The above image was shot at 320, but to ensure that I preserved the many hot highlights (including light struck areas on walls and passing trains), I needed to underexpose. I then lifted the exposure and held the highlights before adjusting global contrast and moving on from there.
Base ISO on the Monochrom is 320, which is a blessing and a curse. It’s a curse if you want to shoot your tin foil clad white cat with a Noctilux 0.95 wide open in the Arizona desert at midday, because the 1/4000th max speed of the shutter will not be fast enough; however, when shooting handheld in lesser light, it means you get the image quality of base ISO with fast shutter speeds to freeze movement and/or reduce camera shake. It means you can stop down for depth of field when you could not otherwise be able to do so. In short, I find it of huge benefit overall and when you come to play with those ISOO 320 files in your processing software, you will be very pleased indeed. If you are a big fan of shooting very fast glass wide open, it could prove frustrating, however. One stop more frustrating than the M9 to be precise.
High ISO is about a stop and a half to two stops better than the M9, but qualitatively different. I find ISO 640 indistinguishable from 320 in most situations and ISO 1250 still leaves any ISO 400 film in the dust with respect to noise/grain and detail. As does 2500 in many cases. If I am to be entirely objective, there are plenty of cameras that compete very well in terms of noise in absolute terms, but the removal of the Bayer array seems to make a real difference to the nature of that noise. Yes, you’ve all heard that before, so I am going to add my voice to the chorus in case some of you need further persuasion. A D600 or 5D III competes quite easily on noise, but instead of splotchy noise that I find pretty ugly (compared to film) I get something much closer to the crispness of film. The shot of Battersea Power Station below is a good example.
The shutter speed was 1/45th or so at F4.5 with a 35mm Summarit-M and had this been shot a converted colour file the noise would have had a very different quality. I feel is suits the image nicely and looks like it’s supposed to be there on a very large print. I could not have made an image nearly this attractive when heavily enlarged, from my 5D III. Sometimes it’s hard to quantify and to be honest I don’t feel the need; my eyes tell me what matters. Here is a 100% crop, which is displaying on the web nowhere near as sharp and crisply detailed as it is in LR or in print:
I would describe my emotional response to the files as something like this:
- ISO 3200 (old Tmax400 or Delta 400)
- ISO 5000 (Carefully developed Tmax 3200, rated at 800-1000 in Xtol)
- ISO 10000 (Delta 3200 in DDX)
The trouble with higher ISOs is that you lose flexibility in the shadows when it comes to post processing, so I try to keep the speed down for this reason as much as anything. Controlling noise with a bit of luminance reduction is very easy indeed up to about 3200 and not too bad at 5000. At 1000, it actually requires quite a bit of work to simultaneously reduce noise and preserve good blacks. Too much noise reduction kills the feel of the image, but those blacks can become a little undermined by the black and white ‘grain’. ISO 10000 images therefore tend to have a very low contrast look and, although it can be rather beautiful if you are being creative, does require serious work to look good if you want a conventional looking results IMO.
To give you a feel for how I regard the ISOs in practical application, I would have no problem whatsoever producing any size of print from ISO 3200 files. With a touch of noise reduction and then a quick pass through Nik Silver Efex 2 to tweak the ‘grain’, you have something with a classic street look. Gary Winogrand would be proud, except you will see a lot more detail out of the Monochrom at 3200 than TriX showed out of his M4. This is one of the odd things about the Monochrom is that you can get detail AND grain in a way that the tradeoffs in film did not seem to allow. For the reasons already mentioned, its also not like a regular colour camera. It really is its own beast.
Are these B&W Files Special?
Yes, in my view they are, for the following reasons:
Resolution is far beyond what you expect from 18MP. Ming Thein did a comparison with the D800E and found the two broadly comparable in terms of detail recorded on centre. I agree. Theoretically, it has been said that the Monochrom has a resolution comparable to a 26-28 MP Bayer sensored camera, but I think this is conservative based on what I am seeing. With the right lenses, what’s also glaring is the astonishing performance right up to the edges and into the corners. Even when viewed at 1:1, there is a pixel level perfection that I’ve never seen before on any camera to date. Based on cursory comparison with my Sony A7R files, the Sony may have a tiny weeny advantage on centre owing to the 36 MP, but the Monochrom holds its performance out into the extremities far better. This is true when comparing, say, a 35mm Summarit-M at f8 on the Monochrom, to the 35mm Sonnar on the A7R. The Leica lenses and the Monochrom sensor are beautifully matched right into the corners and the Sony combo cannot quite compete for across the frame perfection.
Put a 24mm Elmar 3.8 or 50mm ZM Planar on the Monochrom and you will see what I mean and comparable performance is available with much of the M lens line up. The end result of this is that in 2014, I still believe the Monochrom to be unbeaten when it comes to overall image resolution. Not bad for a ‘2006 dinosaur’, eh? The below snap of the river Thames in London was taken with the 28mm Elmarit asph, which does produce less high frequency detail than the 24 Elmar f3.8 (which is simply jaw-dropping), so first the complete frame:
…and now the 100% crop. This file has bounced around lots of computers and has been sharpened and manipulated a little, but to be honest I’ve lost track of what was done when, but it gives a food idea. Also, these files are losing quite a bit by the time they appear on a web page. Fine detail is disappearing.
Tonality: The files have a far more pleasing tonality to my eyes compared to converted colour files. There is no speckle in the grey tones resulting from the Bayer array in colour cameras. The files can be uprezzed to a far greater degree than colour files from other cameras ands still print beautifully. Amazing things happen for B&W aficionados when the Bayer array is removed. So many people on the internet fixated on resolution and laughed out loud at the notion that the Monochrom was even being compared to the D800, which is 1/3 the price, but in my view they are not thinking like experienced B&W photographers. I’ve spent a decade busting my ass in the darkroom and most of that effort had nothing to do with resolution, but the tonality and ‘richness’ of my prints. I put as much effort into shots from 35mm Tmax 3200 as I did with those form 6×7 Delta 100. From exhibiting B&W prints seen and commented on by thousands of people, the biggest factor that impresses people about prints (the physical things, not what they are ‘of’) is ‘look’ and not resolution. The latter is nice to have, but the former is the essential ingredient of a great print.
Tonality is to B&W photography what colour is to, erm, colour photography. You don’t hear B&W photographers telling colour shooters to stop worrying about colour, but you do hear colour photographers intimating that B&W shooters regard tonality much in the same way the emperor did his new clothes. But to me it matters. It matters a lot. What’s more, the people who buy my prints see it and comment on it. Those prints where I have worked especially hard and really feel that I have achieved something special are noticed. They are grabbed by the subject matter initially, but then become further enchanted by ‘the presence of the print.’
Another bonus of no Bayer array is that you don’t get the jaggies and other artefacts that can affect colour cameras. Moiré is also absent. The result is files that look less artificial, but under some circumstances the finest dusting of grain in post-processing (even if its almost impossible to see in print) helps push the resultant output even further into the ‘organic’ realm. At base ISO they do look exceptionally clean and I don’t always like that. I’m going to write a small article about digital grain in due course.
Straight out of the camera, files do look flat, but then again so does a contact sheet printed at grade 1, right? With a little practice, you can produce all the snap and drama you could hope for, but you will always have the potential to produce organic looking, gentle, tonally rich B&W images. Even when processed for contrast, there is a visible smoothness to the tonal transitions and mid tones that I am not able to achieve with my colour cameras. It’s this that reminds me of B&W film. If I had to make a comparison, I would say that at ISO 320, the Monochrom produces images that are somewhat like medium format ISO 100 film, but with less grain. Maybe Fuji Acros or Tmax 100 from a Fuji GSW690… They are still unmistakably digital due to the cleanness and general perfection they possess, but run them through Nik Software’s Silver Efex Pro 2 and the gap closes considerably.
Post Processing: Monochrom DNG files are extremely robust and tolerate heavy processing better than any other files I have worked with for B&W. With all digital files, one tends to expose so that highlights don’t clip and as a result, in high contrast scenarios, shadows will be dark and need a lot of lifting. Thankfully this is no problem with the Monochrom. Although the measured dynamic range of the Monochrom is essentially the same as the M9, the lack of noise means shadows can be lifted with a far smaller impact on image quality and so the ‘experienced dynamic range’ seems much greater. Where noise does creep in, its luminance noise only, which is relatively easy to reduce in post and which tends to blend in with any grain pattern you may choose to introduce in your workflow. There is no patterning to creep in either, unlike Canon files, where banding and/or a grid can become apparent. With the Monochrom, its not unusual to produce a stunning image that will print nicely at 40” from a file that would be considered fit only for the trash had it been shot on a Canon. The only cameras that I can think of that are remotely comparable in flexibility are the Nikon D600/800 and Sony A7 and A7R, but the resultant look is different, rather than better or worse. Personally, for B&W, I think the Monochrom’s files are still comfortably ahead.