Leica M Monochrom Digital Camera Review
The Leica M Monochrom: an $8,000 nod to the heyday of black-and-white film.
By the Numbers
Here at DigitalCameraInfo.com, we put every camera through a standardized rubric of tests, with a focus on repeatability and quantifiable results. While we tested the M Monochrom where appropriate, we have elected to not give it an overall score—by its nature, the Monochrom can't complete tests like white balance, color accuracy, or video sharpness. That said, in our resolution, noise, and dynamic range testing the M Monochrom performed admirably. It's not the kind of performance we expect from a full-frame camera that's this expensive, but it's certainly not poor.
The monochromatic sensor doesn't keep noise down, but it gives it a unique look.
There was a brief glimmer of hope among some film camera die-hards that the Monochrom's lack of a color filter would give its noise a filmic look. While there is obviously no chroma noise, there's still a significant amount of luminance noise. It has a very adverse effect on your images, and the lack of color interpolation gives the grain a very sharp, pointillist look. It's very noticeable, and any increase in brightness or sharpness will only make the matter worse.
Looking at the raw numbers, we found that noise starts rather high and only gets worse. There is 1.24% noise when using the pull 160 ISO setting, with noise hitting 1.4% at ISO 320, and crossing the 2% threshold at ISO 1600. Noise then hits 3% at ISO 3200, and 4.5% at ISO 6400. The ISO range peaks at ISO 10,000, with noise hitting 4.72%. These are much larger numbers than we typically see. Even the JPEGs from the camera are riddled with noise, as the only noise reduction seems to be from the normal process of compressing RAW data into a JPEG.
The Monochrom's sensor manages a healthy amount of dynamic range, but there's a lot of noise in the shadows.
In looking at our dynamic range testing, we found that the Monochrom managed to record approximately 13.4 distinct stops of dynamic range in a single scene at its base ISO of 320. If you use the pull 160 ISO you can keep exposure down a little bit, saving some highlights, but you lose about a half stop of range doing that. These are great numbers, but they're a bit of a red herring—as soon as you try to bring up the shadows, noise begins to overpower the rest of the scene. There's detail in the shadows, but it's hard to rescue it without also enhancing noise.
It's also worth noting that if you tighten up the criteria of what qualifies as a "distinct stop" of dynamic range, the Monochrom's performance falls by quite a bit. Using a "high" standard (signal to noise ratio of 10:1 as opposed to the usual standard of 1:1), we found that the Monochrom had just 6.9 stops of dynamic range, with the range topping out at the pull 160 ISO, rather than the base of 320. These deflated numbers better account for the noise we see in the shadows. Our recommendation would be to shoot at pull 160 where possible, especially if you plan to bring up the shadows later in post.
The monochromatic sensor offers superior resolution—when paired up with Leica's superlative lenses.
If Leica is known for one thing, it's the company's exceptional selection of lenses. Razor sharp, built to an incredible standard, and often quite compact, the Leica M lenses complement the street photography DNA of the Monochrom. We tested the camera with the Leica 35mm f/2 Summicron lens and found the pairing to be quite exceptional. Through nearly the entire aperture range we found very little to complain about, though there is a rather significant sharpness falloff at the edges when shooting wide open. If you stop down to f/2.8 this begins to dissipate, however, with sharpness peaking around f/8 on the Monochrom's full-frame image sensor.
In the lab, the Monochrom managed an average resolution in excess of 1700 line widths per picture height at MTF50, according to Imatest. This is quite exceptional, though again the lens was softer wide open with average sharpness closer to 1400 lw/ph. These are excellent numbers, however, which is something we witnessed in our real-world sample photos as well. One troubling aspect of the Monochrom to keep in mind, however, is the poor rear LCD. While manual focusing on most subjects is quite easy due to the rangefinder system, it's nearly impossible to check focus on the rear screen of the camera. When you zoom in to view your shots at 100% the camera's LCD can't resolve all the detail, giving your images a soft look. It's only later, when you can view those images at 100% on a computer monitor, that you'll see that your focus is indeed spot on. Does it ruin the camera? Not really, but the fact that an $8,000 camera comes with an LCD that you'd sooner see in an $80 point-and-shoot is really unacceptable.
Unfortunately, we don't have a Leica M9 to test the Monochrom against, so it's hard to tell exactly how much resolution is gained by shedding the Bayer filter. While we do feel that there is some difference—the noise profile looks totally different and textures seem sharper in the sample photos that we have seen—the difference in resolution doesn't justify the difference in price. Even for those committed to Leica's ecosystem, the new M Type 240 (MSRP $6,950.00) should produce better results in a more advanced, friendlier package.
Speed and Timing
The Monochrom is no speed demon, though that's to be expected.
The Monochrom is capable of capturing shots continuously at a little less than two frames per second, according to our tests. This is right in line with what Leica claims about the continuous shooting capability. In practice, we rarely found that this was much of an issue, as once we grew confident composing, focusing, and shooting with the rangefinder viewfinder, we rarely needed to capture shots continuously.
We do wish the Monochrom came with more robust timer settings, however, as there is really only the option for a short self-timer delay. While extensive menus are obviously not Leica's thing, the addition of timelapse or interval shooting without having to use an external intervalometer would really benefit Monochrom shooters.
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