All photos Leica Monochrom and Noctilux f/0.95, except where noted. Click on photos for a clearer view.
It is, of course, some kind of post-modern irony that with the release of Leica’s digital M Monochrom, which offers stunningly powerful technology yet takes only black and white photos, we rediscovered the timelessness of monochrome photography. Yes, there are aficionados who never stopped taking pictures with silver halide film, and yes, since the earliest days of digital, there have been straightforward software solutions enabling color images to be transformed, as it turns out, back to the black and white images that are first captured by the camera’s sensor. But as we have used it over the past 30 days, Leica’s Monochrom, which captures data as black and white and then, in a somewhat revolutionary move, stops there, not subjecting the image to a color filter, has been for us a revelation.
Photographers who embrace Leica cameras and lenses, particularly in the digital age when Canon and Nikon offer high-end devices with a plethora of options for the operator to consider, tend to favor fairly radical simplification. After all, to use an M, even a digital M, means turning one’s back on things like spot metering and automatic focus — things most modern photographers take so for granted, they can’t imagine what kind of retrograde personality would do without them. And yet here is Leica removing the option even to capture an image in color. But as we have learned over the past month, there are many benefits to this approach. To begin with, the image below was taken well after sunset, at ISO 5000 — a setting commonplace for use by DSLR photographers, but not by rangefinder photographers who use Leica’s legendary lenses.
Leica Monochrom, 35mm Summilux FLE, f/8, 1/500th.
Over a decade of shooting with Leica rangefinders — first film, and later the digital M8 and M9 — many of the essential elements of photography we learned as a kid came back to us. However, it must be said that with our M7, we shot black and white film sparingly, and with the M8 and M9, seldom converted digital images to black and white, because we so loved the highly saturated color that we saw in Fuji Velvia transparencies or what showed up in Lightroom. Being forced to think in black and white, viewing things in luminance, not chroma, has been an adjustment, a revelation, and a delight. Did we need to use a monochrome-only camera to achieve this? No, of course not. But the binary system has forced us to take our Monochrom into situations we previously would have “seen” in color and forced us to see them anew — and in more classical terms.
Leica Monochrom and 35mm Summilux FLE
The grip of color is too powerful to give up, and even after we had our Monochrom for a week or so, when the opportunity presented itself, on a beautiful sunny day, to wander around the city taking pictures, of course we took our M9 — it was a cloudless day, the sky was blue, and we realized that we think of black and white more for when the light is dimmer, the sky is grayer. (When we think of the thousands of black and white pictures taken by our favorite photographers, they always seem to have been taken on days with imperfect light — imperfect for a color photographer who needs bright light to get the saturated colors he loves.) The warning that blown highlights with the Monochrom cannot be recovered, because nothing is hiding in one of the color channels, hasn’t really affected us so far — and blown highlights, in which the sky shows up as white, looks pretty much the way they always have in black and white photography. But even now, we find ourself giving into our instinct, when wandering out into the street on a bright and sunny day, to leave the Monochrom behind and shoot in color. After all, one can always convert to black and white in post-processing, right?
The possibilities inherent in the Monochrom and its sensor, in softer light, has consistently blown our mind. Consistently, we’ve gone out to take pictures and been transported into a prior time — not just the black and white film-wielding days of our youth, but something that we are not too self-conscious to say reminds us of some prior age of classic photography.
A picture we might well have previously taken with our M9 has emerged from the Monochrom looking, well, different. Maybe everything we’ve learned over the past decade is paying off; it obviously can’t just be the equipment. After all, cameras are just a tool, right? But we can’t help but think that the Monochrom is a special tool — a deliberately limiting mechanism that paradoxically opens up new horizons along classical lines. When William Eggleston and Stephen Shore and others shook the art world by its lapels and demanded that color photography be taken seriously, something important happened. But this back-to-the-future approach of using cutting edge technology to render something timeless is strangely liberating. Skeptics will say, Yeah, there’s nothing here that couldn’t be captured by an M9, or any other camera, and be coaxed out through software. And our reply is, Yes, but we never would have explored those possibilities before the Monochrom. If the best camera is the one you have with you, as the saying goes, the corollary is that the best way of seeing may be the one that reflects the tool you have to use.
Yes, of an evening, we would have wandered Northwest Washington D.C.’s gardens and urban oases with our M9, and come back with some lovely images, because how could you not, given the gorgeous material? Yet we doubt we would have thought of what magic could occur, after sunset, when the light was “bad.” The range of the camera is extraordinary — and we have barely scratched the surface of what it can do. We’ve barely used it at high ISOs, we haven’t deliberately taken it into impossibly dark situations, we’ve shot most of the images we’ve taken with it at ISO 640 or below. And yet we find ourselves gravitating to an approach that is at odds with the capabilities most celebrated, and used this simplifying camera in a simplified form: low ISO, but mostly shot with fast glass wide open.
Not just because it takes color images, we view our M9 as our main camera, and the Monochrom as a specialty tool. But just as all photographers, learning and trying to improve their craft, seek to find an identity that is their own — a style that has some consistency, and isn’t simply a grab bag of opportunistic snapshots — we are fully willing to accept a split personality. The Monochrom will operate in one universe, the M9, or someday, the M, in another. We sit here, having had the Monochrom for just a month, marveling at the worlds it has opened up.