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The World's Best Camera for Black-And-White Photography?
Is there an audience for an $8,000 camera that only shoots in black-and-white? Mason Resnick got his hands on one of the first Leica M Monochrom cameras to land in the US. Here's his review of this fascinating, unique camera.
Leica M Monochrom Key Features:
- 18MP 23.9x35.8mm, 18MP Dedicated Black-And-White Sensor
- Center-weighted TTL metering
- ISO range 320-10,000, “pulled” to ISO 1600.
- Aperture-priority and Manual Exposure
- Hot shoe
- RAW (DNG), JPEG File Formats
- Viewfinder magnification: 0.68
- 2.5-inch LCD monitor with 230k pixel resolution
- Shutter speeds B, 8-1/4000 sec
- Noise reduction available
"$8,000 for a camera that only shoots black-and-white? Is Leica nuts?" I’ve heard this question about Leica M Monochrom, available for pre-order now at Adorama, ever since it was announced this fall, and have been curious and intrigued. One of the first evaluation units to reach the U.S. arrived in my hands a few weeks ago, and I’ve been using it at every possible opportunity since then, in the hopes of answering the somewhat more diplomatically-posed question: "What benefit would a photographer get from spending so much money for a dedicated black-and-white camera, and is it worth it?"
In short: The Leica M Monochrom delivered the best black-and-white images I’ve ever seen from a digital camera. With a $7,950 price tag, most mortals are bound to say "no, thanks" but for the elite few who can afford one and are willing to part with that kind of scratch, you're in for something special. Leica has always been in a category all its own, and this camera was built with no specific market in mind. They built it; now, who will buy it? After using and testing this camera for the past few weeks, I feel this camera may have a larger potential audience than people expect.
First, let’s talk about how almost all other digital cameras capture black-and-white, and compare that to the Leica M Monochrom. The typical digital camera sensor’s pixels are divided into Red, Green and Blue filters. Light passes through the filters onto the sensor surface; The RGB data is gathered and assembled electronically into a color image. When choosing black-and-white in-camera, the camera discards a bunch of information, leaving only the black and white. However, if you shot in RAW, the color information is still contained in the image file.
But…thanks to the aforementioned RGB filters, some of the light never reaches the pixel, effectively reducing the sensor’s light sensitivity.
Here’s where the Leica M Monochrom comes into play.
The Leica M Monochrom has an 18MP sensor, but the RGB filters have been removed. All of the light that reaches the sensor is used, creating what Leica describes as a “purer” image. Without the light-blocking filters, the effective sensitivity of the sensor is boosted considerably. Since the sensors are no longer divided into RGB, the individual sensor sights are larger, resulting in less noise at high ISOs.
At least, that’s what is supposed to happen.
Due to the uniqueness of the Leica sensor, our lab partner, DxOLabs, has not been able to test the Leica line. However, this is known: The original Leica M9’s full frame sensor fell short of expectations. It was very good, but in my review, I found image quality started to deteriorate by ISO 800 when shooting in black-and-white, and grain became obvious by ISO 1600. But that was so 2009. Can the Leica M Monochrom, with its new sensor and no light-reducing filters in the way, deliver the amazing quality Leica claims? I spent a couple of weeks using this remarkable camera doing street photography in New York City, as well as under more controlled circumstances. Here’s what I found.
Looks pretty good, huh? Wouldja believe this was shot at ISO 6400? Believe it! (Scroll down for 100% details at key ISO settings.)
In the hands
The Leica M Monochrom’s overall feel is virtually identical to that of the M9, and the control layout is elegantly simple. It is designed for experienced photographers who not only are able to handle automatic controls, but prefer them. There’s no autofocus, and only Aperture-priority, center-weighted metered autoexposure. Manual shutter speed, aperture and focus settings are at your fingertips. Long-time Leica users already know this and appreciate the Leica M-series’ unique approach to camera design. If you are new to Leica, you may want to read my review of the Leica M9 to learn more about that camera’s controls and feel, which are virtually identical to the M Monochrom.
The rangefinder covers a full 28mm angle of view, with bright line indicators for longer focal length lenses. Focus is confirmed when overlapping images in a small rectangle merge. I found the rangefinder to be bright and easy to use, even with eyeglasses. The 2.5-inch, 230,000 pixel resolution LCD is the camera’s weakest feature (as it was with the M9), with the relatively low resolution and dark display (even when adjusted) making it difficult to judge image quality in preview mode. I would like to see Leica upgrade its LCD monitor for a better chimping experience.
The Leica M runs on a similar Li-ion battery as its predecessors, and this battery drains quite fast. I recommend investing in at least one additional battery. With minimum chimping, I used up the battery after about 4 hours of heavy shooting. Considering there are fewer causes for the battery to drain (no autofocus or image stabilization, for instance) the battery should last longer than it does, which seems to be in the 300-400 shot range, depending on how heavily you rely on the preview mode.
Incredible detail in the shadows: RAW images in tough lighting displayed a wide range from bright highlights to deep blacks that would have been lost in a lesser camera.
At this point in a camera review, I would normally show DxOMark lab test results, but because of the Leica M Monochrom’s unique sensor, there is, as of this writing, no test result to share. Instead, I conducted field tests. Here’s what I found. While there are noise reduction settings on the Leica M Monochrom, I turned them off in order to see the noise itself.
I also shot everything in RAW+JPEG and found that while the JPEG files were excellent, the RAW files allowed for much greater control in post-processing and revealed much more detail in both shadows and highlights. While this may not be news to those who shoot RAW regularly, the flexibility gained by shooting RAW in a camera that is natively monochrome-only was a revelation. Shooting RAW comes with a price: The RAW images are huge, at 36MB uncompressed. But there is a lot of information in those images.
Lots of info in the shadows, and some in the highlights, that were coaxed from this image by adjusting the shadow, highlight and clarity sliders in Adobe's RAW editing tool. A lesser camera might not have revealed so much dynamic range in a single image. Shot at ISO 400.
The Leica M Monochrom has a wide dynamic range and was unusually forgiving for a digital camera, a welcome attribute for a camera that is likely to be embraced by photojournalists and street photographers. But the real story here is the digital noise—or lack thereof—at higher than expected ISO settings. Let’s take a look.
This is a test: My test subject is full of detail. Let's take a look at the 100% details at key ISO settings and see how the Leica M Monochrom performed under ideal settings. This frame was shot at ISO 320, the camera's native ISO setting.
Image quality samples
I shot the following on a partly cloudy day, with the camera mounted on a tripod, at full resolution with noise reduction turned off and a Leica 28mm f/2.8 Elmarit-M lens mounted on the Leica M Monochrom. I took sample shots at ISOs 160, 320, 640, 1250, 2500, 5000, and 10,000. All images below are straight out of camera with no adjustments applied—with one exception, which is noted below.
At the “pulled” ISO of 160, above, the image showed slightly high contrast. By its native ISO 320, contrast was average and remained that way through ISO 6400.
Now let's look at the 100% details:
ISO 160, 100 percent: Pulled down to ISO 160, there is no visible noise.
ISO 320, 100 percent: As expected, there was no visible noise at the Leica M Monochrome's native light sensitivity setting.
ISO 640, 100 percent: Still no noise.
ISO 1250, 100 percent: Finally, a bit of noise is visible, but just barely.
ISO 2500, 100 percent: Noise becomes more obvious, but the grain structure is tight and pleasing. What film grain does this remind you of? I think it looks like Kodak Plus-X, an ISO 125 film.
ISO 5000, 100 percent: Can’t miss the noise now, but still, pretty good. Now it feels like Kodak Tri-X or Ilford HP-5, both ISO 400 films, but this is approximately four stops faster!
ISO 10,000, 100 percent: At its top speed, the nature of the image delivered by the M Monochrom changes dramatically, not necessarily in a bad way. Exposure is off by approximately one stop, but in addition to the noise, the image now has much more contrast. This actually enhances and emphasizes the noise, turning it into a graphic element of the image. This is a characteristic that can be creatively exploited. For the old-timers out there, think “Agfa #6 paper”.
In this full-frame version of the ISO 10,000 image, I’ve adjusted shadows, highlights, exposure, contrast, and clarity for the most detail-filled image I could coax from the RAW file. Note that despite my dynamic-range widening attempts, the image still displays much more contrast than the lower speed settings and the resulting image is more graphically dramatic.
When applying noise reduction, you can expect to gain a stop or two of low-noise images, which means shooting almost noise-free up to almost ISO 5000! Use any Leica lens, such as the Leica 28mm f/2.8 Elmarit-M, Leica 35mm f/1.4 Summilux-M, or Leica 50mm f/2 Summicron-M, and the combination of superior optics and high image quality—along with the camera's relatively compact size (compared to a top-line DSLR)—and you've got a winning, no-compromises combination.
Fast-reacting: The Leica M Monochrom has no lag time, making it possible to keep up with fast-changing street scenes like this one where a small fraction of a second's hesitation means the difference between a successful photo and an oops-just-missed shot.
Street Photo Stress Test
It was no surprise that the Leica M Monochrom passed the Street Photo Stress Test with flying colors, reacting instantly with no lag time. The only exception was when I shot more than 5 or 6 images in rapid succession while shooting RAW+JPEG. Then the buffer would fill and I would have to wait before shooting again. While I think the camera’s buffer performance has improved slightly over the M9’s, there is still room for improvement.
What's a Street Photography Stress Test? Read "What's a Street Photography Stress Test and why should you care?"
However, knowing its outstanding image quality performance at higher speeds, I cranked up the ISO and shot between ISO 1600 and ISO 4000, working in subdued mid- to late-December daylight and getting reasonable shutter speeds and mid-range aperture settings in the shade., using a Leica 28mm f/2.8 Elmarit-M lens as my optic. Bottom line: The Leica M Monochrom is a fantastic camera for black-and-white street photography.
Conclusion and Recommendation
So the big question is: “$8,000 for a camera that only shoots black and white—is Leica nuts?” The answer is: It depends on how badly you want a camera that delivers what is arguably the best black-and-white images in the world, and if you can afford it. (It could be argued that the Nikon D800E, at around $3,000 may be in the same image-quality ballpark, but alas, I can’t make a direct comparison based on lab tests.)
Match the Leica M Monochrom with any Leica lens and you have a truly great camera that will deliver image quality without peer. But while its high-speed performance and along with its classical Leica features make it a camera of desire for street shooters and photojournalists, it also delivers remarkable low-speed image quality. In fact, this camera, a tripod and a set of color filters to control relative grays based on colors, may become a camera of choice for Ansel Adams-like landscape photography. It will deliver super-sharp large prints; shoot in RAW and you will get incredibly high dynamic range images.
For black-and-white enthusiasts, in my humble opinion, the Leica M Monochrom is now officially the holy grail of digital cameras. Yes, it's pricey, but you might eventually be able to get the thrill of using it brifely by renting it, when it becomes available. And for those who are willing and able to cough up $7,950 (that's the price for pre-orders at Adorama as of this writing) for the privelege of owning and using one, I have the following advice: Start saving!