in Paris with Leica Monochrom – in hands review

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[quote]in hands Leica Monochrome review[/quote]
I was lucky enough to get in hands preproduction Leica Monochrom week ago for three days shooting in Paris. Since I’m not buying any kind of reviews and tests done on portals and unreal shoot of bookends showing that tester has no experience with focusing on rangefinders – it was the best that I could bring for myself 🙂

It’s obviously strange for so many people that Leica has decided to produce noncolor camera – specially in these days when market is dominated by megapixels, autofocus, automation and over- saturated colors. Before you say that’s stupid to buy camera to shoot only black and white images – consider that there are a few big names in photography that shoot only black and white. Since past 8 months we have seen many bad news about film photography including the worst – Kodak’s bankruptcy. It means that shooting black and white on film becoming more and more complicated, frustrating about the future and expensive. In that moment Leica Monochrome costs about 1450 rolls of Kodak TriX400 (135 medium) by the prices here in Poland. Wholesale price for TriX400 should be better (I mean lower), but probably to buy almost 1500 rolls of Kodak Trix you have to import them from whole Europe to get this amount of film rolls. How many years it will be possible for us to shoot on film? If you shoot intensive 10 rolls of film a week (what gets you in about 360 images per week) with 52 weeks per year it gives about 520 rolls a year. So simply math – three years of shooting with this amount of frames on film brings you into value of Leica Monochrom (without any costs that IS ABOVE the cost of buying roll of film, no shipping, developing cost, digitalizing costs, time costs). Well, three years of intense shooting. 10 rolls per week – it’s just two short documentary assigment. Or one wedding. I counted my personal projects from last two years – it’s about 100 rolls mixed medium (120 & 135) per year. It’s more complicated from the moment I have bought Leica M9 – but I’m seriously back to film with two M6’s to finish personal shots. But, considering work on film in amount of 10 rolls per week… you have to be rich to handle that cost or your Clients have to keep that in their budget without headache.

[quote]even the film is not dead[/quote]
Donot get me wrong, I will be film shooter even buying digital cameras, even the safest and independent solution for me is to move personal works into ambrotypes/wet plate collodion plates (as I can make the ‘film’ chemistry). But for travel, family pictures even commercial shooting – when it’s possible I will bring at least one film camera to shoot even one roll on film. This is my part of ‘film is not dead’ idea, but I’m not a radical one for cameras – when film is possible – I will love to shoot on film, when amount of coverage and timing is not possible for film – digital is the only solution. So thinking loud about the price, what can happen in the future with film, whole cost of working on film – it’s not so irrational to rethink Leica Monochrom for black and white work. The only ‘but’ is about who will pay. Who will pay for the camera (if you, that’s your pocket) – we or the work for the Clients. If we are confortable enough to have Clients loving true black and white photography with no way back to the color oryginal file – that’s it. Bingo.

Obviously closing production for film companies is not the reason for producing Monochrome by Leica, specially you can still buy Leica M7 and Leica MP for shooting on film, but – keep in mind – this is not so irrational to have dedicated camera for black and white photography – why – more on that below.

[quote]do we really need to buy new camera to shoot black and white?[/quote]
Yes and no. You can create black and white images from color shots. That’s pretty much simple and fast with Nik Silverefx Pro or Exposure or other software. Honestly most of my shooting on Leica M9 includes shooting digital raw (dng) and in-camera black and white. Because I want to see first black and white content to judge about the picture. Color distracts me during fast reviewing. Even during importing documentary coverage I include for start desaturation to -100 in Lightroom. Yes, most of my picture for commercial stuff, even for wedding photojournalism are color ones but – for judging about the picture – I dig into content and I donot need color for that. Answering yourself honestly – no, to shoot just black and white images you donot need to buy new camera. But – if you hunt for quality and demand it from your images, maybe it’s good idea to testdrive Leica Monochrom. So for me the idea of using Monochrom is to focus on media and content within the picture. Same state as working on black and white film. The only ‘but’ comes when you want to switch to color.

[quote]what’s new[/quote]
To simplify – in Leica Monochrom there is no array (Bayer Pattern) filter over the camera’s sensor. So we get true luminance conversion of the color world into two dimensional camera’s sensor into final pixels. In aspect of every pixel on the sensor: it records the luminance of the image delivered by lens.

What it brings? Sharpness, also less noise and possibility to increase ISO for the same kind of Kodak’s sensor that Leica M9 has.

Base – native sensor ISO is one step higher then on Leica M9 – at ISO 320. The highest ISO comparing to Leica M9 is not just 2500 (what was one on the main arguments against when comparing Leica M9 to modern DSLRs) but 10000. It means you can shoot more like DSLR with shorter time rather then typical for rangefinders slowing down the exposure time. In opposite – you can stay with longer, more typical for rangefinders exposure’s time and explore more darker situations.

The histogram information changed a little bit. First of all – we can define the clipping levels, more there – the histogram uses almost whole width of the LCD screen so it’s more precise.

After importing (to Adobe Lightroom 4) there is no WhiteBalance/Tint sliders to work with – that’s why I say: welcome back color filters, pure black and white photography is back 🙂

[quote]about the sensor[/quote]
After 20 months with day-by-day shooting with Leica M9 I can say it fast: Leica Monochrom is more sensitive to light, so burning highlights comes faster, you can recover less when overexposing.
If you keep your exposure in advised expose for lights, postprocess for shadows (to bring them up) you will get the best what the sensor can deliver: deep and huge amount of detail and sharpness even in the darkest parts of the image. Of course, Leica Monochrom is not a torch, but comparing to typical fullframe DSLR like Canon 5dmk2 – it delivers details that Canon has flat and black.

Actually it’s the first digital camera I seriously think to dig up old color filters to block highlights as ND4-8 filters I use for Leica M9 were not enough. Orange filter did a job pretty well and in very bright sun conditions I was able to get exposure almost in camera for both shadows and highlights. Without filter – it’s just matter of underexposing until the highlights. It’s just thinking about exposure, keep in mind it’s more sensitive to light then Leica M9 and highlights are not much to recover on digital Leica.

[quote]tonality[/quote]
Tonal response is impressive – but when you have in mind that’s medium format sensor cut down to 24x36mm it’s easier to understand. I included in slideshow whole frames and a few 100% pixel view to show you all tonal quality and some really stunning wide range of image dynamic.

[quote]quality build[/quote]
It’s just Leica. Simple, 600g heavy metal build that hasn’t changed much from 1954. Have you got any M camera in hands? You won’t be surprised by Leica Monochrom. Solid build. When you are desperate you can use it to hammer nails on the wall to hang a frame with your image 🙂 But seriously – it’s simply the same quality as Leica M9/P or other film Leica you can get on the market. Apart the camera – nice thing was the strap – more comfortable then the one I got with my Leica M9.

[quote]what I like[/quote]
Really fine grain that looks fabulous on the print. Smooth gradient even withing darkest conditions. Fine rendering of lights gradient when we exposed them correctly. I would not compare Leica Monochrom to any negative black and white film I know because it’s just so much different. When Leica Store Warszawa did Open Day with Leica Monochrom we printed one TriX400 pushed to 800 frame and hanged next to Leica Monochrom prints. It’s different. Just different. Leica Monochrom is not film camera but gives the feeling of film tonality because of very wide tonal response. Grain at ISO6400 is very fine, smooth and not digital one we know from DSLRs.
Most of all – it’s Leica. Simple, honest, not forgiving. Painful mirror of what I could fail or win in one moment.

[quote]where Leica Monochrom fits[/quote]
It’s honestly cruel: news photography, commercial that HAVE TO include color is not target for Leica Monochrom. Weddings? Well, I did twice whole black and white wedding coverage, one on film, one digital. The first one was by Bride and Groom choice and I had 2nd shooter to make digital color images (also I had camera for some color shots), 2nd time – done digital for black and white album from color pictures. Honestly… apart documentary photography, streetphotography, artistic and personal projects – it’s really hard to judge where Leica Monochrom fits. It’s probably too expensive for one time buy/cost to have it for street photography which is almost notprofit shooting (except you are good and lucky enough to bring money from print sales). For assignment to shoot in black and white documentary only – probably yes. The question about the Client that pay for that – whoever he is – your pocket or Client’s pocket.

[quote]Any changes to consider? [/quote]
Well, as for Leica M9 my three wishes are: knob for under/over exposure for light meter, ISO dial and PC sync socket. Maybe forth: anything for the thumb to keep the camera body with and not block the flash socket with Thumbup.

Apart from any logical and realistic thinking above I really consider to have Leica Monochrom as 2nd/3rd Leica camera with me. To shoot on the when the color/light ends. Because for me definition of color is simple: color depends on the quality of light. Poor light = poor color, so probably to drop into black and white conversion. Since Leica Monochrom is the first camera I had in hands with this kind of incredible amount of detail in the shadows – it’s really to consider to have it for situations like ‘end of avaiblable light for color work’. The only question is am I rich enough to have it just for this purpose 🙂

[quote]Why another camera? [/quote]
Shooting actually the film – until it’s possible – I have always two cameras with me. One for black and white medium, and one for color film. Irrational? Too expensive? You just need to follow your needs. For medium format and Hasselblad I had even three film holders – one for transparency films like Velvia/Provia/Ektachrome and two for negative – most of the time – Kodak Portra and Ilford Delva/HP/Panf. Multiple cameras/film holders, different exposures, lenses, thinking. Yes, both you and me can shoot on one camera with 35mm lens of it. But since we can choose and decide…

[quote]cons [/quote]
At that moment – writting speed on card and freezing in some situations. I worked it out by switching off (no results) and removing for a few seconds the battery (worked, but – honestly, this is not something I want during work). The answer / excuse for now is firmware 0.017 that was present in Leica Monochrom I used during testdrive. I tested Leica Monochrom with 20/30/45/90MB/s Sandisk SD cards and get similiar results – three shots in the row filled completely buffer when I have choosen writting DNG + JPEG. During work I had no time to find is it random or frequent rule. Also I know that with buying Leica Monochrom I have to keep in pocket a few filters (to limit light in some situations. Just like in old times shooting on the film.

[quote]Notes about slideshow[/quote]
I have made some notes on the images – for easier follow. Leica Monochrom I got was preproduction camera with 0.017 firmware version. It was slower then Leica M9 with writting down the images so I dropped saving both DNG and JPEG files by switching it to DNG only. It was really fine working on my Leica M9 batteries providing about 400 images on one battery (since I was shooting DNG without compression it was like filling one card and having about 20% of the battery so save to switch off and change battery to new one. The funniest thing – I had with me Voigtlander 21/4. The cheapest 21mm lens for Leica M system on the market. Small, tiny pancake lens. You can get it for about 500EU or less. I use it with film as for Leica M9 it suffers for red corner effect. On Leica Monochrom it looked the best ever I seen. Also Monochrom show to well it flaws with falling sharpness towards the corners, however – I like the results from that combo.

Lenslist used with Leica Monochrom:
1. Leica 28 Summicron
2. Leica 50 Summicron (III – 2295763)* (not showed yet in slideshow)
3. Leica 35 Summilux preAsph* (not showed yet in slideshow)
4. Voigtlander 21/4Pancake

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