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Leica Monochrom Review

This review is written more as a collection of my thoughts after using the camera for about 4 days. It’s also written from the perspective of someone who is primarily a 35mm B&W film shooter. I do have experience with digital; in fact I started photography with a DSLR, but I often think in terms of B&W film.

Executive Summary

This camera is fantastic. I had very few complaints while using it, and the image quality is amazing. Coming from the viewpoint as someone who primarily shoots B&W film like Tri-X or T-Max 400 with no filter most of the time, the tonality and sensitivity of the Monochrom was just right, with adjustable ISO allowing you to shoot in many situations that film would have issues in. The 1/4000 s shutter speed was particularly nice as well. And last but not least, the resolution is astonishing.

Also, see some comparison shots I made between the Monochrom and film here

al

In Use

The camera was nearly identical in use to my M7. Set the aperture and shutter speed, or select auto-exposure, and click away. Exposure compensation and ISO are easy to set without entering the full menu system, even though the full menu is simple and easy to navigate.

The screen can be a bit hard to see in the daylight. Normally I wouldn’t care about this, but when you need to check your histogram for blown exposures, it can be a struggle to make sure you have what you need in bright conditions.

Noise

It’s already been said by others, but I’ll say it again. The noise is nonexistent at the lower ISOs and it is relatively unobtrusive up to about ISO 2500. I’d even be willing to say that ISO 2500 is a good deal cleaner than T-Max 400. The higher ISOs start getting a very static-looking noise, but the images when downsized a bit, still have nice tonality. I used up to ISO 2500 without any thoughts whatsoever, and 5000 when I needed it. 10,000 really gets a bit grungy and I often went with the slower shutter speed and 5000 if I could. There is one caveat about the noise though at higher ISOs: reduced dynamic range, which can rear it’s ugly head in post.

Exposure

This is the tricky thing, especially for someone who has been shooting predominately film for the last decade. With B&W (or color) negative film, if you are a bit unsure about the exposure you need, you don’t worry too much about the highlights; err on the side of overexposure. Meter off of something approximately middle gray, or a lighter shadow, and take your photo. If you think you might need a bit more exposure, just add it. The highlights will be fine. Even if you are taking a picture on a shaded porch, etc., highlights from the background under direct illumination from the sun are often fine. Highlights that are near to getting blown out still retain some detail, and things just seem to fall into the right place tonally. At least for my eye.

Or just take an incident reading and be done with it. With B&W film, it’s probably fine. A half a stop of over exposure (even a stop) on negative film never fried highlights so much that they became a features plane of blinding white light.

On to the Monochrom. Right off the bat, you will notice that ‘regularly’ metered shots, like the ones you’d make on B&W film, end up with blown highlights periodically. This is nothing new in digital. So you ‘meter for the highlights’. In other words, expose so the highlights aren’t blown, and don’t worry too much that anything that you actually want as a midtone is too dark. In post, you just bump up the exposure until everything looks right.

mike

95% of the time this works just fine. Better than fine even. However, there are two caveats:

  1. Metering for the highlights can sometimes be tricky with a wide angle lens and/or a meter which is center weighted like the Monochrom. In practice, I found that sometimes I had a take a couple shots to get the right exposure. There is no erring on the side of overexposure like on negative film; you’ll lose your highlights. You also can’t err too much on the side of underexposure in a scene with large brightness range, because you’ll kill your shadows eventually.

  2. Boosting the shadows and midtones to arrive at your desired tonal distribution works pretty well most of the time. However, when you start getting up to ISO 1250 or 2500, the shadows start to get pretty grungy if you push them too hard. For example, I found this happening on the shadow side of a person’s face. Worse than film? I don’t know or really care. It’s just something to think about. Once you get up to ISO 5000+, the shadows are noisy enough that it’s best to not to push them too hard.

Here’s a good example:

brian

The edited image that you see has had its shadows boosted a bit, and the exposure raised by one stop. It was shot at ISO 1250. You could get away with raising levels more and bring out even greater detail in the tree, but things are starting to get noisy. Had I exposed it one stop brighter, to place the skin tones closer to the desired final value (as I would have on film), the background would have been totally blown out. Sure, I could have reduced the exposure even more, but at some point, dirtying up your skin tones so you can have some detail in the carpet is counter productive. While I happen to believe a film shot would have retained more detail in the window in the background, I’m not overly upset about that. Nor am I upset about the large specular highlight on the hardwood floor in the bottom left corner of the picture. I’ll even give a pass on the glass pane in the cabinet to the right of the window being blown out. What does bug me is the carpet underneath the window. It’s a rug, so there’s not much in the way of specular highlights there. And it’s completely blown out. I suspect the rug would have fared better on film, but I didn’t take a comparison shot, so who knows. In many respects, it’s a moot point any way; there are many situations in low light that film wouldn’t fare well at all. ISO 1250 is one of those; pushed Tri-X or T-Max 3200?

Mind you, shooting at a lower ISO buys you cleaner shadows (and the ability to push them farther) and a scene with a lower brightness range doesn’t have these problems. They only cropped up a few times, e.g. when someone was sitting directly in front of a lamp that was also illuminating a wall.

Dynamic Range

As far as dynamic range, the Monochrom is lovely. I didn’t do any formal tests. With a well exposed shot at lower ISOs, the camera provides plenty enough dynamic range for me to make the kind of pictures I did with B&W film. Periodically, I might have made a second or third exposure to zero in on the optimum one, but I didn’t have to scan anything, so I’ll call it even. However, it needs to be the correct exposure. A 1/2 stop too bright, and that white shirt is blown.

Ultimately, B&W lets you be a bit sloppier with your exposures since the highlights will most likely retain some detail. It also lets you be a bit sloppier in terms of determining your exposure; add a half a stop or so if you are unsure to get an acceptable exposure. With the Monochrom, I had to make a couple sometimes to zero in.

Lastly, I did a quick exposure bracketed sequence of 5 photos, with a one stop difference between them. The resulting HDR file has oodles of dynamic range, but the edited version is barely different from the edited version of the middle exposure. The deep shadow in the fridge has less noise/banding in the HDR version, but you can only see it in the single exposure frame if you push it too hard anyway. The single exposure is below, followed by the HDR version.

So frankly, while film might have better dynamic range, I suspect it really only helps in two situations:

  1. A few difficult lighting situations where you can get some blown out backgrounds. However, in my shooting, this is almost always in low light situations, so film is at a huge disadvantage here already due to the ISO limitations. I’d probably be better off with the Monochrom.

  2. Film’s large dynamic range provides it with a lot of latitude with respect to overexposure, letting you be more sloppy at times with exposure. The Monochrom’s exposure latitude exists on the shadow side, and at times, is impressive and can save your butt. However, in scenes with a lot of brightness range, I found that exposures had to be a little more carefully selected than with film.

All in all, the Monochrom seems to be a bit more picky about exposures, but rewards with a lot of image quality.

Filters

A lot of talk on the internet has occurred regarding the use of color filters on the Monochrom. I’m not quite sure why. The camera has a very similar color sensitivity to T-Max 400 (in my opinion) and takes color filters just about as well. I used a B+W 022 (medium yellow) and a B+W 041 (red-orange) filter a couple of times. Both behaved as expected but were not absolutely required for pleasing skin tones or retaining some detail in clear blue skies. I forgot to pack my IR or dark red filters, so I didn’t get a chance to try them.

Lenses

The Monochrom functioned perfectly with all my lenses. All lenses focused correctly and accurately. Those that vignetted did so by an acceptable amount. This is notable because I have a couple lenses which have some issues on other digital M’s. My list is as follows:

  • Leica 28mm f/2.0 ASPH
  • Leica 50mm f/1.4 ASPH
  • Cosina Voigtlander 15mm f/4.5 LTM lens
  • Zeiss C Biogon 21mm f/4.5
  • Cosina Voigtlander 28mm f/3.5 LTM lens
  • Nikkor 50mm f/1.4 LTM lens
  • Konica Hexanon-M 90mm f/2.8

The Konica might have showed a bit of focus error. Frankly I didn’t use it much and I’m not even sure it focuses correctly on any camera.

One of my favorite lenses, the Zeiss C Biogon 21mm f/4.5, worked flawlessly on the Monochrom.

cooking

Post Processing

Out of the camera, the files are relatively low contrast and sometimes a bit dark, depending on the scene. I personally like more of a film look, with a shoulder in the highlights, my skin tones above middle gray, and a bit more contrast than the out of camera files provide, so I processed accordingly.

Processing the files is pretty straight forward. I used Lightroom 5 with the 2012 Process. My method was pretty simple:

  • Apply a preset Tone Curve that slightly depresses the shadows and boosts the mids.
  • Apply a bit of Clarity (+10-20).
  • Apply a light amount of Grain (hey, I love film and grain).
  • Boost or reduce the exposure, usually boost, until the midtones are where you want them. This includes skin tones.
  • Compensate the Highlights that were affected by the Exposure change. This usually means pulling them down.
  • Then adjust the Whites so the tones you want pure white are pure white.
  • Compensate the Shadows that were affected by the Exposure change. I often didn’t have to do much here as things were looking pretty good by now. Other times I had to pull the Shadows down in low ISO shots to build a bit of contrast. In low light shots, I sometimes boosted this.
  • Adjust the Blacks to set the black point where you want it.
  • Lastly, if the image called for it, I applied a Medium Contrast tone curve to boost the contrast a bit, and sometimes fiddled with the Contrast slider.

brian

Complaints

  • The screen is a bit dim outdoors, as mentioned above.
  • Dust. Fuck dust. One of the things film users hate is dust on the scans, but at least that shit is small and easy to knock out with the healing brush. This digital dust ends up as huge amorphous blobs.
  • Banding with multiple shots. Only happened a couple times; I only saw it once or twice at ISO 320. It’s very deep in the shadows, so it didn’t ruin the shot, but it did happen. I’ve heard leaving the camera at ISO 400 avoids this problem.
  • Exposure needs to be correct, as described above.
  • Expensive.
  • I really wish they built this camera on the M 240 platform.

Final Verdict

It’s a great camera if you are a rangefinder and B&W shooter. All designs of lenses work with it, and with a few simple adjustments to shooting style, the Monochrom let’s carry on in the B&W tradition. If I were rich man, I’d buy one immediately. Since I’m not, despite the fact that I’m a rangefinder and (primarily) B&W shooter, cameras like the M 240 and the Canon 6D/5DIII are tempting.

Further Reading

I would highly recommend reading Egor’s review for a more thorough and cleverly written review of the Monochrom. I also have comparison shots between the Monochrom and film here.