“What were they thinking?!” That’s what you may be asking yourself when considering the Leica M Monochrom, the first of three—count’ em, three!—new digital additions to the fabled Leica rangefinder camera lineup that were announced last year and are gradually becoming available in the U.S. While the 24-megapixel Leica M ($7,000) and 18-megapixel Leica M-E ($5,500) capture color, the M Monochrom, as befits its moniker, only shoots black-and-white images with its full-frame, 18-megapixel sensor. And it costs (gulp) $7,995.
Creating an almost $8,000 camera that only shoots in black-and-white seems a tad self-indulgent, but these days Leica—which only a few years ago was teetering on the brink of extinction—can afford to take a risk. Ever since the 09/09/09 introduction of the M9, Leica’s first full-frame digital rangefinder camera, demand for Leica Ms has exceeded supply, despite their nosebleed-high prices. Leica has had to hire and train an additional shift of highly specialized workers in its factory in Solms, Germany, to produce these handmade, lifetime-investment cameras.
But still—a black-and-white-only camera? It’s easy enough to shoot black-and-white in camera, or shoot color and then reduce images down to monochrome in post-production. What’s the big advantage here? Even as an admitted Leica fanboy, I was skeptical before I tested it.
A Purer Signal
The Leica M Monochrom lacks the standard RGB filter array, found on nearly all sensors. These filters divide the digital signal into red, green and blue images that are assembled into a color image. They also block out some light. With the filters removed, more light hits the sensor, creating a purer monochromatic signal. On paper, this should improve image quality. With the Leica’s ISO range of 320 to 10000 (the lower ISO can be “pulled” down to 160), the camera promises very high-quality images in low light, and greater resolution, thanks to the full use of each pixel, which captures true luminance values. With overall image quality thus improved, users should be able to exploit the outstanding optics of Leica lenses to an even greater level.
Did I mention that the $8,000 is for the M Monochrom body only, and Leica lenses start at $1,500 and go as high as $10,000?
In the Hands, on the Street
After two weeks of doing street photography with this camera and tapping into my inner Garry Winogrand, I can confirm that the Leica M Monochrom is capable of capturing the highest quality black-and-white images I’ve ever seen from a 35mm sensor digital camera. It easily surpasses the black-and-white image quality generated by the Leica M9. In addition to the chaotic streets of New York City, I shot test images under more controlled conditions. These were consistently noise-free through ISO 1000. By the time I reached ISO 2500, the noise level was minimal. By ISO 5000 there was noise, but it was more like shooting with Kodak Tri-X film. There was very little difference in dynamic range at these speeds.
At ISO 10000 the image was quite noisy and contrast-y (no surprise) but the image’s noise structure had a dramatic, gritty quality that could be creatively exploited. So, even at its highest speed, the M Monochrom was impressive.
On the downside, the M Monochrom was not tolerant of overexposure. Blown highlights could not be saved in post-processing. I found that it was better to err on the side of slight underexposure, and compensate in post-production. Working this way, the camera’s dynamic range was quite wide and forgiving. I shot in RAW, producing large 35-MB files that were filled with information that can be coaxed out in post-processing. The shadow, highlight, and clarity sliders revealed great detail in the shadows and depth to the images’ tonality.
In the hands and in the street, the Leica M Monochrom operated mostly the same as other Leica M cameras. That’s both good and bad news. If you rely on autofocus and autoexposure, you’ve probably already eliminated any Leica rangefinder camera from consideration. For photographers weaned on manual exposure cameras, however, the shutter speed dial atop the camera and aperture and focus rings on the lenses are intuitive and within easy reach. Focus is manual, and the tab on the focus ring has helped out many a street photographer to prefocus in anticipation of the shot.
Digital Ms are a bit thicker than their film counterparts but considerably smaller and lighter than pro-level DSLRs. With no protruding built-in grip, they can be awkward to hold; a handgrip helps, but will set you back an additional $250. You will also want to buy a couple of extra batteries; the M Monochrom, like its siblings, goes through them quickly.
The Leica M Monochrom shares the M-System’s rangefinder-style, eye-level, bright-frame viewfinder; image-match focusing; and native 28mm coverage. Projected lines indicating the edges of the picture change as you adjust focal lengths. The 2.5-inch LCD monitor is decent enough for navigating menus, but its 230K-pixel resolution is disappointingly low for an $8,000 camera, and doesn’t serve Live View well.
My biggest complaint is the same one I have for all Leica M-System cameras: While the Leica M Monochrom has no shutter lag, its buffer fills quickly and transfers slowly; after two or three RAW+JPEG shots in rapid succession, the camera freezes for a few seconds that feel like an eternity as the image writes to the memory card. Memo to Leica: Please fix this!
The Bottom Line
Despite its exorbitant price and same-old, same-old Leica M eccentricities, the M Monochrom does deliver unprecedented black-and-white image quality that, among other things, shows how good Leica lenses really are. Is it worth the big bucks? That’s your call. But if your creative drive precludes color, you demand the best black-and-white images possible and your wallet can withstand the hit, the Leica M Monochrom is well worth considering.
Pros: Delivers high-quality black-and-white images with depth of information; simple, mostly manual user interface; no lag time; rangefinder viewfinder does not black out during exposure; compatible with some of the best prime lenses in the universe
Cons: Insufficient buffer; low-resolution LCD monitor; drains batteries relatively quickly; no autofocus; expensive
Price: $7,995 (body only); http://us.leica-camera.com/home/
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