125px

Leica Monochrom & film comparisons

The other month, I rented a Leica M Monochrom and wrote a review about it. This article has some follow up thoughts, but also contains several informal comparisons I shot while I still had the Monochrom in my hands.

Thoughts gleaned from the comparisons

The Monochrom is a pretty sweet camera. I want one. It still has stunning resolution, and the immediacy of digital is great. The spectral response is close enough to Tri-X and T-Max 400 for me, and the high ISO capabilities are wonderful. The fact that I can successfully use all of my lenses on it without worry of strange color shading on the edges or horrible vignetting is also good.

On the other, in just 1 week of shooting, I ended up with a fair amount of dust on the sensor. That’s annoying. Also, I just don’t like digital’s sensitivity in handling highlights. I know, I know, it’s like shooting slide film. I just find that shooting negative film is a much more forgiving process, knowing your highlights will survive as long as you meter the shadows or midtones properly. I’m constantly second guessing the Monochrom’s exposures in order to make sure my highlights are fried. I’m sure I’d get used to this eventually if I actually had one.

All in all, this is the most ‘film-like’ camera I’ve used. I’d love to have one, and maybe someday will purchase one. Though I still do like film.

Comparisons

None of the following comparisons are overly scientific. It’s mostly a mishmash of similar framing, using either in camera metering or using the same exposure obtained from an incident meter. For the Monochrom shots, a second (or third) exposure was sometimes taken and used if the in-camera metering proved to be too ‘hot’. To be fair though, most of the time the Monochrom got the metering right. For example, a too bright window in the background often lead to shorter exposure, which might look too dark on the LCD screen in review, but in post, ended up preserving the right balance of highlights and shadows. There were times though when an important highlight was clipped, or an important midtone was pushed too far down into the shadows.

In other words, I often didn’t need to play the game I do with my film Ms while metering. That game is taking readings not necessarily on the scene in front of me, but a sufficiently mid-gray or dark area to prevent underexposure.

Studying

Notes

First of all, there is of course more detail available in the shadows of the Monochrom shot. Not that much more though; the shadows are already pushed a decent amount. The adjusted shots look pretty similar. No attempt was made to adjust the photos side by side for the same look; I just adjusted for what I thought looked good, weeks apart. Also of note is the crazy amount of highlight info in the flat film scan. The Monochrom shot’s highlights were on the edge of being blown. The two binders on the table, one open and one closed, had some blown highlights in the digital shot, but not in the film shot. Lastly, the paper garlands actually had alternating colors and both the Monochrom and T-Max render the luminosities of the two different colors the same. In other words, spectral response of the two is close enough for me.

Pictures

Monochrom:

20130704-L9998887

T-Max 400:

20130726-1-01

T-MAX 400, flat scan:

20130726-1-01-flat

Kitchen

Notes

The Monochrom shot was at 1/8s, f/8, and ISO 320. The EXIF says f/6.7, but I’m almost positive I shot this at the same f/stop as the film shots. It has been boosted +1.6 stops in post processing. I did a lot of bracketing on this Monochrom shot. I even made an HDR shot, which as an astounding dynamic range. However, I found that just the right exposure looked pretty much as good, i.e. the Monochrom shot displayed here.

There is a bit more shadow detail in the Monochrom shot; the dark side of the fridge has a slight reflection in the middle of it that is visible if the exposure is really cranked. This doesn’t become visible at all until the 1/4s film shot. To be fair, once the exposure is cranked this much in the Monochrom shot, strange banding becomes very visible in the shadows. This banding is not pattern noise, but the banding that sometimes appears in successively taken shots and is talked about in low ISO Monochrom shots. I’ve heard it is avoidable if you shoot at ISO 400 instead of 320.

However, the power of film is evident in this series of shots. I shot a series of shots with exposures of 1/8s (same as the Monochrom shot), 1/4s, 1/2s, and 2s. The shadows in the 1/8s shot are just a bit crunched. There’s not much left there, though I think the image works fine. The 1/4s gives you a lot more to work with respect to the shadows. The 1/2s and 2s exposures (I must have forgotten the 1s exposure) also look perfectly fine once adjusted. Mind you, the 2s exposure is 4 stops overexposed from the metered 1/8s exposure.

The flat unadjusted scans are interesting for a couple reasons. First, the highlights out the window survive reasonably successfully even 4 stops over exposed. In the equivalent Monochrom exposures (not shown here), a fair amount of clipping starts occurring in the 1/4s exposure (one stop over the photo shown below), and the window is a mass of white at 1/2s. Secondly, in the 1/2s and 2s film exposures, the shadows are actually pushed down in the adjusted photos.

The Monochrom shots do have an impressive amount of shadow detail (and resolution), but a shot with a wide dynamic range like this can be tricky to find the right exposure. On film, it’s as easy as adding an extra stop just in case, or even just meter in the shadows and let everything else fall where it may. With the Monochrom, as long as your ISO is set reasonably low (≤ 1250), make sure your highlights aren’t blown and hope there is enough detail in the file with respect to the shadows. There probably will be, but depending on the situation, there might not be. Unfortunately, this method of shooting can push skin tones down pretty low, which can lead to some unpleasant results. With film, you are ensuring your skin tones are right and you might crunch some super bright highlights.

Photos

Monochrom:

20130704-L9998877

Tri-X, 1/8s:

20130704-1-34

Tri-X, 1/4s:

20130704-1-36

Tri-X, 1/2s:

20130704-1-35

Tri-X, 2s:

20130704-1-37

Unadjusted flat film scans

Tri-X, 1/8s, flat scan:

20130704-1-34-flat

Tri-X, 1/4s, flat scan:

20130704-1-36-flat

Tri-X, 1/2s, flat scan:

20130704-1-35-flat

Tri-X, 2s, flat scan:

20130704-1-37-flat

Tom

Notes

Not much to say here. More highlight detail in the film version, a bit more in the shadows in the Monochrom shot. The Monochrom shot was shot Aperture Priority, but I don’t remember if I metered on the scene shown, or locked the exposure after metering somewhere slightly different. In post processing, very little was done other than boosting the exposure by a stop. The extra shadow detail in the Monochrom gives the lower midtones a bit more of a relaxed look.

Photos

Monochrom:

20130706-L9999306

T-Max 400:

20130726-1-17

Brian

Notes

Sorry for the two different shots here. The main thing to note is that highlights in the cabinet in the background are clipping hard in the Monochrom shot. The film scan was not clipping in this area, though I have adjusted it here so it is pretty close. You can also see the clipped highlights on the rug in the background, which is a non-specular reflection. Though it’s really not in the film shot, you can see a bit of the carpet in the bottom left hand corner and it is well controlled. To be fair, these pictures were shot on different days, so don’t read too much into this comparison.

Photos

Monochrom:

20130705-L9999007

T-Max 400:

20130726-1-09

Mike in the car

Notes

The Monochrom shot has been pushed 1.25 stops in post processing, along with a healthy Shadows boost (+45). There’s a tiny bit more detail down in the shadows to the right of Mike’s arm in the car door, but it gets pretty noisy if pushed too much. The rear window is completely clipped as is most of the wide window. The Monochrom has seriously more resolution in this shot.

The adjust film shot looks pretty similar with the exception of the greater detail out the window. The unadjusted scan shows that there is plenty of detail in the shadows and they are pushed down during processing, as well as plenty of detail out the window. The interior of this car is black for what it’s worth.

Photos

Monochrom:

20130707-L9999514

Tri-X:

20130704-1-27

Tri-X, flat scan:

20130704-1-27-flat

Al driving

Notes

Two different lenses here. The Monochrom shot is with a 28mm lens, while the Tri-X shot is with a 21mm lens. Lighting is slightly different, etc., but the cameras give comparable results. Nothing special was done with respect to exposure for either shot; I was just metering however I thought was appropriate.

Photos

Monochrom:

20130703-L9998719

Tri-X:

20130704-1-28

Al and Mike in the car

Notes

Not much to say here. The Monochrom shot is significantly sharper and has less motion blur. The Zeiss C-Biogon 21/4.5 really benefits from the better ISO capabilities of the Monochrom and the ability to dig deeper into the shadows.

Photos

Monochrom:

20130707-L9999508

Tri-X:

20130704-1-29

Family room

Notes

Unfortunately, I don’t have precisely the same framing in these two shots. I can say that on other shots of this series from the Monochrom, the lamp which is immediately to the left of the frame edge suffered from blown out highlights, as did the wall behind the lamp. These highlights survived intact in the Tri-X shot. This is the hardest kind of situation I faced with the Monochrom. Indoors and dark, lit with a single source up against a wall. It was often very difficult keeping the light source and illuminated wall from clipping ungracefully, while still having enough exposure for objects 10–15 feet away, illuminated by that same light source. The microwave and parts of the stove seen through the doorway are clipped in the Monochrom shot, while they clearly survived fine in the Tri-X photo.

Also of note are the exposure settings of the two shots. The Monochrom is at ISO 2500, f/2, 1/60s. The film shot is at ISO 400, f/2 (I must have been wide open), and presumably somewhere between 1/8 and 1/15s. That’s slow enough to risk motion blur for sure, but you can still get a reasonable shot. Regardless, having a nice clean ISO 2500 is a real boon for many situations.

Photos

Monochrom:

20130703-L9998775

Tri-X:

20130704-1-31

Tri-X, flat scan:

20130704-1-31-flat

Table

Notes

Same as before, the film holds much better highlight detail, right down to the wood grain being visible in the specular highlight at the top right of the table. On the other hand, the Monochrom is simply fantastic on this shot, with wood grain being visible when pushed all over the table, even in what appears to be the hopelessly black area on the left of the photo. I will say it took 5 photos on the Monochrom to get the one that did not blow out the bright parts of the paper (I ended up choosing the 4th exposure), while I was able to nail it quite easily in one frame of film.

Photos

Monochrom:

L9998665

400TX:

20130704-1-26

400TX, flat scan:

20130704-1-26-flat

Lake

Notes

Scenes like this are easy-peasy for the Monochrom. Contrary to what you read a lot on the internet, I don’t think ‘harsh’ sunlight really pushes the scene brightness range up that much. Sure, if there are dark shadows under a deep porch, etc., you can have some issues, but simple shadows under a single tree and the like don’t seem to push the brightness range that far.

Both photos used a B+W 041 (#22 red-orange) filter.

Photos

Monochrom:

L9999677

T-Max 400:

20130726-1-26