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

NPhoto - - Gear Zone - Damien De­molder

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.

Fea­tures

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.

Per­for­mance

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.

Ver­dict

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.

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