Leica M Monochrom Digital Camera Review
The Leica M Monochrom: an $8,000 nod to the heyday of black-and-white film.
While the world of photography revolves almost entirely around digital cameras these days, there are still some film-era qualities that modern bodies can't totally replicate. One of the most prominent is true black-and-white shooting. Enter the latest addition to Leica's storied M series: the Monochrom (MSRP $7,950.00).Though all digital camera sensors capture black and white photos by default, nearly every camera also uses a special chromatic filter to figure out what color each pixel should be. The Leica Monochrom has no color filter; its full-frame sensor is designed from the ground up to capture just black-and-white images at the greatest resolution possible. With a rangefinder for framing, full metal body, and mostly manual controls, the Monochrom is as close as you can get to shooting with black-and-white film in a digital body. While the nostalgia is nice, the Leica M Monochrom seems caught between two worlds; the camera replicates the visceral feeling of manually shooting film, but it fails to take advantage of the convenience and expedience of modern digital cameras.
Design & Handling
The Monochrom will take some great photos, but not until you learn it inside and out.
Shooting with a Leica is unlike shooting with any other digital camera. The most obvious difference between the M system and other digital cameras is its use of a rangefinder system. The combination of an optical finder with rangefinder window gives the M series its name, for the German word messsucher. When looking through the viewfinder you'll see two offset images; when you turn the focus dial the images line up, ensuring pinpoint focus. The truly optical finder is offset from your lens, so your framing isn't exactly accurate and capturing sharp moving subjects with a rangefinder requires quite a bit of guesswork and experience. It's a challenging way of shooting that forces you to really understand your camera, your subject, and your settings.
The Monochrom itself is very sturdy, with a magnesium alloy body capped on the top and bottom with brass plates. The body is wrapped in a synthetic leather that doesn't provide a great deal of grip, with no ridges or indentations to accomodate the hand. It's a handsome design that fits right alongside previous M cameras, though without grip it feels like it could slip right out of your hand. It's also something true of most Leica cameras, but having to remove the entire bottom plate of the camera to get at the battery or memory card is tiresome. The whole package is also quite heavy at 21 ounces, but that weight is evenly distributed, which gives it a nice balance when focusing manually.
Leica's experience in producing top-rate film cameras shines through when shooting with the M Monochrom. The power switch, shutter speed dial, frame selection lever, and the shutter release are all expertly crafted and made of metal—not the chintzy plastic that many cameras opt for. The viewfinder is large and bright, with adjustable frame guidelines and a small text readout that displays information that changes depending on how you're shooting. You have to take your eyes off the finder to review your image and check exposure, but once you get used to the system it's easy to simply shoot as you would with any film rangefinder.
Unfortunately, Leica's inexperience in (or simply distaste for) designing digital interfaces also shines through. The menu system is poor compared to most other cameras, with few options and little customization. Perhaps more seriously, playback functionality is hampered considerably by the low resolution rear screen. We enjoyed the histogram and exposure warnings, but when you zoom in to full magnification to check focus the images invariably look soft, even when the actual shots are razor sharp. Given that one of the main advantages of shooting digital is instant image review, it's jarring to be unable to reliably check focus. Honestly the only way we got over this was to simply trust our instincts that focus was indeed correct, but that's a dangerous proposition—especially if you plan to shoot street scenes with shallow depth of field.
I guess this is where we go back to Kansas?
Shooting with the Monochrom will require you to rewire your brain. Subject choice is a whole new ballgame, as black-and-white shooting often accentuates repeating patterns, texture, contrast, and shape, while saturation and vibrancy are less significant; a beautiful blue sky behind a bright, red building looks great in color, but it might be boring in black-and-white. When shooting black-and-white it also pays to keep in mind the extra post-processing latitude you'll have; often images come from the Monochrom with a flat, gray look, but come to life with just a few adjustments in Photoshop.
The engine that drives the Monochrom is its 18-megapixel monochromatic full-frame CCD. The sensor is purportedly designed by Kodak, likely from the same bones that were used in the Leica M9. Like most digital cameras, the Leica M9 uses a Bayer color filter array placed over the image sensor, such that each pixel is only sensitive to red, green, or blue light wavelengths. The camera then interpolates all this data, combining the three color channels to recreate how the scene looked to your eyes. The Monochrom goes without this filter, though it does appear to still have a filter that limits the sensitivity to extreme wavelengths, like infrared and UV light.
As a result, the Monochrom has a couple of advantages along with some downsides. Besides the obvious inability to capture color images, the Monochrom presents users with just the global RAW data. With conventional digital cameras, users can create a black-and-white image by desaturating the red, green, and blue channels. This allows you to make easy edits to just one channel, independent of the others. Even though your image is still black and white, you can lighten or darken red objects rather than green, and so on. The M Monochrom doesn't offer this option since it doesn't capture color information about your scene. The advantage is that every pixel is simply a value from black to white, preserving maximum resolution with no detail loss due to interpolation.
The Monochrom is a generally solid performer, with images that really shine with a little TLC.
We paired the Leica M Monochrom with the 35mm f/2—a lens that’s ideal for street photography and that complements the resolving power of the sensor very well. While we don't have an M9 or M Type 240 to compare the Monochrom to, our lab numbers (and our sample photos) indicate a potent combination of lens and sensor that’s sharp corner-to-corner when stopped down to f/2.8 and beyond.
On paper, the 18-megapixel full-frame CCD sensor of the Monochrom seems a bit outdated, but it actually displays fairly good dynamic range characteristics. Its ISO range stretches from 320 to 10000, with a pull 160 ISO setting as well. At base ISO we found the camera had about 13 stops of dynamic range, though there is considerable noise visible in the scene already. The pull 160 ISO setting saves some highlights, but you lose about a half stop of range by using it.
Straight out of the camera, the Monochrom's shots lack contrast, as the camera uses a flat gamma curve by default. You can alter images from there in the camera using some built-in tonal curves, or you can simply do this in software later. The Monochrom comes with a free downloadable copy of Adobe Lightroom 4, which handles the native.DNG RAW format very well—as well as the Silver Efex Pro 2 plugin. In Lightroom, we found dropping the shadows and enhancing contrast drastically improved most of our images. We found a small dose of Lightroom's "Clarity" slider particularly useful, as it enhances midtones and local contrast, improving sharpness without enhancing noise in flat areas such as shadows and sky.
This is still an aging CCD sensor, however, and we found noise levels were greater than other full-frame cameras, especially at high ISO speeds. Even at ISO 160 noise already tops 1.24%, crossing the 2% threshold by ISO 1600. Beyond that noise begins to rise precipitously, hitting 3% at ISO 3200, 4.5% at ISO 6400, and 4.72% at the max ISO of 10,000. We had hoped that the lack of a Bayer filter would offer a more "filmic" look to the noise, but in reality that's not the case. Instead, noise has a very sharp, pointillist look that is easily exaggerated when trying to increase contrast or sharpness in post-production.
An exercise in the benefit of doing it all yourself
The Leica M Monochrom is one of the more fascinating cameras we've ever reviewed. It has an impressively well-built body that is designed for a very small niche of shooters who want a camera that does one thing extremely well at the expense of nearly everything else.
We can't think of a single practical rationale for buying an $8,000 black-and-white-only digital camera, but this is a camera that goes beyond reason. It’s a camera made to be lusted after— a camera that few people will ever get to shoot with, let alone own. It’s the awl of the photography world: a single-purpose tool that does its job very, very well.
What do you get for your eight grand? Well, the Monochrom’s image quality is fantastic, with phenomenal resolution. Moreover, the experience of shooting with the camera will satisfy every nostalgic bone in your body. There are some issues—most notably, the low-resolution LCD and godawful user interface—but for the type of photographer the Monochrom is aimed at, they're not deal-breakers. More modern cameras offer greater convenience, but none of those cameras shoot like a Leica. Whether that's worth $8,000 to you—and remember, that's not factoring in the cost of Leica's enormously expensive glass—is certainly an intensely personal calculation; it's probably simply beyond the means of most people.
We mentioned early on that shooting with the Leica Monochrom is challenging. That's certainly true, but it's a challenge that is eminently rewarding when you succeed. For years, photography students have been directed to start with film cameras. The idea is that they should learn how to shoot properly, without relying on the camera or Photoshop to compensate for bad technique. There's wisdom in that advice, since the obstacles you face with most film cameras—an inability to review your photos on the fly, imperfect focus and exposure systems, and a limited amount of time to get your shot right—force you to become a better photographer. Many of those same challenges are present in the Monochrom, and the result is the same. It's not the easiest camera to learn or to shoot with, but it forces you to know your craft inside and out.
The question remains, though: Is the Monochrom worth the price? For most people, the answer is clearly no, as there are cameras that are simply cheaper and perform better. Even for Leica enthusiasts, the Monochrom is more expensive than the M9, M9-P, and even the new M Type 240. It may produce slightly higher resolution, but not enough to justify the difference in price and flexibility. It's a collector's item, a camera lovers of black-and-white photography will adore, but not something you'll find on most people's shelves any time soon.
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