…M-Monochrom B&W Digital Camera Review by Dale: Digital Photography Re…

Notes: This review covers my use of the Leica M-Monochrom (‘MM’) camera for general-purpose black and white photography, shooting JPEG format images only. The MM camera is made by Leica in-house as are the other ‘M’ camera bodies, unlike some of the compact camera series that are made by Leica’s partner manufacturers. Many ‘M’ camera owners use non-Leica lenses on their cameras, in some cases using adapters to match the lens with the Leica mount. I’ve had experience with two ‘M’ film cameras with Leica 35 and 50 mm lenses, but with the MM camera I’m using only the Leica Noctilux lens. Since this is my first Leica digital interchangeable-lens rangefinder camera, my experience described here is with the Noctilux lens only.

Since the MM camera costs approximately $1000 USD more than the new ‘M’**, and the MM camera is black and white only, some customers might find the price a bit high. The most probable reason for that is the relatively small quantity of MM cameras made versus the huge demand for the new ‘M’ camera. In spite of the relatively high price, the MM camera (like many Leicas) will retain its value quite well down the line. The Noctilux lens I noted is huge, very expensive, and has a maximum aperture of f0.95, making the DOF extremely narrow in some cases. Other Leica lenses such as the new 50 mm APO Summicron F2 are less expensive, much lighter in weight, and offer better resolution and DOF than the Noctilux. I’m not aware of any zoom lenses that Leica makes for the ‘M’-series cameras, but some of their zoom lenses for the ‘R’ series are adaptable to the ‘M’cameras, as well as some third-party lenses.

**When I refer to THE ‘M’ camera, it’s a new camera whose model designation is simply ‘M’. Otherwise, references here to ‘M’ designate the ‘M’ series such as the M8, M9, and M-Monochrom (‘MM’).

The MM camera has a full-frame (24×36 mm) sensor sporting 18 megapixels. Since those pixels don’t use color filters etc. to generate color, all of the pixels are used to create the black and white image, which should yield higher resolution than (for example) the Leica M9. I’ve seen some amazing detail with my JPEG-only images, and shooting RAW would yield even better results. I have a number of samples on my dalethorn site now – some very good quality, and some just for experimentation. MM images are always in the 3×2 format, following the 24×36 sensor size. JPEG images are always saved in the “24-bit” multi-layer RGB format, just like color images on other cameras – apparently however the layers in MM JPEG images are all identical black and white layers.

One thing to watch for with the MM is accumulation of dust etc. on the glass plate in front of the sensor. Even though that plate is covered by the shutter when changing lenses, and even though I mounted my only lens just once onto the camera (and very carefully in a dust-free room), I can count about 9 visible spots against an image of a clear blue sky when viewed at 100 percent. All told, this is probably better than average sensor cleanliness for an interchangeable lens camera, but it does point up the need to be careful when changing lenses, and to use a dust-free blower now and then before mounting a lens onto the camera body. I bought the Giottos Rocket-Air blower, but I can’t describe its effectiveness since it didn’t blow away whatever is on the MM sensor’s glass plate now.

The MM monitor screen on the rear is typical of small cameras – it’s clear and detailed and bright enough for the things it’s used for (settings, image playback etc.), but can’t be used for focusing. Since there is no “Live View” with the MM camera, there’s no option to have a magnified image for focusing on the monitor screen. One of the best ways I’ve found to focus with the rangefinder (when time and space are available) is to move to the shooting location, set the estimated distance to the subject on the lens, then move slightly back and forth until the split objects converge. Many times that’s easier and more effective than trying to focus the lens from a static position. I keep a default setting of 800 for ISO, and change it only when the other settings don’t permit a fast enough shutter speed for handheld shooting. I’ve found in practice that the combination of light levels and subject contrast etc. make a much bigger difference in the appearance of noise in the final image than ISO per se.

Many times when I read where a user says that they get “Great results at ISO xxxx” (substitute any high ISO value for the x’s), I think they’re assuming subject and lighting values that they’ve most often worked with, and their experience may not be the same as other users. The MM camera shutter is described as “Focal Plane, Metal Curtains, Vertical Travel”, and it makes (to my ears) quite a lot of noise, at least compared to compact cameras with their electronic shutters. In experimenting with the other shutter settings (Discreet, Soft) I don’t hear any difference. Perhaps that has something to do with the lens I’m using – don’t know. dslr’s in normal mirror-flip mode make more noise as a rule, and have more of a “thunk” vibration than the MM. In fact, if there were any possibility of the MM’s shutter vibration adversely affecting its image sharpness, I haven’t seen it when viewing any number of images at 100 percent (i.e. “Pixel-Peeping”).

The MM camera shutter dial has settings for 8 seconds to 1/4000 second in half-stop increments, plus ‘B’ and ‘A’ (automatic, based on aperture and ISO). With the MM camera the aperture is strictly manual (set on the lens), while the ISO can be set to Auto, or discrete settings from 320 to 10000. There is a “Pull 160” ISO setting, but the owner’s manual states that that setting uses a lower contrast range, so I avoid it. The Noctilux lens also has half-stop aperture settings, but other lenses may vary from that. If someone were using a lens that had important differences which could affect the MM’s performance or the accuracy and useability of the rangefinder, ideally that lens will have the electronic sensors that the MM camera can read and work with accurately. One downside to using the large Noctilux lens with the MM is that it blocks as much as 1/3 of the rangefinder’s image area.

The MM tripod socket is dead center, which is good considering that the lens I use is quite heavy, so there’s little or no issue with balance. Unfortunately, to get at the battery when it runs low, the MM’s bottom plate has to be removed, and so the camera has to be removed from the tripod. The good news is that any quick-release tripod plate can probably be left attached to the MM’s bottom plate, so after replacing the battery and re-attaching the bottom plate, the camera can be placed back onto the tripod immediately. Some camera manufacturers warn about attempting to use a tripod mount with a thread that’s greater in length than the camera socket depth. Checking my own tripods, none of their threads exceed 4.5 mm in length, so anything longer than that must be uncommon.

Camera forums are rife with complaints about the price of replacement batteries, and I always recommend carrying at least a second battery so shooting can continue if the first battery runs down. Contrary to what many people suggest – saving money with third-party batteries, I consider the price difference and if it’s huge, I need to know why. Before I could even consider a very cheap battery, I would need several independent reviews that affirm the quality of that particular battery as well as the reliability of the manufacturer of that battery. On top of that, I would need to know that if their battery damaged my camera, they would pay to replace my camera promptly. Lithium-ion batteries can be very dangerous. If the price difference were less than my expenses in replacing a defective battery (packaging, shipping, time wasted, loss of battery for a period of time), I would certainly get the camera manufacturer’s battery.

There were a set of videos released by Leica at the introduction of the S1, M9, and X1 circa September 2009, which detailed Leica’s development and marketing plans for their full lineup of cameras going forward from that date. I would recommend those for anyone who wants to know more about the company and its products, and why they command the prices they do. Those videos should be available on Youtube et al, and they should provide some background that will make the M-Monochrom design and Leica’s other designs more understandable.

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