Review of the Leica M-Monochrom for Street Photography

Leica M Monochrom with Film

Eric’s Note: This review of the pre-production model of the Leica M Monochrom isn’t going to be a technical review, but rather a practical one for street photographers who may be interested in the camera. 

I’ll start off my preview of the Leica M-Monochrom with a story. I was ecstatic when I got in my inbox an invitation from Leica to attend their product launch in Berlin. I heard rumors about a new Leica M10, a black/white only camera, and some other stuff about the X2, etc. I always love being able to go to these events, meet other passionate photographers, as well as the good people at Leica.

Arrivals & Departures © Jacob Aue Sobol / Magnum Photos

I went to the event, and was able to catch up with Charlie Kirk, Andreas from the Leica forum, Thorsten Overgaard, Steve Huff and many others (can’t list all the names here!)

When I went to the event and the camera was announced, I was first a bit let-down because there was an LCD screen in the back. The rumor on Leica Rumors was that it would have no LCD screen, and I was a bit excited for that. However the real world demands an LCD screen – and my childish boyhood dreams were banished.

Arrivals & Departures © Jacob Aue Sobol / Magnum Photos

Regardless, I was intruiged by the camera – and more intruiged by the soulful speech by Jacob Aue Sobol. Long story short, for his entire life he never shot digital. He shot almost all of his work on b/w film on a Contax G2 and T3, and his seminal work being in his book: I, Tokyo. Out of all the photographers in the Magnum agency, he proposed a project idea to travel across the Trans-siberian railway with the Leica M Monochrom – and see what he could do with it. It seemed like a match made in heaven, as he has been a film b/w shooter his entire life – and seeing his insights on the camera was fascinating to me.

He then talked about the struggles and difficulties of his project – that he encountered nobody on the trains but had to venture off into the towns during his journey to take photographs. Regardless in the end of his ~3 month journey, he had amassed over 10,000 photographs (or 30,000 I can’t quite remember) and ended up making a selection of final images less than 20.

Arrivals & Departures © Jacob Aue Sobol / Magnum Photos

But those images he showed touched my soul- in the beauty of the complexity of the rich and ink-jet black and whites, and the connection he was able to build with the people he photographed. He was granted access into intimate moments of couples in love and nude (I have no idea how this guy does it) and captured images which really spoke to me.

Ater his talk, he mentioned the performance of the camera, and how it performed extremely well up to 10,000 ISO. He said the ISO he used most often was 6400, which I suppose is the “sweet spot”.

Arrivals & Departures © Jacob Aue Sobol / Magnum Photos

I have shot black and white more or less exclusively for my street photography the last 5 years or so. The last 3 months I have been shooting exclusively color film on my Leica M6/MP (Portra 400) as the projects I have been working on require color to show more description. I wanted to test out the camera, but was concerned that it may detract myself from shooting color. This is because I noticed that when I shoot in the streets in b/w, I see the world in b/w, while when shooting in color I see the world in a different way.

Regardless, I was quite doubtful that I would be able to get the camera. After all, it is only available in limited quantities, and many people had a difficult time getting one to test out.

After the announcement, we had great food & drinks – and I was able to socialize with a lot of photographers and people from Leica. I bumped into Jesko, the product manager of the M-system, and I introduced myself, and we exchanged cards.

I then taught a workshop in Berlin, traveled to do a workshop in Amsterdam with Thomas Leuthard, then did a 4-day workshop at Fotografiska. I finally got back home, and had the time to send out a few emails to people I had met during my travels, and sent one email saying hello to Jesko.

I was then surprised to hear that Jesko offered for me to test out the camera! I was ecstatic (of course) and coordinated with Leica USA (thanks Shirley) and was able to test out the Leica M Monochrom (pre-production model) for two days:

Overview

So what’s the difference between the Leica M9 and the Leica M Monochrom?

First of all, there is an entirely different sensor. The Leica M Monochrom b/w only sensor is made entirely new, and because it doesn’t have to deal with color – it allows for more light to hit the sensor surface (and increases ISO performance as well as other things).

In terms of the body, menus, and handling, they are very similar (if not the same). Some differences I noted (cosmetically):

  • Leica M Monochrom has black leather grip (Leica M9/M9-P has “vulcanite” or the more gritty one)
  • Leica M Monochrom has no script on top or Leica logo in front (similar to M9-P, but the M9-P has “Leica” cursive writing on top)
  • Leica M Monochrom has a matte black finish (different in texture than the M9 and M9-P)

ISO Performance

The big change between the Leica M Monochrom and the Leica M9/M9-P was the difference in IS0 performance. I would say the Leica M Monochrom is about 2 stops better than the Leica M9. This is a rough comparison (based on my tests):

  • Leica M9 @ ISO 800 = Leica M Monochrom @ ISO 200
  • Leica M9 @ ISO 2500 = Leica M Monochrom @ ISO 6400

Furthermore, the Leica M Monochrom @ ISO 8000 was acceptable in my eyes. Even at ISO 10000, the M Monochrom performed very well – although a bit on the noisy side.

Also check out David Farkas’ High ISO comparison of the Leica M9 vs Leica M Monochrom at the Red Dot Forum.

The files

When you import the Leica M Monochrom shots in RAW, they look very flat. However once you add some post-processing, they look pretty phenomenal.

I shot the Leica M Monochrom in DNG + JPEG (High contrast/high sharpness) and even the JPEG files looked fantastic straight out of camera.

They have excellent dynamic range, tonality, and and excellent at retaining the highlights. However be warned, on the M Monochrom if you blow out the highlights, they are blown. This was explained to me by someone because it had something to do with the fact that the M Monochrom doesn’t have color channels, therefore once you blow highlights, there aren’t any highlights to be recovered.

However there is an incredible amount of details in the shadows. Therefore the practical suggestion that I have is probably underexpose most of your shots by around 2/3rds of a stop – if you really want to be careful not to blow your highlights (if shooting in “A” mode). Also when shooting in manual mode, it isn’t a bad idea to underexpose by around a stop either.

Download some photo samples (DNG files) here >>

Color filters?

(Photo by Rinzi Ruiz)

As the Leica M Monochrom has no color channels you can convert into black and white – it might be a good idea to use a yellow filter when shooting.

Why? Because you can’t tweak color channels in post-processing, you need to add a physical filter in front of the camera to bring out more of certain colors. For examples, the yellow filter is a nice balance to bring out skin tones.

However in my experience, I don’t notice too much of a difference in street photography.

Photos shot with the M Monochrom

Here are some shots I shot with the M Monochrom shot in JPEG (With High-Contrast and High-Sharpening in-camera).

I tried to shoot as many shots in a multitude of lighting situations at high ISO’s to show off the performance of the camera. These were shot in the course of one day, so sorry if the photos aren’t very interesting!

If you would like to play with the files and post-process them, make sure to Download some photo samples (DNG files) here >>

Leica M Monochrom High Contrast Sharpness JPEG

ISO 1600

Closeup @ ISO 1600

Leica M Monochrom High Contrast Sharpness JPEG

ISO 1600

Leica M Monochrom High Contrast Sharpness JPEG

ISO 10,000

Closeup @ ISO 10,000

Leica M Monochrom High Contrast Sharpness JPEG

ISO 1600

Closeup @ ISO 1600

ISO 2500

Closeup @ ISO 2500. Tones in the hair look phenomenal.

Leica M Monochrom High Contrast Sharpness JPEG

ISO 2500

Closeup @ ISO 2500. Barely can see any noise

Leica M Monochrom High Contrast Sharpness JPEG

ISO 2500

Leica M Monochrom High Contrast Sharpness JPEG

ISO 2500

Leica M Monochrom High Contrast Sharpness JPEG

ISO 2500

 

Leica M Monochrom High Contrast Sharpness JPEG

ISO 2500

Leica M Monochrom High Contrast Sharpness JPEG

ISO 2500

Leica M Monochrom High Contrast Sharpness JPEG

ISO 2500. Beautiful tonality range in good light.

Leica M Monochrom High Contrast Sharpness JPEG

ISO 6400

Closeup @ ISO 6400

Closeup @ ISO 6400

Closeup @ ISO 6400

Leica M Monochrom High Contrast Sharpness JPEG

ISO 10,000

Closeup @ ISO 10,000

Leica M Monochrom High Contrast Sharpness JPEG

ISO 6400

Closeup @ ISO 6400. In good lighting, hardly any noise.

Leica M Monochrom High Contrast Sharpness JPEG

ISO 1600

Closeup @ ISO 1600. Shot at night, can’t see any noise.

Leica M Monochrom High Contrast Sharpness JPEG

ISO 6400

Closeup @ ISO 6400. Photo is a bit blurry, but still looks good close-up.

Closeup @ ISO 6400.

Download some photo samples (DNG files) here >>

Is it worth it?

(Photo by Rinzi Ruiz)

Here are my practical suggestions:

If you already own a Leica M9, I would say stick with your camera, set your preview on the back of your camera to DNG + JPEG basic, then set the JPEGS to high contrast, and high sharpening.

Why? If you chimp or sit down in a cafe after a long day of shooting and want to preview your files, you can get a better sense of what they “should” look like in b/w.

A huge benefit of shooting b/w in the M9 is that because you can manually tweak the color channels (and control the brightness in certain channels) in post-processing. In the M Monochrom you would have to physically use a red or yellow filter (yellow seems to be more common).

Furthermore, if you already invested ~$7,000+ on a Leica M9, spending another ~$8,000K+ on a B/W only body seems unsensible to me (unless you have the money – then go for it).

However if you still haven’t plunged on a Leica M9, are interested in doing so, yet only shoot black and white – I would highly recommend getting the M Monochrom. The black and white performance is unparalleled to anything digital I have ever shot with, in terms of dynamic range, tonality, and High ISO performance (compared to M9).

Why? In my personal experience, 90% or more of Leica M9 shooters shoot in black and white anyways (this is what Dr. Andreas Kaufman mentioned at the Berlin event) so might as well try to get the best damn black and white camera you can afford.

But what about color? Well if you are serious about b/w and going to be using this camera for street photography, I wouldn’t be bothered worrying about color. If you are a commercial photographer and need color, you will probably want to use your Canon 5D Mark 3 or a Nikon D800 as your workhorse anyways.

The bottom line

Photo by Rinzi Ruiz

This isn’t a camera built for the “everyday man” – but rather a specialized tool for the serious hobbyist who has the money to spend on the camera.

I have met a handful of photographers from Magnum as well as other photojournalists, and the majority of them shoot with Canon 5D Mark 2′s. The sad reality is that most working photojournalists simply cannot afford the new Leica M Monochrom, as well as the Leica M9′s as well.

Also if you are having Leica M Monochrom envy or really want it- remember, this concept of a “black-and-white only sensor” isn’t new. They used to call it Kodak Tri-X film.

Therefore if you really are obsessive about black and white photography and love Leica’s – I would recommend picking up a film Leica instead. The Leica M6 (and TTL) are the best bang-for-the-buck Leica’s out there, and the Leica MP is also a beauty (a fraction of the price of the M9 and M Monochrom).

Also I honestly doubt that if you are just shooting street photography and uploading black & white images to the web, nobody will be able to tell the difference between what camera you shot it with. You could only tell the difference if you blow up the images 100%, but honestly how often do you do that? So be happy with the camera you already have right now!

But at the end of the day if you have the money, love b/w, want spectacular performance at high ISO’s, the best dynamic range in a digital camera, the Leica M Monochrom is for you.

Also note that this model I tested is still a pre-production model. Leica will probably make some changes moving forward.

Other reviews of the Leica M Monochrom

The review I did is not technical in any way, simply a casual preview of the camera from a street photographer’s perspective. Check out these sites for reviews as well.

Arrivals and Departures by Jacob Aue Sobol

Arrivals & Departures © Jacob Aue Sobol / Magnum Photos

Make sure to check out all of the “Arrivals and Departures” features from the Leica Blog with Jacob Aue Sobol:

Videos from Arrivals & Departures

Below are some videos which show Jacob Aue Sobol in-action, shooting along the Trans-Siberian Railway.

Any other questions about the Leica M Monochrom you have? Leave a comment below- and I will try to answer as many as I can!


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