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Long gone are the days of having to pick between color or black-and-white film stocks before setting out the door. We have now entered a digital world where many critical artistic decisions are made long after the initial image is created. Leica has decided to change that by offering a new camera that makes images only in black-and-white, allowing photographers to solidify their vision and mindset before they head out the door. And, after taking it for a spin over the past week, I can say that it produces images that absolutely cannot be matched.
Steve’s Automotive, located on Elm St. in Kearny, NJ, has been serving the local community for decades.
Welcome to the black-and-white world of the Leica M Monochrom (Typ 246) Digital Rangefinder Camera.
So why shoot only in black-and-white? Because it allows users to capture images with finer detail, less noise, and, while obvious, shoot in black-and-white. With modern digital imaging, we have been trained to shoot in color and convert to grayscale in post, which does work well with the ability to modify specific color channels without relying on physical filters, but takes away the choices and control that used to exist when conceptualizing photographs.
Another thing that affects me personally, though I’m sure many would agree, is that this conversion feels wrong, as if you are taking something away that inherently belongs to the image. Since moving to digital photography, I have only very sparingly created black-and-white images. The M Monochrom (Typ 246) rectifies this dilemma by bringing back the choice, and it does so while delivering truly brilliant images.
Owner Steve Horvath reviews his extensive collection of files to check recent work done for a customer.
There is also one more thing about the camera: it is a Leica. Just looking at the camera prods photographers to think of the greats who used these cameras, photographers like Alfred Eisenstadt, Robert Capa, and Henri Cartier-Bresson who created some of the most iconic images of all time. There is a reason Leica cameras became known as the Magnum photographer’s camera and joined these shooters as witnesses to some of history’s most important events.
Build and Handling
Picking up the M Monochrom is an experience in itself. Proudly displaying its heritage with “Made in Germany” engraved on the back and featuring discreet all-black styling, the camera is almost as good-looking as the images it creates. It also has a magnesium-alloy body and brass top and bottom plates that give the camera a heft that inspires confidence—you know the equipment will last through years of constant use. And, mounting any of Leica’s M-mount glass will complete the look.
Taking photographs with the Typ 246 does one thing that few other cameras do: it cultivates emotions in the photographer. Part of this stems from Leica’s long legacy and legendary history, the other just comes from years and years of refinement, allowing the company to create a camera that just feels like it belongs in your hand and no place else. The camera may be made of a solid metal, but I always needed to set it down very gently whenever it had to leave my hands.
I found handling of the camera to be superb, though users not familiar with a rangefinder will find it takes some practice before use becomes second nature. The 0.68x optical viewfinder is very bright and offers LED-illuminated frame lines in a choice of red or white, for visibility in a wide range of scenarios. The front of the camera has a frame selector so users can quickly visualize what an image would look like at different focal lengths. A dial sits on the back near the thumb rest for making changes to settings like ISO or scrolling through the menu, while a dedicated shutter-speed dial sits on the top.
The rear of the camera features a majorly upgraded LCD, bumped up to 3.0", and with 920k-dot resolution, in addition to the use of a sapphire glass cover that makes it exceptionally scratch resistant. I wasn’t about to put that claim to the test, but what I did use was the new Live View mode to check focus quickly with both the peaking and automatic magnification settings available. For those not familiar, peaking recognizes areas of the highest contrast (and therefore most in focus) and “paints” them with a color, of which the M Monochrom offers a few options. The magnification was also very nice, automatically recognizing when I began to focus the lens and zooming in to either 5x or 10x, depending on how it had been set up.
Numerous specialized accessories are also available, via the hot shoe, with a unique interface terminal. One of these is the Visoflex EVF2 Electronic Accessory Viewfinder, which turned out to be very nice and sharp, with 1.4-megapixel resolution, and allowed use in bright sunlight without any glare. It is responsive with no discernible lag and enables many features only available in Live View mode that were mentioned earlier. Additionally, this unit can be tilted up 90° for low-angle shooting, along with offering a centered viewfinder that may be more comfortable to some shooters.
Around the camera, there aren’t any obvious spots where you might find a card slot door or battery, which is great in terms of design, but not so great when it comes to operation. The battery and SD card slots are located underneath the bottom plate, limiting fast swaps, but ensuring that there are fewer parts that can be easily broken or damaged over time. This model does forgo a USB connection on the body itself, meaning that uploading photos will require a removal of the plate each time. Not a huge issue, but it could be seen as a nuisance for some.
Also located under the base plate is a connection for a grip accessory, one of which adds GPS, a USB port, and simply better handling of the camera. This may be a useful accessory for some who have trouble gripping the svelte body.
One final thing about the camera, it is quite small and unobtrusive. The rangefinder design allows manufacturers to make extremely compact, yet fully featured cameras, and has been one of the main reasons Leicas seem to make their way into the hands of photojournalists and documentarians. In order to put this theory to the test, I got in touch with Steve, my local mechanic, and asked to follow him through his day.
Image Quality and Shooting Experience
In one word: breathtaking.
To qualify this, we have to talk about the benefits of a black-and-white only sensor. The M Monochrom (Typ 246) utilizes a full-frame, 24-megapixel CMOS sensor that gets rid of the Bayer color filter array, as well as the optical low-pass filter, to produce images with unrivaled clarity and detail. With most color imaging sensors, the use of a color filter results in a slight loss in perceived resolution and the introduction of color noise due to the need to interpolate pixel data from a group of surrounding pixels, each capturing either red, green, or blue data. With the black-and-white sensor, each pixel is providing a readout purely for luminance values, meaning each pixel is a more exact representation of the scene.
Another benefit is improved sensitivity, making the minimum ISO 320. This allowed me to capture extremely fine detail when taking close ups of hands and objects as well as shoot at ISOs around 2000 in the dim light without even noticing any noise. The noise that was present at extremely high sensitivities was very reminiscent of film grain and added a pleasing characteristic to the images, as opposed to the usual digital noise with color sensors.
Super-Elmar-M 21mm f/3.4 ASPH.; ISO: 4000; 1/250 second, f/4.8
Metering was spot-on and, though I mainly stuck with the classic setting (mostly center-weighted), the new sensor opened up more advanced settings through Live View readings of the whole scene. It was an easy system to trust and not once did I feel that I needed to completely steer clear of what it was telling me at any given moment. The fact that it was exceptionally well designed in the viewfinder was also much appreciated. It centered on a red dot that lit up when the settings were correct and dimmed when they were not. Also, there are arrows on either side of the center dot that function in much the same way, brightening and dimming, depending on how under- or overexposed your shot will be.
While we are discussing the viewfinder, I give credit to Leica for sticking with the classic rangefinder design and providing a bright, clear finder with customizable frame lines. The housing was also very easy to see, even in darker scenes and, combined with the use of Leica glass, I was able to focus extremely quickly. As I became more and more adjusted to the system, it felt almost second nature.
One worry I did have when first shooting with the camera was the dynamic range of the files—especially since the grayscale files meant that any clipped highlights or lost shadows would be permanently gone, as there weren’t other channels to fall back on. Fortunately, after opening up these images on my computer, I found there wasn’t much to worry about. When shooting, I made sure to underexpose when needed in high contrast scenes, since with digital files (and the camera’s impressive sensitivity) it is always easier to bring up the shadows than to recover blown highlights.
Steve takes a moment to relax after completing work on a customer’s car.
Speaking of editing raw files, the M Monochrom records to the DNG format and offers a choice of uncompressed or compressed shooting. DNG is a widely supported file type, which means that it works easily with multiple programs without needing to update to ensure compatibility. The compressed format is lossless and I could not find a difference between the file types or in operation of the camera or computer. There was, however, a drastic reduction in file size from an average of 36MB to a more manageable 20-24MB. Also, the camera does offer four different JPEG resolutions for users who like to either shoot directly in this format or save both a raw and JPEG at the same time.
Both files look great and, while I stuck with the Standard sharpness and Medium contrast settings that were the default, users can customize this entirely to their liking. Access to these tools was very useful during video, as it allowed me to lower the contrast to maximize dynamic range and allow for more control in the post-production process. This brings us to...
Now, video in an M-series camera is fairly new and revolutionary itself but, when it was added to the Monochrom line, it made the Typ 246 the only consumer-level black-and-white video camera on the market today. So, I took it for a spin.
To be honest, the camera offers extremely pared-down options when it comes to video recording, basically just the resolution you would like and whether you want to shoot at 24 or 25 fps. Of note is Leica’s decision to make 24p a true 24 fps, as opposed to the much more common 23.98 fps on most cameras. But with a variable bit rate of up to 100 Mbps and the ability to down-sample the images from the sensor, as opposed to using line skipping or other lossy methods, high-definition video is a very promising addition to the series.
The M Monochrom (Typ 246) does, in fact, deliver on quality, with detailed video that can easily resolve small moving objects such as leaves without suffering from compression artifacts. There is one issue however: rolling shutter. Unfortunately, it is quite noticeable used handheld or during pans, giving a jelly effect to your images
Take note of the minimum and maximum ISOs of 320-1600 during video mode, as you will need to use ND filters during the day and, potentially, a faster lens at night. Footage is remarkably clean at all settings, though it is odd not to benefit from the highest ISOs possible with the black-and-white sensor. Also note that, while 1/50 of a second may not be selectable via the dial, the camera will automatically switch to it when you hit Record at 1/45.
Sound is just okay with only a built-in mono mic, though the hot-shoe terminal does accept an accessory for either onboard stereo recording or using an external mic. Additionally, manual levels are available, along with a Concert setting for quieter applications.
There are some shortcomings when shooting video on the M Monochrom (Typ 246), but none of the issues are things that we haven't seen in similar stills/video hybrid cameras. In terms of pure video quality, the images produced are highly detailed and lack compression artifacts, making this a viable option for stills shooters looking to expand their toolbox without investing in an entirely different system.
At first glance, the Leica M Monochrom (Typ 246) can appear to be well behind the times, but the ability to deliver excellent image quality and video in a well-built and designed body puts this camera near the top of the pack. The camera is suited to more specialized applications, such as photojournalism and documentary work, as well as personal projects where you choose to shoot solely in black-and-white. It brings back the idea of “the right tool for the job” and allows artists to capture photos that fulfill the vision they had before they even leave their home. So, if your vision involves black-and-white images, this camera will be near impossible to beat.