The Leica M Monochrom Hands On Review

The King Of The Tones?

Opening of the Leica Studio-S, 27 Bruton Place, Mayfair. Portraits of photographer Edmond Terakopian trying out the new Leica M Monocrom and APO-Summicron-M 50mm f/2 ASPH. May 16, 2012. Photo: By Brett / http://www.bybrett.com

I have to admit that when I first read rumours of a black and white Leica M, I thought it would never happen. When I saw the announcements, I was a tad surprised, until I saw the images. Such tonal range and amazing detail at very high ISOs all of a sudden made so much sense.

Test shots with the Leica M Monochrom and APO-Summicron-M 50mm f/2 ASPH. Camera was set to jpeg. 640 ISO. ***All shots on a pre-production Leica M Monochrom***. May 16, 2012. Photo: Edmond Terakopian

Test shots with the Leica M Monochrom and APO-Summicron-M 50mm f/2 ASPH. Camera was set to jpeg. 640 ISO. ***All shots on a pre-production Leica M Monochrom***. May 16, 2012. Photo: Edmond Terakopian

I was fortunate enough to be able to try out a pre-production Leica M Monochrom today, along with the astonishingly great Leica APO-Summicron-M 50mm f/2 ASPH. In my enthusiasm to shoot with the camera I unfortunately didn’t check to see if the camera was set to RAW, so all these test images are from jpegs which I have processed a little in Aperture. Naturally RAWs produce the best files, so take these jpegs, which have been saved again as jpegs and thus degraded the image quality (especially at higher ISOs) as a guide. Even so, they are amazingly good!

Test shots with the Leica M Monochrom and APO-Summicron-M 50mm f/2 ASPH. Camera was set to jpeg. 8000 ISO. ***All shots on a pre-production Leica M Monochrom***. May 16, 2012. Photo: Edmond Terakopian

Test shots with the Leica M Monochrom and APO-Summicron-M 50mm f/2 ASPH. Camera was set to jpeg. 8000 ISO. ***All shots on a pre-production Leica M Monochrom***. May 16, 2012. Photo: Edmond Terakopian

Test shots with the Leica M Monochrom and APO-Summicron-M 50mm f/2 ASPH. Camera was set to jpeg. 10,000 ISO. ***All shots on a pre-production Leica M Monochrom***. May 16, 2012. Photo: Edmond Terakopian

Test shots with the Leica M Monochrom and APO-Summicron-M 50mm f/2 ASPH. Camera was set to jpeg. 10,000 ISO. ***All shots on a pre-production Leica M Monochrom***. May 16, 2012. Photo: Edmond Terakopian

One of the great aspects of the launch event for the press at Leica Mayfair’s S-Studio was being able to discuss the camera with friends and colleagues.

Photographer Ian Berry from Magnum Photos tries out the new Leica M Monochrome. May 16, 2012. Photo: Edmond Terakopian (Image shot on an M9-P and processed in Silver Efex Pro 2)

Photographer Ian Berry from Magnum Photos tries out the new Leica M Monochrome. May 16, 2012. Photo: Edmond Terakopian (Image shot on an M9-P and processed in Silver Efex Pro 2)

I must admit to being blown away and yearn to be able to work in black and white like the good old days!

The huge thing with this camera is not needing the bayer filter in front of the sensor. This makes the sensor much better at picking up ultra fine detail and a wider tonal range, not to mention it’s ability to produce really gorgeous files at 8000 ISO. Just playing with these jpegs it’s clear to me that Leica have in fact pulled off a master stroke of absolute genius. I can’t wait to get my hands on this camera again, shoot in DNG and process them properly through Aperture. It is going to be lush!

For a full set of images taken with the M Monochrom, visit my Flickr stream.

24 responses to “The Leica M Monochrom Hands On Review

  1. Hi Edmond1 It must have been a great day at Mayfair. Pretty good stuff you are showing here too. A pity you did not get raw files. They should be better than JPG, but I have been playing around with a few tonight and I find it will take some time to work out the best way to handle them. Many controls react quite differently from M9 processing in CS I find.Thanks for posting!

    • It was indeed fantastic, thanks🙂
      I fully agree; processing these files is completely different to the M9 and will take time and effort to be able to get the most from the files. Having such beautiful images coming out the camera is a great start!!

  2. Edmond, very nice images in B&W but, once again who really needs a very expensive B&W camera so few people. Its really hard to understand why Leica a small camera company compared to Nikon and the other big guy would think of selling such a limited, expensive camera?????? Stan

    • Thanks Stan. The point is, these aren’t images in B/W, but B/W images; there is a difference and a different approach to composition and exposure for a photographer who is a B/W shooter. Compared to colour cameras, B/W cameras such as the M Monochrom or Phase One’s B/W back are a niche product. Those who need it will get it. For those who don’t, there are colour cameras around🙂

    • Stan, colour is not as necessary, do you think Ansel Adams would have been better in colour. It really comes to the quality of glass used in your image capture. It’s only those who find the reduction in quality of the image due to the Bayer filter, and really long for a ‘simpler’ image creation process who will want an ‘Henri’, I spent a while making B&W. And long for a time just to have the ‘restriction’ of only shooting in it. For me, it ill be a return to shapes, tones, eye catching images? Does this make sense? As you say there are many others marques that all produce images, but they don’t quite have the glass. That’s what I want. Can’y wait for an Henri!

  3. The M Monochrom makes so much sense if you love black and white (as I do) and have the money (which I don’t). The quality at 10,000 iso in your photo is incredible!

  4. The quality is superb, and will take us into different level in B&W photography…

  5. I quite understand why Leica would release a mono camera, it fits perfectly with their ethos. I’m sure there will be some great images made on it in the months ahead. Personally, I’ll be sticking with the M9. I don’t think a few stops of light sensitivity and some extra resolution is worth losing the creative freedom which colour channels offer in black and white conversions. But it’s great to see a manufacturer release something so unique!

    • I agree and applaud Leica for releasing this camera. For the B/W photographer, this is the perfect tool, by far. Naturally, if one shoots colour primarily, then it’s more of a luxury!

  6. I like to use Nik Silver Effects with my M9 files because I like the way grain holds a picture together, and I like the feeling of film. But, in doing this Nik does destroy the quality and smoothness typical of digital files. My question is: will this destruction of a MM file be great enough to render it little better than a M9 file? I know extra quality will be relative to both camera (even after Nik) but will the quality difference be noticeable?

    I also don’t care for the high ASAs of the MM because I like to shoot with wide apertures. In fact I will hate not having an 80ASA and also hate using ND filters. Why have Leica abandoned lower ASAs and don’t they realise that not everyone wants to shoot under candle light.

    My fear is that Leica are endlessly chasing the holy grail of startling sharpness with the MM and new ASPH lenses. The ‘Leica look’ is vanishing and their pictures are becoming synthetically Disney-Land. I for one combat this by using old lenses, which tend to produce the warmth and fulsom feel of the Leica masters.

    • Some interesting questions…

      I too produce a fair amount of B/W work using Silver Efex Pro 2 with my M9s. I’ve been extremely happy with the results as have countless others who see the work.
      However, the M Monochrom just does this much, much better. The tonal range and fine rendering just gives you a much better file. Whatever one decides to do to the file during processing, produces better results (naturally we are only talking B/W!) as the original file is so much richer tonally.

      The difference between both cameras is noticeable if one’s used to them or if a viewer was to look at images side by side. It’s a specific B/W tool and as such performs brilliantly.

      As fas as the low ISOs, generally the Leica M range has always been known as the low light camera. As a result, the M8 was under criticism for not producing good results above 640 ISO. I would personally more welcome the higher ISO settings than lower ones, but at least a quality ND filter allows to shoot with a wide aperture in bright light. There would be no fix the other way around.

      Lastly, the Leica look is also about technique – one has to know what one’s doing – just using an old, softer, glowing lens without the correct lighting will just make soft pictures. As you correctly pointed out though, for those who know what they are doing, these lenses exist and work on the new cameras, so it’s great to have the choice. As you know, apart from a small number, most lenses from the 1950s will work with the new digital cameras.

      The majority of photographers though, I feel, are after sharp and well rendering lenses (which still have the amazing tonal range and contrast abilities, married to rendering pin point light sources correctly and creamy out of focus rendering). As a photographer I think it’s great to have this choice and to craft images as we see fit.

      My current outfit, apart from two lenses, is made up of current lens lineup and I’m absolutely delighted with the image quality I’m producing; not technically (which is spot on), but aesthetically – the images have a feel to them. For me, that’s just perfect🙂

      • If Leica wants to stay in business they must produce camera’s and lens that are bought by the public at large not some specialty camera like the B+W only M 9. Also they should bring to market an auto Luca and auto lens.

      • Leica are not a mass product manufacturer; we already have Canon, Nikon, Olympus and so on to choose from. It’s like saying Bentley or Ferrari should be like Ford or Skoda. It’s quite simple; the best quality, costs money. As a working photographer, in a market where fees are getting cut and work getting scarce, I would certainly like to be able to get all the Leica lenses and cameras I need for cheaper – I’d love the M Monochrom and the astonishingly great 50mm APO Summicron. I would even put the S2 to great use. However, I do appreciate that these items use the best raw materials; no compromise in fact. The 50mm was designed purely to be the best – no corners cut. As a result, they perform better and last longer than anything else on the market. It’s a testament to this quality that we still see lenses made in the 1950s being used daily! Hence the price. As I mentioned before, there are colour cameras out there from every manufacturer and also automated models – it’s buyers choice; we make the decision to buy what suits our needs.

  7. John Nicholson

    John N.
    And I’d like an X2 M – might even be able to afford it !!! (Hint, hint…)

  8. Hi Edmond,

    Thanks for the early review, those images look great at high ISO, although I thought that the normal m9 images did all the way to 2500 when processed in Aperture.

    Good work on the test scene shot too, nice composition.

    I have a question though…

    Did Brett tell you to hold the camera the other way up in portrait mode?😉

    • My pleasure🙂
      The M9 looks great at up to 1250ISO in my opinion and is very usable at 1600. 2500 is ok but one has to make sure to nail the exposure – any underexposure and the image starts to break apart. The M Monochrom definitely has the M9 beat in the ISO stakes – clear at 8000ISO!!

      Brett did question my hold but didn’t get me to change my stance! After all, I have been using these cameras since 1989 and habits that old are hard to break!

  9. Yikes (and ouch. and ….)! Per DPReview, that new lens is over $7,000! For a 50mm 50/f2! Leica has left Ferrari behind for Bugatti with that one🙂

    Love those pics though. The 8000iso crop is impressive, despite being “just” a jpeg from a pre production camera targeted at the most rabid raw-addicts in 35mm photography.

    In many ways, I feel this camera makes more economic sense than the regular M9, if the results obtained truly are an obvious step above monochrome processed files off of a regular M9. Output from the latter is, at least as best I can determine, very hard to differentiate from Nikanon competitors. But, if this one is a good bit better than the regular M9; and since the regular M9 is no worse than the big dogs (at least at conservative sensitivities), this one should logically be appreciably better than those as well. Perhaps a bit like scans off of Agfa Scala were often noticeably better than digitally monochrome processed E6 scans back in the chemicals age, for those with the guts and conviction to commit to monochrome up front.

    Indeed, fond memories of Scala 6x7s on a light table was my immediate reaction to seeing your images🙂 Even the compositions seems to harken back to that bygone era. When, like, Ferraris were considered expensive, and Bugattis were nowhere to be found and stuff……..

    • Some very interesting points and a huge thanks for the kind words on the images and composition. I fully agree that the Monochrom M brings with it a true black and white; the tonal range and subtlety is that of ‘real’ black and white photography and it really is a work of genius!
      I disagree with the point on the M9 being similar to Canons or Nikons though; the huge difference is that although there is some excellent glass for those camps, the top lenses on the Leica M are exceptional, leading to images which have a different look and feel. This naturally results in better tonality in black and white conversions too – the M Monochrom though being ahead in this quality.

  10. What a fantastic camera to get to play with – one day, I tell you! I am finding with my M-E, I am converting a large proportion to B&W – though I know they are not as brilliant as the come out of the Mono.

    • Indeed!! B/W from the M9 or ME is superb; I process my images through Aperture and then Silver Efex Pro 2 and get really special results that many have kindly commented on; it’s just not on par with the M Monochrom though! It’s not that we can’t get great results from the Leica M9, but that the Monochrom is just that special.

  11. Pingback: Leica M Monochrome, X2, 50mm Apo Summicron samples, reviews, etc. | Leica News & Rumors

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