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Review: Leica M Monochrom

by Andy Hendriksen on 03/07/2013

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It often seems that Leica M cameras could divide a nation: either you fall madly in love with them or you simply don’t understand the hype. Leica took that controversy to the next level when they released the Leica M Monochrom in May of last year. Leica took an already exotic and fascinating camera and placed a sensor in it that is more unique than anything else on the market: it only captures black & white. Some love the idea, some don’t get it. Needless to say, I couldn’t wait to give it a try.

Please check out my First Impressions post after shooting with the camera for only a few hours

 

 

Pros and Cons

Pros

Leica M “feel” and build quality

Excellent image quality

High ISO performance

Unique file output

Compatibility with the worlds best lenses

Cons

Expensive

Some may find B&W limiting

Quirky firmware with occasional lockups

Poor battery life

Gear Used

Leica sent me a new Leica M Monochrom to use for two weeks with only one lens: the 35mm f/2 Summicron ASPH. Fortunately that’s one of my favorite lenses, a great street lens, and highly regarded as one of the sharpest lenses Leica has ever made. I had a feeling it would be a great piece of glass to test the sharpness of this new B&W sensor.

Tech Specs

Technical Specifications pulled from the B&H Photo and Video listing.

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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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Ergonomically, the M Monochrom is no different than the M9 that preceded it. As with all Leica M cameras, it’s constructed mostly of brass, which leads to a very substantial hand feel and a confidence in the quality of the camera. It’s not light by any means, nor are any of the all-brass Leica lenses you would be using with this camera, but it never felt too heavy to carry around all day. Speaking of carrying, the stock M Monochrom offers very little in terms of grip, which I didn’t find to be an issue, but if you have larger hands and are looking for something to grab onto, Leica does sell an additional grip for their M cameras. I haven’t used the grip, so I can’t offer my opinion either way, but I will say that I never felt like I needed it.

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The M Monochrom was designed to be nondescript, much like the M9-P. You won’t fight bright red Leica badges or markings on the front, rear, or top of this camera like you might expect from other Leica M’s. The only indication that this camera is what it claims to be is a very light “Monochrom” text on the hotshoe. While you can order the M Monochrom in other finishes, the standard is a matte black that looks very nice and isn’t likely to grab anyone’s attention while shooting on the street. It can be a bit of a fingerprint magnet, but nothing a light wipe with a microfiber cloth can’t fix.

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On the rear of the camera, you’ll find the same dreadful LCD display that Leica has used on every one of their digital M cameras, and the very same button layout as the M9. A thumbwheel with a directional array of buttons helps navigate your settings and scroll through pictures easily, and quick buttons like “ISO” and “SET” allow you to access commonly used settings quickly and without hassle. The screen is almost entirely useless, but more on that later (and why it doesn’t really matter).

On top, there’s your shutter speed dial and your shutter button surrounded in your on/off mode dial. It’s simple enough to use, but I sometimes found that I had ticked the mode dial into timed shooting without realizing it, and I would momentarily be perplexed as to why the shutter isn’t responding. I don’t feel that continuous shooting or self-timer are features commonly used by Leica shooters, so maybe they would be better off buried in a menu somewhere to avoid this.

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On the bottom of the camera you’ll find the standard Leica brass bottom plate. When removed, it exposes the standard SD card slot and the battery compartment. I did occasionally wish I didn’t have to remove the entire bottom plate every time I wanted to change cards, but it helps add to the overall sleekness of the look and feel of the camera so it can be forgiven.

One of my all time favorite things about shooting with Leicas is the feel of the shutter button. It’s just so mechanical and tactile, and it is unlike anything I’ve felt on any other modern cameras. The M Monochrom is no exception as it has a phenomenal shutter feel and sound.

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Build Quality

The build quality of the Leica M cameras has always been second to none. Carved out of brass, these cameras stand the test of time and abuse, and there’s no doubt when holding it that you have really nothing to worry about when it comes to the build of these. That being said, Leica M’s do require regular routine maintenance, and when things go wrong, it can often be costly to fix. The rangefinder mechanism, for instance, is a complicated and very precise element of engineering, and can be thrown out of alignment if not cared for properly. Not generally a big issue, but something to be aware of when you’re thinking about purchasing a camera like this.

Buttons, knobs, and dials all feel perfectly fine, with no looseness or feeling of cheapness. As this is a review unit, I imagine it’s been banged around quite a bit, but I had no issues with any of the controls, the rangefinder, or any other physical aspect of the camera.

Focusing

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I imagine most people reading this review are familiar with the lack of autofocus on rangefinder cameras like the Leica M, but if you need a refresher, check out our article on how a rangefinder focuses.

I had spent plenty of time with Leica M cameras prior to this one, so rangefinder focussing wasn’t anything foreign to me, and fortunately it’s no different on this camera than any other M. Once you’re comfortable with the method, it’s an incredibly quick and accurate way of focusing. The rangefinder mechanism in my review unit was perfectly calibrated, as was the Summicron lens I was provided, so any missed focuses could only be the wrongdoing of myself. I always enjoy rangefinder shooting as it becomes second nature very quickly, and helps you to feel more directly involved in the capture of the image.

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Ease of Use

Like all previous Leica M cameras, the M Monochrom is light on features. There’s no video mode, HDR mode, art filters, or anything of the sort. The menu is straightforward, and once you’ve dialed in your settings, everything else is incredibly simple. I kept the camera in auto ISO most of the time, with a max ISO of 10,000, and shot in aperture priority almost my entire time with the camera. All the controls are tactile and available right at your fingertips, and there really isn’t anything to mess with. If you’re familiar with the basic exposure controls of a camera, and you understand the concepts behind rangefinder focusing, there’s really not much more to know about operating a Leica M.

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I should add that the LCD screen on the Leica M Monochrom is terrible, and just about useless for anything other than VERY general focus and exposure checking. The resolution is poor, and for whatever reason, the images that show up on the screen seem to look almost nothing like what you’re actually capturing. In general, don’t bother with it. Pretend you’re shooting film, and wait to get home to check your photos.

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Metering

The metering in this camera suffers the same way that other digital M cameras have. It’s center weighted, and easily bamboozled. It’s not entirely useless, but you need to be careful with what you trust it to do. I consistently had either under exposed or over exposed shots with very little explanation as to why. I found that as I shot with the camera more, I needed to have an idea in my head of what the exposure “should” be, and keep an eye on the metering to be sure it gets it in the ballpark.

It’s not a deal breaker by any means, but you definitely need to be aware of this shortcoming when shooting with this camera. Once you get the hang of it, you can begin to predict situations when you know it’s going to be flustered, and compensate yourself.

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Image Quality

In a word: fantastic.

I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect from this camera, as I’ve never shot with a black & white digital camera before. It’s an interesting experience, to say the least, and definitely very unique to the other Leica M cameras.

In addition, removing the color filter array allows the sensor to capture incredibly sharp images, and take full advantage of the very sharp output of their famous lenses like the 35mm Summicron I was shooting with. In theory, this sounds great, and in practice, it proves to be nothing short of stunning. The sharpness of the files that come from this camera is truly remarkable, even at high ISO’s.

High ISO Results

By removing the color filter array, Leica managed to increase the maximum ISO to 10,000, from 2,500 in the M9. Not only that, but ISO 10,000 has actually proved to be fairly usable in a lot of situations. It’s very grainy, but the grain isn’t offensive or smudging in any way like the high ISO noise from a color digital camera. It’s very reminiscent of film grain, and I find it very pleasing. I generally shot in auto ISO and set my maximum to ISO 10,000 because the grain really didn’t bother me at all.

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Raw File Versatility

Some photographers have experessed concern about the files feeling “flat” in comparison to other Leica cameras. Some have even theorized that that’s why Leica included a copy of Nik’s Silver Efex Pro with the purchase of an M Monochrom. In practice, I found that files certainly have the tendency to feel a little flat out of the camera, but with a little processing (even just in Lightroom), you begin to regain that signature Leica depth and pop that photographers rave about. A copy of Silver Efex Pro was not provided to me for this review, so I can’t speak to my experience processing with it, but I had no qualms after processing these images in Lightroom, and I found the results could be stunning.

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One thing I mentioned in my first impressions post was my initial concerns about file flexibility. I found it to be true that if you overexposed a shot with this camera, it was more difficult to recover highlights than other Leica M cameras I’ve shot with, but not entirely impossible. The files did prove to be very flexible when it comes to recovering shadow detail, so I often kept my exposure compensation on -1/3 to prevent any sort of blown out highlights, and it kept me well within the range of recovering any shadows that I may have missed. The M Monochrom’s histogram can prove to be helpful in these situations, although I didn’t find that I needed to look at it much.

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Overall though, the quality of the files coming out of this camera is very impressive, and right up to par with everything that we’ve come to expect from Leica’s digital M bodies, especially when paired with Leica’s truly legendary glass like the Summicron or Summilux lenses.

Extra Image Samples

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Conclusions

This is clearly not a camera for the everyman, but no Leica really is. Like all Leica cameras, it’s quirky: don’t except much more than 350 shots on a charge, and prepare yourself for occasional firmware lockups. But it feels like a true icon of German engineering. That feel and the breathtaking image quality is what we all love about the Leica M, and the legend lives on with the M Monochrom. It’s just as much of an M as any of the others, and while clearly a very specialized camera, it is capable of producing the most beautiful images coming from an M yet. It may only shoot in black and white, but I found it to actually be slightly more versatile than a standard M9 because of its much extended ISO range and less concerns about high ISO detail smudging. When paired with fast Leica glass, this is the first M that you can comfortably shoot in very low light, and still come out with reasonably usable results. That’s pretty exciting, and possibly my favorite part about the camera.

It’s hard for me to come up with anything poor to say about a camera that consistently “wow’ed” me. I had a bigger grin on my face after shooting with this than I have in a long time, and that certainly has to stand for something. The Leica M has stood the test of time, and they have delivered yet again with another truly stunning achievement: the Leica M Monochrom. At $8,000 for the body alone, you have to be truly in love with the idea of shooting in black and white to be able to justify this camera, but if you are, there’s nothing else in the world like it and you certainly won’t be disappointed.

Leica M Monochrom: B&H | Adorama

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