seemed niche even for the niche camera maker.

First, it was a monochrome only sensor. Leica had worked with True Sense Imaging (what used to be Kodak’s Sensor division) and took the KAF-18500 color sensor found in the M9 and made a black and white version. Secondly, it caused a lot of talk not only because it was black and white only, but at $8,000, it cost MORE than an M9 that could shoot color and have its shots converted to black and white in software!

Does it really cost more to create a black and white sensor, or is Leica just artificially creating a price point for such a unique Leica camera? And why would we want a black and white only sensor anyway?

As a black and white film shooter, I’ve looked at digital cameras as hindrance to getting to my final monochrome image. Even the best DSLR doesn’t have the dynamic range and clarity of a good black and white film, and there is a lot of time spent editing color photos to make them look like film. And since I spend my work days in front of a computer, the last thing I want to do is edit color photos in Aperture all night. So, why would a black and white digital camera post appear on this blog?

If you’ve seen the test shots from the Leica Monocrom, you can see that this camera shoots digital that looks more and more like film. It has grain instead of noise. The idea of a black and white only digital camera, to me, is a great thing if I can get shots that are the best things I like about film, with the advantages of digital. But I don’t have $8,000 to spend on such a thing and I don’t think Leica will send me a camera to play with anytime soon. So, I guess anyone like me is out of luck if they wanted to play in the black and white only digital land.

Luckily Leica isn’t the only maker of black and white only cameras today.

That company is LDP, LLC, and it’s website MaxMax.com. They have been converting cameras to black and white and other spectrums for some years now. You see, all camera sensors are black and white at their base. It’s a lot like film at this point, but to “see” color, manufacturers add microlenses, CFA “color filters” in a Bayer pattern that software takes and makes a color image and an Optical Low-Pass Filter to get rid of inherent aliasing and moire problems with the Bayer pattern. The black and white sensor gets stacked like a sandwich to make pictures. Yes, pictures that we black and white lovers spend hours converting back to black and white.

I got the opportunity to chat with the President of LDP, Dan Llewellyn and ask him a few questions about what they do to convert cameras back to their black and white roots. Read on.

Patrick Clarke: When did you decide to try to convert a digital camera to black and white?

Dan Llewellyn: I had been thinking about it for over 10 years. About 4 years ago, we started doing experiments. It took about 2 years before we started having some good success. We have a box of broken sensors and went through lots of prototype custom machines.

PC: Why did you do it?

DL: To get a higher resolution picture. A color sensor typically has 1 red, 2 green and 1 blue sensor for every 4 pixels. This means if you take a black and white test chart and illuminate with a pure blue LED light only 25% of the cameras will see the chart. 75% will see black.

Another reason is that the sensor’s microlenses and Color Filter Array (CFA), block most of the UV light. A UV-Only monochrome camera can see 6 x better than the same camera with the microlenses and CFA. A Visible-Only monochrome camera gains about 1/2 stop from a stock camera. An 715nm IR-Only monochrome camera has about the same sensitivity as a 715nm IR-Only color camera.

PC: Wow. If you are an IR shooter it certainly is quite the gain, and a half a stop is nothing to sneeze at.

There is an often argued notion that a piece of 100 ISO Kodak T-Max black and white film has 2300 lines of resolution in it. A consumer level Canon T2i has around 2500 lines of resolution in it’s color form, but lacks the sharpness of film. Do you know how a converted camera compares to traditional black and white film?

DL: I haven’t tried a test versus film. Interesting idea, but I haven’t shot with film for quite a while!

PC: I know you do other conversions, like Infrared and “Hot Rod” as well as Black and White, so, what do you do to convert a camera?

DL: IR UV-VIS-IR and HR conversions are much, much easier. To convert B&W, you have to remove the sensor coverglass and the CFA. Neither operation is trivial! The biggest issue with converting any camera is doing a clean conversion. There are shops out there that consist of a guy converting a camera to IR-Only on his kitchen table. But to do it well with really clean glass takes special equipment and techniques.

As far as monochrome conversions, we are the only shop that we know of that can do it. I once talked to a guy that runs the largest camera repair business in the USA with over 1,000 technicians about the monochrome conversions. He said they tried and came to the conclusion that a monochrome conversion was impossible. I found some discussions many years ago from some experimenters that used some hot toxic solvents, but, they never showed more than a small sample of their conversion and seemed to have given up.

PC: Wow. So, no small task. Why not just do what Leica did and buy a black and white sensor and put it in the camera?

DL: It’s not an option. If the manufacturers wanted to make a B&W camera, they could easily do so. Kodak made a B&W DLSR at one point. The problem is that the B&W market is small and the manufacturers want to sell large volumes. Texas Instruments makes a Digital Light Projection chip for video projectors. The normal visible chip costs $65. They also make a special version that has a UV transparent window that costs $2,000. The problem is that to make the UV chip requires shutting down the line for a small run. Leica is better suited to make a B&W camera because they are a small volume manufacturer, but, even then, their costs are probably quite high to make the B&W chip.

PC: Is there anything that makes the purpose-built Leica sensor better than a converted one?

DL: The Leica is going to be a more perfect camera since it was made to be monochrome. Typical conversions can have small traces of CFA left typically around the edges or other minor stuff that can be an issue for the pixel peeper types, though not an issue for practical shooting.

PC: The cost of the Leica is often debated. Since it’s a “simpler” sensor, shouldn’t it cost less?

DL: The cost of the Leica monochrome camera probably reflects their cost to make a very limited run of sensors. For the manufacturer, it is easier to make a monochrome camera that a color camera since all they have to do is not add the CFA during the manufacturing process. The problem is that to make the limited run and market the camera costs a bunch of money. We start with a color sensor and have to work backwards removing about 7 microns off the surface of the sensor without killing it in the process which is a bit like unscrambling an egg. For them, they just don’t need to crack the egg.

PC: Since they are Leica and Henri Cartier-Bresson was such an influential photographer, I can see why they would create such a camera. Do you think Nikon, Canon or Sony will do the same?

DL: For any monochrome or other specialized camera, the biggest problem is that it is specialized. The market is not that big, so even if you figure out the technical side, you still have to find the sales. For the big guys like Sony, Olympus, Nikon and Canon, the sales numbers for niche cameras will kill the line. For a little shop like us, we can find customers, but, keep in mind that we convert cameras to IR-Only 590nm, 630nm, 660nm, 715nm and 830nm; to High Resolution (no OLPF), UV-Only, monochrome, UV-VIS-IR, vegetation stress and more. And cameras are only one part of what we do which includes specialized cameras filters, phosphors, lights and inks.

PC: Let’s get back to your conversions. What you do sounds very complex and time consuming. How long does it typically take to convert a sensor to monochrome?

DL: That depends on the camera model and how well it goes. It is not uncommon to kill a sensor and have to start from scratch with a new sensor, though we are getting better with each conversion. Some sensors are harder to work with than others. We usually budget at least a day of work at this point though it can sometimes take a few days.

PC: What is the most difficult part of the process?

DL: Aside from the monochrome conversions, the hardest part is getting the glass that goes in the camera really clean. You can’t use optical wipes, swabs and solutions for the really small particles. Small dust is bound to the glass by electrostatic force. On really small particles, the electrostatic forces are incredibly strong. When you look at the glass under a microscope, the dust looks like the it is held by a magnet. Any time you touch the glass with anything, you leave something behind. To get the glass clean to an atomic level, you need special equipment and things like a clean room. That’s why the guy doing the conversion on the kitchen table cannot possibly do a clean conversion. In addition to that, you need to understand how the glass you put in the camera can change the focal plane of the camera not to mention how to take the camera apart.

PC: That brings up a good point. There are a lot of “Dirty Sensor” cleaning kits out there, what’s your advice for people?

DL: We tell our customers to never touch the glass unless absolutely necessary. Any time you touch the glass, something will be left behind. Hopefully, it is less than what you removed by touching it, but we have seen customers destroy their ICF/AA (the glass in front of the sensor) by trying to clean every spec of dust that can only be seen by shooting a white field at F22 and inspecting the picture in Photoshop. If the dust isn’t causing a problem for normal pictures, don’t create a problem for yourself by touching the sensor. Aside from ignoring the dust, the first type of cleaning should be using clean, compressed air cans being very careful not to tip the can too much. If you tip the can too far, you can get the can liquid squirting out the tip which will leave a residue that is even harder to get removed.

PC: What about other types of cleaning?

DL: The clean room swabs are our 2nd choice, but this always leaves little bits of the swab on the sensor. Liquid cleaning is the last option because this has the potential to cause big problems. When you have a solvent on the sensor, that solvent is never 100% pure. That means that when it evaporates, something will be left on the sensor. We have tested lab grade 9.99999% solvents (known as 5 nines), and even that leaves a visible line where it evaporates last.

PC: That’s amazing, and scary at the same time. I don’t think I want to open up my camera any more. While you are doing a conversion, is there anything else you do to check on how it’s going or potentially change on the sensor?

DL: We can also do things like measure the camera’s spectral response and quantum efficiency which helps us understand exactly how the camera’s sensor sees various light frequencies so that we can design some very specific products.

PC: Does the size of the sensor have any effect on how long or complex the conversion is?

DL: The bigger sensors have more surface area so they take more work. Some cameras are really complex to take apart. When we take some cameras apart, you end up with over a 100 small parts on the workbench. Other cameras are more straightforward.

PC: As of this writing, you only sell converted Canon’s in monochrome. Are there plans for other camera’s like Nikon, or Sony?

DL: We have converted Nikon cameras to black and white, but the biggest issue with them is removing the sensor cover glass which is epoxied to the sensor without damaging the sensor. While we have converted the Nikon cameras successfully, we still have a high enough failure rate that we aren’t ready to release them for sale. We have had inquiries to convert Sony and 4/3 cameras. We will eventually try some other brands, but, for some brands, the manufacturers won’t sell the sensors we need for R&D, so we have to buy older cameras to salvage the sensors.

PC: Haha. Well, if you ever want to try a Sony DSLR conversion, I have an A100 that would love to be converted! I love the idea of a true black and white digital camera and the Leica Monocrom intrigues me that it is on the market. Do you think we’ll see more mainstream monochrome cameras?

DL: Most people would just as soon convert to black and white in Photoshop rather than having a dedicated monochrome camera. Not many understand the difference between a monochrome camera versus converted a color picture to monochrome in post. A limited range of hardcore black and white photographers and scientists understand the advantage of a monochrome camera, but I don’t think it will ever be mainstream.

That is very true. I’ve seen a lot of conversations on this subject and either people don’t understand the reason for a black and white image at all, or they don’t understand, nor care about why a true monochrome camera would be better for black and white.

What amazes me about what MaxMax does, is that for around $1,900, you can get a Canon T2i that will shoot better than a higher end Canon that shoots color, and if you look at the examples, with the removal of the Bayer Array, the sensor has “grain” and looks more like film than any converted color images.

I see guys throw down the same amount for a lens, so the idea of a dedicated black and white shooter isn’t out of the realm of reason for a lot of monochrome lovers. If I was a Canon shooter, I would have one of these cameras, but since I’ve invested in Sony/Minolta, I just can’t justify a whole new system just for monochrome digital shooting, but it’s oh-so tempting for sure.

You can visit their website and read more about the black and white conversion and what it does, view sample photos and even download some RAW versions to play with yourself. I highly suggest you do. Check out their cameras for sale here, and let them know you heard about it on this blog!

I’d like to thank Dan for taking the time to answer my questions, and shedding some light on something that black and white film photographers take for granted.

About the author: Patrick Clarke is a photographer who blogs at light [] squared. This post was originally published here.