Oct 052012
 

The Leica M Monochrom Review Part 1. Understanding the Camera and VS film. 

After reading this, Part 2 is now up HERE.

Part 2.5 is up HERE - Part 3 is up HERE

The Monochrom and Zeiss Sonnar 1.5 – Some slight PP to enhance the contrast

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After posting about the arrival of my Leica Monochrom I have had quite a few e-mails asking me to do a “rolling review”. Well I thought about it and even though I have only had the camera at this point for two full days I decided “why not”? The 1st installment will be about the Monochrom, my thoughts as well as some 100% crop comparisons with Tri-X and HP-5. Nothing technical, just real world and the thoughts from a guy who has shot ALL Leica cameras extensively. Over the coarse of this 4 part review I will cover just about EVERYTHING that can be covered from comparisons, to filters on your lenses to filters in Lightroom or Photoshop. I will go over real world high ISO shooting as well as show off some cool accessories that will complete your monochrom if you choose to buy one for yourself. So here we go….

Again, this review will be done in at least FOUR parts. Part one is presented here “Understanding the Camera”. Part 2 will follow next week and so on. With a camera as special as this I figured I would make it as thorough as I can without getting all boring and technical. There will be MANY samples with this camera and various lenses and as each new part is posted I will post links to each page so you can easily find all of the parts. I hope you enjoy this as much as I have enjoyed writing it.

As for the Leica haters who will be posting nasty comments let me remind you to that you must keep comments relevant and keep the nasty attacks to yourself. They are not warranted or welcome here. Of course I know you can shoot B&W with ANY digital camera made so this is why I am going to be testing this camera for a long term review. To see exactly what it can and can not do.

The Unboxing of my new Monochrom 

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So far so good…and yes, it can replace B&W  film for most of us. Didn’t take much time for me to figure that one out.

I have only had this (production) camera for TWO days and let me state right up front that it is indeed my own personal camera. Not a loaner or rental but MINE. Why did I decided to ditch my M9-P and pick up the Monochrom knowing damn well you can shoot the M9-P and convert to B&W using Silver Efex or Alien Skin? Well, after shooting this camera in Berlin for an hour at the launch event…yes, just an hour..I was already hooked. I knew that the files coming out were a tad flat and grey but I also knew this camera had serious potential. Much more so than the Leica M9 being converted to B&W.

100% crop – To see the intense detail click the image below which is a 100% crop shot at f/1.5 with a 50 sonar Zeiss lens. This is what comes out of the Monochrom at ISO 4000 and is a crop of the image at the top of this page. Some my say it is too smooth but think of the possibilities here..any ISO for any situation. If you want grain, set it to 8000 and shoot away, or add it in post.

iso4000crop

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No a 100% crop from a film scan – Leica M7 – 50 Cron – Tri-X – Coolscan V – Makes the shot from the MM look like Medium Format and keep in mind that he crop above was shit as ISO 4000..below is an ISO 400 film and it has more grain than the Monochrom.  You need to crank the MM to ISO-8000 to get this kind of grain. 

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Leica M7 and 50 cron with Ilford HP5 – Nikon Coolscan V

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Now I know my  statement here of “yes, it can replace film” is going to piss many hardcore film shooters off and have some hate slung at me but I say what I feel and what I feel is that this is a definitive B&W camera for those who are passionate about the “art” of photography, the “emotion” of photography and the “beauty” of black & white photography. Black & White Film has always been the heart and soul of photography, especially for those who have shot with Leica cameras but these days shooting film for many is a pain in the ass. The cost, the processing, the chemicals, the darkroom, etc. Let us not forget that If you scan your film you are digitizing it anyway and when printing on a printer at home you lose the true qualities of that film. I have scanned thousands of B&W frames in my day and I am saying with 1000% conviction that the files I am seeing from the Monochrom are the closest I have ever seen any digital come to film but not 35mm film because they look more like rich medium format files. 

But how can it replace film when you will not have the full experience of the darkroom? Some crave that experience..I know this. Well in that area it CAN NOT replace film. When I say it can kick some film to the curb I am speaking from my experience with film (shooting an M7 only for a year and processing film, scanning film, working with film, etc).  The fact of the matter is that the Leica Monochrom is the only digital camera I have used to date that I feel can finally meet and yes even exceed the qualities of 35mm B&W film. Like I said the Monochrom needs to be compared to medium format more than anything..or even a Sigma DP2m :)

How can you say this Steve?? You must be stricken with some sort of Leica MM fanboy disease!!!

Lol, well after shooting with the Monochrom I have found that the files coming out of the camera can be flat and very very grey (just like a film scan actually). But work on them just a little and you are rewarded with absolutely insane detail and resolution that kicks not only 35mm film to the curb but also kicks the the M9 along with it. Again, I am speaking about B&W film and the detail and resolution and even DR.

CLICK the image for full 100% crop. All I did here was adjust the contrast – 35 Lux FLE

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Looks like a nice quality film to me but with even more detail. Click it for larger view which will look much better :)

The Monochrom means busine$$.

For starters this camera has some serious Medium Format quality resolution and you would think it was a 36MP sensor instead of an 18MP sensor. Yes, it is that good and literally does things that even an M9 can not do. Then again, the M9 does color as well and it is cheaper so the Leica Monochrom is ONLY for those who seriously want to get into black & white photography. Doing this means changing your whole brain and how it functions for going out and shooting. Shooting in B&W means “seeing” in B&W and that is much different than seeing in color.

I added some grain to this one to give it a teeny bit of grit.

When shooting color it is easy to see a shot and think “this will look amazing”. When shooting B&W you have to know what will look good, what lighting will work good and what kind of tones are in the shot. If you thought shooting an M9 made you think then this Monochrom makes you think even more. But this is a good thing.

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Just after two days with this beautiful machine I am adoring it. Loving it and even though the price of admission is sky high it is 100% unique. There is NOTHING like it. NOTHING. This is part of the reason why Leica had the balls to price it where they did. They know there are some who would give even more than $8000 for a camera such as this. They are not shooting for volume here as this is a STATEMENT piece from Leica. It brought them loads of press (free advertising) and they are delivering it in teeny tiny quantities and selling all that they can make.

Sure the new M is coming at $6995, $1000 less than the Mono and it will shoot color, have higher MegaPixels and even do video. A jack of all trades. But in my opinion if you are a black & white person even the new M will not match the Monochrom. It can come close but can’t match it.

A great case for the Monochrom is the hand made and hand stitched M case from classiccases.co.uk. I keep the back flap up so I avoid the urge to chimp :) (preview files on the LCD) I am not usually a case guy but this one feels great and is not so bulky like some of the popular M cases. The fit is also superb.

UPDATE: My case broke after a couple of weeks as a snap fell off for no reason. Never had that happen with any case in my life so just a heads up.

To Understand the Monochrom…

The Monochrom is a camera much like the Leica MP. A lifetime camera. Of course many will say a digital camera can not be a lifetime camera but I beg to differ. If you are 12 then maybe not, but if you are like me, in your 40′s or older then this is a camera that could easily last our lifetime as long as Leica stays in business and supplies service and batteries. Even their Digilux 2 is still in service and they still repair them and it is well over 12 years old. The Monochrom is not one of those cameras you buy and sell a year later for something new..unless you bought it for the wrong reasons like style and flash or curiosity. For those who live, breath, eat and sleep B&W this is YOUR camera. Period. No film stock to buy. No chemicals to inhale. No time consuming scanning film for hours. No ISO restrictions. This is about as good as it will ever get for B&W only cameras. It simply can not get any better than this when we are talking 35mm format and compact.

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If you are thinking of this camera then you have to ask yourself these questions BEFORE pulling the trigger:

  1. Do I live and breathe to shoot in Black & White and do I want just about the best B&W results I can get digitally without the cost of film?
  2. Am I ok shooting ONLY B&W, even if it means missing shots that scream for color?
  3. Can I afford a Monochrom and an M9? Or a Monochrom and something else that shoots color?
  4. Am I 100% sure I do NOT want to shoot B&W film (you can do this much cheaper with an M6 and Tri-X but with restriction and not the same qualities)
  5. Do I enjoy shooting with a Rangefinder/Leica M? 
  6. Do I already own Leica M mount glass?
  7. Am I ok with a low res crappy LCD on the back of my camera?
  8. Do I want to shoot my M at ISO 3200 or 6400 or even ISO 10,000 and get great results?
If you answered yes to the majority of these then you will most likely love the Monochrom. End of story :)
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Check out the Dynamic Range and subtle tones..the way the Monochrom handled the highlights here is beautiful. Not blown out or underexposed – just right. 

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About the Leica Monochrom Sensor. Why is it so special?

The Leica Monochrom looks like, smells like, feel like, and shoots JUST like a Leica M9 or M9-P or even new M-E. It is the same M9 body that we all know and love (and some hate) with the same LCD, same rangefinder system and same limitations that all rangefinders have (at least until the new M arrives). The only difference with the Monochrom is that it has a very special sensor that records your photos in MONO. I can sit here for an hour and write up how and why this is but I will keep it simple as other sites have went into the technical qualities of the sensor. In basic terms this sensor, because of the lack of color filter array the Monochrom sensor can capture more light but not capture the color. There is also no need for demosaicing (combining color info) so this sensor is capable of capturing insane amounts of detail. It is in fact a hot rodded M9 18MP sensor but you will get more detail than the M9. Like I said, out of the camera the files are smooth as silk up to ISO 2500 and after that you get some nice grain (I will go over this in future installments) so you choose how you want your files to look.

Just know that the files from this camera and sensor are very “tweakable” to get whatever look you want from it. I am excited to see what others can do with this as I expect we will see some flat out astounding shots from the Monochrom in the near future as everyone gets their own personal processing prefs down. As for me, I much prefer this camera to shooting B&W film. I even shoot it with the LCD covered using my classiccases.co.uk case and it is similar to shooting film (without the advance lever of course). I like having no restrictions and that is what this camera is about. NO RESTRICTIONS.

Want to shoot in bright light? No problem though an ND filter will help as the ISO low spot is 320, high for full sun and fast lenses. Still better than being stuck with 400 or 1600 film in your camera in sunlight. Want to shoot in dark? Slap on a 1.4 lens and crank the ISO. Results will be there with some gorgeous film like grain.

Same shot – 1st one right from camera with a little sharpening…

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Next shot is with an Alien Skin Tri-X 400 filter added – contrast boosted, whites are whiter and looks a little more rough

I have read a few comments from Leica haters who are saying that it is ridiculous that you need to process files from this camera because it cost $8000. Well, every digital camera in existence, even film cameras, will give you files you can use right from camera. If you want to take that extra step and give more life to your photo you may want to process. I know people who spend HOURS in the darkroom dodging and burning their prints from film. With digital it is no difference and to suggest we shouldnt need to do work to photos is sort of ridiculous. Even $30k medium format cameras could use their files tweaked. It’s actually what makes part of being a photographer fun. Working on your files. Unless you are one of those who go out to shoot 1000 frames a day, then I could understand it. But if that is the case then you should just forget about processing photos. Hire someone to do it :)

To understand the Monochrom you have to know what it is all about. I have explained it in this post which is part 1 of 5 in my ongoing Monochrom review. This camera is not for everyone and yes you can get great B&W conversions from many cameras. Leica M8, M9, Nikon D800 and others but the Monochrom is not only about shooting in B&W, it is about shooting in a style that some of us love so much. It is a true rangefinder which is not an experience you can get from a Nikon D800. It is compact and you can not get this from a D800. It has a jewel like build (also not with the D800). The lenses are the best in the world and SMALL. Shooting a rangefinder puts you in a different mindset. I have spoken about this many times but it is true and to those who are the Leica haters, that is OK. Everyone is entitled to their opinion just as I am to mine. Not everyone likes shooting with an RF.

As for the pricing I feel Leica overdid it. I wish this camera came in at $5500 but I also understand what Leica is doing with this camera. Like I said it is a niche specialist statement piece to show everyone that it can be done in 35mm and by Leica, the one company who SHOULD be doing it.

*Just know that the Monochrom is just like an M9 though it does have the Sapphire glass cover over the low res antique LCD. 

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I feel Leica will be on another roll here soon with the new M-E already in stock and the new M coming soon with it’s all new features there are interesting times ahead indeed.

Part TWO of this review is coming in about 7-12 days. I will go over high ISO and have a load of sample images. I am hoping that for parts 3-5 I can do some comparisons with other cameras such as the OM-D, D800 and Leica M9 and M. Stay tuned :) As soon as part two is completed it will be linked from THIS at the top and bottom.

cablecar2

I want to give a shout out and THANK YOU to Leica dealer Ken Hansen ([email protected]) with whom I was #1 on his list for this camera. I am happy to finally have it in hand :) I think Ken has the new M-E in stock right now as well. He also has some great lenses in stock so give him an e-mail if you are looking for something special. PopFlash.com is also getting stock of lenses and M-E’s as they sold out of their 1st batch in one day. These are my sponsors so treat them well!

Until next time!

Steve

Part 2 is now up HERE

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Sep 242012
 

New York City seen through the Leica M Monochrom

By Ashwin Rao – See his blog HERE

Hello, all of my photo friends. Photokina 2012 has come and gone, and it’s been a whirlwind of news from a gear front. Huge announcements have come from Sony (RX-1, A99), Canon and Nikon (with full frame entry level cameras), Fuji (XE-1), and of course Leica (with the M and M-E). In this day and age, gear gets discussed as much as the photos that it takes, and today’s glorious gear rapidly becomes yesterday’s news. So here I am, hoping that you’ll pay attention to an article about a piece of gear AND the photos that it took in my hands.

It’s easy to forget that just a short few months ago, Leica announced the much ballyhooed M Monochrom to the public, a camera of many firsts for Leica: It was the first digital black and white-only rangefinder camera. It was the first Leica digital RF camera with impressive ISO capacity expending well beyond previous ISO tolerances of digital M bodies. And with the release of this camera, public debate opened up and opinions were volleyed back and forth regarding the merits and necessities of such a device…a black and white only digital monstrosity…Why create such a camera when the Leica M9 and M8 before it are capable of wonderful B&W, further augmented by the fact that one can selectively adjust color channels to get a plentitude of B&W looks. Why lock oneself into one way of seeing? I too had many such questions as I hesitantly put in a pre-order of my MM.

Sadly, Leica has been slow to release the camera to the public. I have yet to get my own MM, due to shortages of supply here in the U.S. Thankfully, a very good friend here in Seattle was one of the first to receive a copy of this camera, and he was generous enough to lend it to me for a trip to NYC. Wow, what a friend, huh?

As a quick aside, I wanted to thank the community here of enthusiasts for truly brightening my world with their knowledge, expertise, skills as photographers, and generosities. As I have mentioned before, one of my favorite parts of the enthusiast community is meeting so many wonderful people in the real world, and making virtual relationships on Facebook and various forums into lasting friendships in the real world. I can count so many good people as just such friends, including Steve Huff himself and so many others. It was just such a friend, whom I once knew only virtually on the forums, who has become a great friend and photo buddy in the real world, who was gracious enough to insist on lending me his $8K MM to take and shoot. So thank you, Matt D, for your generosity. You rock, my friend!

 

Okay, back to the essay at hand…that is, how did I find the MM in practice? In a word, “fascinating”. Exhilarating may be another word. “Challenging” may be a third…ultimately, I would suggested that the camera was thoroughly satisfying.

The MM, for those of you who don’t know, possesses a black-and-white only sensor with substantial dynamic range, particularly in the mid-tones….It forgoes the Bayer color filter array and receives its inputs directly onto it’s sensor without ever “seeing color”. In doing so, the sensor becomes more sensitive to light, and the MM has a minimum native ISO of 320 and a maximum ISO of 10,000 (higher than even the maximum ISO of 6400 with the coming Leica M)…One issue that was reported widely is that it’s quite easy for the MM to blow out highlights, which then cannot be rescued, due to lack of color channels to do so. Areas of pure highlight that show up as clipped on the MM’s histogram are truly lost, so one must care to exposure (or should I say, underexpose) to save those highlights. Beyond these subtleties, the MM’s imaging sensor is essentially the same 18 MP CCD sensor that can be found in the M9, without an AA filter. Body, build, and finish echo the M9-P, though the matte black paint job and blackened lettering lend an aura of stealth to the camera. The MM is a niche camera within a niche rangefinder market, but this niche is capable of amazing results…but if you guys are reading this, you know all of that. So how did I find the MM in practice? Much like the M9, I found it to be a thoroughly enjoyable camera to use in the real world.

First up, the challenges? Given that the MM produces a B&W representation of the captured image, it can be said to be comparable to film in the way one may consider conceiving the image or subject matter prior to even taking the image. In a sense, with the MM, color filters, famous and long used in B&W photography for the looks that they generate by selectively filtering out certain parts of the visible spectrum, become instantly relevant on the MM. This was a challenge to me, as someone who’s done most of my photography in the digital age. With the MM, I had to familiarize myself with filter choice and appropriateness. For example, Red filters often add drama to an image by darkening a blue sky and enhancing contrast, but don’t necessarily make for the best people photography. On the other hand, green and yellow filters are very nice for capturing people, but their effects on the MM’s image is much more subtle.

The second challenge to the MM comes in its sensitivity to light. The MM’s base ISO is 320, though images can be pulled digitally to ISO 160 in camera (this is a software fix, from what I have heard, similar to the ISO 80 on the M9). In broad daylight, shooting lenses such as the 35 mm or 50 mm f/1.4 Summilux Asph becomes challenging, and one must stop down. Thankfully, using color filters lessens the transmission of light through the lens, and shooting wide open may be enabled in some circumstances. Ultimately, if one chooses to work wide open with their lenses in broad daylight with the MM, a neutral density (ND) filter would be a reasonable investment. I didn’t have a ND filter for my trip, so I simply stopped down a bit when shooting…in a sense, yet another challenge, in seeing the world a different way and focusing and learning about the elements of each composition rather than simply blurring them away by shooting wide open.

The third challenge with MM comes in achieving appropriate exposure. The MM’s image carries a dramatic amount of information in the mid tones and shadows, seemingly at the sacrifice of details in the highlights. Thus, in using the camera, I tended to underexpose by 1/3 to 2/3 of a stop to attempt to save highlights. Thankfully, given the detail present in mid-tones and shadows, such adjustments come fairly easy to the MM’s files, and I was satisfied to adjust myself in this manner.

The final substantial challenge to using the M, in my eyes, was the post processing workflow. I had a preview of this challenge by editing the photos made available a few months ago by Jono Slack (for those of you who don’t know Jono or his work, you owe yourself a favor to go to his site, http://www.slack.co.uk/ , or strike up a conversation with him …he is a true gentleman-scholar in the Rangefinder community). Jono’s files showed me the tremendous detail capable of being captured by the MM. His images showed the depth of dynamic range present in the mid-tones, which provide a unique challenge on deciding how to use this information in the post processing workflow to achieve the image that you want. In a sense, the detail and dynamic range in the mid tones made available by the MM’s sensor provides the photographer with far more choice and flexibility on how to render skin tones and mid tone detail in the post-processing process. While this grayscale information yields a base MM file that can be described as flat, I found that the files are quite flexible and don’t break apart (i.e. banding, radically increased noise) that I have seen with color files from various cameras, including the M9. This process of playing with, and push/pulling mid tone details is in reality quite fun, and allows the MM shooter to envision his or her images in novel ways….

So off I was, to the streets of Manhattan, equipped with my friend’s MM. What could I achieve, using my own style of shooting and my own processing? I found, in practice, that the MM was quite fun to use. I’d typically use a yellow or green filter (green seemed to transmit less light and was preferred for broad daylight) to render people, and I’d occasionally grab a red filter to add drama to a scene. To me, it was the use of these color filters that made the biggest difference to using the MM on the streets. I could presumably use the MM without color filters, but part of the fun, for me, was to see the effects of such filters on the rendered image. Otherwise, shooting the MM encouraged me to see the street in new and exciting ways. Instead of trying to see and highlight color, I focused more on light and shadow play as well as composition. I thought more about scenes and depth of field, since the MM’s light sensitivity often necessitated stopping down (and as you all know, I enjoy shooting wide open). I thought quite a bit about preserving highlights and how to properly expose a scene in a meaningful way, so as to focus and preserve details in the areas of my particular interest. All in all, I feel that the MM provided a new challenge, one that I hadn’t experienced in many years, really since the purchase of my first rangefinder, the Leica M8.

To me, the challenges of the Leica M Monochrom represent its strengths. It forced me, in my brief 5 days with it, to see in new and creative ways. It forced more attention to detail in how I chose to compose or perceive a particular shot. In post processing, I learned much about the camera, its flexibilities, and its eccentricities, and I have found the images produced by the camera to be full of hidden treasures.

To boot, the Leica MM is a remarkable image-making machine. It captures detail in a way that I could only have dreamed previously. The detail is preserved through much of its ISO range, though personally, I’d avoid ISO’s about 6400 unless you wish a very grainy look. At base ISO through ISO 1600, the images render very cleanly and are quite flexible to post-processing and extensive pushing and pulling. At ISO 3200, the details of the images remain preserved, though noise becomes a factor, particularly if the image isn’t perfectly exposed and requires a bit of processing. At IS0 6400, the images remain useable, but noise starts to overwhelm detail. Beyond ISO 6400, I generally found the camera’s results to be unacceptable…. still, to have a camera capable of producing sharp, detailed images at up to ISO 6400, has to this point, been a dream for Leica shooters…. Kudos to Leica for making this dream a reality.

So if you wish to check out the entire set of images, including those shown here, just link over to my  flickr site.

All in all, I found the Leica M Monochrom to be a fascinating experience. Will I still be getting one? You bet. I found that the camera has much to teach me yet, about how to visualize an image and focus on the core elements of the image without necessarily getting “distracted” by color. I once thought that converting a file to Black and White was an easy cheat to making an unremarkable image suddenly pleasing. This is no longer the case, as the MM is a far more challenging camera to use for the average RF shooter compared to the M9. I accept that challenge and hope to learn more….Now, if Leica could just deliver one to my dealer soon ;)….

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