Five Thoughts: A Day with the Leica Monochrom
I remember when I was first researching Leica's camera and lens lineup - well before I even considered purchasing my first Leica. As a self-admitted gear-obsessed woman, I researched the cameras and lens based on price alone. And how can you avoid it? You see cameras and lenses that cost around $10,000 USD and you can't help but be intrigued by their offerings.
Two of the many Leica products I drooled over in that initial research stuck out in my memory. They were the Leica Noctilux f/0.95 lens and the Leica Monochrom. At that point the Monochrom was built off the M9 platform as the new M246 Monochrom was not yet announced.
These two products stuck out for several reasons beyond their pricing..... most significantly it was their uniqueness. A f/0.95 lens was (and still is) unlike anything else on the market, and the incredible bokeh and low-light it offered was remarkable. And the Monochrom - a camera that could only take black and white photographs!
I have since secretly lusted for both. Earlier this year I had a chance to snag a Noctilux for a killer deal by monitoring the currency fluctuations (see my earlier post about the purchase of the Noctilux). And while the Monochrom still lived in my fantasies, it would take another killer deal before I could consider purchasing.
Low and behold, another killer deal came along.... this time a combination of the Leica rebate + trade in promotion + a weak British Pound / US Dollar exchange rate. Leica introduced a program where I could trade in another camera (I chose my lovely M7) and get a part exchange, plus $750 rebate. Alone this is a good deal, but the real killer is the exchange rate. After the June 23rd vote by the UK to exit from the European Union, the British Pound crashed to a 30 year low. I waited until the Pound traded at $1.29 on the dollar and jumped..... I purchased my Monochrom at Red Dot Camera in London.
I haven't owned my Leica Monochrom long enough to do a proper review, so I'll share my initial five thoughts on the camera and follow-up with another review when appropriate.
I: Oh Panchromatic....
Obviously you don't need to take many photographs to figure out that the Monochrom only captures black and white, or more technically correct, panchromatic images. In fact, if you take one photograph without figuring that out, you're either asleep, lost, or both.
Still, even though I knew I was going to get a greyscale product back from the Monochrom, there is an element of excitement and anticipation in downloading those first images into Lightroom. I was blown away by the tonal depth of the photographs..... millions of shades of grey never looked so good!
I would say it is different from film - at least from my preferred film, Ilford Delta 100. Scans of my film (which I self-develop in HC-110B) tend to be more contrasty and have bolder blacks and harsher whites. The Monochrom RAW files are more flat out-of-camera, but really sparkle with a few seconds of editing in Lightroom. The detail and resolution of the Monochrom files is also very impressive - I was able to get very heavy handed with some crops but maintain acceptable file resolution and detail.
II: Neutral Density Filter Required, ASAP
I LOVE shooting with the Leica f/0.95 Noctilux on my Leica SL - it's become one of my favorite lenses for the truly unique look and feel that it gives each image. But mounted with a maximum shutter speed of 1/4000th and a base ISO of 320, I will need to invest in a neutral density filter for the Noctilux before I can really get the most out of the lens in daylight. I took a few shots in London later in the evening when it was darker, but look forward to having a chance to play in more diverse light with a filter. I wasted no time ordering a 3 stop ND filter made by B&W!
III: My Friend, EVF
Going back to the Noctilux - the reason it is such a great lens on the SL is because of the electronic viewfinder. In fact, I really struggled to decide between the older Monochrom (based on the M9 body) and the new Monochrom Type 246, but ultimately decided that the ability to use an electronic viewfinder (EVF) was worth the extra cost.
The electronic viewfinder on the Monochrom is a nice addition - it helps you 'see' in black and white if you are trying to learn to see the world without color, and the focus peaking is a must-have to improve your focusing hit-rate with the Noctilux. Of course there is no comparison between the Leica EVF-2 and the viewfinders on the Leica SL and Leica Q.... it lags and is much lower resolution, but if you can accept those things and just want a tool to help you ensure critical focus, then it's a great buy.
Several reviewers have discussed the importance of underexposing photographs to ensure no blown highlights as highlight detail cannot be recovered in the Monochrom files, but I had to play with it to really see it for myself. I took a variety of test shots against a bright window with a backlit subject to see how much I could "sneak out" of the highlights. Sure enough, blown highlights are really blown. (Sidenote: this is like a child being told something is hot, but not believing it until they touch it themselves and get burned. I had to try it to know!)
In some cases, I actually like the blown highlight for the contrast it can apply to an image. I wouldn't do this all the time, certainly, but for a few of the images, I think the blown highlight helps draw the eye back to my subject.
V: See Differently
I convert 99% of my street photography, and probably 50% of my landscape photography to black and white, so the idea of pre-visualizing an image in black and white isn't new to me. However, there is still something to be said for knowing you can only capture an image in black and white vs capturing in color and knowing you have the option to convert. There were times in my walk through London that I saw some bright colors or shapes that made me reach for the camera, only to remember that the subject wouldn't translate into panchromatic. This isn't a bad thing..... I don't miss any of those 'missed' shots. Having a camera that only captures panchromatic images helps focus my attention. I studied the light and the way the light reflected off a subject. I experimented photographing shiny and reflective surfaces to see how those translated in the eyes of this sensor, and I found myself discovering contrast and intrigue in new scenes.
There's a certain amount of learning required for any new camera, and the Monochrom and I are still in the flirting phase; still figuring out what the other likes while avoiding touchy dinner table conversations like religion and politics. We'll get there soon, but for now I need to continue to learn how the Monochrom responds to the world around it. I am incredibly excited by this camera - it begs to be picked up and to go shooting, so I'm sure it won't take long before Donald Trump's hair is broached at dinner......