By Ajit Menon
It’s been a while since I’ve now had the Leica Monochrom (Typ 246) and as such, I’ve had some time to collect my thoughts about the camera. My path to owning this latest iteration of Leica’s purely monochrome camera was a bit long-winded. I originally bought a used copy of the original Monochrom from the Leica Store Miami. Having used it for a good four months or so, I traded it in when the new version was finally available in stores. In the following post, I will give my thoughts on both and my reasons for the upgrade.
A brief consideration of Leica
The history of Leica is well-known and does not need much mention. But history would not offer much solace if the current line-up of products did not offer some semblance of quality. In the last few years, the landscape of digital photography has changed massively and even the traditional players such as Canon and Nikon are facing strong challenges from new players such as Sony with their competitive mirrorless cameras.
Leica has a strange place in this new landscape. Re-branded as a luxury brand, it is nonetheless a brand that has embraced simplicity and has a strong connection to its traditional film-based past. The cult of Leica is therefore attributed primarily as one for the rich that seems to ignore the masses that could perhaps truly fulfill the potential of its rich pedigree.
Enter the Monochrom
This brings me back to the topic at hand – the Leica Monochrom. A digital camera boldly released in 2012 as a camera bereft of colour, recording only luminance data – a pure black and white camera. However incredulous the decision was perceived back then, the camera was a success for Leica and three years later, we have a new version, upgraded to the CMOS architecture of its color sibling.
In general, this not a traditional review but more of a collection of thoughts based on experiences with both versions of the camera substantiated with some of my results with both.
I snapped up the original used copy of the original Monochrom from the Leica Store in Miami as I mentioned above. With the release of the new version, a lot of the older copies were rapidly arriving as refurbished copies at (relatively) competitive prices for such a highly regarded camera. The assumption was that I had 30 days to use the camera and return it at any time in this period without penalty. Of course, returning a camera once loved is hard to fathom and that is what happened to me.
My first time out with the camera was one of trepidation. I snapped a few pictures at home as soon as the battery was charged, then pointed it out the window and snapped a few more before I eagerly copied the files onto my computer to check the results. It was at this moment, the reality sunk in that I was dealing with a purely monochromatic image. There was no way I could temporarily switch to color to equate the image, then artistically re-interpret it as black-and-white. All I had in front of me was a greyscale image that at first glance, looked a bit bland. Of course, these were just test images and a bad photograph is a bad photograph no matter the treatment and it was moot to expect these to exude magic where there was none. Until I shot something a bit more meaningful.
The original Monochrom had a reputation for creating relatively flat looking DNG files – the real power however lay in the fact that the dynamic range was sufficient and a bit of post processing would really bring out the depth and richness in the files. And it was true – the blacks seemed to have infinite range and an underexposed image at base ISO could be lifted up to 5-stops if necessary which is quite impressive.
But there is a technical reality to be aware of. Unlike other digital cameras, the Monochrom records only a single channel of luminance data and as such, highlights once clipped cannot be recovered. My solution was to always shoot with a -1/3 exposure compensation and take advantage of its post-processing flexibility to bring up the shadows at a later time and this worked out quite well in the time I had the camera.
The other exciting aspect of this camera was that I could now, just as the traditionalists did in the film days, use color contrast filters to affect the look of the image. Think Red filters for those images with dark skies and contrasty clouds. Or Orange and Yellow filters to brighten up a human face and soften facial blemishes.
And so I did. I bought a set of red and orange filters. Red was intended to be used for my landscape photos since I had enjoyed creating that faux look in my mono conversions in the past. The orange filter was meant to be used as a general purpose filter to enhance contrast and portray faces more gently. The consequence was that the files I now played with in Lightroom had a lot more contrast and generally a much better straight-out-of-camera look that I was quite pleased with. Suffice it to say, after this revelation, I loved using the camera and, besides using it for landscapes, used it at a couple of events for photographing friends and family.
Although a lot of my photography pertains to landscape photography, the Leica is a classic for street photography and sometimes, this is a great opportunity to maximize the luscious bokeh and character of the lenses. Below are a few random shots with the M Monochrom.
As you can see, the images are rich with detail and there is a lovely roll-off of tones from the DNG files. It’s hard to directly quantify but color conversions to black-and-white generally feel a tad more “pushed” and you lose some of the delicacy of a true mono image.
why I switched to the new version
My fascination for the Monochrom had initially begun after Leica had launched its campaign for the new Typ 246 camera. Featuring the luscious photography of Ragnar Axelsson, I was blown away by the depth of the images and the unique look. It was unlike most black and white imagery I had seen, and the quality of the tones was miles away from the look of popular color-to-mono conversions. Featuring a country such as Iceland in deep winter obviously helped and I began to follow news tidbits regarding the camera vociferously. At this point, I was still in the camp of skeptics that couldn’t swallow the asking price for such a camera but I put myself in the waiting list for the camera nonetheless – Leica is notorious for producing units of their cameras in extremely small quantities and it is quite common for people to wait for 6 months to a year before they can even get their hands on the model.
In this case, it was a good six months before pre-orders were informed of availability – a period during which I had already procured the old version at a relative bargain and got a good feel for the big question – would I be satisfied with a purely black and white camera or did I prefer the easy route of color conversions instead? The answer to this was an emphatic YES! The not so clear question was whether the upgrade was worth it. The new camera, being three years newer obviously meant that it came with a lot of technological leaps forward. But the real nuances also lay in the curious case of what makes a Leica unique… and limiting at the same time.
To Leica users, the following is quite basic knowledge. Leica M cameras are rangefinder cameras that use only manual focus lenses. The main difference with SLR cameras is that while SLRs allow you to look through the lens and see exactly what you are framing, the M rangefinders instead have a little window that looks at the scene with frame-lines to help compose the image. The most obvious limitation is that this window is just barely wide enough to frame a 28mm image. For anything wider, an external viewfinder is necessary – becoming rather cumbersome in the process. 35mm and 50mm lenses are the easiest to use while telephoto lenses like the 90mm become increasingly difficult to frame for because of the tiny frame-lines and often require a magnifier to work with.
Of course, this discussion opens up the conversation to a much larger conversation of how incredibly limiting and frustrating this can be – a conversation that is quite deeply personal and I will not go into at this moment.
However, this begins to highlight the main reasons for my shift. The new version had Live View and the possibility to add an external viewfinder and thus the ability to use extreme wide-angle and telephoto lenses quite easily. For regular photography with a 35mm or 50mm, the old Monochrom was quite fantastic and totally sufficient – in fact, using the rangefinder is quite charming because it forced me to pre-visualize the scene before the shutter click. But for landscapes, it was quite imperative to frame accurately and get a good sense of the resulting image.
The other factor is to do with the usage of graduated filters and polarizers. With the old Monochrom, there is no way to gauge the effect of a polarizer until after the image is taken (unless you buy another very expensive Leica accessory). Grad filters are also impossible to gauge without shooting a test image – unless you choose to bracket exposures and combine in post which I am not a huge fan of. The new version however, is perfect because you now can use the Live View to do exactly this. It still has a minor irritation that the center focus point is the only one you can use to check your focus but in general, it’s a huge improvement overall.
I guess there is just one more area to touch on briefly: how different are the two cameras? Although both cameras record pure luminance data, it seems the files generated by the two are fundamentally quite different. The original Monochrom seemed to generate a pure image that seemed a bit bland at first but had enough latitude for post-processing and could generate fantastically rich files. Moreover, using contrast filters like Red and Yellow filters gave you a much richer file right off the bat.
The new Monochrom (typ 246) seems to have a lot more contrast in the files by default with the midtones tending toward to the darker greys, resulting in moody tones with sharp accents of black. Contrast filters also seem to react slightly differently and the adjustment to the new look took me some time although I now love the look of the new files. But in writing this blog post, I am reminded how the older files seem somehow a bit smoother in general while the new files feel moody and gritty.
Shooting in Mono
Although I am old enough to have shot with film cameras before the onset of the digital age, I had never shot black and white film in the past and my first experiences with Tri-X and Ilford HP5 are comparatively recent. I guess I am one of the nouveau sorts that has re-appreciated black and white for it’s ability to deal with tonality and texture with a strong emphasis on composition.
In a time when digital cameras shoot color, it has become fashionable to convert images to black and white. The possibilities of conversion are endless – even more so than true black and white at times. I have converted tons of images that looked rather bland in color to black and white to dramatic effect in the past. In such a paradigm, shooting with a purely monochromatic camera may thus seem limiting. The decision for me has been intensely personal – and not without an element of risk considering the camera does not come cheap.
The main limitations of such a medium also become its strengths. Black and white is all about light and shadow, and texture to a certain extent. Since there are no dramatic colors anymore, it is almost essential to visualize a scene in terms of tonality… and if necessary, use color contrast filters to accentuate a scene.
Having only had the camera for a short time, I can’t really say I am an expert in any way. In fact, during my recent trip to Norway, I found it hard to pull out the Monochrom because the light and soft colors of the Arctic landscape were so pretty to ignore. But it is a fact that is growing on me that in most cases, a well taken monochrome photograph could be just as powerful as one in color.
The image above is a great example of a bright sunny day image that would be pretty but quite unassuming in color- but has a majestic quality in black and white.
The three day long storm in Norway allowed for some dramatic imagery with raging waves crashing against the shore.
This has been a long post and I have mainly used images to justify my decision. Understanding black and white like the masters of old is a long path but it should be a fun journey.