Opinion: Is the M Monochrom Typ 246 an anachronism or a modern marvel?
There is nothing new about cameras that only shoot in black and white. In fact, before the popularization of color film all cameras shot exclusively in black and white. That might seem a silly thing to point out, but it is worth noting that there was an extensive period of photographic history when all photographers bought cameras and lenses with a head full of the black and white pictures they were going to shoot with them. There wasn't too much choice, of course, though inks and retouching existed for those who insisted on color. In those days snappers could see, think and imagine in black and white, and spent their whole hobby time, and professional life, operating that way.
When color film arrived not everyone switched immediately, and some not at all. Color was more expensive for a long while and in the minds of many not necessarily better either. Now our choice is freer of course, and shooting in color is an infinitely more common practice than working in black and white, though apps and software have brought mono effects to the smartphones and laptops of the masses. There is a certain reverence attached to the black and white image, and many consider it a somewhat higher, more serious and more valuable art form - often simply for the lack of color.
For the majority of people who shoot film and who like to process it themselves, working in black and white will be the norm. And while all film cameras have the potential to shoot in color as well as in black and white it's not unreasonable to assume that the majority of those still in use are employed almost solely in the business of recording the world in shades of grey. So, while there might be few cameras that can only shoot in black and white, cameras that do only shoot in black and white are considerably more common than most people would at first believe.
255 shades of grey
What's remarkable about the Monochrom (Typ 246) and its predecessor, the Monochrom, is not so much that it will spend its life shooting in black and white, but that it is a camera that offers no option for recording in color. We all have the option to use our digital cameras in mono-mode, but we can also switch back to color at any time we like – and indeed shoot color and mono at the same time. This camera restricts our choices, reduces our options, inhibits our flexibility and holds us to a single style of shooting. So how can that possibly be a good thing?
|The Leica M Monochrom Typ 246 features a full frame 24MP sensor without a color filter array.|
The difference between this camera and color cameras that can also shoot in black and white, is that this one uses all its energies in the pursuit of black and white without the severe handicaps that come with pandering to the complications of determining color hues and shades using filters, average values and guess work. This is a camera that gives a voice to each individual pixel instead of singing the aggregated notes of groups of four, so recording and output has a distinctly higher fidelity than normal cameras of the same pixel count can achieve.
Mono for today, not yesteryear
A digital camera designed just for black and white is again not anything new and unique, as we've had them before, but what makes the Monochrom (Type 246) stand out even from the original Monochrom is that it does it well, with a level of convenience appropriate to 2015, and in a way that doesn't make the user feel he or she has to step back in time to achieve a quality result.
As fabulous as the original Monochrom is at producing images of outstanding quality, the machine made me question why Leica wanted its users to endure so much while forcing the camera to take pictures. I accept that suffering for our art is par for the course and pain is often the surest route to progress and success, but the Monochrom took that all a step too far. With its slow processor and low resolution rear screen, shooting black and white felt very much like a second rate pastime, as though mono-shooters had no use for the comforts of modern day living and would happily accept whatever they were given. It was as though black and white shooters deserved less than those shooting in color. Working in black and white should not be a hair shirt.
The new Monochrom (Typ 246) actually reverses that principle, elevating the mono-shooter to a position of comfort in which he is worthy of the very latest technology and, indeed, features that out-spec the flagship M (Typ 240). While many have found it easy to describe the Typ 246 as a black and white version of the M (Typ 240), its extra-large buffer and frame guideline switch take it a step further than that, to sit more in line with the M-P premium color camera.
|The Monochrom Typ 246 offers a modern 3" 921k-dot LCD compared to its predecessor's 2.5" 230k-dot screen.|
And so it should. If we are going to spend this much on a camera that can only shoot black and white, it should be about as good as a black and white camera can be. By that I mean that as well as first class picture quality, using it should be a first class experience too - so no waiting around, no delays, no missed shots and a decent way to monitor what settings are in use and to see what the pictures you are shooting look like. And we even have Live View for focusing uncoupled lenses, accurate framing and to change the life of those who own the Leica M macro bellows set.
I can't tell you that the new Monochrom (Typ 246) is perfect, but it is streets ahead of the original model. Leica has fixed many of the issues that made the 2012 camera second rate in comparison to the company's more recent cameras and below the standard you would expect for a brand that prides itself on making the best cameras in the world. It is now as usable as the current M and M-P, and the best Leica can offer.
Uniqueness comes at a price
It is as pointless to discuss the price of the M-Monochrom (Typ 246) as it is to discuss the cost of any of the Leica products. Ownership requires the exchange of significant funds, and unfortunately those are funds we do not all possess for the purchase of camera equipment. There are cars we can afford, and cars we can't, just as some houses are within our means and others beyond. We have to accept that, and cut our cloth accordingly. To someone who has the money to spend, the Monochrom will be a great purchase. If they use it well and often, and enjoy what it offers, it will prove itself very good value. If you struggle to buy it and come to resent that you can't afford to buy the lenses your style requires, it will prove a poor companion.
My own feeling is that this is an extraordinary camera, and if £12,750 ($7450 US without a lens) meant less to me than it does, I would buy one and three lenses to go with it. The camera offers something no other camera can. That unique quality is extremely valuable in my eyes, as it is a quality I really would like to be able to bring to my photography. This isn't just unique because it shoots black and white, but because of the way in which it shoots black and white.
Recently a well-known and respected photographer told me that he doesn't need a Monochrom because his DSLR can do the same thing. He is clearly mistaken. There isn't a DSLR that can do the same thing – all DSLRs use interpolation and use filters that cut light and force guess-work, and many use low pass filters that reduce the detail-gathering abilities of any sensor. So, no, as good as most DSLRs are at shooting black and white this just isn't the same. It is something entirely different, and far better.
Dumb or genius?
You might still think that the whole idea is just dumb and a waste of effort, but Leica isn't stupid. It knows its market very well. A black and white camera might be an oddity in 2015, but no more than the M-A film camera, or the M Edition 'Leica 60' with no LCD. The company has updated its black and white camera offering because the popularity of the original model proved there is a good market for this sort of product.
Leica users like black and white. I spoke to the UK Leica Society recently about street photography. I showed mono and color versions of the same image, and asked who preferred which. While in most talks I've done the overwhelming majority prefer the color version, at the Leica Society the majority vocally voted for the black and white version. Offer these people a camera that is exceptional at creating black and white images and they'll have your arm off.
When there is a demand for anything, there will be a demand for that anything performed to the highest standards. And those highest standards will attract people who want the best and who are prepared to pay a good deal to get it. Do we need the Leica Monochrom? Well, not everyone will, but I'm pretty certain there'll be enough people who want one to create a waiting list that loops right around the block.
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