The focus of Leica’s May 10 announcement landed in my hands a few days ago (not counting the X2, which was reviewed here); I suppose that Facebook post might have done the trick.
This will be a three part review. Part one will deal with the M-Monochrom; part two, the new APO-Summicron-M 50/2 ASPH (which I’ll refer to from here on as the 50APO); and finally, part three will be a bit of a surprise. The latter I’ll also be testing on my M9-P, because there’s obviously no way of testing the APO specification on a monochrome only body.
Note: I’ve been informed by Leica that both camera and lens are prototypes, and there may be changes between now and the final release product.
A short note on the context of this review: I am a commercial photographer, and measure the quality of the camera by the ultimate output I can get from it – this is my litmus test, because ultimately my clients don’t care what equipment I use so long they get what they paid for. The images you will see in this review have been processed with my normal workflow (minus the B&W conversion step, of course) – there is no way I’d deliver an out of camera JPEG, and I suspect the target audience won’t be happy with the unprocessed images either; that’s like eating uncooked food and wondering why it tastes odd. Before the cynics cry ‘unfair’, remember that I do this with every camera I review. I try to get the best possible output from the camera, and if the raw data isn’t there, no amount of Photoshop will save it. I’m brand agnostic; I run four systems, will pick the most suitable tool for the job, and (sadly) none of the camera companies pay me. If the camera doesn’t work, I won’t waste my time with it. I won’t be posting any full size images due to bandwidth – I live in the third world, internet is slow – and intellectual property issues, however, there are 100% crops sprinkled throughout the review. Clicking on the images will bring you to larger versions hosted on Flickr. Please go by what I say as I’ve pored over hundreds of full size uncompressed DNGs on a calibrated monitor; images here are for illustration purposes only.
The M-Monochrom (MM from here onwards) is essentially the same camera as the M9-P, but with the bayer filter covering the sensor removed, and a rejigged processing algorithm. Leica have not disclosed whether they have left UV and IR filtration elements in place over the sensor, but it would definitely be nice if they’d removed them – from what I’ve seen so far, I believe these filters have been left in place; I’m not seeing much of a telltale glow off hot black objects which would indicate the absence of an infrared filter. Aside from the new guts, the rest of the camera is almost identical to a standard M9-P, in black chrome (if it existed) with leather textured grips and a small MONOCHROM engraving on the hotshoe, which is now black. I can see detail aficionados knocking themselves out in the distant future over the various different variants of M9. Unfortunately, the same low-res from the M8 and M9 remains.
There’s also one other important detail: the ISO setting now goes all the way to 10(000) – which as far as I know, is a first for any sort of commercial digital camera CCD of any sort. (CMOS doesn’t count). Base ISO is 320, so if you plan on using your fast glass wide open during the daytime, you should probably invest in some ND filters. Finally, it appears that Leica have followed Nikon’s D800/D800E example on pricing: the camera without the Bayer filter costs more than the one with. Niche markets and all.
In use, there is really not a lot to say about the MM that I haven’t already said about the M9-P in my long term review of that camera. It shoots the same as any other Leica M, and existing M9 or M9-P users will feel right at home. I must admit, the color combination feels a bit nostalgic for me – I shot with nothing but a pair of M8s in black chrome for most of 2009/10. The camera also comes with a leather strap and rubber-bottomed shoulder pad, rather than the grippy synthetic of the M9/ M9-P. It looks and feels nice, but I personally don’t like it because the strap rings still dig into my fingers, and the ends have a habit of slipping through the rings and interfering with your grip – especially if you have to grab the camera and raise it to your eye in a hurry. I find the stippled standard strap more grippy, too. Care is required when slinging this one over a shoulder to ensure that it doesn’t subsequently make an expensive crashing noise on the floor.
The only other notable differences are lack of white balance (duh) and a disappearance of the DNG compression options – it could be because my camera was prototype 007 (makes me feel like James Bond!) and running beta firmware. Compression would be nice as the files weigh in at an enormous 34.75MB; however I suspect this is also partially because of the amount of detail contained therein.
There is no question that the MM out resolves the M9 – by exactly how much it’s hard to say (hint: come back and see the post I have planned for Sunday) – but the difference is similar to the difference between a sensor with a strong AA filter and one without; it’s almost as though there’s a layer of something between you and the image that’s been removed. The MM has a level of clarity and acuity at the pixel level that so far has only been seen on Foveon sensors; however, even those start to become a weak at ISO 800 and above. The MM maintains its acuity all the way through the maximum ISO, though above ISO 5000 noise dominates the microcontrast structure of the image.
The files require almost zero sharpening out of the camera; if you missed focus you might want to mask off and sharpen, but then you have to be careful of other areas in the image that will subsequently look over sharpened. Actually, the MM’s high ISO capabilities encourage you to stop down a little more to get the most out of the lens; there’s little noise penalty associated with shooting a stop or two down from your normal aperture. In fact, the camera encourages you to see and think about your images in a very different way: aside from the increased depth of field available, there’s also more dynamic range on tap. The overall look of the images is redolent of medium format – from the tonality to the microcontrast structure.
I tested the MM with the new Leica 50/2 APO-Aspherical-Summicron-M (50 AA, review coming on Friday), the Leica 35/1.4 ASPH FLE, the Zeiss ZM 2.8/28 Biogon and the Zeiss ZM 2/50 Planar. The ISO comparisons and tests were performed with the 50 AA. Let’s just say that combined lack of Bayer filter and AA filter makes for an incredibly demanding sensor – focus calibration is absolutely critical* when shooting at maximum aperture or close to it; the sensor captures the falloff in depth of field with warts and all. Similarly, all lens flaws are revealed; whilst you of course don’t get CA on a monochrome sensor, this flaw is seen as a sort of blooming (which makes sense, as the light that makes up colored fringes instead contributes to the luminance values of the neighboring pixels instead).
*My MM was perfectly calibrated for the 50 AA it arrived with, but not for any of my other lenses; after a couple of narrow misses with my 35/1.4 ASPH FLE wide open, I decided to shoot everything stopped down a little thereafter. Even though the 50 AA is an f2 lens, it demands the same focusing precision as a Noctilux on the MM body precisely because of the unforgiving nature of the sensor. I would highly recommending any potential MM owner sending back all of their lenses and any other M9/ M8 bodies to ensure consistent calibration between all lenses and bodies to avoid any nasty surprises. There isn’t much point in buying a Noctilux over a Summarit if you can’t use the extra stops due to focusing concerns.
The decision to release the 50 AA with the MM left me scratching my head – but having seen the resolving power of this sensor, it makes complete sense. None of the lenses were capable of delivering the same cross-frame performance on the MM as the 50 AA, though the Zeiss 2/50 ran very close especially at smaller apertures. Unfortunately the price will make your eyes water – it’s about 70% of a Noctilux – and the relative subsequent performance of your other lenses will, too.
ISO comparison vs. M9. Click here for the full size image, which contains 100% crops.
All ISO comparisons between the MM and conventional Bayer cameras are a little bit of a fudge, because there is some interpolation that will take place in the color to monochrome conversion; I’ve attempted to avoid this as much as possible by just doing a straight desaturation via ACR in all such A-B tests. The first thing you notice when comparing them M9 and MM is the huge difference in pixel level acuity – I’d normally just sharpen and be done with it. I actually re-ran this test several times with focus bracketing just to make sure it wasn’t a rangefinder calibration issue – it wasn’t. (The 50 AA was used on both cameras, shot from the same tripod position and stopped down to avoid plane of focus issues.) More importantly, this is a good illustration of the difference in resolving power between the new cameras – the M9 is no slouch for pixel-level acuity. The difference is so huge it’s almost as though you’ve removed a sheet of low-quality plastic or similar material in between shooting the two cameras.
The next obvious difference is a 1-1.5 stop noise advantage in favor of the MM; however, the difference isn’t quite as clear cut as that, because the MM retains detail much better than the M9; look at the fine text in the sample as an example. Needless to say, the noise pattern of the MM is extremely fine grained, and pleasingly random – very much evocative of film grain. The reason this skews things is because you’ll have to sharpen the high ISO M9 files to get some edge definition back; this in turn increases the amount of visible luminance noise, and certainly introduces at least another stop of disadvantage to the M9. Furthermore, due to the lack of color filters, the MM is actually about half a stop more sensitive natively – which is to say, you get need 1/15s on the MM to get the same histogram as 1/10s on the M9 would get you. In practical terms, this means the MM is probably more like 2-2.5 stops more useable than the M9.
There’s also more dynamic range, too; it’s hard to say exactly how much, but I think it’s similar to the noise gain – 1-1.5 stops, which makes sense. What’s very nice about the native tonal rendition of the MM is that it seems quite shadow-biased – which suits my B&W style just fine, but may not work for everybody. I definitely feel it’s got better highlight rolloff than the CMOS based DSLRs, too – the transition from light gray to highlights is far more gentle and pleasing to the eye. Watch the extreme highlights though, because as with the M9 sensor, once you get a huge blowout around a point highlight source, there will be blooming to adjacent areas on the sensor – and you can’t recover this information.
One small detail on image review is worth noting – the MM is possibly the only camera that displays a true RAW histogram; normally this information is color-channel based, and thus subject to interpretation by white balance adjustments during the RAW file conversion. All other cameras that are displaying RAW histograms are in fact using a small embedded jpeg to generate this data. The lack of an embedded preview jpeg may also explain why sharpening of the RAW files seems to be very low – it’s actually very hard to determine critical focus using the monitor, more so than the M9. I learned to mostly trust it, then make up the balance of insurance through focus bracketing and depth of field. Would I be confident using this camera with a Noctilux? In time, yes, but not without more frames under my belt for a better feel of how the LCD represents images.
Something I’m sure every reader is wondering about is the MM’s usefulness as an available light and night camera; after all, the film Ms were legendary for their usefulness in the dark because of a combination of the very low vibration horizontal-plane cloth shutter, and the ease of focusing a rangefinder. The latter hasn’t changed; the Ms are definitely easier to focus manually than an SLR (providing of course your RF is calibrated properly). However, in the film era, the ‘sensor’ was normalized across all equipment; this isn’t the case with digital. I’d long wished for the D3s’ sensor in an M9 body; that would make one incredible available light camera, especially with the f1.4 M lenses.
My normal workflow for shooting in the dark with an M9 sees me setting ISO 1250, 1/30s and f2 as a starting point; I judge the changing light conditions by eye and adjust accordingly – shutter speed or aperture as required – but never increase the ISO any further because of the ensuing noise and loss of dynamic range. Frankly, even ISO 1250 is a bit borderline on the M9.
The MM, on the other hand, can be set to ISO 2500 with little noise penalty – at 100% magnification it appears as very, very fine grain; perhaps comparable to an ISO 400 B&W film. Better yet, there doesn’t appear to be much loss of dynamic range, either. This is probably because the base ISO of the sensor is now 320. Having a base of ISO 2500 to start from (and 5000 for emergencies) means much higher available shutter speeds, or a bit more DOF (if desired). During my night shooting sessions, I didn’t run into the usual camera shake issues that come with borderline shutter speeds on the M9.
Over the course of several thousand frames in the last two days, and controlled A-B testing between the MM and M9-P, I’ve come to the conclusion that the biggest difference between the two cameras isn’t the sensor. Yes, the monochrome-only version is definitely much sharper and delivers images with lower noise and higher dynamic range, but if you’re shooting the MM for an extended period of time, the change seen in your images won’t be because of these properties.
Rather, the camera forces you to recalibrate the way you see the world. To understand why, we need to think a bit about human vision: the eye sees mostly in color; more intensely when there’s more light, which is why the tropics are generally perceived as colorful, but London in winter is dark and gray. When it gets dark, the eye defaults to a larger patch of cells around the periphery of the retina that only perceives luminance information. This is why almost all photographers inherently compose better in black and white when the light is low – it’s much closer to how our eye natively sees, and there’s less imagination required to visualize the end shot.
So how is all of this relevant? Well, because the MM forces you to ‘see’ luminance information even in bright daylight. To use this camera effectively, you have to learn to ignore contrasting colors; these frequently result in very flat monochrome images because the luminance values across the scene have to be similar for us to perceive the different colors equally strongly (and thus appear contrasting). Unlike conventional Bayer cameras, you can’t put this perceptual difference back into the final image in the RAW conversion – there’s no channel mixer. It’s easy to say, but very difficult to put into practice, even when you do consciously understand what’s going on*. During the course of shooting the MM, I started off looking for monochrome images in the same way I would with the M9-P – which is to say, colored contrasts that I might adjust later on to preserve the contrast. This produced lousy, mostly forgettable images. Looking at luminance only – oddly, sunglasses helped achieve this – and consciously remembering to do so, greatly improved the impact of my output. I definitely also noticed that when switching back to the M9-P to test the 50 AA, a lot of the frames had very strong luminance differences that worked OK in color, but were much stronger when converted to black and white.
*I was concerned about some of the early samples from the MM I saw; most of them looked incredibly flat and lifeless – until I thought about it a bit more and realized the above. It’s also worth noting that all of the tonal information is there, it’s just up to you how you want to allocate it through dodge, burn, curves etc in the processing of the raw file.
I’m going to conclude by saying that the MM is not the camera for everybody. It’s not easy to see luminance only; if you can’t, you’re honestly going to get better results by shooting a color camera and then mastering the conversion process afterwards (to be the subject of a future article). However, with practice, some amazing things are possible with the MM – the image quality potential of this camera is incredibly high indeed. I’ve never seen pixel acuity at this level before – even Foveon cameras tend to have some degradation due to the multi-layer design of the sensor. You’ll notice I haven’t dealt with the exact resolution numbers in this review; I’ll be doing that in part three, to be published on Sunday. MT
Come back in two days for the next installment: a review of the APO-Summicron 50/2 ASPH-M (I think I got that in the right order.) A shameless plug: If you enjoyed this or my articles, please consider donating support via PayPal (email@example.com) – it takes a huge amount of time and energy to keep this site running. It’s ad-free at the moment, which means that it’s entirely supported out of my own pocket and time spent writing and testing is time I can’t spend shooting commercially. Thanks! If you’ve got any questions or thoughts, feel free to leave a comment below.
September 5: My Photoshop Workflow DVD for the Leica M-Monochrom is now available. For more details, please click here.
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