On Leica’s M10 Monochrom, And The Apogee Of Digital Black and White Photography

Leica M10 Monochrom, 28mm Summicron

It has been a long time, but I can still remember the smell of the dark room, the odd feeling of being suffused in red light even as a print lay soaking in solution. I don’t miss processing black and white images, the chemical reek, the wrinkled fingertips, because fortunately digital photography makes it almost effortless to convert an image from color to black and white. And yet, since 2012, there has been another way of taking monochrome images. From the first moment Leica announced the Monochrom, which takes only black and white pictures, its purity appealed to me. It literally changed my life as a photographer.

I took the picture above the first day I laid my hands on what has become known as the M9 Monochrom, released in September 2012. For those who followed my journey using the original Monochrom – a journey so profound I wrote about it at several junctures — you may remember what a joy it was when the Monochrom was updated in April 2015 to what became known as the M Monochrom. Some Monochrom shooters resisted that transition, but I didn’t — I embraced the M Monochrom. Over time it became my favorite camera.

Those two cameras opened up an unforeseen dimension in my passion for photography. It’s not simply that the images each produced, coupled with Leica’s glorious lenses, rekindled my love of black and white photography. Their very limitations forced me to think about the act of photography in a different way. With a Leica rangefinder, you are already dealing with certain limitations — manual focus, until recently no ability to shoot with telephoto lenses. Taking away the color option was another, even more severe limitation. And yet it opened a world, and a way of seeing. And now, seven-plus years into the journey, the new M10 Monochrom has seemingly delivered the apogee of monochrome photography, the initial promise of that first black-and-white-only camera realized in what I can only describe as a thrilling manner. Before I get to this third generation Monochrom, let me tell you a little more about its two big brothers. The first was a poet, and the second was an athlete.

Leica M9 Monochrom, and 90mm Summicron

In 2014, I was fortunate to travel with my family to Botswana on a photographic safari, and I brought both the M-240 — the 2013 successor to the Leica M9 — and the M9 Monochrom. I shot color with the M-240, which having made the transition from a CCD to a CMOS sensor meant, for the first time with an M camera, being able to use long lenses via an adaptor. The Monochrom, however, was limited to a 135mm focal length. Because it was built on the M9 chassis and had a CCD sensor, it had no Live View and hence no way to use Leica’s superb telephoto lenses from the discontinued R platform. I quickly learned this wasn’t actually a limitation. I shot the image above with a 90mm M Summicron and the black and white images that combo captured are the only ones I choose to display on my photo site, or on my walls. It is as if, as a photographer, I visited Botswana with only black and white film, because the only images that matter to me, honestly, are the ones I returned with in monochrome.

I said that the original Monochrom was a poet, and I can’t analytically describe why other than to say there was something dreamy about the way it rendered images. The next generation Monochrom — the Monochrom M — was, as I said, more like an athlete. It happens that way sometimes in families. Because all Leicas Monochroms skip the step where a Bayer filter adds color pixels to the brew, they are able to serve up a purer distillation of grey shades, which means better high ISO shooting — with comparatively little noise or banding — than their color competitors. The second Monochrom had even better high ISO performance than the first one, and like the M-240 camera from which it was adapted, it was a workhorse. It could take long lenses. It seemed sturdier in the hand. The pictures it captured were amazing in their tonality and dynamic range, though as always with a Monochrom, because there were no color channels at all, if you blew out the highlights, there was nothing left, no data hiding in a red or green channel. (Another limitation of shooting with the Monochrom, and this one with no upside.)

Leica Monochrom M, with Leica R 70-180 zoom

In the summer of 2015, I brought the Monochrom M out West with me and used it with that same R telephoto lens that worked so well with the M-240. The picture above of Jackson Hole’s Sleeping Indian rock formation was shot at the 180mm focal length, and I have it in my office blown up to approximately 30×40. Few people would notice the difference between the original Monochrom images and those of its successor, which makes sense since they had much in common, including Leica lenses. It was when you were working with the files in Lightroom that you noticed a difference — the Monochrom M files in many ways superior to the original (better high ISO, at least as good dynamic range), but also missing a certain… something. Even as some Leica photographers bemoaned what was lost from the transition to a CMOS sensor, I put that out of my mind and concentrated instead on how much more versatile the M Monochrom was, how good it was in low light. It became, in so many ways, the camera I used more than any other, ever. Certainly, in 2019, the four-year old Monochrom M was the camera I clutched when leaving the house.

Leica Monochrom M, and 35mm Summilux

Cartier-Bresson referred to his Leica as an extension of his eye, and for months there last year, mine certainly seemed to be an extension of my arm. When I had the pleasure of spending a day with a man who is, perhaps, HC-B’s spiritual son, Rui Palha, I was able to wander the streets of Lisbon looking at the city the way he sees it, which is to say, entirely in black and white. While I had enjoyed using the M10 in the bright colors and sunsets of the Alhambra in Grenada, because I was with Rui — as poetic a monochrome photographer as there is on the planet — my mind jettisoned those color channels just like my camera had, and as we set out into the streets, my M10 was miles away, cozy in a seaside room. My beloved M Monochrom was in my hand.

Leica M Monochrom, 35mm Summilux

I don’t know how many pictures I took with that M Monochrom, but in the 55 months I owned it, it kept its position as my go-to camera even as Leica produced a number of new camera platforms, the SL (which I began using) and the Q, which I resisted. As it became obvious a new Monochrom had to be coming sometime — Leica had long missed its previous interval of 2.5 years between Monochrom — what I hoped for, honestly, was just an upgrade like the one between the M-240 and M10: a slightly smaller camera with an updated sensor, a further refinement of the Leica M digital rangefinder. I wanted the ability to travel with both the M10 and the M10 Monochrom and only have to bring one battery charger. I had zero expectations that Leica would boost the resolving power of the M10 Monochrom sensor from 24 megapixels to 40. Which was why the announcement earlier this month of just what the M10 Monochrom would be was like being hit by a thunderclap.

Leica M10 Monochrom, 28mm Summicron

The first picture at the top of this post, and the ones just above and below this paragraph, were taken Friday when, to my surprise, I wandered out of my office at lunchtime and found the city streets crowded with demonstrators. They became an opportunity for me to test out what kind of street camera the new M10 Monochrom really is.

Leica M10 Monochrom, 28mm Summicron

What was immediately notable about shooting with the M10 Monochrom was how delightful it is in the grip. (I remember receiving the M10 the day before Trump’s inauguration and using it two days later at the Women’s March, and it was a tactile revelation, a sense of a volume reduction to the Golden Mean — even as it was also clear what an upgrade in sensors the M10 had over the M-240.) By moving to a 40 megapixel sensor, it’s perhaps an unfair question to ask how the M10 Monochrom compares to its predecessor, but I should note that, while 35mm is my most comfortable focal length, having those extra megapixels has encouraged me to use the 28mm Summicron, and crop where necessary; I have, it now seems, pixels to spare. If I hadn’t been using that 28mm lens, I never would have gotten the first picture on this post, nor the one that concludes it below.

Leica M10 Monochrom, 35mm Summilux

The M10 Monochrom’s fastest shutter speed is 1/4000th of a second, but it has been grey in Washington these past few days and I was able to shoot the above wide open at ISO 160 — down from a base ISO of 320 on the M Monochrom — which protected highlights. I have been curious, at times, about the way the Maestro processor determines ISO when using Aperture Priority and Auto ISO, as I have over the past few days of testing. There were images that, had I not been using Auto ISO, I would have switched the external ISO dial (yay) to 400 or 800, only to discover that the camera’s brain decided the image was to be shot at ISO 160. I came to understand – duh – the Auto ISO is biased toward shooting at the widest possible dynamic range, which means the lowest usable ISO.

Leica M10 Monochrom, 35mm Summilux

I remember setting the ISO dial to 400 for the above shot, which was at f/5.6 @1/1500th. I’m curious whether the Auto ISO would have shot this at 160 and a faster shutter speed. I do know, however, that if you use Auto ISO when out at night, and take a shot you never would have even considered with the first-generation Monochrom, you won’t be disappointed. I won’t tax your patience with a series of images of dark alleys, but trust me when I say that shooting at ISO 10,000 produced images literally without noise.

Leica M10 Monochrom, 35mm Summilux

The above image was shot at ISO 400, on a corner so dark I could barely use the guy on the right’s glasses as the reference point for focusing. On my computer screen, it is clear how much latitude there is for making it as light as it’s posted here, or meaningfully darker but still with the two men distinct against the ambient lighting. It’s stunningly clean.

So, is the M10 Monochrom, with its amazing high ISO performance and subtle tonality in limited light, worth getting for that feature alone? No, of course not. At least not any more than one would buy a Noctilux simply because of its low-light performance; you get a Noctilux because you want that special look it provides, and the same is true for any Monochrom and this one in particular. In 2015, David Farkas of the Leica Store Miami did a test pitting the Leica M-240 against both the M Monochrom and the M9 Monochrom. His conclusion was the M-240 images converted into black and white were wonderful — but the M Monochrom’s were better at high ISO performance and dynamic range. I believe the smart testers — Jono Slack, Sean Reid and others — who say the M10 Monochrom has a likely two-stop advantage over the M10. Which translates into highly usable images shot at ISO 12,500 or even higher.

So does one actually, you know, need a 40 megapixel digital rangefinder than only shoots black and white? Of course not. But if the tonality of black and white images is your thing, I can’t imagine a camera shooting a shot like the one below — or better put, producing a file like the one below — with the same latitude and malleability in post-processing.

Leica M10 Monochrom, 28mm Summicron

It is absolutely true that I could have converted the below shot from one taken by the M10 and gotten an image that would look very much like this. Grey as the day was, it’s still daylight.

Leica M10 Monochrom, 28mm Summicron

The question is whether I would have seen the image in black and white, given the colorful Chinatown arch. By deliberately setting out today to take black and white images, the photo previewed in my minds’ eye had a very different set of values. Clearly one aspect of shooting with a Monochrom is an absolute embrace of the gestalt of black and white. But if black and white is your thing, and much of the time it is mine, then the M10 Monochrom is the best tool I know of for achieving your goal, short of going all in on a medium format or larger sensor.

It is said that because of the way the 40 megapixel Leica M10 Monochrom utilizes its pixel density without undermining it by first converting the image to color and then, in post-production, stripping the color away, it’s the equivalent of a 60 megapixel sensor or even higher. I’m not an engineer, but I can tell you that the detail visible on my computer screen when processing an M10 Monochrom file is like nothing else I’ve ever witnessed. I am just getting a handle on how detailed is what’s rendered by the 47 mp SL2, but early indications are that the M10 Monochrom renders even more visible detail.

Leica M10 Monochrom, 28mm Summilux

We started with an image from Friday’s lunchtime walk smack into a demonstration in the Nation’s Capital. If properly rendered by Tulip Frenzy, you should be able to see significant detail in the frieze above the nuns — even though the image was shot at only f/5.6. We end with this picture from this afternoon’s New Year parade put on by D.C.’s Chinese community. On my computer screen, I can read the signage on the parade reviewing stand, and glean every nuance of the painted archway. It’s impressive. No, it’s actually pretty amazing!

If black and white photography is why you get out of bed in the morning, the M10 Monochrom is the camera for you.

John Buckley’s images can be found on Instagram @tulip_frenzy.

6 Responses to “On Leica’s M10 Monochrom, And The Apogee Of Digital Black and White Photography”

  1. Mark Christian Says:

    John, You wrote a most excellent essay on three great Leica cameras. Like you, I found the M10-M to be superb. r/ Mark

  2. What a great article, John.
    So well written and documented.
    Thank you for the nice words you used with myself. I am truly honoured.
    It was an enormous pleasure, as you felt certainly, walk with you in the streets of Lisbon.
    I hope we can repeat such pleasure.
    Fortunately I will have a M10 Monochrome to test, soon.
    I think it will be a camera masterpiece.

  3. tommydomingue Says:

    Excellent write up, John! I have the 246 and shoot with it about 33% of the time. I have to admit to looking into the M10M, but I feel I have not fully learned and exercised the feeling you have expressed here to pick of a copy. Maybe later?

  4. […] → On Leica's M10 Monochrom, and the apogee of digital black and white photography. […]

  5. […] → On Leica’s M10 Monochrom, and the apogee of digital black and white photography. […]

  6. […] Commentary On Music (Mostly), With An Occasional Photo « On Leica's M10 Monochrom, And The Apogee Of Digital Black and White Photography […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: