Admittedly, when the press release for the Leica M Monochrom (Type 246) crossed my desk, I chuckled. Why, I wondered aloud to an empty room, would someone spend around $7,500 for a camera that’s incapable of capturing color images? A quick scan of forums will reveal that this is a common theme in the discussion of the camera, which of course begs the question, “Well, why would someone want to shoot with a monochrome-only camera?” I immediately set out to find the answer.
In these heady days of digital photography, black-and-white images are an anachronism, not the norm. But landscape photographers, raised on classic images from Ansel Adams and Edward Weston, have an especially visceral connection to both the history of black-and-white imagery and the powerful emotions the technique conveys.
“Wait,” the Internet forums argue, “why don’t you just take a color image and desaturate it, creating a monochrome image from a color file—the best of both worlds?” You can, and certainly most photographers will, but it turns out that there’s an important creative lesson to be learned by shooting with a monochrome-only system. It might not be a lesson that’s important enough to spend $7,500 to learn, but it’s a valuable one nonetheless.
After a few weeks with the Leica M, I began to reach for the camera instead of others in my test arsenal. Not only that, but when I would shoot side-by-side with other systems, I was often more satisfied with the results from the Leica Monochrom than I was with images I converted from color images shot at the same time with different cameras.
There are two major reasons why the Leica M Monochrom produced images with which I was so pleased, one technological and one psychological. But before I get to that, it’s important to know a bit more about the camera.
But Wait, There’s Less!
The Leica M Monochrom (Type 246) is an update to the last Leica Monochrom body, released in 2012, and looking at the new M Monochrom, it’s virtually indistinguishable from the Leica M (Typ 240) on which it’s based.
This new Monochrom has a 24MP sensor with an ISO range up to 12,500 and a 2GB buffer that Leica says allows the M Monochrom to capture images up to three times faster than the 2012 model. Like its siblings, the Monochrom (Typ 246) is housed in a magnesium-and-brass body and the rear 912k-dot, 3-inch LCD screen has a sapphire coating for prevention of scratches.
The key difference between the color and monochrome versions of this (or any traditional) camera lies in the way that the sensor records light. While we think of digital cameras as being capable of capturing colors, they’re all really monochrome at heart. The most common type of digital sensor uses what’s called a Bayer filter to record color values. With a Bayer filter, 50 percent of the pixels have a filter that’s sensitive only to green pixels, 25 percent sensitive to blue and 25 percent that are sensitive to red—which roughly matches the way the human eye sees colors.
While the Bayer filter makes it easy and affordable to capture color images, this technique has its drawbacks. By definition, each pixel is measuring only red, green or blue—and there are twice as many green-sensing pixels as any other color. The camera must essentially guess what a pixel’s remaining color values would be based on neighboring pixels. This causes both a lack of sharpness and a lack of color accuracy, especially in high-contrast areas.
Sensors with Bayer filters only measure luminance (brightness) data with the green-sensitive pixels. While half the sensor is covered in luminance-recording, green-sensitive pixels, half is not, which means that the luminance value for any given pixel is often made as a calculated guess. This is a problem because a monochrome photograph is a recording of the luminance of a scene. The more guessing that goes on, the less accurate the final image.
The Leica Monochrom M lacks the Bayer filter, recording luminance values at each pixel, which means that the luminance data is much more accurate, as is sharpness. It also means that the light hitting the sensor hasn’t had to pass through a filter of colored dyes on its way, so the sensor is more sensitive than a traditional Bayer sensor.
Let’s step back and unpack all of that jargon. In order for a photographer to get a monochrome image from a color camera with a Bayer filter, they have to capture the image first with a device that’s adding inaccuracy to the data in order to create a color image, and then remove part of that data to create a monochrome image.
Imagine if you wanted to make a black-and-white painting of a landscape and started by putting on a pair of glasses with one green lens and one blue lens, and then tried to paint the monochrome scene by alternating glances between your left and right eyes, trying to figure out what the real colors would be without the glasses on, and painting the correct monochrome equivalent. That’s the basic idea when making a monochrome conversion from a color image.
So that’s the first reason that shooting with the Leica Monochrom M is so transformative—it creates an image that’s sharper, more detailed and with lower noise than a conversion from a color sensor.
A Sense Of Vision
The other reason the camera is so useful is the psychological factor I mentioned earlier, and comes down to the mindset needed to shoot color images versus black-and-white ones. Film photographers know that when they load black-and-white film into their camera, they need to adjust their mental vision of a scene. Since monochrome film has a different sensitivity to light than color film, it is necessary to previsualize what will come out when the image is developed.
An oft-quoted saying of Ansel Adams is, “I can get—for me—a far greater sense of ‘color' through a well-planned and executed black-and-white image than I have ever achieved with color photography.” Granted, color film was in its infancy when Adams’ beloved black-and-white film was already dependable and mature, but he did work in color and he acted as a consultant on color film development for Kodak and other companies.
What the Leica M Monochrom does so beautifully is force the shooter to think and to see in black and white. It’s a different experience even than shooting in color with a camera’s monitor displaying monochrome presets. Every shot needs to be composed for black and white because every shot is black and white. There’s no chance to say, “Oh, that one would look better in color, so I’ll go with it.”
Image Is Everything
All of the discussion of the technical prowess of the sensor and the sharpness and the mental mindset the camera encourages would be meaningless if the camera captured terrible images, and there, at least for Leica shooters, is the justification of the price tag. The Leica Monochrom is a fantastic camera that takes fantastic images. The sensor creates beautifully rich and detailed images with incredible tone and texture. While I could fiddle endlessly with the files, I rarely did—simple exposure adjustments were often all it took to perfect files from the camera. I was especially fond of the camera in low light and at dusk, arenas in which many cameras stumble.
There is a real sense of depth to the images from the Monochrom, which I had not anticipated. On one trip to Las Vegas, I was armed with several test cameras, including the Monochrom. You’d think that my first choice in a color-rich environment like Vegas would be to reach for one of the color-sensor cameras in my bag, but I found myself drawn to the Leica M Monochrom from a purely emotional standpoint. It just felt right, and the images from it are consistently among my favorite from the trip.
The biggest gripe about the Leica M Monochrom in forums comes down to the price issues I mentioned at the beginning of the article, and largely I feel they’re ridiculous. You’re either the kind of customer that can afford a Leica or you’re not. If you’re not, there’s no reason to debate the price. Leica cameras have always come with a high price tag and it’s no different with the Leica M. You pay for the build quality of the camera and the reputation of the company.
Is the Leica M Monochrom (Typ 246) worth the price? Yes and no. If you’re a potential or existing Leica customer and you want the finest monochrome images in the 35mm format, then the camera will not let you down. If you’re not one of those customers, or you rarely shoot in black and white, then $7,500 is a lot of money, and you’d be better off buying more gear for your existing cameras and doing the occasional conversion.
In either case, though, I’d encourage you to rent the Leica M Monochrom and try it out. There’s an amazing connection between photographer and camera with this system that I haven’t felt so completely since the days of film. It’s like hopping into a sports car and smiling when you find there’s a stick shift.
Even if you start off as a skeptic and have no intention or means to purchase the camera, it’s a great exercise for the outdoor photographer, and if nothing else, a refreshing bit of nostalgia.
David Schloss is the Contributing Technical Editor for Outdoor Photographer and Editor of sister publications Digital Photo and Digital Photo Pro.
See more of Drew Doggett’s photography at drewdoggett.com.