May 10, Part 3: Bayer vs. non-Bayer: Leica M-Monochrom vs. Nikon D800E

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Nadiah. Leica M-Monochrom, 50/2 APO

The final part in this triptych aims at examining the differences between Bayer and non-Bayer sensors. Part one was the review of the M-Monochrom; part two, the APO-Summicron 50/2 ASPH.

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.

Operational and system differences aside, the aim of this portion is solely to look at how the sensors render images in black and white, and to examine pixel-level files and resolution advantages of the non-Bayer sensor. It’s frequently claimed that the Bayer matrix removes between 30-50% of the real resolving power of the sensor – i.e. a non-Bayer sensor of the same pixel count will have somewhere between 1.5x and 2x the resolving power. Since the M-Monochrom’s sensor is 18 MP and full frame, what better to compare it against the 36MP (2x) also full frame Nikon D800E? Both cameras have no antialiasing filter, which evens out the playing field somewhat. I’ll also go on later to look at noise, tonal rendition, and ultimate image potential, which is to say, what I can do with those files in the conversion.

A note on testing methodology: for the direct A-B comparisons, both cameras were shot in lossless compressed RAW and converted via ACR 6.7 final release. The D800E files were converted to black and white with a straight desaturation in ACR, and the M-Monochrom files upsized via bicubic smoother to match the output resolution of the D800E for the real image comparisons, and the D800E downsized for one set of the noise/ resolution comparisons to see if the comparison holds both ways. If sharpening was applied, it was applied consistently to both sets of images (and very minimally at that). The lens used on the MM was the 50/2 APO-Summicron-M ASPH (50 AA), the best lens that Leica currently makes; I didn’t have anything comparable to use on the Nikon (a Zeiss 2/50 Makro-Planar would have been perfect) – the closest thing I had was the Nikon 45/2.8 AI-P pancake, which is actually a fairly competent lens. The 45P resolves well at the focal plane, but lacks the flat-field and cross-frame consistency of the 50 AA – for all but the portrait comparisons, both lenses were shots at f5.6 or f8 to achieve maximum resolution. The D800E was focused with live view and magnification, and where possible, the camera moved to match framing (obviously impossible for the distant shots).

As usual, go by what I say; do not make any conclusions from the actual images (which are there for illustration purposes only) – I’ve been looking at many full size, uncompressed images on a calibrated monitor.

Resolution and pixel acuity

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Full test scene. Leica MM, 50/2 APO

MM vs D800E 1 copy
Center crop. Full size

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Corner crop. Full size

It’s pretty clear that the MM is very much holding its own against the D800E; or perhaps that should be the D800E is holding its own against the MM – at least in the center. The corners tell a very different story; this is more a testament to the resolving power and cross-frame consistency of the 50 AA than anything. Even at f8, the 45P lacks the bite and crispness of the 50 AA; note especially definition of the crane cables. Slight magnification differences aside, I’d say the M9/ 50 AA combination is resolving ever so slightly more than the D800E and 45P; look closely at the antenna sticking out of the roof box. It may be a different story if I’d had a better lens, but I doubt we’re going to get much more center resolution out of any combination on the D800E – I certainly haven’t seen it with any of my other lenses, including the 85/2.8 PCE.

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Second scene, full image. Leica MM and 50/2 APO

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Center crop. Full size

The second scene appears to be much closer in terms of resolution; it was shot at f5.6 on both lenses. The 50 AA actually has a slight advantage here as the lens is now three stops down from maximum, but the 45P is only two stops down. Both cameras resolve the foliage well, and texture in the pavement and road is retained – just. If you take a close look at the motorcycle’s wheel spokes and license plate, it seems like the MM is once again resolving a hair more detail, but there’s really not a lot in it – in fact, it could well be false detail due to aliasing at this point. I wouldn’t pick one combination over the other at this point.

I did a number of other comparisons of various scenes, and could only conclude that the MM resolves at least as well as the current state of the art 36MP Bayer sensor. But for the most part, there’s not a lot in it – I would not pick one camera over the other on the basis of resolution alone.

Noise

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First set of noise crops. MM enlarged to match D800E native resolution. Full size. I didn’t bother with ISO 320 because they both looked almost identical to the ISO 640 crops, which is to say essentially noise-free. Highlight and shadow recovery were both set to 10/10 for each camera.

It’s hard to say which way this comparison should go – one one hand, the MM has a much higher native ISO than the D800E (320 vs 100), and no added noise from the de-Bayering; on the other hand, it does use a CCD rather than CMOS sensor, which is known for having a higher noise floor to begin with. Once again, resolution appears to be a toss-up between the two cameras; the D800E clearly retains more useable resolution at higher ISOs.

At the pixel level, the D800E begins pulling away from ISO 1250; the MM is probably a stop behind by ISO 2500, and nearly two stops behind by the time we get to ISO 5000. I’d put ISO 5000 as being okay on the D800E, with ISO 10k being useable for emergencies. This lowers by a stop on the MM. It’s interesting to note that despite the MM exposure being slightly brighter – the exposure settings for both cameras were identical – the noise affects not just the shadows (as with the D800E) but also clearly encroaches on the midtones, too. Lowering the exposure a fraction on the MM may have helped, but it wouldn’t reduce the amplitude of the noise – there are clearly noisy pixels that have been amped far enough that they are affecting the fine detail structure of the image.

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Low ISO crops. Full size

MM vs D800E reduced high I copy
High ISO crops. Full size

For the second set of noise tests, the D800E’s files have been reduced to match the size of the MM. I’m also looking at the highlight portion of the image. I’d say there’s no difference in noise or resolution to ISO 1250; the D800E’s files downsize reasonably well, but you can see some stairstep artifacts on the fine detail of the label – this is more likely a Photoshop artifact than a reflection on the resolving power of the camera. The story for high ISO is once again similar to before: the D800E has less noise, by 1.5-2 stops again. Curiously, the downsizing (bicubic smoother) has also reduced acuity of the D800E slightly.

Intermediate conclusion: downsize or upsize files to match, it won’t make any difference.

Dynamic range, tonality and a quick word on bokeh

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Reference bears again, full size image from the above crops.

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Leica MM and 50/2 APO

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Crops; full size

Although there is a huge amount of subjectivity introduced by the B&W conversion method, it’s safe to say that in general, a straight desaturation results in the lowest contrast image. Yet the MM images always land up being less contrasty than the D800E’s; it doesn’t appear that this results in there being more dynamic range – in fact, I’d say there’s if anything slightly less useable dynamic range (look at the noise in the lens barrel that isn’t there on the D800E image). What I’m seeing is a different tonal response curve that’s more shadow-biased; it’s probably something to do with the inherent differences in sensor architecture more than anything else. Is one better than the other? Only you can answer that, because it depends very much on your intended output.

I don’t want to talk too much about bokeh, because that’s a property of the lens, not the camera, but in the crops, both lenses are delivering a pleasing out of focus rendition.

Output potential

And now is a very good time to talk about output potential: what can the cameras actually do, when the files are processed properly, in a real-world scenario? The portraits were lit by a 1000-LED daylight balanced panel (not that it matters for B&W conversions), with brightness adjusted to give a reasonable exposure to simulate daylight or indoor lighting – 1/90th at f2.8 ISO 640 or thereabouts. I’ve put a fair amount of work into the output of both cameras – basically, enough to the point that I’d be happy with the finished image.

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Leica MM and 50/2 APO

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Nikon D800E and 45/2.8P

No matter what I did to the D800E’s images, they were always slightly contrastier – especially in the skin tone highlights, which required quite a lot of tweaking to avoid borderline harshness. The MM’s files just feel tonally smoother – look at the frame contents in the bottom left corner of the image, and the model’s dress. (Clicking on any image will bring you to a the Flickr landing page, from which you can view a larger version.)

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Leica MM and 50/2 APO

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Nikon D800E and 45/2.8P

The tonal difference mentioned above – manifested as a sort of ‘lightness’ if you will – is again apparent here. I personally find the MM’s rendition a bit more pleasing to the eye, but there really isn’t much in it. Full size crops of the image follow below (you will need a screen with more than 1200 pixels across to view them); take your pick for resolution – I can’t say that one has more than the other. Microcontrast is slightly better on the MM/ 50 AA image, though.

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Leica MM and 50/2 APO

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Nikon D800E and 45/2.8P

Conclusion

Often when we are writing reviews, comparing gear, or reading reviews, it’s very easy to get carried away and land up making a huge deal out of small differences. It’s pretty clear – to me, at any rate – that both cameras are capable of producing outstanding image quality, minor differences aside. Yes, the D800E does offer a stop more useable ISO, but then the MM makes up for it with lower shutter vibration and an easier method of focusing (if you’re using manual focus lenses on the D800E) – these somewhat cancel out when you’re handholding. The biggest difference again is going to be in the method of working – I’ve continuously found the D800E requires a bit more care to get the most out of it – it doesn’t really feel like a casual, fluid camera in the same way as the Leica Ms do. However, even though it’s more fiddly to focus, it’s also a lot easier to determine whether the image is in focus or not – using both back to back really reinforces how poor the MM’s screen is. And as mentioned in the MM review – you’re going to have to recalibrate your internal vision to see luminance values rather than contrasting colors and perceptual luminance. The MM does not see in the same way as you are used to with traditional B&W conversions, which take into account some of the color information when performing the conversion.

Tonal rendition is a subjective thing; some may prefer the D800E and others the MM; personally, I feel the MM’s files have a bit more luminosity to them – it’s difficult to describe, and it could very well be a lens thing; this is definitely an endearing trait. If you do a lot of black and white work, I’d seriously consider adding the MM to your arsenal; just make sure you also have the right lenses to do it justice. For the rest of us who are content to make conversions from our conventional Bayer cameras – with the channel mixing flexibility that enables – I’ll be posting an article on black and white conversion options in the near future. Stay tuned! MT

Coda: There have been a huge number of people asking why I chose to use the ‘inferior’ 45P against the 50 AA. I want to clarify this logic here, and I continue to stand by the results of this test.
1. Aside from the single corner crop included out of curiosity, the center performance of both lenses at f5.6 or f8 at the pixel level is as good as I’ve seen out of any lens.
2. This is a sensor comparison. So we look at the center resolution of the sensor, which is the same as the edge resolution. We look at noise, dynamic range, tonal response etc – note I did not include color or microcontrast (those are also influenced by the lens). The former three properties aren’t.
3. Yes, I could have used a worse lens on the MM or a better lens on the D800E. But the reality is that nobody pays me to write these things, so I wasn’t about to go out and buy a lens I didn’t need for the sake of one test.
4. Finally, it’s a real world comparison. If I did have the MM and 50 AA, I probably would look into the camera cabinet and try to decide between that and the D800E/ 45P combination if I wanted that focal length. In the end I would select on a) noise, if I needed low light performance, b) if I needed color and c) weight. Both combinations are capable of stunning images. Both are also capable of utter rubbish. The biggest difference is the photographer, not the camera.

The M-Monochrom is available here from B&H, and the D800E is here from B&H and Amazon.

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Visit our Teaching Store to up your photographic game – including Photoshop Workflow DVDs and customized Email School of Photography; or go mobile with the Photography Compendium for iPad. You can also get your gear from B&H and Amazon. Prices are the same as normal, however a small portion of your purchase value is referred back to me. Thanks!

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May 10, Part 2: The Leica APO-Summicron-M 50/2 ASPH review, and a comparison

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All non-product images in this review were shot with a Leica M9-P and the 50/2 APO-Summicron-M ASPH, with the exception of the one B&W image lower down the review. Clicking on an image will bring you the Flickr page where you can access larger versions.

Part one of this review took a look at Leica’s new M-Monochrom I’ve had a chance to review already earlier; however, it’s now time to take a look at the accompanying lens. Personally, I find this a much more interesting announcement than the other two items – but then again, I’m also the sort of person who has eight ways to get to 28mm (and can find a use for all of them) – and I do appreciate the gentle field curvature of a Tessar design.

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.

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The full name is a bit of a mouthful, so I’m going to refer to it as the 50 AA from here on. The 50 AA is a complicated design: 8 elements in 5 groups, in what appears to be a heavily modified double-Gauss design with a complex rear floating aspherical group, along the lines of that used in the recent 35/1.4 ASPH FLE. Leica claims it’s their most perfect lens ever – the MTF charts certainly support this, but we will of course have to use it in the field to see if a) these claims bear out, and more importantly b) whether we can see the difference under typical shooting conditions. Perfection does come at a price – the lens’ RRP is around 7,000 USD, which is double that of the already excellent (and actually apochromatic) 50/1.4 Summilux-M ASPH.

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Leica claims it’s the most perfect 50mm they’ve ever made – given the family lineage also includes the legendary 50/1.4 ASPH and 50/0.95 ASPH, that’s a tall order. MTF charts of this lens look flat – I don’t know if these are measured or computed, but f5.6 promises some pretty incredible resolving power and fine microcontrast structures. Let’s just say expectations were very, very high as I opened the files from this beast.

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Aside from the obvious optical formula changes from the previous design (which was a simple double-Gauss with no floating or aspherical elements) – the lens has a number of physical changes despite retaining approximately the same size. Firstly, I’m pleased to see the return of the focusing tab – it makes life a lot faster, especially when you’re trying to track moving objects. Better still, it incorporates the best of both worlds and has both a wide knurled ring and the tab, which is handy when shooting in portrait orientation. Secondly, the previous telescopic hood design has been modified a bit; it telescopes but also twists to prevent it from accidentally collapsing. Finally, the cap is no longer the plastic clip-on type, but a deep metal slip-cap that makes the lens look like the 50/1.4 ASPH when it’s attached. Unfortunately, the aperture ring seems to follow recent Leica designs and is far too loose to prevent accidental changes when taken out of a bag – you have to frequently check that you’re actually shooting at the desired aperture. It’s a complaint which I have of my 35/1.4 ASPH FLE, too – how hard can it be to make slightly firmer detents?

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I want to make one thing clear upfront: we’re already at the bleeding edge of diminishing returns with most lenses; your shooting discipline and rangefinder calibration are going to make far more difference to the pixel-level results than switching from the 50/1.4 ASPH to the 50 AA.

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Performance on the M9-P
Very nearly flawless. It’s easier to talk about what’s wrong with the lens than what’s right; let’s just call it perfection minus a little bit. What are the little bits? Well, it does flare a little with strong side lighting; curiously, I don’t see this behavior shooting into the sun or point light sources. There’s also vignetting that doesn’t go away fully until f5.6, though admittedly it’s fairly minor and mostly not noticeable in everyday shooting. I really don’t have anything else to say – it’s that good.

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100% crop of above image. Now this is what I call micro contrast.

Sharpness is outstanding across the frame even from wide open. There’s a very, very slight visible improvement until f4, but it’s so borderline you might as well just use the aperture for depth of field control only. Once again: if your rangefinder is properly calibrated, and you’ll want it to be for use with this lens because the focus plane transition is so sharp, you will have nothing to complain about.

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I didn’t see any lateral chromatic aberration in any of the 500 or so test images I shots with this lens, many of then deliberately framed and composed to provoke it. There is a tiny bit of spherochromatism (bokeh fringing), but it too is fairly minor. The apochromatic nature of the lens is actually given away more by its micro contrast structure than edge CA/ fringing; let me explain why. Non apochromatic lenses focus different wavelengths of light at slightly different distances; if you cut the sensor plane through this, you’ll land up with some wavelengths being focused and others not; this is why edges aren’t perfectly defined, and why the vast majority of lenses have trouble reproducing extremely fine detail structures. The 50 AA has no such issues, by the way. Bottom line: yes, it’s apochromatic, or as near as we can tell with current sensor resolution. What would be interesting is to see how it performs on say a Sony NEX-7 body, which is somewhat notorious for not playing nicely with Leica M glass – especially in the corners.

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Bokeh is pleasing – probably best described as neutral – it doesn’t get in the way, it isn’t distracting, but it also doesn’t dominate the image in the same way as say, a Noctilux. I did see some odd internal structure in extremely bright out of focus highlights, suggesting a formed aspherical element, but only in a couple of images. Color is also neutral and matches the palette of the modern Leica ASPH gestalt. Perhaps the best way of describing this lens is transparent. You see your subject, and not the signature of the lens – which is what I personally prefer.

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Interestingly, the aperture blades – much like every other Leica lens – don’t make a perfect circle at any aperture other than wide open, yet somehow the lenses always manage to produce great bokeh. The same is true of the Noctilux 0.95, too.

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Performance on the M-Monochrom

It is clear that this lens is capable of resolving beyond the definition of the M9 and MM sensors; even on the MM, the lens continues to be an outstanding performer wide open, though the improvement on stopping down is slightly more obvious. It delivers extremely fine micro contrast, which makes it a great B&W tool. Macro contrast – whilst great for delivering saturated color – is perhaps a little bit too high for B&W, especially if you’re shooting scenes with high native dynamic range.

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100% crop of image from M-Monochrom, unsharpened at f2.

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The bonus bit: A comparison between the 50 AA and Zeiss ZM 2/50 Planar

Unfortunately, I don’t have a 50/1.4 ASPH or previous 50/2 Summicron-M handy for a comparison, and the Noctilux 0.95 really has a different design objective (though admittedly their prices are uncomfortably close) – so I thought the most interesting head to head comparison would be with another highly regarded 50/2 – the Zeiss ZM Planar. I tested this lens against the older 50/2 Summicron extensively before making my purchase decision, the ZM 2/50 won both optically and financially. It’s a hair sharper and doesn’t exhibit any focus shift. The coatings allow it to be about 1/2 to 2/3 stop faster than the old Summicron for a given aperture and exposure histogram, too. I also preferred the way it rendered – there was just more ‘pop’ to the micro contrast, and (personally) preferable color.

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Reference polar bears. This image shot with the Zeiss ZM 2/50 Planar. Clicking here will get you a larger version.

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And this one with the Leica 50/2 APO. Clicking here will get you a larger version.

A note on testing methodology: the lens was shot on a tripod-mounted M9-P at base ISO with manual (i.e. fixed) white balance, with several shots taken for the purpose of focus bracketing. However, you can still see very slight differences in calibration have resulted in a slightly different focal plane between the two lenses. However, if you look at the fine detail structure in both focus zones, you should get a fairly accurate impression of lens performance. You’re probably wondering why I didn’t do the testing on the higher-resolution M-Monochrom; simple: how else would you know if the lens was truly apochromatic or not without using a color body? Please also go by my comments rather than the images (which are for demonstration purposes) – I’ve reviewed and examined far more full-size, uncompressed images on my PC than I can post here.

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100% comparison screenshot at f2. Original (100%) size

50AAvsZM50planar-f8 sharpness copy
And again at f8. Original size

Focus plane differences aside, (and this is a prime example of how rangefinder calibration can seriously affect results) there are a lot of differences – and all of them in favor of the 50 AA. Neither one quite gets the color right – the 50 AA is too cool, and the Zeiss is too warm and saturated. What I previously thought was excellent and three-dimensional micro contrast (look at Bob’s scarf) on the Zeiss frankly now looks a little, well, soft (look at the label that wraps around the edge of the cigar box). The 50 AA has better bokeh, too; there’s a hint of double-edging and more spherochromatism on the Zeiss.

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Microcontrast, 100% crop at f8. Original size

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100% crop of bokeh at f2. Original size

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And again at f8. Original size

There are two pieces of good news, however – firstly, the differences by f8 are negligible; secondly, in actual shooting, the two lenses are a lot closer than this appears. Your focusing accuracy is going to make far more difference than the MTF charts. Secondly, both lenses are already at an excellent starting point – though the relative differences may be very noticeable here, I think perhaps comparing these to a Nikon 50/1.8 D might put things into perspective somewhat.

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100% crop of above image. Can you say, ‘detail’?

Remember my earlier article on T stops and f stops? The 50 AA meters the same as the older 50 Summicron, which is to say the Zeiss is 1/2 to 2/3 stop faster still. What this means in reality is that you can use the same aperture, get the same exposure histogram, but use a shutter speed that’s 50% to 75% faster on the Zeiss. It matters because you’re effectively getting more light into the camera, which can be critical especially in marginal situations.

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The 50 AA is undoubtedly the best 50mm lens I’ve ever tested by a small, but very clear margin. I’d love to have something this good to make the most of the D800E’s resolution, but the only thing that might come close is the Zeiss 2/50 Makro-Planar or Coastal Optics 60/4 APO UV-VIS-IR. The former has a very, very short focus throw from about 1m to infinity, which makes it tricky to use as an everyday lens; the latter is limited to f4. The only problem I have with the 50 AA is the price – I don’t know how this can be priced at the same level as much more complicated optical designs like the 21/1.4 Summilux ASPH; one can only hope it’s the degree of quality control involved (and I’ve definitely seen clear sample variation amongst even the 50/1.4 ASPH and 35/1.4 ASPH FLE lenses.). It’s also clear that the resolving power of this lens goes far beyond the current M body sensors, and perhaps reading a little deeper, says something about the resolution and pixel density of future M-mount cameras. Having said all of that – I’ve been hugely impressed with the results I’ve seen out of this lens. If you have the money, and must have the best, then this is the 50mm for you.

Come back in two days for the final part of the Leica May 10 series: how much resolution does the M-Monochrom really have?

The Leica 50/2 APO-Summicron-M ASPH is available here from B&H orAmazon.

____________

Visit our Teaching Store to up your photographic game – including Photoshop Workflow DVDs and customized Email School of Photography; or go mobile with the Photography Compendium for iPad. You can also get your gear from B&H and Amazon. Prices are the same as normal, however a small portion of your purchase value is referred back to me. Thanks!

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Images and content copyright Ming Thein | mingthein.com 2012 onwards. All rights reserved

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May 10, Part 1: The Leica M-Monochrom review

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Stairs. Sasana Kijang, Bank Negara Malaysia. Leica MM and 50/2 APO

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.

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Phone call. Leica MM and 35/1.4 ASPH FLE

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.

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Counting pennies. Leica MM and 35/1.4 ASPH FLE

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.

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The hat. Leica MM and 35/1.4 ASPH FLE

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.

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Lines of the Hoffmeister kink. Leica MM, 50/2 APO

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.

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Spiral, 2. Sasana Kijang, Bank Negara Malaysia. Leica MM and 35/1.4 ASPH FLE

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.

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The obligatory cat shot. Leica MM, 35/1.4 ASPH FLE

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).

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Cityscape. Leica MM, 35/1.4 ASPH FLE

*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.

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100% crop of the previous.

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.

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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.

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Tripod. Leica MM and 35/1.4 ASPH FLE

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.

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Waiting. Leica MM and 35/1.4 ASPH FLE

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.

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It works for Japanese-style street photography too. Leica MM, 35/1.4 ASPH FLE

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.

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Cockblock. Leica MM, 35/1.4 ASPH FLE

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.

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Waiting room and garage. Leica MM, 50/2 APO

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.

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Crossing. Leica MM, 50/2 APO

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.

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Family moment. Leica MM, 50/2 APO

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.

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Traffic again. Leica MM, 50/2 APO

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.

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100% crop of above shot – 50/2 APO shot wide open at f2 with zero sharpening.

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.

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Meaningless graffiti. Leica MM, 35/1.4 ASPH FLE

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 (mingthein2@gmail.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.

The Leica M-Monochrom is available here from B&H.

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