The Leica M Monochrom Review Part 1. Understanding the Camera and VS film.
After reading this, Part 2 is now up HERE.
The Monochrom and Zeiss Sonnar 1.5 – Some slight PP to enhance the contrast
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
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.
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.
Leica M7 and 50 cron with Ilford HP5 – Nikon Coolscan V
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
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.
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.
If you are thinking of this camera then you have to ask yourself these questions BEFORE pulling the trigger:
- 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?
- Am I ok shooting ONLY B&W, even if it means missing shots that scream for color?
- Can I afford a Monochrom and an M9? Or a Monochrom and something else that shoots color?
- 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)
- Do I enjoy shooting with a Rangefinder/Leica M?
- Do I already own Leica M mount glass?
- Am I ok with a low res crappy LCD on the back of my camera?
- Do I want to shoot my M at ISO 3200 or 6400 or even ISO 10,000 and get great results?
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.
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…
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.
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.
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!
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