“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.
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 It’s a wonder Leica can even secure stocks for such an outdated LCD display, and the pathetic resolution makes it difficult to judge critical focus during playback.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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.