Leica is a company that plays by different rules to everyone else. By building cameras in low volumes and charging a premium for them, it’s able to pursue different avenues from the mainstream Japanese makers. It’s maintained a healthy market for its M-series rangefinders, despite this type of camera having generally fallen out of favour in the 1960s, and it also makes cameras dedicated to black & white shooting, with its M Monochrom series.
So how, and why, would you do such a thing? The basic principle is simple: conventional cameras sense colour by arranging red, green and blue filters over the light-sensitive photodiodes of their sensors, with the recorded data being converted to a visually-meaningful photograph through a complex process of demosaicing, noise reduction and sharpening. While this works very well, it delivers less detail and introduces artefacts compared to recording full colour data for each pixel. To produce a black & white image, the colour has to be removed again, but you’re still stuck with the after-effects of the processing. In contrast, by doing without a colour filter array (CFA) over the sensor, the Monochrom cameras are capable of recording black & white images directly. This gives visibly superior tonality and detail, along with higher sensitivity and lower noise.
Leica has announced a new version of its Leica M Monochrom camera, one of the only cameras available that only shoots black and white. With a new sensor, going from 24 Mp in the previous model to a whopping 40.9 Mp, this unique camera gives photos that are like shooting black and white film. The detail, and the low noise at high ISOs, are extraordinary. The above explains what is so special about this sensor.
This is one of the best reviews I’ve seen, explaining the specificities of this camera, as well as those of a rangefinder.
I don’t generally have gear lust, but I definitely lust after this camera. I prefer black and white photography, and I like the way this camera strips the process to its essentials, all while providing a quality that is simply unavailable in other cameras when converting from color photos to black and white.
The images below are those supplied by Leica as JPEGs. Both are downsampled; the first was 6467 x 4267, shot at ISO 160. The second is 7692 x 5086, shot at ISO 12,500! (Full resolution of this camera’s files is 7692 x 5086.) I’ve downsampled both for use here, but see the link in the last paragraph of this article to download the full-resolution files.
As you can see, the strength of this camera seems to be a high-contrast, Tri-X Pan-ish look. But that second photo, shot at very high ISO (12,500), also shows that the sensor performs really well in low light. The photo was shot at f/4.8, 1/180 sec.
But it costs £7,250; and that’s without a lens. Yes, you can get “cheap” lenses to use with the camera, but at that price, you really do want a good lens. About a year ago, there were promotions where you could get the previous model Leica M Monochrom and a good Leica lens for less than £7,000, and I was seriously considering getting a 0% interest credit card and paying it off over a year. But it would be overkill; I don’t take enough pictures to justify this, and it would be nothing more than a (late) mid-life crisis camera.
Nevertheless, I would love to own this. I wish other camera manufacturers would make affordable monochrome cameras. The ideal candidate would be Fujifilm, who could make an X100M, perhaps, which would be very popular among street photographers.
You can learn more about the Leica M Monochrom, and especially a great explanation of what is unique in its sensor, in this video.
If you’re into this sort of thing, you can download some sample DNG files here. And there are a bunch of sample JPEGs provide by Leica here. When I had seen sample DNG files from the previous model, they tended to be washed out, because that’s the way the sensor worked. With these, it only takes a few adjustments to make the photos look very filmic. For one of the files, in Apple Photos, I just clicked the Auto adjustment for curves, and for another, I adjusted the curves, then made some tweaks to contrast, shadows, and highlights, to bring out the contrast. It’s very interesting to play around with these files.