I’ve never been a huge fan of converting digital images to black-and-white. My photo background is strongly tied to black-and-white film, and the black-and-white look is something I’ll always associate with film. In my opinion, digital images converted to black-and-white look… processed. Despite this, my curiosity was piqued by the Leica M Monochrom (Typ 246) Digital Rangefinder Camera. A digital camera that shoots in black-and-white? This is something I had to try and, after shooting with it for two weeks, color me impressed.
Using Color Filters for B&W Photography
What really stood out about this camera was how its sensor reacted to color filters in the same way that black-and-white film does. In short, using color filters with black-and-white film allows you to better control the contrast and tonal rendition of your image by darkening certain colors and lightening others. For example, a yellow filter will darken blues, but reproduce green, yellow, orange, and red in lighter shades. Take a look at the photos below, which were taken with no filter, a yellow filter, an orange filter, a red filter, and an infrared filter. You’ll notice that, as the color of the filter darkens, the effect becomes more intense, with increased contrast and greater tonal separation. While the infrared look would be more pronounced if the trees had leaves, it was still rendered quite nicely. For reference, the mill is red, which was why it keeps getting lighter as the filter gets darker.
When I shoot black-and-white film, I generally use a yellow filter. The above photos illustrate that yellow does a good job of giving the scene a nice “pop.” It darkens the sky and lightens the mill, while keeping the contrast in check. While the orange filter is also nice, the contrast on the mill increases, and with the red filter, it’s too extreme. It is also worth mentioning that fine metering adjustments aside, the Monochrom could properly meter shots with the filters attached, including the infrared one.
While these effects can generally be applied in the digital darkroom, I prefer to do things optically. Take another look at the shots from above, but this time, they’re side-by-side with images taken on a Sony Alpha a7R III and converted using Silver Efex Pro 2. Both cameras used a Leica Summicron-M 28mm f/2 ASPH lens. Which do you prefer?
Another benefit of this camera is low image noise, even at higher ISO values. The Monochrom has a base ISO of 320 and exhibits fine noise through 3200. Noise is noticeable at 6400, but images are still usable, and any image noise that is present is more representative of film grain than digital noise. If you increase the ISO to 12,500 or 25,000 you’ll find image noise, which is expected. Look at some shots below to see the ISO performance of the Monochrom.
Rear 3.0" LCD Screen
I really liked the rear 3.0" LCD screen, with its 920k-dot resolution. It will help you focus more easily than with the optical rangefinder, especially since it also offers 5x or 10x zoom and focus peaking. If you’d like to try the rangefinder, it’s very user-friendly, so don’t let a lack of experience deter you. The 0.68x optical rangefinder is very bright and offers LED-illuminated frame lines for 28mm to 135mm lenses. Once your lens is mounted, the appropriate frame lines are automatically activated. Or, use the front-mounted frame selector to visualize shots at different focal lengths.
One criticism of the Monochrom is that it can clip highlights more easily. The Monochrom’s 24MP full-frame CMOS sensor lacks a Bayer color filter, which is what allows it solely to capture luminance values and shoot in black-and-white. However, this also means that you only have one channel of information, as compared to three channels that RGB sensors have. If luminance values pass 255, you don’t have the additional channels of an RGB sensor to fall back on and recover highlight detail.
In general, I didn’t notice much highlight clipping and, like with most raw files, I could recover highlight detail. However, one area where I did run into some issues when was when using color filters, since darker filters created more extreme effects with greater contrast. Shots taken with no filtration and yellow filters were generally OK, but once I got to orange and beyond, there wasn’t much highlight detail left to recover. In the future, I’d try underexposing to preserve the highlights, especially in high-contrast scenes, and then recover the shadows in post. When it came to recovering shadow detail, the Monochrom performed quite well.
If you look back at some of Monochrom and a7R III comparison shots above, you’ll notice that photos taken with the a7R III have more dynamic range than the Monochrom, especially in the highlights.
I approached using the Leica M Monochrom (Typ 246) with equal amounts of excitement and reservation. Looking through available sample images, some looked stunning, while others had that “processed” look. I wanted to love this camera, because I love black-and-white, but would it deliver? Perhaps its greatest strengths and greatest weaknesses are in its being a digital black-and-white camera from Leica. There’s nothing else like this available, but it’s also a niche item, with limited uses. Like everything Leica, it’s pricey, and lenses are an additional investment. The Monochrom may not be practical as an everyday camera, but in the end, time with it was time well spent. It will bring you as close to black-and-white as you can get without shooting film.
Have you used the Monochrom? Are you a fan of Leica film and digital bodies, as well as their lenses? Feel free to share your comments below.
The “Things We Love” series articles are written by B&H Photo Video Pro Audio staff to talk about products and items that we love. Opinions expressed in the articles are those of the writers and do not represent product endorsements from B&H Photo Video Pro Audio.