Leica Film Modes - A Quick Look

One of the features built into the Leica digital camera series is what they call "film modes" - it's probably the only gimmicky feature of a camera otherwise built for a serious shooter. Although I am not usually interested in gimmick settings, I was curious to see how the Leica film modes looked and to see if there was any value in incorporating them into my workflow.

Quick background: I shoot RAW. Always. No exceptions. If you don't understand what "shooting in RAW" means, then take a quick detour here and come back. The main reason to shoot in RAW is to take advantage of all data without the camera making any decisions about sharpness, contrast, color vibrance, etc for you - you have all the data to edit to create the photograph you want later. The Leica film modes are settings that apply presets for a particular look to the photograph, which goes against the nature of RAW. This means that you have to shoot in .jpg to have any of the film modes actually save and write properly, but they still work in DNG / RAW mode. I find this a little curious - why not grey out the menu?

Anyway, back on subject.... the Leica M-P 240 has three film modes: Vivid, smooth and black and white. The idea with vivid is that the colors are very vibrant, while smooth has the look of a color photograph that has yellowed slightly due to age and black and white is, well, black and white.

For this test, I shot two scenes in the church yard behind my house here in England. The files were set to save as a .DNG and .JPG at the same time and I would then use the RAW image to try and create an image either similar to or better than the one pre-made in the settings. Here's the results.

Be sure to click on the examples for a full size version!

Smooth Film Mode

 The .jpg file made by the camera. The door is lacking in any detail or texture and it is too dark.

The .jpg file made by the camera. The door is lacking in any detail or texture and it is too dark.

The door .jpg file generated in Photoshop by editing the raw image. I was able to preserve the detail in the door while still making a lovely image.

Vivid Film Mode

Once again, the file made by Leica in camera has lost the detail in the door. The colors are more punchy than in the smooth film mode, but I'm still dissatisfied with the overall look since the subject (the door) is lost.

Once again, the file derived from the .DNG RAW file is superior to the in camera .jpg.

Black and White Mode

This is the setting I was actually most interested to see. With the monochrome sensor that Leica uses on some of their other models, I figured they may have some interesting black and white results. What I found was certainly interesting, but also a bit disappointing. 

I chose this subject for this test due to the wide dynamic range and shadows / highlights. The camera generated an acceptable black and white image, but it's fairly "routine" black and white.

The result from sending the RAW file directly to Nik Silver Effects without any other edits first. I actually had to stop and do a double take - it was the same image. Exactly. Seriously, look! The default "neutral" setting in Nik Silver Effects is the same as the .jpg B/W setting.

Outcome

I went into this experiment with no expectations, but even still, I am a bit surprised and disappointed that the black and white setting was the same as the "neutral" black and white from Nik Silver Effects. What this means is that I have almost no use for the film modes. For me, the black and white has the most promise on name alone, but it generated a result I could repeat in 5 or less seconds myself. The only way I could see myself using these is if I had a deadline that required me to produce only acceptable black and white photos without any post production - that occurrence has never happened for me in my career, so I'm seeing this as very limited application. 

Do I think less of my Leica M given this "meh" result? Nope. The Leica is a precise machine, designed to render top of the line images. But even the most precise machine needs help to generate the fine art we're after! Using photoshop on a RAW file is not a deficiency of the camera, it's part of the art process..... and my early results editing RAW files have provided some very interesting and exciting prospects for future artwork.