LEICA M MONOCHROM (CCD) REVIEW
LEICA M MONOCHROM (CCD) REVIEW: IS MY OLD LOVE FOR RANGEFINDER FINALLY BACK?
At the beginning of 2012, far before Leica announced the Leica M Monochrom and even farther from thinking about ever getting one and doing a Leica M Monochrom review, I had enough of the temperamental Leica M9 and sold it for good. After using film and digital Leica Ms for years (M2, M3, M6, MP, M8, M8.2 and M9), I finally got fed up with all Leica M9’s issues. Reliability, colour quirkiness, colour casts, colour corrections, 6-bits codes and so on were a thing of the past for me.
This happened right after deciding to stop developing and scanning my black & white films, something I loved to do but started to become exceedingly time consuming. Therefore, that meant no more rangefinder for me. I sold all my Leica M bodies and lenses except for my Noctilux-M f/1, the only lens I’d never let go, and I moved on. Or so I thought: that didn’t last as long as I thought it would.
After about a year and a half, I capitulated. It appears that my love affair with the rangefinder style of shooting wasn’t over just yet. So, what did the trick? Read this Leica M Monochrom review to find out!
Of course, as many good rangefinder aficionados, beside my Leica Ms and even after letting them go I experimented with a Fujifilm X100 and a Fujifilm X-Pro 1. I even tried to make do with a Sony NEX-7, but they all got sold in the end. They weren’t bad cameras, in fact in many ways they were technically better than any digital Leica M to date. They just weren’t the real thing, for a reason or another.
What I couldn’t resist, and what made me come back to rangefinder photography, was the Leica M Monochrom.
Anachronistic, too expensive, dated, stupidly crippled with its B&W only sensor, as many people say? Perhaps, but not for me. I guess in the end it all depends on what you shoot. I used to shoot B&W film only, in my film Leica Ms, mostly Tri-X and Neopan 1600.
When I moved to digital Leica M, I used to convert most of files to B&W anyway. I never did colour-critical work with a Leica M, since I always found it too much of a pain and the wrong tool for the job, at least for now.
I loved to use a Leica M in the streets and for reportage-like work, 90-95% of which I do in B&W. The Leica M Monochrom does all that perfectly.
Plus, with the Leica M Monochrom you can use wide-angle lenses to your heart’s content without having to deal with strange colour casts, sometimes impossible to fully correct. With the Leica M Monochrom you can safely count on high ISO for low-light, night-time work; finally, you can use non-coded lenses on it without too much worries.
About this review, I know I am late to the party, and I know there are already many Leica M Monochrom review out there. Consider this just a token of my love for Black & White photography, for street photography and for rangefinder cameras. Finally, consider it a homage to Leica and its role in the history of our art and craft.
Disclaimer: At the time of writing, I am not affiliated with Leica in any way. I am a professional photographer looking for the best equipment for my work, I buy all my gear with my hard-earned cash and I don’t get paid by anyone to write articles for my blog.
After briefly sharing where I come from and my motivations to write this Leica M Monochrom review, let’s see now what my impressions of it are after working with it for a few months. Is it rangefinder love all over again? In a word, yes.
Shooting in Black & White only, as film photographers know, forces you to “see” the world in a very different way. Take the colours out of the picture (pun intended, of course) and you are left with the graphics power of spaces, shapes, lines, volumes, shades of grey. In short, you can only use the interaction of light and shadow to create your images. Pure graphic composition replaces graphics + colour composition.
To do so, you’ll need to be able to foresee how different colours will translate into greyscale. Then, you’ll need to envision how they will interact with each other as shades of grey, keeping in mind that very different colours may end up being nearly the same shade of grey.
You’ll have to know how the contrast between such greys, and between light & shadow, will affect the spatial relationships in your images. It is not easy at first, but it is very rewarding once you manage it.
Most importantly, learning to see in Black & White will teach you a lot about composition, knowledge that you’ll be able to put to a good use with your colour photography as well.
That said, let’s have a look at the camera in more detail.
HANDLING & MENUS
Of course, the Leica M Monochrom doesn’t handle exactly like a film Leica M. Is not as nimble, as silent or as light. However, if you are used to the M8 or M9, you’ll feel right at home with it. Built on the M9’s body, the camera looks and feels like any previous digital Leica M, only better. I love the stealth black-paint body without logos, red dots or any visible Leica writings.
Being a B&W only camera, its menus are even simpler than the already spartan Leica M menus, making setting up the Leica M Monochrom a quick and easy job. If I had to point out a feature I love, I’d mention Auto ISO implementation, which works very well indeed. If I had to include in this Leica M Monochrom review one feature I miss, it’s definitely the ability to rename files & folders in camera.
To improve handling, as I did on all my digital Leica M bodies to date, I added a Thumbs Up thumb rest. Old film Leica M shooters will be very familiar with the “holding the camera by the film lever” technique, which is pretty much the only way to securely hold any of the soap-bar shaped Leica Ms.
In the digital world, the Thumbs Up is the equivalent of the old film lever. For me, adding one it’s simply a necessity, and coupled with a wrist-strap is the best way to carry around your digital Leica M. By the way, the need for a thumb’s aid is something that even Leica itself finally noticed, sort of adding it to their new Leica M (Typ 240).
BATTERY & MEMORY CARD
In this Leica M Monochrom review, I found battery life to be OK, getting about 300-350 shots out of the first few battery charges. While not amazing by any means, this is not bad considering that the batteries are still new and that I had to use more LCD screen time to set the camera up than I would normally need.
Since I alternate two batteries, I haven’t got enough mileage out of them to have a definitive word on battery life yet. I assume it’s at least on par with the M9, if not better. After 3 iterations of digital Leica Ms, lots of people still complain about Leica’s decision of keeping the film-era removable bottom as the Leica M’s way to change battery and card; to me, this is really a non-issue.
Today’s SD cards have enough capacity to allow you to shoot forever before having to replace them, and battery life is enough to keep most people going for a full day shooting. In case of need, you’ll probably be able to find a minute to change your battery even with Leica’s not-so-practical solution. The only real issue is if you plan to use your camera on a tripod; however, once replacing the original bottom cover with a Really Right Stuff one with built-in Arca-Swiss style tripod mount, this ceased to be a problem for me. Not to mention that I got to keep my original bottom cover in perfect conditions in the process, which is good for resale value.
RANGEFINDER & LCD SCREEN
The Leica M Monochrom’s rangefinder is the same as the M9’s. Some likes its frame line distance, some doesn’t.
Personally, I liked the M8.2’s frame line’s distance the best. However, since by nature no rangefinder is perfect at all distances, in the end is just a matter of getting used to it. Once you do, you’ll know how much more or less you will actually get in your final image at a given distance compared to what you see in the rangefinder window, and it’ll become second nature to compose accordingly.
Since the last Leica M camera I used was the Leica M9, framing shots with the Leica M Monochrom felt pretty natural to me. The LCD screen is the same you’d find on a Leica M9, and as such it looks like something from last century, a relic from the very beginning of the digital era. However, while this used to bother me to no end on the M9, it actually feels OK with the Leica M Monochrom’s B&W images.
In fact, while making a camera without an LCD screen would perhaps have been going a bit too far in terms of usability for some, I’d have been just fine with an even smaller or even with no LCD.
Imagine to be able to live with no preview and no image review. Imagine having a small LCD screen, big enough to show you a menu with as few items as possible and an accurate histogram. Accurate, as in based on RAW data, not on the preview’s JPG.
This would have made the Leica M Monochrom as close as possible to the classic Leica M way of shooting, while keeping it usable in the digital world. Take out the LCD completely, add an ISO wheel like on film Ms, and I’ll be an even happier camper. Probably it’ll never happen, but one can dream, right?
This time over, helped by not having to deal with colour casts, 6-bit codings, IR problems and whatnot, I decided to give Voigtlander lenses a chance to keep my Noctilux-M company. So, I got the Voigtlander Ultron 21mm f/1.8, Voigtlander Nokton 35mm f/1.2 II Asph and the Voigtlander Heliar 75mm f/1.8, and I am looking forward to trying the Voigtlander Nokton 50mm f/1.5 Asph as well, once it is available to me.
My thoughts? In short: these Voigtlander are simply great lenses, all three of them. I am not going into the usual “you get xx % of Leica’s quality at xx % the cost” or whatever. The Voigtlander lenses I tried are great lenses on their own right. They are superbly built, exuding solid metal quality; they are very precise and pleasant to use; they are amazingly fast, especially the wide-angles; and what’s most important, they draw beautifully. All this, at a most reasonable price. Definitely highly recommended.
SENSOR AND IMAGE QUALITY
With the Leica M Monochrom, you get the same Leica M9 sensor with its 18 Mp and no AA filter, minus the Bayer filter of course since it’s a B&W only camera. In short, there is nothing to rob the sensor from showing its full capabilities. Think ultra-high resolution, insanely high ISO and insanely clean images, especially for a digital Leica M.
More, you aren’t going to get either the colour-related problems using wide angles, or the colour casts, that plagued the Leica M9. Images are amazingly detailed for an 18 Mp camera, easily better than the Nikon D3X’s B&W files and rivalling the Nikon D800E’s as far as sheer resolution and micro-contrast go. A truly impressive result, even if the brute force of the Nikon D800E’s 36 Mp still wins on pure sharpness.
Besides that, what I really loved in the images of this Leica M Monochrom review is the smoothness of tones, the plasticity and the flexibility of the files. It’s like having film stock ranging from the super-smooth and super-sharp high-res 25 ISO films to high-contrast, grainy Tri-X, to gritty and dark Neopan 1600, all rolled into one camera and, what’s even better, all in one file. Simply wonderful.
In the end, as a result of this Leica M Monochrom review I can only say that this is one of the most satisfying cameras I have used in a long time. Whether you are a Leica M film shooter who had enough dealing with B&W film, or you wanted to get as close as possible to the romantic ways of shooting of yore, or you just loved B&W and didn’t need or care about being able to shoot in colours, then this is the camera to get. No video, no autofocus, no colours, no automated programs, no stupid scene modes, no bells and whistles. All manual. Simply B&W, simply photography. Just perfect.
Thanks for reading this Leica M Monochrom review, I hope you enjoyed it! Why don’t you share it with your friends, or drop me a comment to let me know how you feel about this?
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