Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Review: Leica M Monochrom feels like film!

28mm F2.8 Asph. Elmarit. 1/1000 sec F/5.6 @ ISO 1600. 60% crop and edited in Photoscape.


A friend explained to me the difference between a device and a tool. A device is simply a complicated tool. If it fails to accomplish its task, we simply blame the device. A laptop is a device. Same as a modern digital camera.  When we fail at updating the latest software on our laptop, or our DSLR fails at focusing during a sports game, we blame the device. It's not our fault. The device has failed us. What's a tool? A hammer is a tool. It's simple. It's an extension of our hand. When we miss the nail, we don't blame the tool. We know the fault is ours.

In the world of photography, a manual film camera is as close to a photographic tool as you can get. It is an extension of our eyes and hands. Manual focus, manual exposure, manual film loading. If we misfocus, get the exposure wrong, or misload our film, do we blame the camera? No, we know it's our fault. A good tool doesn't fail us. We fail the tool.

If a Nikon F3 or Leica M6 is a photographic tool, and a Sony A99 or Canon 5D Mrk III is a photographic device, where does the Leica M Monochrom belong?  It's the most tool-like digital camera on the market today, in function, shooting 'feel' and even in the image 'developing' process. The fact the camera only shoots black and white adds to the nostalgic feel of shooting with an old manual camera loaded with Tri-X or Delta 100. The camera is simple in design and function and ability; but a very powerful imaging tool, as long as you know how to take a good picture! How good is this very unique M camera? Let's begin the review of the Leica M Monochrom...

Pros and Cons

I won't make you scroll down to the bottom to find this section, so let's get right to the point, the good and the not so good:

PROs
-super solid build and feel. Nice leather-wrap, solid dials and buttons
-all major controls are easily visible and accessible, including dedicated iso button
-easy manual focus. Very fast and accurate, and parallax correction is excellent
-stealthy all-black look. Perfect for street photography
-very film-like images. I'm addicted to the digital grain!
-unique high resolution black and white only sensor.
-full frame files allow for more aggressive cropping, more shallow DOF
-software provided: Adobe Lightrooom and Nik Silver Efex Pro 

CONs
-low res screen (230K dot 2.5" screen)
-difficult to access exposure compensation (when shooting in aperture priority)
-confusing over-under exposure reading (2 triangles and a dot...)
-slow write speeds after multiple RAW images.
-really expensive (or should I say exclusive?)


28mm F/2.8 Asph Elmarit. 1/750th sec F/5.6 @ iso 1600. RAW convert in CS5 and adjusted in Photoscape


The M Monochrom is one of a kind. You can't really compare it to another camera on the market. It's a full frame, monochromatic-image only, rangefinder, M mount, manual focus, made in Germany digital camera. It has no real peers or competition. I do wish it was cheaper only so that the average street photographer has access to this wonderful photographic tool. I know it's not Leica's business strategy to make inexpensive cameras, but perhaps they could make a cropped sensor M8-Monochrom ($4900); or how about an X-Monochrom with a fixed 35mm or 40mm lens ($2200)? X-Vario Monochrom ($2900)?

Build, Handling, Feel

Let me start off by saying this is the first time I've handled a digital Leica M. Yes, I recently tested the Leica X Vario (aka Mini M), but its not the same. There is a similar big brother-little brother resemblance, but the M is definitely a step up from the X series cameras.  At $7950 USD body only, there should be a discernible difference in build quality. For instance, to access the battery and memory card, you have remove the solid brass bottom plate, just like a Leica film camera. Yes it takes more time, but there's no chance of breaking the often flimsy battery compartment door on most cameras (yes I'm talking to you X-Vario). The LCD screen is also protected by a sapphire glass cover, the same material used in most high-end Swiss watch crystals.

The body is basically the same as the Leica M9, so it has the same tank-like build, but it also has the same 2.5" 230,000 dot screen (can we say 2005?). It's good enough for viewing the menu options, but don't bother using it to check for dynamic range, sharpness or focus. Like many fans of the Monochrom, it's true you can't really appreciate the dynamic image files on a small 2.5" screen anyway; however, I think its important to at least be able to check for focus or DOF, since this is a rangefinder and not a through-the-lens type camera.

This is the most confusing oversight of the entire camera, and I'm sure that since the new M240 has the same 920,000 dot screen as the X Vario, we've seen the last of this low-res screen on any Leica camera. This is my only real gripe about the entire camera. To be honest, once I got into a shooting groove with the Monochrom, I did rarely spend much time admiring my images on screen. Since the Monochrom is best when shooting RAW images, you know what you see on screen isn't going to be how the image will look like in the end anyways. Ok, let's move on...


28mm F/2.8 Asph Elmarit. 1/1500th sec F/8 @ ISO 3200


The handling is all Leica M. It feels like an M. The leather-wrapped body and solid top and bottom plate feels nice and solid in the hand. When I took my first shot with the Monochrom, I actually tried winding the camera to the next frame! It's so manual-like and so film-like, I forgot it was a digital camera. It's easy to do since you're looking through an optical viewfinder, manually setting the exposure with physical dials, and then manually focusing. 

Would it be a stretch if the Leica engineers could find a way to manually set the shutter after every shot with a manual film advance lever? I think it would be totally awesome, as it would make the Leica truly silent. The M shutter has an odd electric-mechanical sound, and although quieter than a DSLR, it's still much louder than a mechanical shutter on a film camera. What do you think Leica? Is it practical or even possible to install a manual shutter in a modern digital camera? Maybe not, but it would be pretty cool wouldn't it?

Overall, the M Monochrom, like its big brother, the M9, feels like a solid, simple, photographic tool. Most DSLRs have way more functions and features, but none feel as solid as this digital M. The design hasn't changed much in 60-70 years, and for good reason. If you're interested in capturing images with a digital rangefinder, this is the system to beat. Just hold it in your hands and you know you have something substantial. 

Controls and Features

The highlight of shooting with a Leica M rangefinder is using their famous optical viewfinder. There's nothing wrong with an EVF, but getting back to basics, its refreshing to see an image that isn't digitized. I was even impressed with it's ability to correct for parallax error with the 28mm F/2.8 Asph. Elmarit lens. I could easily center my subject up to 1 meter away. Shooting with the 28mm F/2.8 Asph Elmarit lens, it's probably as wide as I would want to go in using a OVF, since using a 24mm or 21mm lens would mean the use of an external viewfinder, as the lens would be in the way of your field of view.

Although focusing and setting the aperture is more of a lens review than a camera review, the 28mm Elmarit lens worked very well in terms of matching the quality and feel of the M body. Every Leica lens feels at home on a Leica body. Manually setting my aperture, shutter speed and my focus was fast, buttery smooth, and very accurate. 


28mm F/2.8 Asph Elmarit. 1/125th sec F/5.6 @ ISO 800.


The M Monochrom does have an aperture priority mode, but I wouldn't bother. To shoot in this mode, you really need quick access to exposure compensation, and the placement of this feature seems like an after-thought. You have to press the 'set' button, scroll down to the exposure compensation feature, and then press again. That's a lot of work to access a feature that many cameras give you instant access to. In the end, I never shot in aperture priority mode anyway, so it's not really something I care about. 

Same goes for the continuous shooting and self timer mode built into the on/off switch wrapped around the shutter button. I don't think anyone who shoots with an M uses these features. Self-timer, really? Continuous shooting (it's only 2 FPS anyway), for real? Perhaps Leica can replace the two modes with something more practical, like two custom profile modes, or as two quick access custom function modes? This could be a firmware update addition.


28mm F/2.8 Asph Elmarit lens. 1/1500th sec F/5.6 @ ISO 3200.


However, there are many useful features built into the Monochrom, and you can easily find them in the simple to navigate menu screen. My favourite is adjusting the way the shutter works. Under the "advance" mode (even though there is no film advancing, we know what it means), there are 4 settings for the actual shutter sound: standard, soft, discreet, and discreet + soft. The last option is what I used since it allows you to press the shutter in soft mode, then as long as you keep it pressed, it won't 'advance' until you release the button when you're safe to do so. This is great for street photography. It's definitely not as quiet as a point and shoot, but it is significantly better than the sound of a DSLR shutter and slapping mirror!

There's also image control features (sharpening, contrast, toning), but since most will be shooting DNG files and not jpegs, I don't think many would use it. Image control with this sensor is best shot as a RAW file and the rest will be done during the image developing process anyway. 

Moreover, the controls and features on the M Monochrom is adequate, but nothing earth shattering...and that's okay. I don't think anyone buys this camera with the mindset of creating complex in-camera, digitally altered, miniaturized, stitched, cross-processed images. The Monochrom is basically a digital 'black and white film' camera. The simpler, the more tool-like the camera is, the happier the target market will be. When you buy the best hammer on the market, you don't expect your specialized tool to do more than what it was designed to do. What the Mononchrom does, it does it better than anyone else!


28mm F/2.8 Asph Elmarit Lens. 1/750th sec F/8 @ ISO 3200. Slight crop.





The most important feature to those who buy this camera is the black and white only sensor. This isn't the same as shooting black and white on other digital cameras. Other cameras' sensors have 3 colour, 3 channel image processing. There's a need for a colour filter array, and because there's a multi-colour pixel dense placement on the sensor, there's interference caused by neighbouring pixels. Not so with the Monochrom's sensor. Its only single channel, reducing interference and noise, and increasing resolution. The anti-aliasing filter has also been removed, although this is no longer a super-unique feature anymore. What all of this means is that the M Monochrom can deliver amazing black and white images with superior resolution. As you go up in ISO, around 1600-3200, the mid-tones and highlights definitely act more film-like, and the noise looks more like grain than pixels. Because of this, I rarely shot under ISO 1600. I just loved that digital grain! Let's stop talking about this camera, and let's start shooting.

In the Field: Shooting

28mm F/2.8 Asph Elmarit. 1/30th sec F/2.8 @ ISO 3200. Shot at dirty mirror.


Walking around with the M Monochrom around my neck, I felt both fear and excitement. Fear that I would somehow drop, lose or otherwise destroy this $10,000 kit; but at the same time excited that I'm shooting with a very rare, unique, and exotic digital black and white Leica! Like the X-Vario, the M Monochrom is made for street photography, with all your major dials and adjustment buttons are clearly visible and accessible. 

The only advantage the X-Vario has over the M Monochrom is it's live view mode. No, I'm not suggesting the M Monochrom needs a live view, but when on, it has a very clear and large exposure meter that made it easy to make quick exposure adjustments while on the move. The only way to know if you have the correct exposure on the Monochrom is to look through the OVF and follow the little red triangles until the green dot in the middle lights up. You don't know if you're 3 stops off, or 1. I don't adjust my exposure too often anyway, but in tricky and quick changing lighting, it's nice to be able to look down at the screen and see where you're at and adjust quickly. This is another firmware update fixable issue...


28mm F/2.8 Asph Elmarit lens. 1/2000th sec F/5.6 @ ISO 1600


However, since I'm use to shooting manually, this didn't hinder my shooting ability. Instead of checking through the OVF for exposure, I just took a quick image and checked. It was faster this way. Because of this, it took more skill and concentration shooting with the M Monochrom versus the X-Vario, but the results were more satisfying. Yes the X-Vario had amazing colour and beautiful JPEG files to work with, but the M Monochrom's black and white only RAW files are beautiful, and the resolution is incomparable.  As I shot with the Monochrom, it truly felt like shooting film, including the need to wait to process the image before I could truly appreciate the power of the unique sensor. Although there is no live histogram, there is one provided after taking the image, so you can pre-shoot and adjust the exposure after. Yes it takes more time than a typical digital camera, but if you're a film shooter, this is a huge step up in technology!



28mm F/2.8 Asph Elmarit lens. 1/500th sec F/8 @ ISO 3200


Since I primarily shoot by scale or zone focusing, and I always shoot in manual mode, I was at home shooting with the M. Most of my shots were taken without even using the OVF, so I guess I was missing the point of shooting with rangefinder. But when I did have to frame my image carefully, and when I did have to manually focus, it was quick and smooth. Knowing the feel of the focus range of the lens I was using, I could quickly find focus before even putting the viewfinder to my eye. Once I was looking through the OVF, I was already within a meter or two of focus; and since I was already stopped down to F/5.6-8, I could shoot close to focus and know my subject would still be in sharp focus. 

It was really enjoyable shooting with the Monochrom. It's like driving a modern sports car but with a manual stick transmission, no paddle shifters. Yes, technically the paddle shifter is faster, but there's a certain feel and responsiveness to driving stick, especially if you know how to heel-toe and power shift. It's the same with shooting with a modern digital camera that still uses manual focus and an optical viewfinder. It seems backwards, but if you're good at shooting manual, it makes it more enjoyable. It makes you work harder, but you feel like part of the process. That's how the M Monochrom makes you feel after shooting with it all day; that YOU took the pictures, not the camera. Again, it's more like a photographic tool, not a device. Let's see how the pictures turned out...

Image Quality: The Developing Process

The final step, the image process. Like shooting film, it takes time to see what you were able to capture all day. Unlike most cameras that give you a good idea of what you've captured via the back screen, the M Monochrom's 230K dot 2.5" view doesn't show you much. It's like a newsprint quality image: good enough to see the overall picture, but not enough to know how great the image can really be. Because of this, if you want instant gratification and don't like working with RAW files, don't bother shooting with the M Monochrom. The only way to get the most out of this sensor is by shooting RAW and taking your time to process the image.


1/250th sec F/5.6 @ ISO 1600.


Leica provides all M Monochrom's with Adobe Lightrooom and Nik Silver Efex Pro in the box so there's no need to worry that you don't have the proper tools to make great images. The two step process of RAW conversion and then post processing the jpeg afterwards takes time, but its worth it. I would recommend when shooting with the Monochrom to create a jpeg along with the DNG file, only so you can find the image you want quicker, since a DNG file doesn't create an easily viewable image. My Leica rep didn't provide me with either software, so I worked with my standard image workflow: CS5 to process the DNG file and Photoscape for post processing the created jpeg.

When you first look at your full frame image, you realize two things. First, it doesn't look as polished or finished as your highly modified and altered jpeg coming straight out of your compact camera. Many don't realize how much manipulation there is in a jpeg, and each manufacturer has their own style and look to their jpeg. The RAW file looks pretty flat and boring when you first look at it. It's meant to be post processed.

The second thing you notice is how much latitude there is in a RAW file, as well as in a full frame image. With a 35mb RAW file from a 36mm x 24mm, 864 sq mm surface area sensor (most enthusiast point and shoot cameras with a 1/1.7" sensor has a  43.32 sq mm surface area) there's lots of room to adjust, crop, and manipulate the image file. Even images that I thought I couldn't save, I could easily adjust in CS5 while processing the RAW file.


cropped image from above. Click for 100% crop and see how film-like the grain is.


Going through all my DNG files, it takes time to go through all your images. I realized the need to edit through the images in camera first before deciding to download to my computer. But once I found the images I wanted, I was pretty excited. It still took a solid 10-15 minutes per image to convert in CS5 and do some post-processing in Photoscape. Not quite as long as shooting film, but definitely a more time consuming process than many of us are use to when shooting jpegs with a point and shoot camera. 

Is it worth the time spent? If you love black and white and you love the film-like feel of the files, yes. It's quicker than shooting film, and there's no need to wait hours before seeing a finished image on screen or printed. If you make the time for the process from beginning to start, the Monochrom will reward you with amazing monochromatic images.

Conclusion: Digital Film Camera?

After having the camera for almost 2 weeks, what do I think about the Leica M Monochrom? I really enjoyed shooting with it. Would I buy one? If I had an extra $7K floating around, as well as a few lenses to complement the camera, sure I would. I find nothing odd about a black and white only digital camera, considering the technology that allows it to take better pictures than most cameras.

Unlike a colour sensor that shoots in three channels and then you have to remove the colour after, the M Monochrom actually sees only in black and white, just like the film. It's not equal to film, but it's the closest any camera manufacturer has come to creating digital grain. You have to keep in mind your highlights though, as it washes out to white easier than shooting in colour. There's no recovery possible, unlike shooting in colour that has 3 channels to save the highlight. In terms of ISO performance, I think the sensor shines at higher ISO's, especially between ISO 1600 - 3200. Unfortunately I wasn't able to test iso 6400-10,000, but the M Monochrom shines at higher ISOs. Most cameras start to look worse as you go higher, but the M Monochrom seems to improve as it starts to look more film-like. 


28mm F/2.8 Asph Elmarit lens. 1/1000th sec F/5.6 @ ISO 1600.

In fact, after shooting with the Monochrom for a couple of weeks, it made me want to shoot more film, but then I remembered the good old film days...I worked for Kodak for almost 10 years from 1996 to 2005, so I was around when great films like Portra was first released. I would always receive sample bricks (20 rolls) to test, and because I shot weddings and pro sports on the side, I would easily average 200 rolls a year! I had stacks and stacks of albums, and binders filled with negatives. 

I know many are getting back into film, especially those who grew up with digital, and that's great. I hope film never dies, but I'm also realistic. It will never be like the good old days. Who wants bookshelves and boxes of photo albums and binders full of slides and negatives?The chemistry from the film and paper processing wasn't that great for the environment, and I was so tired putting my printed pictures into albums that I would just leave the one-time-view prints in the photolab envelop and store them in boxes. Talk about clutter! 

I think digital photography is a good thing. A hard drive is equivalent to a bookshelf full of albums and negatives. But many of us like the look and feel and the process of shooting with a film camera. I love the feel of shooting Tri-X film with my Minolta XD and 45mm lens, manual exposure, manual focus. Shooting and playing with the Leica M Monochrom gave me a similar feeling. The images don't look exactly like film, but it's pretty close... as close as anyone has gotten so far.


28mm F/2.8 Asph Elmari. 1/1000th sec F/8 @ ISO 3200. Cropped to 16 x 9


Shooting with a Leica M is a different type of photography than shooting with a DSLR or even a mirrorless ILC. It's not about top speed and efficiency. It's about the process, how we get the image captured, and how we process that image to get a final product. There's no instant gratification, but those of us who love shooting film will find the process of obtaining the image familiar and satisfying. If you own a Leica M film camera, but would like a quicker way of processing your images, you will love the M Monochrom. If you already own a Leica M9 and wonder if it's worth buying a very similar camera, it is. The high ISO performance of the Monochrom destroys the M9, and the images have better resolution at most ISO's. 

Thanks to Eric Kerwin and Leica Canada for loaning me the Leica M Monochrom. I was given the opportunity to look back fondly at my old film days, but look forward to the future of monochromatic images at the same time. Not many camera manufacturers can help you look back at the past and the future at the same time. Thank you Leica for maintaining your traditions while continuing to innovate and improve upon your already great photographic tools. 
  

6 comments:

  1. I've been interested in your site because it seems like the best GRD IV site out there and also has some experience with the Monochrom.

    Heres a dilemma for you…one that I’m sadly struggling with.

    If you were a devout 1 camera guy who’s favourite form of photography was street, who was over missing shots because he wasn’t carrying his camera and was lucky enough to be able to decide between a Monochrom or used Ricoh GRD IV, which one would you choose?

    The answer might seem obvious but remember the conditions..its killing me.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The camera that you will always have with you. For me, it's my iPhone and GR. For you, it may be different.

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    2. If you check my Instagram account, it's almost exclusively iPhone 5S pictures now. I shoot with it more than even my GR.

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  2. yes modo,

    Thanks for your question. Sorry for my previous short answers. I was replying with my iPhone and it wasn't working out very well. I understand your dilemma. We all want to carry the 'ideal' camera with us at all times, hoping to capture the best moments with the best camera. I must stress the importance of your eye versus the equipment. It's true I review camera equipment, so I don't want to say that equipment isn't important, because it is. However, limits are also important.

    I didn't choose the fanciest camera for my EDC (every day carry) camera. I chose the latest Ricoh GR. It's small, it's very customizable, and it has decent image quality. The Fujifilm X-100S is a better camera overall, but it's too big for me to always have on me all the time. Same as the M Monochrom. If I owned it, I really wouldn't carry it with me everywhere I go. I have other priorities in my life. But that's just me. If I was a press photographer, or worked for Magnum or NGS, perhaps I would always carry around an M Monochrom.

    I can't tell you which camera to keep as your EDC camera. Both are awesome cameras. The M Monochrom will take world-class b&w images. Nothing can touch it, except shooting with a film camera. The Ricoh GR series cameras are small and very quick to shoot. You'll bring it with you while you do a quick grocery run, a quick spin on your bike, a fancy dinner, everywhere and anywhere you go. This is the camera you should choose.

    I hope this helps, and thanks again for your question.

    BHT

    ReplyDelete
  3. Thanks....good to get advice from someone who knows what they're talking about.

    If I see a IV for the right price, I'll probably pull the trigger and get it as my 2nd camera. Until then, I'll continue to enjoy my MM as my only camera.

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    Replies
    1. Hi yes modo,

      I think the less cameras you have, the less chance you're going to wondering which is the best one to have. If I had a MM, M240, Ricoh GR, Fuji X-100S, Sony RX-100, etc. I too would be confused and frustrated. Pick one and commit to it. I'm committed to my GR as my daily camera that's always with me. The only reason why I would change is if my priorities change. For now, I'm very content. Happy shooting (in b&w!!)

      BHT

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