Some of you may have noticed one glaring omission thus far and, yes; it is filters!
With no Bayer array, the manipulation of tones by mixing colour in post is not possible, so you have to do this at the capture stage. There has been some talk of focus shift causing problems, but I have personally not found this to be a factor with anything less than a red filter. With a deep red (like a Wratten #29) shift is severe and needs to be accounted for. That requires some testing and experimentation, so best discussed another time. Certainly with a yellow or orange for general use, you can forget that its there and carry on as normal.
The good news is that with global and local adjustments possible in post processing, I have not found the absence of colour channels to be an issue with regards to producing the tones, contrast and separation I desire. Ever. Some early reviews posted comparisons of Monochrom and M9 shots of the same scene. In some cases the Monochrom rendered a more pleasing image and at other times the M9 did and this is down to colour sensitivities. However, I can’t say I ever shot a scene with Tri-X and wished I’d had Delta 400 instead, or vica versa. You just get on with it in the darkroom and make a beautiful print and the same can be said here. Sure, you lose some of the flexibility of mixing colour channels, but with a couple of filters in your bag, I don’t think there is anything to think about other than what the stunning Monochrom file quality makes possible in post and in print. It should be noted that a colour file that has been subject to strong colour channel adjustments is not of the same quality as a filtered Monochrom file.
There is also another perspective, which I have alluded to in the above and that is the approach taken to B&W photography. If you go about B&W photography heavily concentrating on colour and thinking about how it will render as shades of grey… wondering how you could mix the three channels to get the look you want, you will almost certainly fail to produce consistently strong B&W work. How many filters did Henri Cartier-Bresson use? Salgado? Koudelka? They used ‘some’ but very few and the variations in tone possible through these choices were minuscule compared to what can be done with colour channels. However, in my view they were not at any kind of disadvantage, because for every print that could be a few per cent better had the hair splitting precision of channel mixing been available to them, they have 50 incredible images that the average colour fixated B&W photographer would never have seen in the first place.
What I am not saying here is that colour is unimportant to B&W work – absolutely not – but light, form, content etc are vital. Look for the light and [too many things to mention here] and much stronger photographs will follow. Most of the time I cannot remotely remember the colour of the contents of my viewfinder when I look back at B&W images. Yes, the colours present were processed at a low level at the time I shot them, but only in so far as avoiding obvious problems, or exploiting obvious relationships that could really add something. I have also struggled in Afghanistan at times due to people’s clothing, skin tones, vegetation, buildings and vegetation being similar shades of brown, green and grey that render almost indistinguishably in print. When shooting under overcast light, this is an absolute nightmare to work with, but fixating over colour channels isn’t going to help either!
The ‘advantage’ of the Monochrom is that you will end up having to stop thinking like a colour photographer with a colour image as an intermediate stop off in the visualisation process and the B&W file the ‘interpreted’ after product of it. You will go directly from visualisation to ‘B&W negative’ and the result of this is you will be forced to think more like a B&W photographer. The connection between visualisation and output will become shortened and all the stronger for it.
I think its important not to underestimate how different this mind set shift is and we can count on one hand the number of truly outstanding B&W photographers who are also world class in colour (or vica versa). I’m not saying you have to make a single choice as to what you want to be, but if you intend to excel and reach the highest levels, I think you have to accept that one path will develop to the detriment of the other. You can do both, but one will become dominant. Think about eagles (the birds) and what usually happens when two eggs are laid and both hatch!!!
If your inclination is to be the best you can be, rather than a ‘jack of all trades’, this is something worth further individual thought. Maybe its balderdash, but its my opinion and you can accept or ignore it as you see fit!
Err, right, back to the Monochrom! Suffice to say, I have found no problem at all shooting the Monochrom for months at a time with no filter on, with the exception of people shots. Here, I would recommend a yellow or yellow orange for producing the most natural skin tones (they tend to come out a little dark with no filter). So there is my solution: a yellow plus something a bit stronger. For everything else, I have LR5.
Choices, Choices: MM or M240?
This camera does not exist without alternatives, all of which have a higher spec and borader ‘skill set’. You have the money, so the obvious question is why would you buy the 18MP Monochrom over the more modern and better featured 24MP M240?
If you are working only in B&W, the decision is quite simple: the Monochrom is, in my opinion, the better tool. The files have higher resolution, less noise and are much more flexible when heavily processed. This is most apparent when lifting shadows and bending tonal curves heavily. M240 files show banding and other ‘nasties’ well before the MM’s files do. I faced this same decision nearly a year ago. I wanted a digital M mount camera to integrate into my Leica M film system and the M240 seemed the obvious choice, but in processing RAW files and seeing how much better the Monochrom files were, the decision was simple for a largely B&W photographer. Even taking into account the limited features of the M9 platform compared to the M240 and the need for glass filtration, it was still simple. If you want the best possible M mount machine for B&W work, the Monochrom is it.
This is not to say the M240 is bad, or in anyway poor at B&W. Absolutely not! With programs like Silver Efex Pro 2, it is easier than ever to produce beautiful B&W from any colour camera, but when I downloaded a bunch of RAWs from both cameras and worked hard with them, I was irritated to find that the dinosaur based MM produced clearly superior ‘digital negatives’ as a starting point for the best possible prints. I then weighed up the features of the M240 and asked myself how much they mattered to me. I concluded that the MM provides all the ‘operations and services’ I require from a reportage and documentary camera and that the M240’s many new features (live view etc) were largely surplus to my requirements. They will be very useful to other photographers and your equation may well be very different, just not me.
There’s absolutely no point in having the best B&W files on the planet if you cannot print them to a high standard. Thankfully, inkjet printing has come on leaps and bounds and I get great results from my Epson 3880 with Ilford Gold Fibre Silk, or Harman by Hahnemuhle Glossy FB. Thankfully, there are now also readily available methods for making genuine silver gelatine prints from digital files (resin coated and fibre). This way, you can have all the benefits of digital capture and post processing with the beauty of a silver print. In my view, silver prints still have a depth and glow (not to mention physical robustness) that inkjets cannot match and it’s a lot cheaper to make a digital silver print (having processed the file yourself first) than hiring a master printer to make one from a negative. It’s still more expensive than making prints in your own darkroom, or making inkjet prints, however.
Any M mount lens can be mounted on this camera, including those that give awful red edge issues on the M9 (no colour = no red edges). Its wonderful to be able to shoot old glass with lower contrast one minute and then technically perfect aspherical lenses the next. Although I was expecting to conclude the opposite, I very much enjoy shooting technically strong very high-resolution lenses on this camera, because you are greeted with astonishing detail and clarity (if this is what you desire). High contrast does not seem to be an issue, perhaps because the files are so flexible and start out with only modest contrast.
The only other point I will add is that fine detail is so obscenely good with this camera and modern digital printing so able to bring out these details, that you will need take this into consideration in your workflow. Faces will print with every line and flaw visible, with a presence that can seem to exceed reality. It can look this way simply because we are not used to seeing this sort of detail in the context of its application: street and documentary. This requires some thought and a personal approach to either embrace, or tame it.
This camera is for people who wish to produce the very best B&W prints possible, while carrying a relatively compact camera perfectly suited to instinctive, flowing photography, such as reportage, documentary and street. It’s for those who are obsessive and passionate about B&W and, in particular, those who have held off from working in digital for B&W because they feel the results fell short of film. It is for those who have no desire to see a colour ‘inter-negative’ and are focused, without distraction, entirely on black and white output.
The Leica Monochrom truly bridges the digital-B&W film gap and, now that I am used to image processing with the camera, I have not picked up my film bodies for a while. I never thought I’d be saying that, but there you go. I’ve exhibited B&W film prints fairly widely and can confidently say that the next exhibition will be digital. Its not the same as film, but it carries its own benefits and, to me at least, puts digital on parity for the first time as a dedicated B&W imaging medium (albeit with different pros and cons). While I moved to digital for my colour work some years ago, it took this camera to lure me into the digital realm for B&W.
The Monochrom is also for people who do not care what other people think and who are results orientated. The camera has some evident flaws (as per the M9, its based on) but for those who will look at what is does beautifully, what it does not do well will be irrelevant. I have to be honest with you; some people will regard Monochrom users as the most odious of Leicaphiles. After all, this camera is so backwards, so old and so stripped out that it will be seen by some as no better than an over-priced special edition. That’s OK with me, because I’m far too distracted by my passion for making photographs to care (and I hope you will be too).
This camera is for people who want to shoot handheld images with the quality of a tripod mounted camera, owing to the fast shutter speeds possible with the high base ISO and relative tolerance to relatively slow shutter speeds (unlike the A7R and D800). You really can approach image making with a lackadaisical casualness that helps you to remain in the creative zone, yet with Godzilla-like results. This camera makes taking razor sharp images from corner to corner, in almost any light, just so absurdly easy.
Looking through my recent London ‘urbanscapes’ portfolio, I was surprised to see how many images were shot on the Monochrom compared to my Canon DSLR. In no small part this is due to the portability of the camera and my inclination to go out shooting with it, not to mention the superb results that can be obtained hand held. Hell, this is not supposed to be a landscape camera, but it has spent a lot of time being used in this manner, because I have been able to cover ground comfortably and without feeling like a pack mule. It’s only the shots you take that matter. The better shots you could have shot with your tilt and shift lens don’t count if you only dreamt about them on your sofa, unwilling to face ‘saddling yourself up’ once again. This camera makes it easier than ever before, to take technically amazing B&W shots without compromising on fun and simplicity.
Sadly, it is only for people with a large budget, but the price does not diminish the brilliance of what this remarkable camera is capable of. Ironically, it may also be perfect for people who care very little about cameras per se and much more about the images they can make with them. That sounds a lot like most conscientious photographers to me.
The elephant in the room is the Sony A7R and so has this recent arrival sat its fat bottom down on the small niche occupied by the Monochrom? In my view, the answer is a resounding ‘no’ and I will write a short post in the near future explaining why not.