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Leica M-Monochrom Hands-on Preview

May 2012 | By Richard Butler
Buy on GearShop$7,950.00


Preview based on an M-Monochrom with Firmware 0.012

Leica has long been a manufacturer happy to exploit niche markets - its M9 may be a fascinating camera to shoot with, but the company's adherence to the near-obsolete, manual focus rangefinder design, coupled with its distinctly exclusive pricing ensures its cameras will only ever be enjoyed by a few. However, we can't think of any of its products that combine 'fascinating' and 'niche' as well as its latest creation - the Leica M-Monochrom. As the name suggests, the Monochrom is a truly black-and-white camera, with no filter array to allow the capture of color information.

Just as any discussion between former film photographers will eventually come 'round to the idea of a dedicate manual focus digital camera with the large, bright split-prism viewfinder they remember from their film-shooting days, it was almost as inevitably touch on the idea of a black-and-white digital camera. But it's not just nostalgia that makes the idea of a monochrome camera sound appealing - especially on a system famed for its (expensively achieved) high quality lenses.

Removing the color filter array from the front of a sensor has several advantages. There are certainly benefits in terms of noise, mainly because all the light hitting the sensor is available to be captured, rather than just one color being allowed through to each sensor location. But also, because noise isn't spread by a demosaicing process, the noise pattern doesn't appear to muddy detail. These two factors see the camera's maximum ISO increase to 10,000, rather than the M9's 2,500.

However, the biggest advantage is resolution - each captured pixel gives one output pixel, with none of the detail-blurring combining of neighboring data that demosaicing inevitably brings. As a result, the M-Monochrom immediately trumps even the low-pass-filter-less M9 for sharpness. Given the reputation of Leica lenses, this has immediate appeal.

There are drawbacks, of course - the 'headroom' found in Raw files comes mainly from the fact that bright regions have usually only over-exposed one of the three color channels, with usable data still available for the other two channels. With a true mono sensor, any overexposure is absolute - once the channel has clipped to white, there's no chance of recovery. Equally, anyone who has got used to producing mono images by converting color images, with all the selective color mixing that brings, will have to get used to pulling the correct color filter out of their camera bag at the point of capture.

And that is a challenge - the best black and white images are the result of a tonal response that is perfectly matched to the subject, usually as the result of extensive darkroom or post-processing work. With only five contrast settings to select in the camera, even with perfect exposure, it'll probably take a bit of Raw processing to get the best out of each image. The M-Monochrome shoots 34.7MB DNG files (there's no compression option), for users willing to make the effort.

Interface changes

The challenge of getting correct exposure are somewhat reduced because the histogram is not influenced by color or white balance. Leica says the histogram is based on Raw data (rather than the preview JPEG, which many cameras use), to give a clear understanding of what has and hasn't been captured. Still being based on a revised version of the M9's 18MP Kodak CCD means the Monochrom still can't offer live view, so this histogram is only available after you've taken your shot.

Beyond this, changes to the existing M9 interface are minimal - the saturation and colorspace options have been removed from the menu, and white balance has been excised from the 'Set' quick menu but otherwise it's almost unchanged. The camera has slightly more sophisticated highlight and shadow clipping warnings than the M9, it also gains three 'toning' options, each with two intensity levels, but those are the only additional options. The toning options are Sepia, Cold and Selenium.

Given the cost of buying into the Leica system, it's not surprising that Leica expects most buyers to come from the pool of existing M owners. However, in addition to M8 and 9 users, Leica clearly also hopes some film shooters who haven't embraced digital will appreciate the apparent simplicity and quality that native mono shooting brings. When explaining the camera to us, Leica repeatedly returned to the word 'authentic' and it's this desire for an 'authentic' shooting experience that we think will sell this camera.

Leica M-Monochrom specifications

  • 18MP CCD monochrome sensor (24 x 36mm)
  • No anti-aliasing filter
  • No color filter array
  • ISO 320-10,000 (with a 'Pull 160*' option)
  • 2.5" 230,000 dot rear LCD
  • Supplied with Adobe Photoshop Lightroom and Silver Efex Pro 2

*Pull 160 is essentially the ISO 320 setting given 1EV extra exposure, with a different tone curve to give the correct final image brightness. The result is a reduction in highlight dynamic range, compared to the full ISO settings.

M-Monochrom - color sensitivity

It may seem odd to think about the M-Monochrom's sensitivity to different colors, since it can't distinguish between them. However, as with mono film, the best results from the Monochrom come from adding colored filters in front of the lens. For this to work, the camera needs to be fairly similarly sensitive to light from all across the visible spectrum (it needs to be panchromatic). We asked Leica whether it had needed to add any color filter to the sensor, to balance-out its sensitivity to different wavelengths of visible light, and were told it hadn't.


If you're new to digital photography you may wish to read the Digital Photography Glossary before diving into this article (it may help you understand some of the terms used).

Conclusion / Recommendation / Ratings are based on the opinion of the reviewer, you should read the ENTIRE review before coming to your own conclusions.

Images which can be viewed at a larger size have a small magnifying glass icon in the bottom right corner of the image, clicking on the image will display a larger (typically VGA) image in a new window.

To navigate the review simply use the next / previous page buttons, to jump to a particular section either pick the section from the drop down or select it from the navigation bar at the top.

DPReview calibrate their monitors using Color Vision OptiCal at the (fairly well accepted) PC normal gamma 2.2, this means that on our monitors we can make out the difference between all of the (computer generated) grayscale blocks below. We recommend to make the most of this review you should be able to see the difference (at least) between X,Y and Z and ideally A,B and C.

This article is Copyright 2012 and may NOT in part or in whole be reproduced in any electronic or printed medium without prior permission from the author.

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Comments

Total comments: 449
1234
GabrielZ

I was hoping for a new M10 with full frame CMOS (rather than CCD) sensor, with a 24-36 MP res maybe and the superior high ISO and live-view capabilities a modern CMOS sensor would provide. A high-res EVF panel to replace the traditional frame-lines and viewfinder LED's together with a modern 3 inch VGA res or higher rear-panel LCD or OLED. And finally a new quad-core image processor to handle it all! Wishful thinking? Yes! Maybe next year...

3 upvotes
pcblade

Brilliant ! I've dreamed of this for a long time ! Kudos to Leica :-)

1 upvote
Gothmoth

a nightmare i guess?

0 upvotes
LensBeginner

My monitor is not calibrated.
Do you guys with calibrated monitor see the same amount of highlight clipping (horse head, guy's forehead) that I see?
Just asking, not trying to bash nor troll.

0 upvotes
Gothmoth

the white at the nose is 255,255,255... it´s clipped.

0 upvotes
KennethDante

Since the msrp seems to have eluded me in this review. Maybe I can save someone else the trouble.

(between $8,500 and $9,000).

1 upvote
ulfie

Clicked on some "original" images per R. Butler's suggestion and found ... nothing that knocked my socks off. Other "regular" if you will digital cameras even APS-C sized sensors can do as well or better.

3 upvotes
Gothmoth

it made me think... "wtf?"

0 upvotes
walnist

There are many technical advantages for a pure monochrome sensor.
Having no bandpass filters means each pixel will be able to capture more light, and the sensor coating could be optimized to enhance sensitivity in a certain spectrum (like for IR cameras for example).

Having no bayer array, the effective resolution is at least doubled (like on a Foveon sensor), and this is further enhanced by the lack of low pass (anti alias - moirè) filter.

So by having a monochrome sensor, theoretically you should achieve lower noise, higher sensitivity (iso) and much higher per pixel sharpness.

Then again, Leica's sensor technology is a bit outdated by today's standards.
But I like the idea.

5 upvotes
Richard Butler

I'm surprised the preview doesn't explain this.

6 upvotes
Tee1up

Is there such a thing as 'per pixel sharpness'? I would have thought you needed at least 2 pixels to even begin talking about resolution issues. Maybe I need to brush up on this.

1 upvote
cinefeel

Pointless.

You can get the same result with the Sigma SD1, for MUCH cheaper. Same per-pixel sharpness, lower price.

Better result actually, because the SD1 has color information that can be used in B+W filtering. It can, of course, take color pictures too!

5 upvotes
topstuff

I can't pretend to understand the technological advantage this gives compared to using a regular camera and converting to b&w, but I can say that I find the images very pleasing in their tone and gradation.

0 upvotes
win39

Brilliant. Something many photographers have wanted for a long time, but something the market dominating makers which spew out copies of each others equipment have been unwilling to offer. Nice to see a manufacturer thinking about their customers and not just a consumer after more features.

3 upvotes
MPA1

I simply cannot see the point of this unless you are wealthy enough to own an M9 AND this perhaps.

Good luck to them but I am afraid my eyesight is no longer good enough to MF an M camera and both mine went about 5 years ago.

0 upvotes
HoustonPowers
0 upvotes
Mssimo

mandatory comment...Does it do 1080@60p? :)

5 upvotes
rudymnv

Mandatory reply, just silent movies or use of 3 predefined vintage piano tunes (mono).

3 upvotes
RonHendriks

I like taking black and white images, but still don't have the cash for this wonderfull machine!

0 upvotes
peevee1

I am sure the buyers will be proud and happy owners of their new Leica. Both of them.

3 upvotes
dannybgoode

Utterly pointless, massively expensive but do I want one?! If I had the money I would happily get one but I wouldn't bust a gut saving!..

1 upvote
adamlambert

I'm pleased they did it because they could - but not sure it will be their biggest seller. I'm sure they don't care. I think it has a certain cool about it. When I look at the pictures they don't seem to have the widest contrast or dynamic range to them. Not sure I really see much point beyond a curiosity.

Well done Leica for not caring that a majority may think it irrelevant.

The person buying this probably enjoys the drama and skill of taking the photo and may not be bothered about fripperies like price or photoshop.

Why not?

Comment edited 2 minutes after posting
1 upvote
Double Dust

Leica? Pathetic. When you like manual focus buy a NEX-5n with a viewfinder, a M-mount adapter and Zeiss lenses. Till 6400 ISO you have a good useable image in RAW. In PS you can decide how your B&W will look like. For 1700 dollars.

5 upvotes
Deleted1929

I can't help wondering how much more you have to pay for the EVF over the (apparently) identical Olympus EVF with nothing more than a Leica name-tag.

One for the red-dot addicts only, I guess.

1 upvote
rhkirkando

What are you talking about? Rangefinders don't have EVFs.

1 upvote
brujo74

White balance presets?! Wow! Sooo cool! 2,5 inches 230000 dots lcd? That's sad...

1 upvote
SheikYerbouti

B&W instead of color? Is this austerity for the 1% ???

> But then there a many cameras that offer greater
> capability, flexibility and (in most respects),
> image quality than the M9, at a fraction of
> the cost, but that doesn't make the Leica
> any less desirable.

... oh yes it does. Being part of the economically challenged 99%, obscene pricing makes all the difference to me. I find the Leica M-M highly undesirable.

3 upvotes
iAPX

Sad the M is so expensive, I would like Nikon (and Canon too) to have a D800 BW or a future D400 BW, because I like it, and the resoilution seems to me better than what we have with a bayer-color filter and demosaicing process!

I like black & white portraits, wether in studio or on the road, and this is a great idea from Leica! (just sad it's so expensive!)

1 upvote
Skipper494

Super sharp! I'd be interested in cutting back to two cameras, my D700 and this one, if I could afford it! Too bad the sample page is a little doddery and the shots need processing properly to improve shadow and highlight lighting and gradation. Ansel Adams would take issue with the blacks and washed out highlights in the samples, easily recoverable, I find.

0 upvotes
Zigmont

It would be interesting to take identical B&W photos with the Leica and with another good "normal" camera; say a Nikon D800 and compare the differences.

I'm also thinking that web resolution isn't showing us what the camera is really capable of in the hands of an experienced B&W photographer who also remembers how to best print B&W!

2 upvotes
Richard Butler

The full-size files are available for download from the gallery (click on the link marked 'original'

0 upvotes
AnHund

R Butler: I click on the samples and nothing happens. Too many users on the site or other reason?

0 upvotes
brudy

"Leica hasn't made any further concessions to digital with the M-Monochrom "

I'm not sure how having manual controls has anything to do with concessions to digital. That statement makes no sense. And why fix what isn't broken?

1 upvote
Richard Butler

Beyond the primary controls, Leica hasn't done much to offer access to the controls you might want to access on a digital camera.

1 upvote
AnHund

Gallery not working again?

0 upvotes
bradleyg5

Man I wish Canon or Nikon/Sony would do this. Leica already had bad high ISO performance but imagine if you did this to a D4 or 1Dx, they would have absolutely untouchable high ISO performance for many many years.

2 upvotes
prooooof

Seems to me like it would have been a better design to engineer a bypass/passthrough to the color array rather than an entirely self-contained camera. It could be a feature you switch on or off. Maybe that's not possible. I just don't see this being much of a profit generator for Leica. I was hoping to see an M10 because I want to make that my first Leica digital but I guess that's for Photokina.

0 upvotes
NetMage

Totally not possible. You may want to study up on imaging sensors or read Wikipedia.

0 upvotes
Roland Karlsson

Woa! Lots of people have waited for a B&W camera. And then it comes - in the shape of a Leica M camera - at $15,000 with one lens.

What could go wrong :)

Never mind - I actually think this is a bold try. I hope other camera makers follow. It should be VERY little extra development cost to put a B&W sensor in a color camera. The B&W counterpart sensor is probably on the shelves of the sensor manufacturer.

Comment edited 1 minute after posting
2 upvotes
smallcams

These pictures look like they have a blue cast to them.

0 upvotes
Gothmoth

your monitor is not calibrated and profiled!
just load them into photoshop an check the RGB values.

they are neutral...

Comment edited 2 times, last edit 3 minutes after posting
0 upvotes
AnHund

Don't look blue to me.

0 upvotes
Mssimo

o.O --- The moment you find out the monitor you used to edit all your photos for the last two years was not calibrated.

4 upvotes
fastlass

While your technical introduction was very interesting, I can't imagine the 99 individuals in the target market, worldwide, care that much other than knowing this camera can create beautiful BW images.

I certainly hope it inspires people to create great works.

1 upvote
limorenko

Just use this link:
http://www.dpreview.com/galleries/reviewsamples/albums/leica-m-monochrom-preview-samples

0 upvotes
Richard Butler

If you are experiencing problems with the samples gallery, try refreshing your page. The gallery is 'public.'

0 upvotes
brujo74

Hi! What about that ISO320 thing all over?

0 upvotes
stasvolik

Base ISO, as per the preview :) .

Comment edited 15 seconds after posting
0 upvotes
Joesiv

How are leica users going to shoot wide open in daylight with only 1/4000th shutter and ISO320? That's part of leica look :)

I think this is a neat product, would love to see what a D800M would look like! Not only would the images be super detailed, but the ISO range would be 320-infinity or something like that!

The first thing I was thinking is how can I get a color filter wheel on this thing lol...

Comment edited 25 seconds after posting
0 upvotes
shigzeo ?

@Joesiv - Filter. Use an ND8 or something to shoot wide open during the day. My camera has 1/1000 as its maximum exposure speed. But to be honest, even with a modern SLR I rarely if ever shoot wide open, ever.

1/4000 is very fast and unecessary for all but the most SLR of applications.

0 upvotes
Joesiv

I know, I was kidding :P This seems like a camera to keep a polarizer on 24/7 :)

0 upvotes
CFynn

I'm sure it is a nice camera, but the reported prices are nearly $8,000 for the camera and $7,200 for the new 50mm f./2.0 lens. Is this a camera for bankers with big bonuses?

Comment edited 5 minutes after posting
4 upvotes
stasvolik

Why only for bankers? I would think that it's for anybody with $15K+ of disposable income (or some photo jobs lined up that could justify this expense :) ).

0 upvotes
Gothmoth

yeah pimps and hookers have money too.....

3 upvotes
prooooof

Yeah wonder why they built a Leica store in DC? Richest concentration of wealth in the US... Follow the money.

2 upvotes
JadedGamer

Still more useful than a $15,200 diamond ring. :)

2 upvotes
unknown member
By (unknown member) (May 10, 2012)

Except the ring won't depreciate.

2 upvotes
Peiasdf

@ JadedGamer
You haven't met Kate Upton

0 upvotes
fad

Ever try to sell a diamond ring?:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1982/02/have-you-ever-tried-to-sell-a-diamond/4575/

0 upvotes
Total comments: 449
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