The act of creating a monochrome image with film was comparatively easy. Capture an image on black-and-white film, develop it with a single chemical needing nothing more than a plastic tank and a sink, and you’d end up with a roll of negative film. Take that film and a sheet of photographic paper, and with a basic enlarger and just a few more chemicals, you’d end up with a print worthy of framing. Color film and printing were much more labor-intensive, often requiring multiple chemicals, a specialized enlarger and more advanced skills.
In the digital world, the simplicity of getting a color and a monochrome image are flipped on their head. Most digital sensors are hardwired to produce color images—creating a black-and-white image requires starting with a color image and then manipulating the photograph. That’s especially odd when you consider how a digital camera sensor works: an imaging sensor is only really sensitive to values of light, able simply to determine how bright each receptor is.
By using techniques like Bayer filters, a digital camera constructs a color image from a sensor that’s designed to capture monochrome images. Creating a monochrome image from a color image is a step removed from the original monochrome abilities of the sensor.
One exception to this is the Leica M Monochrom (Typ 246), which captures images on a 24-megapixel, full-frame sensor that’s devoid of the Bayer filter usually used to capture images. The camera also lacks a low-pass filter, which results in sharper images.
Of course, there’s some question as to the reasoning behind spending $7,000 on a camera that only shoots monochrome images, but that same logic applies to any Leica camera. It’s the niche market of their products that lets them create things like monochrome-only cameras.
When I first heard about the M Monochrom, it seemed like a gimmick—who needs to capture only in black-and-white when a color image could be easily converted to monochrome? The current M Monochrom (Typ 246) is an update to the company’s original monochrome-only camera, proving that there is, indeed, a market for this system. It has inherited a lot of its features from the M (Typ 240) and the buffer from the M-P—its operation will be instantly familiar to any Leica shooter.
After about 10 minutes with the Leica M Monochrom, I realized why anyone would want it—the limitation of only creating monochrome images is actually a creative plus. As soon as I started shooting, my mind flipped back into what I call “Monochrome Vision,” where scenes are evaluated in terms of luminance and contrast instead of hues and color interplay. Native film shooters could modify their perception of a scene according to the film loaded in the camera, and I did it with the M Monochrom, too.
The Leica M Monochrom became a compositional and creative tool that helped me get out of one mindset and into one that’s both simpler and more complex. I spent a lot of time with the camera at the WPPI trade show in Las Vegas, and the fact that I could only shoot in monochrome helped reduce the annoyance of the garish colors and turned the visual overload of Casinotopia into a new and interesting subject. I’ve been photographing in Vegas for decades, but this is the first time I’ve looked at it with a monochrome mindset.
Images from the camera are generally well exposed, always full of detail, and exhibit a lushness that’s possible with a modified color image, but so much simpler and so much more enjoyable when it’s straight out of the camera. As a photographer with aging eyes, I found it a tad difficult to ensure accurate focus, and the LCD screen is so sharp that images that were slightly out of focus would appear sharp unless the image was magnified. After a day with the camera, though, I came to depend less on the rangefinder and more on the focus and aperture dials and intuition, just as I did in my early days of shooting.
It’s possible to tweak the settings in order to adjust sharpness and contrast (and more). The camera has all of the features and performance of the modern Leica cameras, so all the arguments for purchase and use apply.
As a creative tool, the Leica M Monochrom is hard to beat. Even for the photographer without an investment in Leica glass and a “Champaign wishes and caviar dreams” budget, the M Monochrom would be an excellent rental choice for a client that’s asking for monochrome images or simply as a tool to revitalize your creativity. For wedding photographers, it’s a compelling choice, though, again, potential customers will have to weigh the limited use of the camera against the value of its image quality and its simplified monochrome workflow.
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