Leica M Monochrom review

The Leica M Monochrom is a niche version of a niche camera, but well-heeled photographers who see in black and white are sure to fall in love.
Photo of Leica M Monochrom

Leica’s decision to bring the M Monochrom ($7,950 list, body only) to market last year was a bold one. Many expected the company to announce the M10, and the Monochrom was announced instead. It’s essentially an M9-P in a flat black finish with an 18-megapixel image sensor—but one without the Bayer filter necessary for color image capture. Digital black-and-white photography is not a new concept—the Phase One IQ260 Achromatic digital back for medium format cameras takes a similar approach to image capture, but it’s priced around $45,000. The M Monochrom is the first camera with a 35mm heritage to feature a black-and-white digital sensor. Its appeal is limited to rangefinder aficionados who wouldn’t dream of shooting in color, but if you’re part of that group, you’ll find the images that this camera is capable of capturing stunning. If you’d like the option to shoot in color, but want to stick with a rangefinder, consider the Leica M-E ($5,450), which is essentially a rebadged M9, or the newest Leica M ($6,950) which features an updated CMOS sensor with Live View and video support.

Design and Features
Leica isn’t a company to shake things up from a design perspective. There aren’t many differences between the M3, a film camera introduced in the 1950s, and the Monochrom. Both feature a big, bright optical viewfinder with a square rangefinder patch, and a top-mounted shutter speed dial and shutter release. Obviously the Monochrom adds some digital controls and an LCD to the rear of the camera, but those have remained largely unchanged since the 2006 release of the first digital M, the Leica M8.

The M Monochrom measures 3.2 by 5.5 by 1.5 inches (HWD) and weighs 1.4 pounds. It’s identical in size and shape to the M9-P, although the Monochrom has a flat black paint finish that eschews adornments and logos. It’s larger than some more affordable compact interchangeable lens cameras, like the Sony Alpha NEX-7. That digital camera has a smaller APS-C image sensor, measures 2.76 by 4.75 by 1.7 inches, and weighs 10.3 ounces. The Monochrom is heavy for its size, as its top and bottom plates are made of brass and its body has a magnesium-alloy design. Over time the black paint will start to wear, revealing the brass underneath. This is a desirable look to many, as it is prettier than the rather dirty look that black chrome takes on as it wears.

On the rear of the camera you’ll find the LCD, a control wheel, and a few buttons. The LCD is protected by a scratch-proof sapphire glass cover, but its resolution is poor. The 2.5-inch size is small by today’s standards, but the real issue is the low 230k-dot resolution. The LCD design hasn’t been improved since 2006, and it shows. It’s fine for navigating through menus and checking to make sure that your shot is framed correctly, but you shouldn’t rely on it to confirm critical focus, especially when shooting at faster apertures.

Controls are scant. You have direct access to change the ISO, and turning the rear wheel adjusts Exposure Compensation. The other buttons—Menu, Play, Delete, Info, and Set—don’t adjust shooting controls. With a camera like this, there isn’t a need for other controls. Every lens has an aperture control ring, and there’s only one center-weighted in-camera metering pattern available. This is in stark contrast to our Editors’ Choice for compact interchangeable lens cameras, the Olympus OM-D E-M5, which has more buttons than you can shake a stick at.

The fixed optical viewfinder is a 0.68x magnification design, a bit wider in scope than the classic 0.72x that was introduced in the Leica M2. When you look through the finder you aren’t looking through the lens. Instead, you see a fixed view where everything is in focus. There’s a bright square in the center, the rangefinder patch, which displays a double image. To focus, you line up the double image so that it appears as one. To frame your photo, you need to pay attention to the bright lines that appear around the patch in the finder.

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There are three pairs of bright lines that change depending on which lens is attached—28mm and 90mm, 35mm and 135mm, and 50mm and 75mm. If you want to use a lens that is wider than 28mm, you’ll need to invest in an external shoe-mount viewfinder; eyeglass wearers who shoot 28mm may also consider adding one for that focal length, as it can be difficult to see the entire frame when your eye is further back from the eyepiece. One of the many reasons for the high cost of a Leica is care which is required to properly calibrate this system. The M Monochrom is assembled by hand in Germany, and the cost of the skilled labor to properly put one of these cameras together is passed on to the buyer.

You can get some color out of the camera—the menu lets you add a sepia, selenium, or cool tone to JPG images. You can customize the strength of the toning, and also adjust the amount of contrast and sharpening that JPG files receive. Of course, the Monochrom also shoots Raw images in the standard Adobe DNG file format. During my testing I shot Raw and JPG side by side, but found that I preferred the extra freedom that working with a Raw image file provides.

Leica includes two software packages for processing with the Monochrom—Adobe Photoshop Lightroom and Nik Silver Efex Pro. Bundling Lightroom is a no-brainer, it’s a very popular Raw converter and photo management program, but Silver Efex Pro made me scratch my head. I use the software whenever I’m converting a digital color image to black and white, but was dubious as to what benefits it could provide to the Monochrom files apart from emulating the grain patterns of many popular film stocks. In practice I found it to do a better job at recovering highlights than Lightroom’s sliders, and loved the ability to add grain that matches my favorite black-and-white stock, Ilford HP5 Plus, to the digital files. Lightroom also lets you add and customize grain, and if I didn’t like round-tripping a photo to Silver Efex Pro and then back to Lightroom as a TIF, I used it a few times; but the results weren’t quite the same as they were in Silver Efex.

If you are going to err on exposure, it’s better to underexpose a Monochrom photo than it is to overexpose it. If a highlight is clipped—that is, if the sensor records the data as pure white—it’s gone. But if you are photographing a shadowy area, there’s a lot of detail that you can pull out of the image. I have years of experience shooting with the M8, and after a couple weeks with the Monochrom I was very pleased with the amount of shadow recovery that was possible in comparison.

The care to not overexpose is complicated by the Monochrom’s high base ISO setting. The sensor starts at ISO 320—you can use ISO 160 in extended mode, but you’ll lose some dynamic range in your photos. Even with a top shutter speed of 1/4,000-second, you won’t be able to shoot at f/1.4 on a very bright day. Leica shooters know how to get around this—film M cameras topped out at 1/1,000-second shutter speed. Adding a neutral density filter, a darkened piece of glass that limits the amount of light that enters the camera, will let you open it up wider to blur backgrounds on bright days. I used a 3-stop filter on a 50mm Summilux on a few occasions, and probably would have been happier with a stronger one.

You may also want to consider dusting off the yellow, red, or orange filters you may have used when shooting black-and-white film. If you’re converting color photos to monochrome you can simulate the effects of these filters in software. Yellow, orange, and red filters can darken a blue sky and make the clouds pop in a photo, and a deep green filter lightens the color of foliage and can be used to add contrast to the orange hue of western landscapes. But in order to block a portion of the visible spectrum with a monochrome image sensor, you’ll need to go back to using glass filters.

Performance and Conclusions
The Monochrom’s performance speed scores look a lot like those of the M9-P, which is not surprising as they share the same image sensor and processor—the M9-P simply adds a Bayer color filter in order to capture photos in full color. That said, it’s not a camera for rapid fire sports shooting. It starts and fires a shot in about 0.9-second, records a short 0.1-second shutter lag, and requires you to wait 0.6-second between photos in continuous drive mode. Writing files to a memory card, even a fast one like the SanDisk 95MBps memory that we use to test digital camera performance, takes a long time. The buffer limits you to 7 Raw or 8 JPG shots  in a row, and requires a 28-second wait for all Raw files to be written to the card. This is cut to 20 seconds for JPG shooting, and you can take another photo after the first of the burst is written to the card. If you want a camera that can rattle off shots in rapid succession, you’re barking up the wrong tree. Consider a full-frame D-SLR with fast autofocus for that type of shooting—the Nikon D4 or the Canon EOS-1D X will do the trick.

I used Imatest to check the sharpness of photos shot with the M Monochrom and the Leica Summilux-M 50mm f/1.4 ASPH. lens. Even at f/1.4 the lens managed 2,170 lines per picture height, with impressive edge performance. We use 1,800 lines, measured using a center-weighted average across the frame, to mark a sharp photo. Stopping the lens down increased performance: 2,301 lines at f/2, 2,786 lines at f/2.8, 3,238 lines at f/4, 3,548 lines at f/5.6, and 3,680 lines at f/8. Considering that the Summilux-M is a $4,000 lens, anything below this level of performance would be a disappointment. We unfortunately didn’t have the Summilux on hand when we tested the M9-P’s performance, but it topped out at 2,496 lines per picture height when paired with a Summarit-M 50mm f/2.5 lens.

Imatest also tests photos for noise. To test a color camera we snap two exposures of a test chart at each ISO, test them, and average the results. Imatest analyzes the amount of red, blue, green, and luminance noise for each shot—so we are averaging eight data points for each ISO. The only noise the Monochrom produces is luminance noise, which is more akin to film grain than color noise. The camera keeps this below the 1.5 percent threshold through ISO 800, and it increases steadily as you up the ISO towards 10000. Image detail is excellent through the top ISO, even when shooting in JPG, which tells me that Leica skipped digital noise reduction in order to preserve as much detail as possible when designing the camera. The M9-P, which is often maligned for its high-ISO performance, fared better in lab tests, keeping its average noise below 1.5 percent through its top ISO of 2500—but comparing color to black and white is not an apples to apples comparison in terms of image noise. Even at ISO 10000 the noise is extremely fine, you’ll be amazed how much cleaner photos shot at the top ISO setting look when compared to ISO 3200 films like Ilford Delta 3200 and the sadly discontinued Kodak TMax P3200.

As with other big-sensor CCD cameras, there’s no video support or Live View. If you want those amenities in a Leica, your only option is the new CMOS-powered M—it shoots in color and sells for $1,000 less than the Monochrom. There is a mini USB port; the memory card slot is hidden beneath the camera’s baseplate—you’ll have to remove it in order to access your SD, SDHC, or SDXC card, as well as the battery.

In designing the M Monochrom, Leica had no aspirations of creating a product that would appeal to the average consumer. It’s priced out of the reach of all but the most dedicated, well-funded photographers, and only those who work primarily in black and white. It takes dedication to cut color out of a workflow—when the skies get dreary each winter I swear that I’m never touching color film again, but as soon as the plants come to life in Spring I’m reaching for the Ektar and the Portra. If you don’t yearn for the current color stocks, or lament the demise of Kodachrome, the Monochrom may be the camera for you—its black-and-white output is better than any color conversion that I’ve ever performed, and the included software gives you the tools to match the characteristics of many classic film stocks. It isn’t as modern as the latest Leica M, which adds video support and Live View while keeping the classic design, or as inexpensive as the M-E—a camera that is, for all intents and purposes, an M9 with a steel blue finish. If the Monochrom is the camera for you, you probably knew that before reading this review. Likely the only thing from keeping you from purchasing it is price and availability—nearly a year after it was announced, it’s still on backorder at major Leica dealers.

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Specifications
Dimensions 3.2 x 5.5 x 1.5 inches
Weight 1.35 lb
Image Stabilization None
Megapixels 18 MP
Battery Type Supported Lithium Ion
LCD Aspect Ratio 4
LCD dots 230000
LCD size 2.5 inches
Lens Mount Leica M
Interface Ports mini USB
Touch Screen No
Waterproof Depth (Mfr. Rated) 0 feet
Media Format Secure Digital, Secure Digital High Capacity, Secure Digital Extended Capacity
Maximum ISO 10000
GPS No
Type Compact Interchangeable Lens
Sensor Size 23.9 x 35.8 (Full-Frame) mm
Viewfinder Type Optical
Sensor Type CCD

Verdict
The Leica M Monochrom is a niche version of a niche camera, but well-heeled photographers who see in black and white are sure to fall in love.
Published under license from Ziff Davis, Inc., New York, All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc