Homemade Leica Monochrom, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Broken Sensors

Being a photographer, I often get questions from friends or acquaintances about various photography-related subjects. I also often get given old cameras and miscellaneous bits of equipment because — “George is into photography, he’ll do something with this.”

An acquaintance of mine had a Leica C-LUX 2 that had developed a fault and he wondered if I knew what was wrong with the camera. It was obvious from the pink and purple lines on the LCD display that the image sensor in the camera was reaching the end of its life. I told him that he could probably buy the same camera again pre-owned for less than the cost of a repair. He offered it to me as I often dismantle cameras and use parts of them in projects or take bits that are of no use to the dump.

It sat around in a drawer for a few weeks before I decided to charge the battery and play around with it one day. I was astounded by the strange images that it produced. The image below was one of the first I took a surreal self-portrait.

The broken sensor behaved in an idiosyncratic way and captured these weird, melting images. Sometimes the sensor unbroke itself and produced crystal clear photographs.

Other times you were entirely unsure of what you had even pointed the camera at as you pressed the shutter.

Now you may think this is silly and pointless. Why is this guy messing about with a broken camera? And much less why is he writing an article about it and why am I reading it?

I’d forgive you for thinking that, but in my small world it is important for two reasons and maybe those reasons will make sense to you.

Reason #1. Gear

Gear. We all obsess over gear. I do, you do, your girlfriend does, your mother, your dog, your mistress, your local religious leaders. Gear, gear, gear, gear, gear, gear, gear, and more gear.

The next big thing! Loadsa megapixels! Faster autofocus! Makes you a better photographer. Makes you more money. Makes your business successful. Makes you a better lover.

George Carlin and Tom Waits both put it better than I ever could. The need to consume, the need for the next camera (read product) that will make you better than the one before. Don’t get me wrong, there is obviously such a thing as the right tool for the job. For example, a professional mirrorless camera for a wedding, not a turn-of-the-century compact camera. But I posit that my Homemade Monochrom has been much more useful to me than an actual Monochrom ever would… which leads me to my second point.

Reason #2. Creativity

I remember reading an interview with a successful musician (I don’t remember who) many years ago where they explained that they learn how to play a new instrument by writing a song with it. I try to do this but with cameras, allowing the innate limitations or strengths of the camera to guide the work (my article Little Boxes is relevant here too).

The way my homemade Monochrom depicted things (darkly, otherworldly, strangely) made me want to photograph content that was dark. Like dead birds, funeral directors, towering churches, and weathered architectural details of old buildings.

As another unrelated example to prove my point, take a disposable camera. It has a fixed focus, fixed aperture, fixed focal length, and a fixed shutter speed. The only controls you have are the flash — on or off — and the shutter button. These limitations mean you can only photograph certain subjects successfully. So, you could photograph landscapes on a sunny day, they would come out okay. Friends on a night out if you use the flash and keep them at a safe (focused) distance. You could also lean into the limitation, shooting close-ups of signage in your local town and come back with bright defocused graphic images. The limitations of the equipment often dictate the way you work.

In summary, think about what you want to say using photography and then try and choose a camera that allows you to articulate this as clearly as possible. Or if that doesn’t work, try loving broken sensors.

About the author: Liam George Collins is a photographer and teacher living in Kendal, the gateway town to England’s beautiful Lake District. He is a Lecturer in Photography for Kendal College. You can find more of his work on his website and Instagram.