Taken in Kyoto, this is one of my favorite pictures from our recent visit to Japan, and one that I don't think would work in black and white. My challenge on the trip was to start seeing – and creating – pictures that would.

Leica M10, 35mm @ F2 (ish), ISO 1250

Let me begin this article by explaining what it isn't. This isn't a review of the Leica Monochrom (specifically the Typ 246 but henceforth referred to simply as 'Monochrom' since life is short). We all know that the Monochrom is a strange and unique camera,1 priced and positioned in a way that puts it out of reach for most photographers, myself included. But that's why it's so fascinating, and why when I got the opportunity to borrow one for a recent trip to Japan, I jumped at the chance.2

Over the years, my 'no black and white' rule for personal work has become pretty firm

My relationship with black and white imaging is complicated. I started out in the late 90s shooting black and white film, but since switching to digital in the early 2000s I've worked entirely in color. Very rarely – if ever – do I convert an image into monochrome unless at the request of one of my friends who wants to class-up their online dating profile. Over the years, my 'no black and white' rule for personal work has become pretty firm.

This display case is full of urns of earth, collected from WW2 cemeteries across the world. The colors of the flags have faded almost to the point where this scene is monochromatic.

Leica Monochrom, 28mm @ F2.8, ISO 6400

Why such a rigid personal policy? Catch me on an especially bumptious day and I might tell you that I think that converting a color image into black and white is cheating. That if the picture didn't work in color in the first place, then it probably won't be any more interesting in monochrome. For the most part I stand by that – at least insofar as it holds true for the kind of images that I take. But it's not the only reason why, after 15 years of color-only photography, I'd become so mono-averse. I was out of practice – plain and simple. My hope was that shooting with the Leica Monochrom for a week would be the creative kick in the backside that I needed.3

I nearly (very, very nearly) took the Monochrom to Japan as my only camera for the trip, but I'm glad (very, very glad) that I didn't. Because – and sorry for the spoiler – while the Leica Monochrom is an excellent black and white camera, I'm going to need a lot more practice before I would consider myself a good enough black and white photographer to really take advantage of it.

This image was a fairly monochromatic scene to begin with, and loses nothing by being shot natively in black and white.

Leica Monochrom, 35mm @ F5.6, ISO 1000

Shooting with the Monochrom alongside the M10 turned out to be an interesting exercise in comparing and contrasting, and not just for the obvious reasons. The M10 incorporates several handling improvements over the Type 240 and its variants (of which the second-generatIon Monochrom is one), and next to the newer M10, the Monochrom definitely feels like a less polished tool. Its LCD screen is lower resolution and less sharp than the M10's, its rear button interface is cluttered and I found myself frequently ending up in continuous shooting mode accidentally, thanks to the soft detents of the combined off>s>c>timer switch.

I used live view a lot on both cameras when shooting with a 21mm lens

The last issue is a minor annoyance, but the Monochrom's fiddly ISO setting interface and inconsistent Auto-ISO behavior gave me a fresh appreciation for the M10's relative accessibility (and stability). I used live view frequently on both cameras, especially when shooting with a 21mm lens, and the M10's superior screen resolution, sharper feed and faster shot-to-shot time leave the Monochrom in the dust.

Another basically monochromatic scene - hundreds of Buddha statues in large glass cabinets at the Ryozen Kannon war memorial in Kyoto. I tried this shot in color but it didn't work: the vague colored reflections of foliage and flowers in the glass ended up being distracting. With the 21mm, I frequently used live view for precise framing.

Leica Monochrom, 21mm @ F8, ISO 400

I thought the Monochrom's thicker body compared to the M10 would bother me, but as it turned out, with my eye to the finder I barely noticed the difference. In fact the two cameras are so similar that I had to activate the red framelines in the Monochrom viewfinder (sadly not an option on the M10), to keep track of which one I was shooting with.

The Monochrom's fatter body does impart one major benefit though: a commensurately fatter battery. After a couple of hundred frames on both cameras, I found that the M10's battery would typically be depleted by about 50%, but the Monochrom would still be going strong at 85% or so.4

One of the pitfalls of rangefinder shooting is that you often find yourself with the 'wrong' lens attached to the camera. This image was shot with a 28mm, and I wish I could have composed a little more tightly. By the time I'd swapped for a 35mm, this Kyoto shopkeeper had put down his guitar.

Leica Monochrom, 28mm @ F4, ISO 6400

I must say though that it was a rare day with the Monochrom that I shot more than 200 frames. Japan is so full of color – and I'm so used to composing images around it – that I kept reaching for the M10 instead.

Annoyed with myself for remaining so uncomfortably inside my comfort zone, I tried a compromise of sorts. Every time I shot a picture in color on the M10, I would deliberately replicate it in black and white on the Monochrom. I pretty quickly gave that up, partly because it’s a slow and annoying way of working, but mostly because I always seemed to prefer the color images. Plus I had Carey with me, and Carey gets bored easily.

No – it was clear that the only way I was going to really give the Monochrom a proper chance was by going cold turkey, and leaving the M10 back in the hotel. So for two days in Tokyo and Kyoto that's exactly what I did.

Kyoto. The amount of detail in the temple is impressive but if you look closely at the sky around it, you might see some faint banding. This is much less of an issue at high ISOs with the Leica M10, thanks to its newer sensor and processor.

Leica Monochrom, 35mm @ F2.8, ISO 6400

This is the point where normally you’d expect me to write ‘it was the best decision I could have made’, but I'm not going to write that because it was miserable. I felt like I wasn’t even seeing interesting images, let alone capturing any.

Rangefinders can be frustrating enough at the best of times, but with the Monochrom I was fumbling so many shots that I began to second-guess everything from the sharpness of my lenses to my choice of career. And the shots I was missing weren’t even that interesting to begin with. After years of only shooting in color, being limited to black and white was like biting into a bacon sandwich and tasting oatmeal. I could tell Carey was running out of patience with my constant griping because he had stopped making fun of me, which is never a good sign.

Once I stopped beating myself up, my images definitely started to improve

Eventually though, however the meal tastes, a man's got to eat. On reflection, ditching the M10 (however temporarily) was probably a good decision. Most of my favorite images from the trip were taken in color, but a couple of days of strict abstinence from the newer camera gave me no choice but to engage with the challenge of getting interesting pictures in black and white. And once I stopped beating myself up, my images definitely started to improve – funny how that works. If nothing else, as an exercise in refreshing my creative process it was definitely valuable.5

This shot is actually a BW conversion of a color image, shot on the M10. The M10's .DNG files convert well into black and white, albeit without the extra pixel-level detail and zero moiré of the Monochrom. Would you be able to tell, if I hadn't just given the game away?

Leica M10 (B/W conversion in Lightroom) 35mm @ F1.4, ISO 250

By the end of the trip I was shooting with the Monochrom alongside the M10, and no longer feeling like I was cheating on either of them (or myself). Instead, I just felt the normal feelings of guilt and shame that any liberal-minded person would when carrying $20,000-worth of camera equipment around their neck in a foreign country. For his part, I think that Carey was just relieved that I’d stopped whining.

If you’re a dedicated black and white photographer, the Monochrom was built for you

I’m home now and the Monochrom has gone back to Leica, but I still have the itch. I’d like to borrow it back at some point (assuming Leica will let me, after reading this article). Even if I had the money though, I probably wouldn’t buy one. I don’t think I’d use it frequently enough – or well enough – to justify the purchase. But that's just me: If you’re a dedicated black and white photographer, the Monochrom was built for you. There's nothing else like it.

1. Native monochrome capture has several advantages over B/W converted Bayer-pattern color, some more esoteric than others. The most obvious advantages are higher resolution, since there's no need for demosaicing, and no distracting color moiré (obviously). Base ISO is also higher than the Typ 240 (ISO 320, compared to 200) which makes the Monochrom a somewhat cleaner low-light camera than the standard model. The newer sensor in the M10 closes the high ISO gap though, and having a native minimum ISO of 100 available means that shooting at wide-apertures in daylight doesn't require the use of an ND filter quite so often.

2. I hereby acknowledge that I am enormously fortunate to be able to borrow a $7,500 camera for two weeks, for free. If I were you, I'd be annoyed with me too.

3. You don't need to buy a dedicated monochromatic camera to shoot black and white, obviously. Pretty well all digital cameras have a black and white mode, including the Leica M10. I just enjoy making life difficult for myself, apparently.

4. Given that I tended to favor the Monochrom when shooting at 21mm, this kind of stamina is even more impressive. I probably used live view for more than 50% of my shooting on the Monochrom.

5. Albeit one that I could have achieved – at least in spirit – for free (see point 3, above, and point 2 if you're feeling particularly uncharitable).