LEICA M MONOCHROM (Type 246)
Most professionals look for the most flexible equipment that can solve multiple problems, but sometimes a specialist camera can make you stand out from the crowd
Full-frame 24Mp mono rangefinder / £5,750 / $7,450 (body only) / www.leica-camera.com
When we invest in new kit, it’s natural to want that new camera, lens, flash or accessory to cover a wide range of applications. This way we feel it’s easier to justify the outlay, and we can see how we’ll gradually make the money back over the course of a number of jobs. Most modern equipment is designed with that process in mind – most cameras are suitable for a broad range of work, and have features that make them appeal to photographers in general. Leica’s Monochrom camera goes against this idea by being a camera that shoots only in black and white. Of course, black and white works with portraiture as well as with landscapes, and pretty much every genre in between, but most professionals don’t shoot exclusively in black and white, so inevitably most want a camera that can cover both bases.
Leica’s proposal is that if you’re going to shoot in black and white, then why not make it good as it can be? Instead of using a colour camera that’s also quite good at black and white, we should use a camera dedicated to that way of working.
The Monochrom (Type 246) isn’t Leica’s first mono-only camera, but it’s taken some serious steps forward.
The most significant feature in the Leica Monochrom (Type 246) is undoubtedly the new sensor. Whether you regard the switch from CCD to CMOS as a good thing is a matter only you can decide, but there’s no denying the flexibility the CMOS sensor injects into this machine. CCD sensors may provide the ultimate quality in bright light, but the new CMOS chip in this model makes Live View and video a possibility, as well as introducing more pixels to the system. The new sensor has 24 million pixels, and produces compressed DNG raw files measuring 5,976 x 3,992 pixels, weighing 20-30Mb, and JPEGs measuring 5,952 x 3,968 pixels, weighing 34.5Mb. The pixels have no coloured Bayer-pattern filters, , so each reports its own findings to the processor without interpolating with the surrounding pixels, which means the resolution will be much higher than from a normal 24Mp colour sensor. More light reaches the photo receptors than with a filtered sensor, so the base ISO is 320. The range extends to 25,000, and is supported by shutter speeds of 60 secs to 1/4000 sec.
The streaming nature of the CMOS sensor means that this camera can shoot black-and-white video in Full HD resolution at 24/25fps, and that the rear screen can be used to see through the lens in Live View mode. A critical improvement for this model is the back screen. Gone is the low-res screen of the original Leica M-Monochrom, replaced by a bright, 921,600-dot three-inch panel.
Build and handling
The main physical aspects of the new Monochrom are unchanged from the previous model. The body is solid metal, mostly comfortable to hold, and that gives the impression that it will last for ever. You may have noticed that the camera costs quite a lot of money, but it will probably keep going for as long as there are batteries available, long beyond the moment the sensor feels out of date. If you use it all the time for ten years it might feel like a good investment, but not for occasional use.
If you’re used to rangefinder-focusing systems, you’ll find that this one is about as good as they get, with a good bright focusing area and clear guide frames that can be seen easily. Using the framing preview lever, you can see that lenses are paired so that two sets of guides appear in the viewfinder at any one time. Markings for 35mm/135mm, 28mm/90mm and 50mm/75mm focal lengths are displayed simultaneously, but of course, all the coverage of wider and longer optics can be seen with 100 per cent framing accuracy via the Live View system. Live View makes even the M macro bellows easy to use.
The viewfinder information panel is still a little underwhelming in many respects, with no exposure scale and no aperture readout – even though aperture is recorded in the EXIF data when chipped lenses are used. The shutter speed is displayed when aperture-priority mode is selected, but in manual mode you get no information other than the over/ under exposure symbols. Leica really could make life easier in this area.
Thankfully, the company has upgraded the processor in the camera, and given it a larger buffer memory. This means that there’s less waiting around for images to clear to the memory card while the best opportunities of the day transpire before your eyes. The new camera is a lot more responsive, and quite streamlined for those who shoot raw-only. Adding the simultaneous JPEG option can clog things up, but frankly there isn’t too much reason in normal situations for shooting JPEGs.
The most important aspect of the camera – its output – makes it a unique product that competes with nothing else on the market. No matter how good your SLR files are when converted to black and white, they won’t be nearly as good as these. The tonality is exceptional, and the detail is really surprising, as is the lack of digital texture and artefacts. You get smooth transitions through the tonal range, and clean, noiseless images right up to ISO800. Noise is noticeable at 1600 and above, but it looks like a nice film grain, and never threatens the image quality.
The biggest issue is the more limited dynamic range combined with the meter’s tendency to over-expose. I found myself setting the exposure compensation to -1 as standard to preserve the highlights, but in low contrast, low-light situations, the sensor is almost unflappable. The DNG files come out looking very flat, so you can mould them the way you want, and they withstand a huge amount of manipulation.
If you only shoot in black and white, and you want the best possible image quality from a handheld camera, you should get together with the Leica M Monochrom (Type 246). For portraiture, weddings, street photography, documentary and events, it’s a fabulous performer.
My only reservations are the burnt-out highlights in contrasty conditions, and the 320 base ISO that precludes wide apertures in bright conditions. However, the filterless sensor drinks light, and comes into its own in low-light conditions.
Yes, it’s expensive, as are the lenses that you’ll need to buy with it, but the Leica M Monochrom (Type 246) is a camera that will give you something you can’t get elsewhere – and that something is definitely worth having. It might be a shallow thing to say, but using a prestigious, well-known brand of camera might just encourage your clients to dig a little deeper into their pockets too.
It isn’t Leica’s first mono-only camera, but it’s taken some serious steps forward.