The Leica M Monochrom is a unique camera made exclusively for black & white photographers. It’s smart, unobtrusive and captures subjects in fine detail. Andy Luck puts it to the test.
TESTS AND PRODUCTS
In an age of increasing automation in the world of photography, it is rare to come across a camera that provides quite such an immersive experience as the Leica M Monochrom.
Here is a camera that stands completely apart. It has a clear, almost uncompromising, function indicated by the Monochrom label: to provide digital black & white images only.
This unique and purposeful nature is encapsulated in a handsome, unbranded (no red dot here), flat black metal exterior, hand assembled in Germany. The same, practical range-finder shape is retained, little changed from the first M3 of 1954.
Stripping the Bayer colour filter array from the M9’s 18Mp CCD sensor might seem a retrograde or even anachronistic approach to many people, but as the high price tag implies, this camera is not designed for the masses. Rather, this is a specialist tool, aimed squarely at those with a specific need for the best black & white digital images possible in the 35mm format.
There are still those of us that love B&W film, but even the most steadfast find it hard to resist the undoubted advantages of the digital workflow and this is the niche into which the M Monochrom fits perfectly.
By removing the RGB filter, each pixel location is dedicated to recording light across the greyscale, with no need for interpolation and demosaicing blur associated with colour sensors. The absence of the colour filter array and the antialiasing filter bring valuable by-products in much finer detail captured and a considerable increase in sensitivity compared to the standard colour sensor. Maximum ISO increases from ISO 2500 on the M9 to a greatly improved ISO 10000 on the M Monochrom.
The results are visibly greater resolution, allowing the M Monochrom user to take even greater advantage of the renowned Leica optics. Another benefit is a film-like but much finer grain at high ISO than would be possible from a B&W conversion from the colour filter. The resulting output is almost medium format in character.
The native minimum sensitivity also rises to ISO 320, while the top shutter speed remains at 1/4000sec, so those wanting to use the widest apertures on the faster lenses will appreciate that an ND filter will be required in the brightest conditions where the Monochrom’s reserve, Pull 160 setting, might not be enough. With no colour information recorded that could be used as faux filters in digital B&W conversions, the red, orange and yellow screw-in filters will also probably be dusted off and brought back into play by M Monochrom users!
Using a range-finder with split image focusing as opposed to an SLR is a matter of taste, but with over half a century of experience, it is very well implemented on the M Monochrom.
While most of the controls and functionality of the M9 (reviewed in B+W 117) remain unchanged, the white balance and colour modes are dispensed with and three optional toning modes of Cold, Selenium and Sepia for Jpegs are added instead. In addition, an accurate Raw data histogram has been added that can be called up by pressing the info button to indicate precisely the tonal values recorded along with more precise highlight and shadow clipping indicators.
With the Monochrom, care needs to be taken to avoid highlight clipping as only one channel clips, unlike colour sensors which tend to clip at different values across the three channels, giving slightly more leeway to rescue burned out areas in one or another colour channel.
With only a single channel to play with, the Monochrom user will be paying close attention to the Raw histogram, exposing for the highlights and — possibly as I did — setting a default negative exposure compensation of around a stop. Exposure compensation is easily dialled in with the control wheel, while the shutter release is half pressed. This practice becomes second nature and has little penalty as the shadow detail recoverable on the Monochrom is generally good and relatively noise-free, whereas once highlights are clipped, they are gone.
The Leica M Monochrom is a beautifully crafted camera with a singular purpose: designed to work hard for its living in black & white. The rewards are undoubtedly there for those that seek them. It demands a degree of dedication and skill to get the best out of it, but this provides a very involving user experience many will relish. With care, the most detailed and tone-full black & white images are possible, all delivered in the faster digital workflow required by so many of today’s serious enthusiasts and professionals.