I’ve inserted the image above, precisely because its the sort of image you don’t think Monochrom users are going to shoot with it. It was shot on an ultralight tripod and the complete rig was featherweight, making wandering around the city a pleasure. I could not have made this image on the M9 and it was only juuuust possible on the Monochrom. I had to push the file right up to the limits.
Like the Leica M9, ME and M, the Monochom is simplicity defined. You could have been shooting with film M bodies for decades and within minutes of handling the Monochrom, be up and running, confidently taking high quality images. It’s not that the transitions is easy; its that there isn’t one. Sure, if you have never used a digital camera there will be, but assuming some degree of experience there, this is just a film M with a few more buttons.
You cannot get lost in the menus, because they are logically laid out and there just aren’t enough features and buttons to confuse you. The dials are all in the right place and perfectly weighted, the shutter release falls to the finger like the rim of a martini glass to my lips at about 9pm. I can honestly say that not once have I pined for this feature or that setting. I cannot say whether it is because the camera does everything I need it to do, or because using simple cameras results in you thinking more about picture and less about, well, cameras.
Build quality is exceptional and arguably overkill in this digital age; however, the feeling it engenders is quite unique. You do not feel you are holding a plastic ‘kameracomputer’ but rather, well… a tool. It’s all Colt 1911 in an age of admittedly brilliant plastic Glocks. The svelte form of the Monochrom has not deviated from the M lineage, which began nearly 70 years ago, but the absence of the film advance lever does mean that a ‘thumbs up’ is strongly recommended to help brace the camera in your hand and create real purchase.
Some may think that holding such an expensive and finely engineered camera may results in a certain consciousness – heck, its worth a fortune – but I feel the opposite. The design, the badgeless simplicity, the matt black finish, the perfect form factor, the lack of buttons and flashing lights all mean that this camera disappears and becomes an extension of one’s hands. This is one of the main reasons why people have been paying such high prices to own and use the M9 and, more recently, the M240. Well, this and the glorious ‘everything is in focus’ optical finder. Its not for everyone, but for those it speaks to, it changes the way you shoot. No, this is not pretentious twaddle, but my honest response to working with any Leica M model, from the M3 onwards. I did not spend all the money I had in 2006 buying a Leica M6 to impress anyone. I did it because it allowed me to forget about cameras and think only about pictures. I only wish digital Leicas were less expensive and accessible to more people who would put them to good use. While this ‘exclusivity’ it a shame, it does not take away from the ‘just rightness’ many find in the M form factor.
Upon initial familiarisation, the only area where I did quickly pause for thought was in the feel of shutter release (which is the same as the M9 of course). It’s a little ‘notchy’ and can take some practice to be able to instinctively differentiate between the pressure needed to activate the metering (or lock exposure) and the next pressure required to fire the shutter. With any camera, it’s important to be able to hover right on the edge of the tripping the shutter, because this is how you time the exact instant of exposure. With the Monochrom this can be achieved with great precision, but it does take some practice if you are used to film Ms. I found it a little frustrating at first, but after a few weeks of use realised that I was able to trip the shutter intuitively and precisely. Lag seems minimal and a non-issue for me at least. Most of the shutter sound is the shutter re-cocking, with actual release feeling very quick indeed.
One area where the camera is weak is in the electronics (see, we are back to Darth Vader again). The screen’s resolution is woeful by today’s standards and it’s a fair criticism when people say such a screen should not be on any camera today, let alone one of this price (it not dissimilar to the LCD on the 1MP Praktika camera I bought in 2005 on the way to Baghdad). But this is it. It’s the LCD you get. One can either get all caught up in the ‘awful injustice’ of it all or ask whether it really matters to you. Personally, it does not, because I don’t use screens when shooting reportage, documentary or street, other than for menu or histogram purposes. I set the Monochrom not to preview the image anyway, so I’m not distracted by images leaping up and down on the back of my camera like a six year old child with ADD, after a packet of orange sweets. As long as I have a useful histogram available for occasional reference, I am happy.
Too much LCD time ruins my ‘flow’. If you are shooting reportage or street and you are chimping away, you are missing shots or losing eye contact and rapport with subjects and so losing far more than you gain. Practice overcomes the need for reassurance and it does take some time to get there, because there are some metering/sensor issues quirks that need to be worked around. More on this later.
The processor in the Monochrom is well behind the times and image processing is tedious. The good news is that, once again, it does not matter much within the context of anticipated use. Sure, the buffer is slow to clear and limited anyway, but I suspect few users will have any desire to shoot long bursts. There are better tools for sports and action and many owners of the Monochrom may well own other bodies that are more suitable. This camera was pitched at documentary, reportage and street photographers, who for many years have coped just fine with manual film advance. It’s also a stunning landscape camera, where speed of operation is rarely critical.
Metering is the same as the M9, but herein lies a bit of a problem: its lacks the intelligence and precision needed to synergise perfectly with the sensor. The result is that you, the user, needs to do a little processing of your own. This camera produces monochromatic files and so no highlight recovery is possible when processing raw files by virtue of information remaining in one or two colour channels (as with colour files). Blow the highlights during capture and they’re gone. The good news is that the RAW histogram allows you to see with absolute precision when clipping has occurred and I found it invaluable. Below is an example of a photograph from December, during quite spectacular fog over London. The sun had not yet burnt through, but it had created an extremely hot patch. I was able to inspect the histogram, ensure I had no RAW clipping, shoot the frame and then adjust exposure, shadows, blacks and highlights in Lightroom.
It’s the danger of highlight clipping that may lead to a tendency to chimp, but with a bit of experience it’s possible to ignore the LCD and get on with shooting, even in changeable light. I found that in overcast weather I left the exposure compensation at zero, but when the contrast range expanded during brighter light, I’d dial in -1/3 or -2/3 depending. The other technique I use is to use exposure lock with emphasis given to the hottest parts of the scene. These sound like workarounds and they are, but with experience, it becomes instinctive. Just invert how you thought about B&W film: With the Monochrom it’s all about retaining highlights. You can sort the shadows out in post and the files are super flexible. When shooting film, I often think ‘as long as I have the shadows’ I can figure out the highlights in the darkroom. Its just the opposite here.
Focusing with a traditional rangefinder may seem primitive to some, but I find it wonderful for reportage and the like. Manual lenses with distance scales lend themselves to zone/hyperfocal focusing, which aids snap shooting and when you want to be precise, it is exceptionally accurate. I can honestly say that when I have focused with precision, the resultant file has shown perfect focus accuracy even with fast lenses like the CV 35 1.2 II. Always. Every time. I don’t use long lenses and I know accuracy will be troublesome with long lenses like the 75 Summilux or 90mm F2 Summicron, when used up close and quickly (candid portraits for example). Used more carefully, for scenic and stopped down work, I find accuracy is 100% with my 75mm Summarit and 90mm Elmarit-M lenses.
I did need to send off the body and lenses for calibration, however. I could clearly see that focus was off with my 50mm ZM Planar, the 75 Summarit-M and 90 Elmarit-M. With the 24 Summilux, I did not look in detail, but the files were not terribly sharp at wide apertures and I knew it could do better. My CV 35 1.2 II was perfect, as were my other wide angles.
‘Calibration’ is something that, unless you are lucky, you need to factor into any purchase. With mine the body was clearly out of whack, because when it came back it mysteriously focused perfectly with my 50mm Zeiss ZM Planar (which of course did not go to Leica) and the 90mm Elmarit-M, which Leica wanted to charge quite a lot to adjust (because its not 6-bit) and add coding too. Seeing as I did not need the coding and I suspected the body was in need of adjustment anyway, I asked for it to be returned untouched. It too focuses perfectly…. What they did exactly, I don’t know, but I can tell you that the resultant resolution and focus perfection is, ell, staggering. I knew that 24 Summilux was good wide open on my film bodies, but you should see what it can do on the Monochrom….
The shutter has been criticised by some for being noisy. I find it perfectly OK and, with discreet shutter mode activated, the sneezing mouse sound of shutter re-cocking is delayed until you release pressure on the shutter release button. The resultant sound of the shutter alone (minus re-cock) is very quiet and could be used in delicate situations quite nicely. The fly in the ointment is that shooting extensively in discreet shutter mode results in the odd lock up. Annoying it is, but a show-stopper it is not. Camera off, remove baseplate, pop and reinsert battery, affix baseplate, camera on and you are off again. It takes about 7 seconds, but it does still niggle that one has to do this. Leica has not progressed much with the firmware within which there should be a solution to this issue. It’s irksome that the problem persists this far down the road, but I’m not going to dwell on something that is so easy to work around. Besides, I was never able to change a roll of film in 7 seconds and I had to do that every 38 exposures with the M6. Yes, workarounds should not be needed, but once again, I’m interested more in the results I get, workarounds included.