The Leica M Monochrom was the first digital M camera designed to capture black and white photos only. It is like a film camera that is restricted to use only black and white film. My camera was purchased almost 10 years ago, second-hand condition. Recently it is re-glazed with a new sensor filter, correcting the delamination that is common to the CCD sensor in the MM and the M9 models. This article outlines my experience with it with examples with a Summilux 35mm pre-asph lens.
Whenever I feel like black & white photography, this camera is the one I will grab to get out to shoot with me.
Black and white creates a strange dreamscape that color never can.Jack Antonoff
Some may ask, why would anyone in 2023 still walk around with a 18mp black & white only rangefinder camera, that is manually operated in most of its controls? A typical modern smartphone can do everything it does with more functions in all aspects. Maybe that is the reason to ask why not.
Firstly, the choice of seeing the world in black and white only, photographer focuses the attention on composition, texture and tones. This camera cannot see colour and it can only record brightness per pixel with strong signal to noise ratio. It is without the Bayer filter that recognises red, green and blue. Any customisation of brightness interpretation of colour will need to be done via coloured filters over the lens and not done in post-production. Typically I work my camera without a lens filter, but if I go out for a specific subject in photography, I may use a yellow filter for portraits, and a red filter for contrast and darker sky just like the good old days with black and white film in film camera. Without the distraction of colour, taking pictures with this camera is a purist pursuit.
After this camera model, Leica followed up with the M246 which is a black and white version of M240, then the M10 Monochrom, and the Q2 Monochrom. Those newer models have more features, live-view, electronic shutter, higher resolution and higher ISO sensitivity on CMOS rather than CCD sensor, modernised interface, more quiet and faster shutters. This original model has none of these features and it is much more basic.
Secondly, I have forced myself to work with this one camera and one lens combo for the last few months. I want to know what discipline of this method brings. Limitation of the camera, or the lack of freedom is what I need to focus on my journey with photography at this time. It is a personal choice.
The one camera one lens practice forces a necessity to learn of how this combination works together. Understanding what the lens does at each focal length and what the camera does with its exposure response to different lighting conditions, expected viewing angles etc. It becomes an extension of one’s vision and a specific point of view.
Menu and operation
The MM has very limited adjustable menu items. It takes 5 mins to setup, and it is set and go. The simplicity of the control is the reason why I go back to this camera, time and time again. Physical control of shutter speed is on camera and focus control is on the lens, that about it. The viewfinder magnification is not huge. I am not seeing the full 35mm frame with glasses on. There is no liveview with the CCD sensor, all rangefinder focusing like a film M camera. Focusing is manually done via lens lever control through the rangefinder. Auxiliary viewfinder should be used for composition of anything wider that 35mm. Both camera and lenses should be calibrated if very fast lens with large aperture is used. It is required for critical focus.
The shutter is discreet, but comparatively louder than newer models. This one sounds like a film auto advance lever motion, old-school feel. It can do continues shutter of 2 frames per second with limited number of frames. I use a much older 8Gb Extreme SD card, as this one is made before SDXC, SDHC standards. The card must be compatible with the era of this camera. Newer cards may work, but I don’t want to take chances, as I recall the camera is very sensitive on card type.
Flat DNG files
The files produced from the camera is decent in jpg, but I do DNG RAW and that is characteristically flat. It is perfect for toning in Lightroom or your favourite development software. The RAW file off this camera is unlike any other RAW file. When imported in Lightroom, it seems to require very little or not decoding at all. Without the need of de-mosaic of the colour info, there is no loading time for the files to be worked on and ready immediately after import. It is like 1:1 direct reading. I have not experienced any other camera RAW behave this way, at least not since CMOS sensor took over the industry. The later M246 or M10 Monochrom models’ DNG files take more time to be processed, may be because of increased file size.
Grain and High ISO
The Monochrom is silky smooth at base ISO320. It is a very organic film like grain as ISO increases. It may be the earliest digital M camera that has ISO10000 when launch in 2012. With a wide aperture M lens, it can practically see in the dark, with noisy but exceptional character.
Highlight preservation and uncanny shadow recovery
The MM sensor has strong highlight clipping, but very good with shadow recovery. Shooting in DNG RAW file, I always have exposure compensation setting on -2/3 to preserve the highlights. The Dynamic range is very bias to the dark side. On the light side, highlights are clipping at the default exposure. Typically, my files look very dark out of camera, but I know that the details can be brought back via a simple shadow slider.
The variation of grey tones capture by this camera is exceptional. It seems to bring out a lot more details compare to cameras with similar resolution.
Samples and commentary
The 35mm Summilux expresses itself as a soft glow lens in wide aperture and a sharp renderer when stopped down. Samples below is without colour filters, with small adjustments in Lightroom as I typically correct exposure after capture the frame to recover shadows while preserving highlights. We can see how this combination works at night below.
This lens/camera combination is magical after the sun comes down. In the dark night, the footpath is only illuminated by the Sodium-vapour lamp at low light. The camera, however, is sucking all the light in, with very fine definition of the subtle transition of light reflected in the dark.
Under morning light, the fine leaves on the photos above diffuse the light wonderfully. The back bokeh of this lens can be rather busy. The cameras is doing great to capture both soft or hard light is a film like imprint.
Focusing on the fence a few metres away, front out-of-focus bokeh has a nicer and fuller expression compare to the distanced out-of-focus area.
Another way I test out the quality of rendering typically involved with looking up textured tree trunks, like the sample below at wide aperture, focused on midway up. The camera lens combo produces a three-dimensional perspective, that emphasizes the depth and creates an immersive scene.
Focus on the distance, the picture below isolate the out of focus foreground and the softness of the trunk in the foreground, contrast with the scale and the details of leaves in the background.
Stop down the aperture, the lens render super sharp details and micro contrast. The sensor matches that fidelity to capture those details as shown on the next two photos.
In backlit situations, this camera lens combo produce pleasing results, like the bottle brush or the leaves photos below. The range of tones and the detail definition is great.
On harder urban subjects, this combo shines also, mostly because of the smooth gradients, the fine details and contrast over various textures.
For street photography, as the physical volume of M camera is small for full-frame digital, especially with the tiny 35mm, it is perfect to carry everywhere. It feel solid and the weight steady the camera and slow down quiet down the mind. With a camera, the tool is dedicated to photography and not mixed with other tools on a smart phone. It is a mindful experience.
The grey tones are spread across a wide dynamic range. They are easy to work with in post processing. I like the way different colours are balance with tonal variations and subject separation is great.
Reading off the depth of field scale on the lens, this rangefinder camera works with zone focusing. With a rough focus set and a selected aperture covering a tolerable focus range, it is a great snap shot/point and shot experience.
It is the CCD myth, and it is the old-school feeling. I am obsessed with this camera-lens combo in both the tactile experience and the flexibility of the information captured for processing in Lightroom. It reminds me so much of my film camera days, taking the time to consider each frame and be patient and mindful for subjects to fall into the frame. Learning what I can do with the limitations is half the fun. The other half is about enjoying the process of trusting the camera in hand, and to get the best of what it brings along the journey.
Look for Leica M Monochrom on Ebay (affiliated link)
Look for Leitz Summilux 35mm F1.4 Lens on Ebay (affiliated link)