Leica M11 Monochrom Review: Worth it? The Answer Isn’t Black and White
Check out our first YouTube video with Chris and Jordan, and the full written review!
Every time I review a Leica digital rangefinder, the major argument against buying one becomes a matter of price versus practicality. How can I recommend a camera that is neither affordable nor versatile? The Leica M11 Monochrom doesn’t autofocus at all, offer the convenience of zoom lenses, or provide image stabilization of any kind. It doesn’t even take photographs in color.
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On paper, the camera had very little going for it, but to really appreciate the M11 Monochrom, I had to hit the open road.
You may or may not have heard that Jordan Drake and I recently joined the PetaPixel team. It is by pure chance that our very first camera review for PetaPixel would be the Leica M11 Monochrom. We wanted our first review to feel “big,” so we decided a long road trip through Montana and into Yellowstone National Park would feature the stunning locations we were looking for. I may have had an ulterior motive to get some serious fly fishing in; a fact which I kept secret from Jordan.
Obviously, the signature feature of the M11 Monochrom is in the name itself. This camera only shoots black and white images, which continues to draw criticism to this day despite Leica offering its monochromatic digital cameras for over a decade. For those that want the versatility of a camera that can shoot both color and black-and-white images, the original Leica M11 is an excellent choice. However having a camera that only shoots monochromatic images can be quite liberating, as it frees the photographer to create images based on tone, and mood.
I would happily spend my career shooting black and white exclusively. If you are reading this review you might feel the same way.
Leica M11 Monochrom: Design and Build Quality
In many ways, the Leica M11 Monochrom is an ideal travel camera. The compact design suits the photographer on the go, whether that be on road trips or far-off destinations. The original M11 featured a lighter-weight aluminum top plate with its black variant but had a noticeably heavier brass construction in its chrome look. The M11 Monochrom is only available with a matte black and aluminum top plate, which keeps the weight down to a handy 540 grams. I found the weight to be perfect for a hand-held rangefinder camera, and prefer the aluminum construction against the brass, for this very reason.
The M11 Monochrom has the same fixed bottom plate as the original M11, and I am happy to see this retained. Although the removable plate on all of the M11’s predecessors is a nostalgic nod to its heritage, it also creates an unnecessary step to access the battery and card slots. I far prefer the new design choice and the ability to charge or connect the camera through a USB-C port.
The overall look of the M11 Monochrom is itself completely monochromatic, with none of the red accents typically found on Leica cameras. This makes for a very discreet look, which I appreciated shooting on the streets of Calgary, Alberta.
However, there is no denying that the M11 Monochrom is a handsome camera, even in its understated livery, and certainly drew some looks in the local bars of Ennis, Montana. In my earlier experiences with the M11, I complained about the red dot located under the off/on the switch. The bright red dot is exposed when the camera is off, a feature that seemed backward to me. I’m very happy to say that the M11 Monochrom replaces this with a dark grey dot that does not trigger me in the same way.
The fit and finish of Leica cameras are second-to-none and everything about the M11 Monochrom feels tight and well-built. The rangefinder is extremely accurate, even with wide-aperture lenses. The viewfinder optics are bright and easy to see through. I also appreciate the relatively high-resolution back LCD panel which allows for a high rate of magnification, with which to evaluate my images.
The LCD panel was easy to use in bright sunlight, and I found myself switching between the OVF and LCD seamlessly. I would like to see some sort of articulation in the LCD panel, especially for shots low to the ground. Although the camera would have to be larger to accommodate this, Fujifilm for example, has proven that it can be done with a minimum of bulk. The original M11 lacked an articulating screen, so it’s reasonable to see it missing on the Monochrom as well.
Leica M11 Monochrom: In the Field
Leica rangefinders have not historically felt comfortable for me to use. I found them to be clunky both in the way the controls were implemented, as well as the thickness of the grip itself. The M11, with its thinner grip, is the first version to feel comfortable in my hands.
I very much dislike the ISO dial on the left side of the camera, with its barely-there knurling, and stiffness to implement. Luckily my favorite feature of the M11 is retained, and I can happily adjust ISO by using the thumb dial instead; a feature which I can use without breaking my grip on the camera.
If the outside of the camera is the embodiment of stealth, the shutter mechanism certainly is not. The M11 uses a modern focal plane shutter which clicks with a distinctive report compared to its classic brethren. Don’t get me wrong, compared to any modern mirrorless camera, the Leica M11 Monochrom is on par. I only mention it because using the silent electronic shutter comes with a serious downside.
Unfortunately, the M11 uses an imaging sensor with a very slow read-out speed. This causes a “rolling shutter” effect, seriously distorting any subjects traveling length-wise along the sensor plane, whether moving on their own or by moving the camera itself. This largely relegates the camera to its mechanical shutter, and silent shooting is only advisable with still-life subjects.
Leica has created a very efficient and simple menu interface which I find a pleasure to use. Even with only three buttons on the back of the camera, most functions can be adjusted quickly. I like the efficiency of a first press to bring up a quick access menu, and then a second press to dive deeper into the menu. To customize the camera you simply hold down the desired button and assign it a function. It’s design choices like these that allow the user full control, with a minimum of clutter.
The M11 Monochrom increases the built-in memory from the 64 gigabytes of the original to a whopping 256 gigabytes. This provides a huge safety blanket in case of memory card emergencies, or allows the photographer to happily shoot for days without a memory card at all!
Leica M11 Monochrom: Image Quality
Many people will jump to the conclusion that this camera only shoots black-and-white images and is therefore severely disadvantaged. But the Leica M11 Monochrom trades this lack of color with a substantial benefit in image quality.
By removing the Color Filter Array located in front of the sensor, roughly 1 EV of extra light is gained. More light reaching the sensor is always beneficial to image quality, and this is represented by a higher 125 base ISO. The appearance of image-degrading noise is lower than one would find on other cameras with similar sensors. Throw in the fact that black-and-white images render sensor noise as a pleasing, organic-looking grain structure, and the M11 Monochrom becomes an ideal low-light camera, even at very high ISOs.
The 60-megapixel sensor delivers the ideal amount of detail that I would desire in a full-frame camera. By removing the need for Bayer interpolation — which most color-based cameras require — and the subsequent blurring that occurs, the M11 Monochrom takes noticeably sharper images than any of its counterparts. Combine sound photography technique with high-quality lenses, and the M11 Monochrom will give the sharpest results seen on a Leica rangefinder to date.
I think we can all agree that a black-and-white image can mask certain mistakes, or be edited to look stylized rather than poorly exposed. Noise becomes grain. Crushed black tones become inky shadows that the viewer can fall into. My highlights aren’t blown, it’s a “lithographic” look!
With all that being said, there is one piece of advice I would share when it comes to exposure. The Leica M11 Monochrom has incredible amounts of dynamic range if you endeavor to protect your brightest highlights. If you intend to edit your RAW photos, some underexposure will be called for in most situations. The M11 monochrom has plenty of room to heavily boost shadows so don’t be concerned with slightly darker images, but highlights will clip sooner than you might expect. Follow this rule and you will truly appreciate how malleable your M11 Monochrom files are.
So is the Leica M11 Monochrom Worth It?
The Leica M11 Monochrom is a big ask. It certainly delivers the goods when it comes to outstanding black-and-white imagery, and these improvements should be taken seriously. However, at roughly $9,200 it’s a lot to pay for a niche product from a company that specializes in making niche products.
Beyond the question of affordability, you have to ask yourself some other important questions. Are you absolutely captivated by a love for black-and-white images? Anything less than full-on obsession, and you should probably look elsewhere. Is there appeal in shooting a rangefinder-style camera? I discounted rangefinders for many years as being clunky and limited.
It took many years to find an appreciation for using them, but now I get it. Shooting a rangefinder is as much about the experience of using them as it is about the images. If this sounds appealing to you, then keep reading.
Finally, there is a profound joy in taking a beautiful image with a simple camera. I can only explain the experience as having as little as possible between you the photographer, and the image itself. The M11 Monochrom is also simply fun to shoot, and rewarding to use. If this kind of experience sounds — almost — priceless to you, the Monochrom might be your new best friend.
Are There Alternatives?
The newly announced Pentax K-3 III Monochrome should provide similar image quality benefits, albeit in an APS-C sensor format. Shooting SLR cameras is a rewarding experience in its own right, and beautiful images and rugged handling will be guaranteed. This camera should prove to be fun to use and could scratch the black-and-white only itch for far less money.
The Fujifilm X100V with its optical viewfinder, can provide a similar experience as a compact and sexy companion camera. With a single fixed lens, it forces the photographer to think outside the box to get the right shots, in much the same way that a Leica does. Although not specifically a black-and-white camera, Fujifilm does provide some gorgeous monochromatic profiles, and can mimic a similar fun factor. The problem is, the camera has become so popular recently thanks to TikTok trends that it might be hard to find one.
The original Leica M11 will give you the same shooting experience without having to accept the loss of color photos. The versatility of shooting color images compared to the Monochrom will make it the more popular choice, and many photographers will prefer the enhanced black-and-white editing tools in post-processing software.
Should You Buy It?
Maybe. If the budget allows, and the black-and-white obsession is present, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more fun and rewarding experience.