Leica M-Monochrom Hands-on Preview
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.
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.