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Leica M Monochrom Review

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Introduction

Despite the advent and ubiquity of colour film, it’s quite likely that a number of Leica cameras have been used exclusively for black and white pictures. Beyond the Ilford single use camera owner, Leica users are probably more apt to shoot in black and white.

I point this out neither to mock or praise, but as a simple, if general, observation – so it makes sense that if a company is going to make a camera that shoots only in monochrome, it should be Leica.

Leica’s M-Monochrom attracted a great deal of attention when it was first announced in 2012, partly for the fact that it shoots only in mono, and partly for its stunning £6,000+ price tag. The real attraction though should be the camera’s sensor.

Using all of its pixels for collecting luminosity information, and without the hindrance of having to decipher and interpolate colour values, this naked array should enjoy an ability to resolve pure and crisp detail beyond the usual expectations of an 18-million-pixel sensor.

Features

The feature-set of this camera might be summed up in the sentence ‘it takes pictures’, as in truth it does little else. In an attempt to produce a pared down and simple device, Leica has steered clear of including anything other than the basics of what you might need.

Side shot

Leica photographers should be grateful for any degree of automation and can’t take even aperture priority for granted – though the Monochrom does allow this daring luxury.

A camera isn’t necessarily worse off for a lack of features, since offering centre-weighted metering (as the Monochrom does) but no autofocus and no picture styles, doesn’t make the camera less useable. Where we might begin to struggle with such abstinence though is when real photography functions are affected – such as with a restricted ISO range of 320-10,000.

Although such a range is obviously a good thing for those who like to shoot in low light, those who enjoy an f/2 lens for its f/2 maximum aperture – and who prefer to shoot during the hours of daylight – might find their options rather limited. Leica does provide a ‘pull process’ ISO 160 setting, but we know without looking that this will have a reduced dynamic range, and inevitably, blown highlights.

Side-on shot

The most obvious feature of the camera is of course the remarkable sensor. It’s an 18Mp device that measures 23.9×35.8mm – full frame.

As it’s required to output luminance values, it has no use for the RGB coloured Bayer filters that usually feed colour information to pixels. That means it can collect more light than most – hence the minimum ISO 320 setting.

Neither is there any use for a low-pass filter, meaning the resolution of the light passing from the lens isn’t reduced and there’s no need for the usual interpolation. Consequently, this sensor arrangement should possess a first-class ability to render detail clearly without the need for post-capture Unsharp Masking.

Side view

As the sensor is full-frame, lenses retain the effects of their marked focal lengths. The Leica M lens series offers focal lengths of between 16mm and 135mm, but this camera is designed to provide screen guides for 28mm, 35mm, 50mm, 75mm, 90mm and 135mm lenses.

With Leica’s usual digital camera viewfinder magnification of 0.68x, the 47.1mm mechanical base length of the rangefinder focusing system is effectively 69.25mm – which is slightly shorter than the company’s film models. Focusing should still be very accurate.

The feature most missing on the Leica Monochrom though is a good rear screen. The 2.5in 230k-dot model provided lacks the resolution and the size to be as useful as one might hope a screen would be on a camera of this type (and price!).

Rear screen

Jargon buster
Rangefinder base length: this term simply refers to the distance between the two windows in a rangefinder focusing system that create the double overlaid image in the viewfinder of Leica M cameras, and others. The distance is significant as, in general terms, the further apart the windows are the more accurate the focusing system.

Side on

All of Leica’s current M film and digital models have a base length of 69.25mm, but the greater magnification of the film camera viewfinders (0.72x) makes their rangefinders more accurate in practice than that of the Monochrom, which has a viewfinder magnification of 0.62x.

Handling, Performance and Verdict

In a slightly sinister matt black, the solid and unsophisticated block of Monochrom looks somewhere between military hardware and a Hell’s Angel’s petrol tank. Its design is either clean or a little featureless, depending on your preference, and the ergonomic touches and grips of other interchangeable lens cameras are nowhere to be seen.

It is a camera that is built to last, and one should rightly expect the body to be functioning well beyond the time the pixel count will seem attractive. And of all the digital cameras we’ve used, this is the one we would least want to drop, and yet the one which we would have no fear of doing so. The weight and lack of built-in grip mean this is a camera to use with a strap or an optional grip – or both.

Side-on lens view

The layout of controls on the body is simple and straightforward, and what features there are for shooting and playback are easily found – except exposure compensation. This favourite feature of ours has to be excavated from the menu system every time you want to use it – until you discover that a custom setting can assign the rear dial to its control.

Those used to being able to keep abreast of settings in use will find it difficult to acclimatise to the information panel in the viewfinder. The exposure indicator shows only under-, correct or over-exposure, with no scale to tell you by how much you’re off course. There’s nothing to tell you what aperture is in use, and shutter speeds show only when set automatically in aperture priority mode.

Front angled shot

The rangefinder dual image focusing system is as bright and quick to use as we have come to expect from Leica, but for some reason this time we struggled to shoot uprights without blocking the rangefinder window. It could be because the camera is fatter than the sleek film models we’re more acquainted with, but it took some time to find what felt like a secure gripping technique for shooting in portrait orientation.

Buttons

The Leica M-Monochrom’s menu system is somewhat antiquated, with the entire collection of options in a single index stream that seems to scroll forever. Making changes to the listed items is not always straightforward either, as some alterations require a confirmation press of the ‘set’ button, while others don’t. After a while you’d probably get used to it, but we’re not sure it would ever become more convenient.

Performance

Images from this camera are characterised by a high volume of very deep greys, as though the tail of the tone curve is pulled down at the end, as we might expect from a long process in dilute chemistry. The look straight from the camera is striking and suits gritty subjects and mysterious documentary images very well, though on occasions we found it a little overwhelming.

Left buttons

The top of the curve pings upwards in a kink, and burns highlight tones very quickly, a characteristic which only made us want to aim for darker shots and thus more of those darker shadows.

Fortunately, both JPEG and raw files contain plenty of information, and while JPEGs do run out of steam more quickly, the DNG raw files can handle a good deal of tonal manipulation with minimal degradation of the image.

Top view

Detail is certainly well preserved, and although the images were noisier than we expected, the noise features a more pleasant tight grain pattern than we are used to – and is thus much less offensive.

Front without lens

I compared the camera’s colour response to that of a normal Bayer pattern sensor working in black and white mode, and with a colour image switched between channels in Channel Mixer. I remain somewhat mystified by Leica’s choice of spectral sensitivity. The images are much more blue/red sensitive than we’re used to, even from film, and have an air of blue channel conversion mixed with the density and contrast of ortho film.

With raw files, of course, we have the chance to alter the look of the images a great deal. But we rather missed the choices that RGB monochrome present. We could always go back to using coloured filters over the lens if we really wanted to.

Top view

Having said all that, I am extremely pleased with the images that the camera produced. The distinctive look took a while to get used to, but we were soon able to shoot with that style in mind – as we would have done with film. If that style appeals to you, you’ll be very happy.

For a camera that you would think is ready to capture the decisive moment, the Monochrom spends rather too much time processing images. Leica needs to introduce a processing engine with a higher performance so that the camera clears more quickly and images render on the rear screen with less delay. While the images from the Monochrom are very nice indeed, the process of making them can be torturous.

Verdict

The Leica M-Monochrom is like no other camera on the market and it’s extremely difficult to pass judgement on it by way of comparison. This test provided one of those rare occasions where I enjoyed looking at the pictures produced more than I did actually using the camera.

Top front

The Monochrom is an awkward beast to handle and demands that you alter the way you see as well as the way you work. Essentially it offers little in the way of flexibility. The images it produces are extremely good, and even the noise is attractive, but the tonal characteristics are dark and moody, and find light and jolly subjects a challenge. It shoots like a TV news programme – full of dramatic grit, dirt and death, with only the occasional positive story.

Hole

The question of whether it’s worth its price tag is redundant – of course it isn’t, but that won’t stop Leica selling out, because there are more than enough people with money to spend who will want one.

We liked

Exceptional detail and versatility from the raw files allows dramatic post-capture editing, so you can remodel images the way you want. And the Monochrom is built to last forever.

We disliked

The viewfinder information and menu system are prehistoric, while the rear screen really has no place on a camera that offers such image quality and demands such expense.

Final verdict

It is a little unfair to score this camera against the values of normal products, as it is designed to stand apart from and against so many of those measures. It intentionally has limited features, but perhaps it is too pared down, and there are a number of handling issues that are plain unhelpful. Image quality though, is outstanding.

Front shot

Sample images

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A combination of nice-looking noise and Leica’s fast fixed lenses makes shooting at night easy. At ISO 1600, the camera offered 1/250sec for this scene.

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Although tones tend to be bunched at the lower end there’s still enough separation to describe shadow details, and raw files are packed with information just waiting to be used.

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Once you’re used to the rangefinder system, focusing is fast and smooth. We were able to use wide apertures and still maintain sharp subjects, so long as they weren’t actually moving.

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We had to use exposure compensation quite a lot, not just to adjust the brightness of subjects, but to ensure bright highlights weren’t burning out.

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The dipped lower curve of the Monochrom’s tonal range work nicely to emphasise shadows.

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Being a matt black and not especially large, the Monochrom is good for working discretely and for getting close to your subject.

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Working with backlit subjects emerging from a dark area, we discovered that mid tones can be rendered a little flat and grey, as all the contrast is concentrated on the extreme tones.

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The tonal resolution of the sensor produces images that have very fine graduation from one brightness level to the next. This gives the pictures a wonderful three-dimensional feel, even when they’ve been through a brightening or darkening process.

By Damien Demolder, TechRadar


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