Shooting with the Leica M Monochrom
At home in Sågmyra 2016. Leica M Monochrom + Super-Elmar M 21 mm, f/3.4 asph | 1/60 sec., F/5.7, ISO 10.000
WHY WOULD ANY sane person buy a digital camera for $7.000, body only – a camera that was outdated already when it was released in 2012? The first generation Leica Monochrom is basically a Leica M9, the first full-frame digital Leica M, released in 2009, with the Bayer filter removed from the CCD-sensor. The sensor thus only registrers luminance, and no colors. Anyone can quite easily convert a color image to black and white using software like Lightroom or Photoshop, so why skip the Bayer filter? On top of this, the Leica M Monochrom (generation 1) does not do video, has no live view, sports a LCD-screeen that was a joke already in 2009, has no autofocus – well, the Monochrom has no nothing at all to offer compared to the competition from Canikon, Sony, Fuji, Pentax and all the rest of the brands. So, why on earth would anyone spend that amount of money on a digital camera that can't shoot color in the first place, and one that functionally sucks compared to even the simplest compact digital camera? Why indeed? Well, in August 2013 I did buy a first generation Leica M Monochrom. In this blog post I will tell you why.
Shrine, Piemonte 2014. Leica M Monochrom + Super-Elmar M 21 mm, f/3.4 asph | 1/500 sec., F/10, ISO 320
Back to basics
The main reason why I bought the Monochrom (generation 1) was that it looks like and works like a film camera from the late 60's, but is equipped with a sensor instead being loaded with 35 mm black and white film. It's a no frills camera, offering the photographer almost none of the functions that even the simplest compact digital camera offers. All it offers autowise is auto-ISO and aperture priority mode, that's it. To me the point of the Monochrom is not to have the pletora of functionings, modes etc. that a modern digital camera offers. I embrace the fact that with the Monochrom I cannot choose between 150+ focus points, continous focus, focus peaking, bracketing, continous shooting 10+ frames/sec., video mode, live view etc. etc., at all. You then will miss a lot of shots, you might rejoinder. Yes, that is true, but on the other hand I will not fill up my memory card with 95% usless images to wade through during postproduction. Now, let me further explicate why I find shooting with the Monochrom so satisfying.
Black and white only
Firstly. The sensor in the Monochrom only registrers luminace, and no color. The resulting greyscales are just stunning, but the whole point of the Monochrom is that the photographer must think and see in monochrome before s/he takes the shot. Not afterwords. When I convert color images taken with my "ordinary" cameras, to black and white, I play around with the color filters offered by Silver Efex Pro (or using the color sliders in PS) to see what effect they give. With the Monocrom this obviously is not possible. If I want to use filters, well, I'll just have to buy some and screw them onto the lens before I take the shot. Meaning that the photographer must be sure of what kind of effect s/he wants to create beforhand.
When friends meet, Uppsala 2015. Leica M Monochrom + Summicron 35 mm, f/2.0 asph | 1/250 sec., F/8, ISO 320
The lack of autofocus
Secondly. No autofocus means that there is no lag between the pressing the shutter button, and the taking of the image. It also means that the photographer have to devolop hers/his ability to assess distances. On the M-line lenses you have a focussing tab, so with practice, without looking at the lens, you'll be able to feel what distance the lens is focussed on in a fraction of a second. Shooting with the Monochrom is a very tactile experience. (I will not go into rangefinder shooting as opposed to SLR shooting; you can read about this here and here.)
The lack of a modern and large screen
Thirdly, the "useless" screen. Leica has recieved a lot of criticism for the really bad screen on the M9 and thus on the Monochrom as well. In my view this screen that would have been miserable on any other camera – it is small with bad resolution – is brilliant, a blessing, on the Monochrom. It means that you can't "chimp" (read Eric Kim's views on "chimping" here). The screen is perfect when you need to go into the menues (not really much to do there anyway) and when checking the histogram and other information. But, apart from that, it is impossible to do anything meaningful using the screen. And that is a lot like it was in the days of film shooting – you didn't know what you had got until the film was developed. (Leica has also launched a Leica M with no screen at all (the M ed. 60). Great.)
No (almost) continous shooting capabilities
Last point. In continous mode, the Monochrom manage 2 frames/sec. The buffer, however, will fill up pretty quick, and the photographer will have to wait a while before the camera is ready for action again. This slows the shooting process down, wich in my view is a good thing. 2 frames/sec. is just about how fast you could shoot with a film camera (without a motor drive) and if you did shoot like that, the 36 frames on the roll of film were soon finished, and you would have to take tha time needed to rewind and change the film. (There is a wonderfull scene in Blow Up where Thomas, the photographer, is shooting the model Verushka with his Nikon F handheld – watch the speed with which he moves the film forward.)
Farmers' Market, San Diego 2014. Leica M Monochrom + Summicron 35 mm, f/2.0 asph | 1/350 sec., F/16, ISO 3200
How I shoot with the Monochrom
When shooting film, you first make a light reading to determine the correct exposure (i.e. how much light the film will be exposed to). Then there are four parameters to take into account to get a correctly exposed image where the object is in focus:
The shutter speed.
The focus distance.
Light metering has been built into cameras for decades, so that's not very much to bother about even if your judgement of lighting conditions can be put to the test in ceratin situations, when exposure compensation is needed (more about metering and exposure compensation here and here). But, in most cases you can leave the light measuring to the camera. I do with the Monochrom and it works very, very well (c.f. the first image in the post). If you shoot film, you're stuck with the same ISO all through the roll. Digital means that you can change ISO between frames. That, I think, is one of the greatest advantages of digital photography. Most often I choose auto-ISO, then an aperture of 8 or 11 to get a fairly good depth of field. On the street I then set the shutter speed to a minimum of 1/125 sec. but mostly 1/250 or 1/500 sec., this to avoid motion blur. I then shoot some test shots to check that the ISO will stay inside the range of 640 up to 10.000. (All settings for the Summicron 35 mm, f/2.0 asph; with the Super-Elmar M 21 mm, f/3.4 asph, I can go down two or three stops.) The last thing to do is to set the focus to about 2 meter, which means that anything from 1.3 to 5 meters will be tolerably sharp (so called zone focussing, read more here and here).
The Leica M Monochrom is the perfect digital camera for anyone who wants to have the benefits of digital image making, and, at the same time, have the pleasure to shoot as if it were a camera loaded with a roll of black and white 35 mm film. This camera forces the photographer to slow down, to be two steps ahead of the motif, and to become a more attentive photographer. Yes, this camera changes your photography ways. One thing that happened to me after starting shooting the Monochrom, is that I rarely crop any images shot with this camera. With the M I'm being more attentive to how I frame shots before pressing the shutter button, compared to how I shoot with my other cameras. This also, I believe, has to do with the rangefinder way of framing. And,last point, the Monochrom also looks great!