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First Impressions: Leica M Monochrom

by Andy Hendriksen on 01/22/2013

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I’ve shot with Leica M cameras a handful of times and have fallen in love every single time. It’s such a unique process of shooting, and completely different than anything I’m used to. As a street photographer, shooting with a Leica M represents to many the most pure and organic shooting experience, and retains the classic feel and sensation of film while combining the convenience and ease of digital.

Last year, Leica upped the bar and released a handful of updates to their M lineup, including this $8,000 black and white digital rangefinder. This camera is built with the same familiar body as the M9 and M9-P, but the sensor is new, and is something entirely unique to anything else on the market.

Tech Specs

From B&H Photo and Video:

Imaging
Lens Mount Leica M Mount
Camera Format Full-Frame
Pixels 18.0 Megapixel
Sensor Type / Size CCD, 23.9 x 35.8 mm 1
Memory Card Type SD (up to 2GB)
SDHC (up to 32GB)
Focus Control
Focus Type Manual
Focus Mode Manual Focus (M)
Viewfinder/Display
Viewfinder Type LCD Display
Viewfinder Coverage 100%
Viewfinder Magnification Approx. 0.68x
Diopter Adjustment - 3.0 to +3.0 m
Display Screen 2.5″ Rear Screen   LCD (230000)
Screen Coverage 100%
Exposure Control
ISO Sensitivity 320-10000
Shutter Type: Mechanical
Speed: 32 – 1/4000 sec
Metering Method Center-weighted average metering
Exposure Modes Modes: Aperture Priority, Manual
Compensation: -3 EV to +3 EV (in 0.33 EV steps)
White Balance Modes Auto, Kelvin, Manual, Preset Manual
Flash
Max Sync Speed 1 / 180 sec
External Flash Connection Hot Shoe
Performance
Self Timer 2 sec, 12 sec
Interval Recording Yes
Connectivity Mini-USB
Software Requirements Windows: XP (SP2), Vista (SP2), 7
Mac: OS X 10.6 or later
Power
Battery 1x Rechargeable Lithium-Ion Battery Pack, 3.7VDC, 1900mAh
Operating/Storage Temperature Operating
32 to 104 °F (0 to 40 °C)
Physical
Dimensions (WxHxD) 5.5 x 3.2 x 1.5″ / 13.97 x 8.13 x 3.81 cm
Weight 21.16 oz / 600 g

Ergonomics

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It’s all black, and only available in black. This is a fantastic street camera if you’re looking to shoot under the radar, it doesn’t call attention to itself at all.

The top of the camera is extremely minimalistic with just an on/off switch, shutter speed dial, and the hot shoe. That’s it!

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The back of the M Monochrom is also quite simple. On the left side is the viewfinder and below that are nearly all of the extra button controls such as playback and more.

The right hand side holds the menu button as well as the directional buttons with a dial around it. The dial is another option to help you navigate the menus.

As I mentioned, the body of this camera is identical to that of the M9 and M9-P, with the exception of it being entirely blacked out. No red Leica logos, and almost no branding at all except the “MONOCHROM” text on the hotshoe, and of course the “LEICA CAMERA  MADE IN GERMANY” on the rear above the screen.

Build Quality

Like other M cameras, it feels great to hold. It’s made of brass, is quite weighty, but feels like a solid chunk of German engineering. No complaints at all from an ergonomics or build quality front.

The black finish is a matte texture, and feels very nice in the hand but is prone to fingerprints.

ISO 1250

ISO 1250

Ease of Use

There isn’t much to figure out when it comes to this camera. If you’re familiar with rangefinder focusing (will discuss more below) then you’ve pretty much got this camera figured out. There is no fully automatic mode, just aperture priority and full manual. You simply have an aperture ring on your lens of choice, your shutter dial, and that’s about it. You can choose single, continuous, or self timer shooting modes, but “continuous” shooting means a whopping 2 fps, so it’s barely worth using. If you’re shooting a rangefinder, you’re probably not going to be doing any rapid fire shots.

Overall it’s a very simple camera to understand because it’s so limited in features. Just focus, snap, and go.

ISO 1000

ISO 1000

Autofocus

If you’re reading this review, you likely already understand that this is a rangefinder camera with no autofocus system at all. Rangefinder focusing is unlike any other manual focusing system, in that you’re using an optical viewfinder to align an overlaying image where you’re attempting to focus. It takes a bit of getting used to if you haven’t done it before, but once you get the hang of it, it’s an incredibly easy and quick way of focusing. I’ve never felt that I miss autofocus when using an M camera, because the rangefinder focusing makes you feel like such an integral part of the shooting process. There are no shooting aids here, it’s all you.

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Image Quality

This of course just a first impressions post, so I haven’t spent a ton of time with the camera yet. But I will say that what I’ve seen come out of it has been nothing short of stunning. There are a few interesting things to note about shooting with this camera.

ISO 3200

ISO 3200

ISO 3200 @ 100% crop

ISO 3200 @ 100% crop

First of all, the achilles heel of all previous M cameras has been the high ISO performance. The M8 wasn’t much good over ISO 640, and the M9 was only okay up to about ISO 1250. But Leica says that by removing the color filter array, they were able to up the ISO from 2500 to a ceiling of ISO 10,000, and because the noise isn’t going through any sort of demosaicing process, the noise doesn’t blur details the way it would on any other camera. The result is astounding, with usable results up to the ceiling of ISO 10,000, and unbelievably clear images at around ISO 3200. The noise appears film-like, and even at ISO 10,000 isn’t bothersome at all.

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The other thing to note about this sensor though, is how susceptible to blown-out highlights it can be. Much like film, if your highlights are overexposed, there is no data there to recover, just as there’s nothing on a film negative to dodge. So I found that I was most safe underexposing my photos just a bit to prevent blown out highlights, and still give me some shadow recovery room. These are not incredibly flexible files, but once you get the hang of how they react to processing, and how they need to be captured in the first place, the results speak for themselves.

ISO 1250

ISO 1250

ISO 10,000

ISO 10,000

First Impressions

I still have quite a bit more shooting to do with this camera before I come to any sort of final conclusions, but I will say that my first experience has been incredibly positive. This is everything I loved about the M9 but in an even more unique and special package. I haven’t tweaked with the files much at all, and Leica recommends that you process with Lightroom 4 and Nik Silver Efex Pro. I will be testing that out over the next two weeks and will have a full report on how these files behave.

Overall I’m impressed, and incredibly excited to continue shooting with the Leica M Monochrom.

Leica M Monochrom: B&H | Adorama

 

Additional reporting was contributed by Chris Gampat

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