Leica M Monochrom (Type 246) Digital Camera Review
Can you put a price on nostalgia? Leica starts the bidding at $7,500.
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These days, if you want to take a black-and-white photo, you simply dabble with Photoshop filters and call it a day. If you're really feeling nostalgic, you can pick up some B&W film, only to realize how much of a pain in the butt it is.
For people who find film to be too annoying and Photoshop unfulfilling, there aren't many choices. Leica, manufacturers of gorgeous, anachronistic, uber-expensive cameras, tried to tap into this market back in 2012 with the release of the digital, black-and-white-only Leica M Monochrom.
Three years later, Leica is back with an updated version, the new Leica M Monochrom (Type 246) (MSRP $7,450). This takes the original blueprint and updates it with a flurry of new features and performance improvements, such as a modern 24-megapixel full-frame sensor, HD video, and a much, much better LCD.
While the improvements won't make the new Monochrom more appealing to average users–the giant price tag all but guarantees that–it does improve on the original significantly. Photography enthusiasts always love a throwback to the "good ol' days" of film, and the Monochrom offers that retro feeling without as much frustration. With the build and image quality to make stand out in a sea of plastic, do-it-all-for-you cameras, the Monochrom is unique. It's also simply one of the coolest cameras we've ever used.
Design & Handling
Big and beautiful
When I was growing up, my grandfather always told me that you can tell if something is quality based on its weight. That's because, in his time, if it was built to last, it was heavy. As much as things have changed, I've always had the same mindset when it comes to cameras–the heavier, the better.
This doesn't always hold up in 2015 with the advancements of plastics, but I still get the same sensation of quality when I pick up a pro-grade DSLR. When I unboxed the burly Monochrom I instantly thought to myself, "This camera's built to last." That's because the top deck and baseplate are constructed from solid pieces of brass, with the body made out of lighter magnesium alloy.
Aside from the fantastic build quality, the Leica looks extremely barren compared to most modern cameras. The rear of the camera is dominated by the 3-inch rear LCD with six buttons stacked on the left side, a directional pad with a center button and a control wheel slightly above it on the right. The minimalistic design is continued on the top shelf with only a hotshoe, shutter speed dial, shutter release button, movie button, and a power switch that doubles as a drive mode selector.
The front of the camera lacks any real grip, but I somehow didn't find holding the Monochrom to be a challenge when out shooting with it–including at one point for six hours straight. There is also a handy magnification button on the front, which makes focusing in live view a breeze, thanks to the focus peeking feature. However, it can be rather difficult to use the rear dial and press the front button simultaneously.
Challenges you in all the right ways
If you've never shot with a rangefinder camera, you'll either love it or hate it. When you look through the viewfinder you'll see two offset images that you have to line up using the focus ring on the lens. Doing this can be rather tricky, especially shooting repeating patterns or at wider apertures, but getting the shot is much more fulfilling than letting some autofocus algorithm do all the hard work for you.
I also found that shooting with a rangefinder changed my approach to shooting. I usually go out for a couple of hours and come back with a gallery of images ready to edit and publish. The Monochrome took me on a 10 mile trek around the city shooting everything from a completely different perspective. I was forced to slow down my normal shooting cadence and really concentrate on every shot I took–much like when I'm shooting film.
The rangefinder itself is huge and gives you plenty of room to frame your shots. However, the framing guides are not very reliable. I found that with a 50mm lens, I had to frame my shots well above the bottom guide and above the top guide to get the composition I desired. This is due to the lens and viewfinder being offset from each other, but it's close enough for government work.
Even after you adjust to this, it's still hard to tell if your shot is in perfect focus on the rear LCD. This was a huge issue on the original, and it's better this time, but not totally remedied. I still found myself zooming in only to wonder if my shot was indeed out of focus or if the screen simply wasn't sharp enough (Spoiler: most of the time, it's the screen). After uploading a few shots to my laptop, I felt much more confident, but it's still disappointing because checking focus is the key advantage of shooting digital. For $7,500, it should be near-perfect.
The main attraction
While I could talk about how beautiful and well-built the Monochrom is, what really wins our hearts is the image quality. This camera combines impressive dynamic range and sharp details to produce images that will stand out in your portfolio.
For shooting, we matched the Monochrom up with Leica's version of a nifty fifty, the Summarit-M 50mm f/2.4 lens. I prefer 50mm when shooting around town because it's a balanced focal length to capture both city shots and portraits. The lens itself is light and very approachable, making it easier to approach strangers for portraits. While we haven't tested the lens before now, the sharpness scores proved it to be a very capable performer.
Coupling this with the new 24MP sensor on the Monochrom proved to be a formidable combo. The black-and-white sensor on the Monochrom reads out each pixel individually–most sensors interpolate multiple pixels and average them together to get color–which means you get pixel-perfect detail. It's capable of handling patterns and textures that simply turn into blurry messes on most Bayer sensors. And with the 2GB buffer memory and faster processing, you spend less time waiting on the camera.
The Monochrom captures images in both JPEG and RAW (DNG) formats. The JPEGs tend to come out much punchier than the RAW files due to software adding contrast so images come out ready for print. The RAW images capture much more detail in highlights, which give you much more control of the final image. Even though the RAW images take more work, if you're using this camera, you obviously won't mind a few extra steps for the best quality. Leica even ships a copy of Lightroom with the Monochrom, saving you some extra money.
In terms of noise, the Monochrom generally performed well–even at the higher ISO levels. If you look at the image below, which was shot indoors in relatively low-light, I was able to capture it handheld and the quality wasn't affected much by noise. I do wish that the noise had a more filmic look to it, but I guess I'll have to continue to stick to the real thing for that.
Connectivity costs extra
You might think a camera that can't even shoot color would be devoid of features–and you'd be mostly right. The Monochrom has added video to its feature list in the most cinematic way possible–24 frames per second (fps). Most filmmakers think that 24fps is the perfect speed to capture video because it preserves motion blur and it feels more natural. On most cameras this would feel like a hollow excuse, but on the Monochrom it makes sense.
The rear LCD has been upgraded from it's original 230k-dot LCD to a new 921.6k-dot LCD. This is an important improvement on the atrocious screen on the original Monochrom, which left you always wondering if your shot was in focus or not. Unfortunately, it still isn't sharp enough to always know for sure. With a camera as tricky to focus as a rangefinder, the playback should not leave you with any doubt–especially for the $7,500 price tag.
Leica did add focus peaking for when you're shooting in live view, but users aren't going buy a high-end rangefinder to walk around shooting everything in live view. That would essentially render the Monochrom a really expensive point-and-shoot, which we know isn't Leica's goal–see the Leica Q for that. That said, I found myself using this feature more than I'd like to because of the lack of confidence I had in the rear LCD's ability to confirm my focus during playback.
Unlike the Leica Q, the Monochrom lacks any kind of connections–no WiFi, NFC, GPS, HDMI, or even USB. There is a accessory port on the bottom of the camera (when you remove the baseplate) that allows you to connect an optional Multifunctional Handgrip ($895) that replaces the baseplate and adds a front grip, GPS, and USB port. You can also connect an external microphone ($195) through the accessory grip to improve audio when shooting video.
A pricey tip of the hat to the film era
In the end, the Leica M Monochrom has a gorgeous and well-built body that produces impressive black and white images, but lacks practicality due to the price and lack of versatility. Don't get me wrong, if a Monochrom fell from the heavens and landed in my lap, I would shoot with it on a daily basis. But if I'm forking over $7,500? I'll spend my money on a flagship full-frame DSLR and some pro glass.
I did find first-hand that Leicas are extremely popular when I was shooting around Boston. I was approached by no less than 10 people asking if I was shooting with a Leica–most in disbelief that it was the new Leica M Monochrom. Keep in mind that I've walked around this city with the best cameras on the market and never seen anything like this.
But aside from the attention, I can't come up with a single reason for anyone to buy a $7,500 camera that shoots B&W only, has few features, and is not exactly user-friendly. However, like my editor said about its predecessor, "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."
So while few of us will ever pick up the Leica M Monochrom, we all can appreciate what it stands for. It's the typewriter of the camera world; full of quirks that make it difficult to wield, yet oh so satisfying when you perfect it.
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