Monochrom Italian Adventure By Ashwin Rao

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Monochrom Italian Adventure

By Ashwin Rao – His Facebook page is HERE, his blog is HERE

“Italy in Monochrome.” A dream, a question, a challenge, and now a reality. Hello, my fellow Huffites, it’s Ashwin, back from a bit of a hiatus. I have been busy with many happy life events, which have kept me away from you. Have I been away from my camera? Not at all! In my efforts to document my ongoing experience with my favorite Leica M camera to date, the Leica M Monochrom, I recently ventured to the Tuscan region of Italy for the very first time. The trip represented a very exciting and personal journey for me, as I got engaged to my fiancée Jennifer on this trip (that part happened before Italy). But that’s a story for another time. Needless to say, I was thrilled to have my Leica M Monochrom available for the trip. Yet, for such a journey, there was some trepidation. The Tuscan hill towns and the glorious city of Florence are known for their beauty, and color is such a huge part of the Tuscan palette. How would shooting the region be, using only black and white to see the world around me? Well, that is what this story is about….

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As many of you know, and as has been well documented here in my prior writings, I have made a wonderful journey of discovery through the legendary past of rangefinder lore. Along the way, I have discovered the beauty and unique properties of many classic lenses designed by Nippon Kogaku, Canon, and of course, Leitz (classic Leica). This journey has allowed me to discover how remarkable these lenses are in capturing black and white imagery with panache, detail, and clarity. One of the hugely pleasant surprises, to me, in using these older lenses, is how well they do on the modern sensor of the M Monochrom.


I continue to be amazed at the designs of years long gone past of the lens masters such as Max Berek (the original Leitz Maestro), Walter Mandler (i.e. the unsurpassed master of Double Gaussian design), Hiroshi Ito and Jiro Mukai (Mandler’s Japanese Counterpart in Double Gaussian/planar lens design mastery), and so many other legends (Barnack, Bertelle, Gauss to name but a few). Okay, I am misting up in my own history lesson .

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The bottom line is that many of these classic lenses, in some cases developed without the aid of computer design, resolve at the level of modern glass (on center at least), and possess character in gobs. Maybe it’s the glass that was used, or the coatings that were optimized for black and white film. Maybe it was the rare earth elements that were sometimes employed to achieve unique looks and resolution. Whateve the case may be, you owe it to yourself to try older lenses on your new Leica and other ILC bodies. For my own journey to Italy, I could not imagine better way to see a land of romance, rich in the traditions of the past, then through the lens of the past, reborn to the present and borne upon the Leica M Monochrom, which I consider a modern classic and possibly the most unique imaging tool in 35 mm photography today. So the modern aspherical lenses remained at home for this trip, and 60-year-old gear came along for the ride.

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Over the past months, I have collected many vintage lenses to test on the M Monochrom. Some lenses, I have loved. Others, I have hated. All of these tests and trials have been wonderful and informative courtships, and in the future, I will tell you stories of some of my favorite journeys in getting to know these lenses. I have found along the way that classic Leitz lenses, those produced before the “Leica” name was applied to the camera’s photographic section, produce remarkable and consistent results on the M Monochrom. Thus, early in the planning process, I made the decision to use my Leitz classic lens kit, comprising the Leitz Summicron 35 mm f/2 (the original 8-element design) , my beloved Leitz Rigid Summicron 50 mm f/2 (2nd version, and the first of Leitz’ rigid Summicron designs), and a Leitz 90 mm f/2.8 Elmarit. These lenses possess, near perfect build, are incredibly compact and lightweight, and have produced images and clarity that have left me baffled and bewildered (in a good way)… Furthermore, the 35/50/90 mm lens kit is one of my favorites for travel, in that it provides a great versatility for rangefinder work. The 35/50/90 frame lines were first introduced in the Leica M2, and represent a classic way of seeing with rangefinders. Why not use this classic approach and channel it through the Leica M Monochrom.

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The images that I have provided represent journeys through the alleyways and artisan shops of Firenze (Florence for us Westerners), the gentle stone footpaths of Volterra and the stately tower lined streets of San Gimignano. They showcase the bustling chaos of Siena, and the rolling wineries of Pancole and the majestic endless arched alleyways of Bologna, with it’s own leaning tower. You may ask, how was it to shoot such a colorful country in monochrome? For me, the experience is liberating, and I now have monochrome memories of this cherished journey with Jennifer, in our first steps toward the path to marriage. To see her ring glint in the Tuscan light, in glorious black and white, makes me smile right at this very moment. Sure, there were moments where I yearned for color, but truth be told, these moments were few and far between. Focusing on shadow and light, on luminance and contrast, are challenges that I welcomed and embraced. I equate, at times, the challenge of shooting black and white to the challenge of stopping down to f/8 to shoot street scenes. Initially, for many of us who enjoy shooting wide open, stopping down can be disconcerting. How does one isolate the subject from chaotic surroundings but by opening up the aperture and blurring away distractions? Well, with creativity and an eye for surrounding detail, one can often paint even more interesting images, integrating subject and surrounds, by stopping down. So it goes with shooting in black and white. Color is often a welcome distraction, but limiting yourself to black, white and the in between shades of grey can recalibrate your own conceptions of what it is to make a meaningful image. I will continue to love color, but I now warmly embrace this challenge of shooting in black and white for the majority of my photos

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Truth be told, much of the Tuscan country site is browns, greens, yellows, and greys. Neutral colors that adjust well to the black and white palettes. Travelling in this way with the Leica M Monochrom in hand doesn’t lose much, and if you are up for the challenge, take out your own camera someday soon, set it to BW, and shoot only in this manner. Initially the experience will be difficult, but soon, you too may come to embrace this “limitation.”

I hope you have enjoyed this little journey, through my own experience, of a special time, with memories of vintage lenses and canvas landscapes. I hope that the images do justice to the moments that I saw. I am happy, but now it is time for you to be the judge.

All the best to you, my friends, and see you again soon!

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Follow Ashwin!  His Facebook page is HERE, his blog is HERE

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89 thoughts on “Monochrom Italian Adventure By Ashwin Rao

  1. Hi Ashwin / everyone – Since the rigid ‘cron (11 818) is not available for “manual lens select” in the MM firmware, is it better to tell the camera it’s an (11 817) or an (11 819/11 825/11 826/11 816) or something else entirely?

    Have searched for some time for recommendations on Google but haven’t found anything.

    Thank you so much,
    Derek

  2. Evocative images, timeless. I wonder, though, given the subtle shading of the colors of Tuscany you allude to, whether more modern optical designs might render the tonality better. Just a thought. I must admit that uncorrected SA has its limits in aesthetics.

  3. Very nice Ashwin, Im a bw person too but my clients often prefers colours.. Hence I opted for m240 instead of the MM.. Ans I surely cant afford both right now!

  4. Dear Ashwin,

    I am very late to this party, but I would be remiss not to tell you how much I’ve thoroughly enjoyed your photography with the Monochrom. You really make me second guess my decision to abandon mine.

    Beautiful, timeless feel to all of these.

    May your happiness be eternal…

    Sincerely,

    Peter.

  5. Some good shots here. I can’t see any hint of HDR effects (and I loathe any obvious HDR) on my monitor (brand new Lenovo!).

    Another person commented on the backlit 3rd to last shot; it certainly shows well that dreamy contemplative mood of tourists under the spell of Firenze.

  6. These are some of the best photos I have seen on this site. Very nice. I find with B+W I have to stop worrying about the colors I see and start thinking about the feelings I get. It is a very different approach. Your pictures here are full of feeling and look great in monochrome.

  7. In these days we have overdose of everything. But it lacks in quality. I want to run out from quantity. So, i keep looking only few photographers works. Ashwin Raw is one of them. What a gorgeous images! It’s a relieve to know we still have talented photographers that can make possible our escape from the confused crowd.

    1. Thank you, Hugo. I am honored by your kind words and the ank you so much. It’s my goal to share images that people may find enjoyable or inspiring. In touched by your kindness .

  8. Hey Ashwin, thanks for posting! My wife and I are going to Rome and Florence in September, so it’s a timely post for me.

    It seems to my eye that the images tend to have a different look compared to those in your ‘Onward and Upward’ post from a while back. These photos seem a bit ‘harder’ and contrasty, if you will. Is that a result of a different choice in lenses, a result of what the light gave you, or because of an evolution in processing style? Or is it just my imagination? Thanks!

  9. I think the problem is that you added more contrast or more things with LR4 so the results is that some pictures look too much processed . The real pictures without LR4 are more natural and also flat

  10. Very nice pics but that is not the main issue today.
    It is a big and fat MAZAL TOV or how they pronunce it in America: MAZEL- TOV
    🙂
    Danny

  11. Love the images especially in monochrome! I have been a b&w fan ever since I picked up my first SLR in 1978! My website is totally b&w as that is my passion. I fell in love with the Leica Monochrom when I first saw images from it SOOC! But, since it is out of my price range, I went the Fuji route (currently with a X100S and soon with an X-E1). I love your thoughts on the legacy glass and it is something I have been leaning toward myself (especially with the focus peaking upgrade just released for the X-System cameras). I will dig back through Steve’s archives for your other articles on the legacy glass. Thanks for sharing!!!

  12. Nice shots and story! In hard (sunny) light you have to play with the light and use the shadows in the composition. You have done that. I enjoy myself with my M6 and Ricoth GR1s with some nice BW films.

    Nice day to you 🙂

  13. One of the best articles I’ve read on this site, ever. Great pictures and passionate writing, thoroughly enjoyed the journey of discovery you share in this story. Thanks!

    I’m quite used at doing travel and street photography with two bodies, one with a wide angle or normal, another with a short tele, in this case you had a three lenses setup, but just one body…how did you decide when to mount each lens, did you change on an ad hoc basis depending on each shot (i doubt it because of the dynamics of photographing in the streets), did you plan it according to the “geography” of the neighborhood you were shooting, or what was your method? I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on that.

    Are you on flickr btw?

    1. Thank you so much for your kind words, Nico. As for chosing how and when to mount a lens, much had to do with surveying the scene and “picking a perspective’…generally, I shoot mainly 50 mm, but when I saw something that needed more scale, I reached for my 35, and on rare occasions, I’d go to my 90 for portraiture or reach/compressed tele work. Hope that helps.

  14. Ashwin, great article and FANTASTIC images!! You will be referring back to these for the rest of your life as something truly special in memory and outstanding technical ability. Bravo!!

  15. It’s funny to read that Firenze is known as Florence to… the “Westerners”! LOL. It sounds almost as if Firenze wasn’t in Europe but somewhere in the East (with all sincere respect for the Easterners). That’s genuinely comic, speaking of one of the European cities that have contributed the most to European and Western culture in general… Dear American friends of whatever origin, let me break you these news: the West exists outside your borders, and existed there long before you. 😀

      1. I wouldn’t consider knowledge of history and geography (or lack thereof) a matter of personal sensibilities or point of view… I have mentioned objective facts. Why should I be offended by the ignorance of these facts — even if you choose to keep ignoring them after being informed, at least the pictures are nice. 🙂

    1. To Maurice (Mauricio ) lambasting poor Ashwin. Firenze was called in old days Florenza and before that Florentia, so Florence in English is in fact closer to original then Firenze, at least to me.
      Bravo for the Pictures Ashwin.

  16. What a compelling, exquisite portfolio that asks the question: why not all monochrome ~ all the time!

  17. Beautiful shots. I shoot film and digital about equally, and while digital is usually color for me, I haven’t bought a roll of color film in over a decade.

    I will try setting my digital to BW as well.

  18. Great work, Aswin and congratulations! My wife’s family is from Carrara Italy and we’ve been back several times to visit cousins. Always a wonderful time. Good that you had the courage to just shoot B&W. My last trip was with a Nikon D200 for color and HP5 in my M4. The Nikon shots looked like ho hum postcards while the M4 shots captured more of the soul of this wonderful country and its beautiful people. And I always felt like a pack mule. Never again. Next time it will be one Leica and 2 or 3 lenses.

    1. Thank you, Tom. I love how BW can capture “soul” at times….One Leica and 3 lenses is how I always travel. I did bring the RX1 as a backup, but it barely got used…the MM is such an amazing tool if you accept the BW view. Thanks again for your kind words, and enjoy the coming travels a bit lighter in the backpack.

  19. Fantastic Ashwin. You have taken me back to my own trip to this region 5 years ago.

    I am fortunate enough to be heading back to Europe for 5 weeks in September and will also be taking the MM. You’ve certainly got me excited about this trip and inspired!

    Thanks for sharing and congratulations on your engagement!

    1. So happy to have inspired you, Andy, and I know that you are capable of magic with your MM, as seen in your last article. Thanks for the kind words. Life’s great!

  20. Bella. Most modern coatings and designs are for color. Modern Photography did a lines per mm test on lens of the past vs new ( back in 60’s or 70’s ). A three element pop out Leica lens won. But it was unable to be used with color film.Keep that old glass. You have an excellent eye for B&W.

    1. Interesting note. I have heard that older lenses were optimized to BW films of the era, but wasn’t aware about the max resolution of the 3 element Leica (which one? elmar 50)?

  21. I’d noticed that many of your photos have these film-like grain to them. Are these OOC or filtered? I would assume that the ones with grains were taken with your classic lenses?

    1. Flat? HDR? Seriously man? You have no idea what you are talking about. These images a rich and full of mood, texture and dimension. I’d hate to see what your idea of an image that’s not flat is if these are flat.

        1. Thanks for the suport, guys. No HDR was used at all in these images…not sure how that’s come through, but it may be the expanded DR of the MM that might be at play for some eyes…Histograms were usually slightly under-exposed, so I think you may need to recalibrate that monitor, Kylie…;)

          1. I have been getting accused of HDR lately with Leica M 240 images and RX1 images. I do think it is due to the extended DR of these newer sensors and cameras. But still, these look nothing like HDR 🙂 Ask Roger, he will tell you!

          2. I think a lot of people still need to adjust to the fact that sensors are simply better. I greatly disliked the D4 vs the D3/D3S. The DR was outstanding, but the colors we off for me. The monochrom just does things you don’t see in other cameras. It’s giving us so much more information, which I still can’t wrap my brain around after 6 months of extensive use. Ashwin these images are fantastic and I’d wager you didn’t do much to the RAW files to achieve these results.

    1. No HDR was used at all….sorry….just LR4. The MM has quite an expanded dynamic range, but it’s native, not augmented by me. If anything, I processed to reduce some DR in the process…

  22. Beautiful, Ashwin! Not just the technical quality and the composition but I especially enjoyed how you captured the essence of Italy. Very, very nice!

  23. We have been in Florence for the past month for our around-the-world trip and I have been having a hard time getting good shots here. The lighting is harsh, not much contrast for BW, and the crowds are thick. You got some great shots and I see many of them were at the magic hour. I need to get out more at that time!!!

  24. Hi Ashwin,

    thank you very much for some wonderful shots. I have to admit that I’m missing the coulours much lass than I expected at the start of your article. Great Work again, although I expect, it was more fun than work.
    And – Congratulations!

    Yours

    Dirk

    1. Dirk, thanks so much for your kind words….I struggle with the balance of shooting color and BW, and must say that most of the times, BW is actually liberating in that it allows one to focus on luminance and compositon and not worry about color

  25. Simply wonderful images and renderings. For the first time since seeing many, many, Monochrome images, I am truly ENVIOUS. These are the kinds of images that show what a Monochrome (with some great glass) can do. Beautiful!

    1. Thanks, Frandy. The MM is capable of wonderful IQ, even with older and cheaper glass. It could theoretically be a cost saver, should one buy into the old lens mantra 🙂

  26. Your black and white fotos are pregnant with a wonderful timelessness. They do strike a chord in my southern european soul. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Haha, thanks so much :). I made sure to spend plent of time with her, but yes, I need to restrain myself at gtimes. I occasionally use color filters, particularly yellow and green filters, rarely orange and red (though oranges work quite well for scenic shots)

  27. Really fantastic shots and thoughts, Ashwin! I am in that kind of a transition phase by myself (i.e. going more and more towards B&W) and I am going to test this approach by using my Ricoh GR in B&W mode. Thanks again for the inspiration!

    Best wishes,

    Jonne

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