24 Hours With The Leica M Monochrom

Not quite three years ago, the Leica M9 was released, and we joyously greeted this full-frame digital Leica M, which enabled us to use Leica’s legendary M lenses at the focal length for which they were designed.  We loved the M8, but it was a compromise — not a full-frame 35mm equivalent, even if a “digital M” — and using it came with both teething pains and some genuine flaws (most notably, pretty mediocre high ISO performance.)  We await with trepidation the announcement next month at Photokina about what Leica has up its sleeve for what is expected to be called the M10.  But in the meantime, on May 10th, Leica announced the M Monochrom, an 18 megapixel camera housed within the M9’s form factor, but which only takes black and white images.  Yesterday, ours arrived, and our initial impressions are that this camera is absolutely stunning.

Leica M Monochrom, ISO 3200, Noctilux wide open, yellow filter (22)

Click on the picture above.  As a composition, it’s nothing special, maybe, as we were rushed to take some photos before night fell. But that’s the point: night really had fallen when we took it, and the ISO 3200 performance, with what noise exists to our eyes looking more like film grain than anything horrific, is pretty amazing.  Notably, this image took virtually no time in post-processing.  The files that come out of the SD card seek only some contrast.

You see, the removal of the Bayer filter that converts what is recorded as black and white into the color images that all other digital cameras produce enables the Monochrom to record images with a degree of clean resolution that effectively renders this 18 megapixel camera into a 36 megapixel medium format camera.  We really look forward to pushing that particular envelope; for now, let us simply say we are amazed at the low levels of noise at ISO 3200, and we haven’t even taken it up to its 10000 ISO limits.

Leica M Monochrom, ISO 320, 35mm Summilux FLE, orange filter

We took it for a spin just before and after lunch today, in bright sunlight.  Of course, the Monochrom is ruthless when it comes to overexposure, so you have either to compensate for exposure or be very careful about managing highlights.  As a street camera, it has all the advantages of a Leica M: it is small, and thus discrete — even more discrete than usual, as there are literally no markings anyone can see, no red dot, no Leica insignia.

Leica M Monochrom, 35mm Summilux FLE, ISO 320, orange filter

In 2006, when we switched from a film M7 to the digital wonders of the M8, we ceased thinking in terms of what film is in the camera.  Digital outputs could be in black and white or color, whichever worked.  It is a strange, almost perverse wonder once again to think in terms of luminance, not chroma, as Ming Thein has pointed out.  Knowing you are capturing forms and shapes, not color data, is like listening to music without paying attention to the lyrics.  The lyrics (colors) are still there, but the data they hold is transformed into rhythms, not content.  And so it is with the Monochrom, which liberates us to think purely in terms of composition and light.

Leica M Monochrom, ISO 320, 35mm Summilux, orange filter

We are really looking forward to taking it out again at night.  Still, daylight scenes in DC are plenty interesting, to us at least.

Leica M Monochrom, ISO 320, 35mm Summilux FLE, orange filter

The Leica M Monochrom exists in a niche within a niche, a black and white (only) rangefinder.  When one thinks about the historical output from Leica Ms loaded with black and white film, this back to the future moment fills us with delight.

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