The Leica M10-Monochrom... and a Trifecta of Monochrom's


A Trifecta of Monochroms

The Leica M10-Monochrom on the left, with the M246 in the center and the original M9-Monochrom on the right.

This image taken with a Leica M10. All other images taken with a Leica M10-Monochrom.



The mid-winter sun is harsh, that January afternoon. As I pick my way through the final miles to the camera store in Baltimore the light comes in at an oddly low angle, mixing with the tall buildings to produce, alternately, deep shadows or bright highlights. My mind notices the contrast, unconsciously, and abides what I'd need with Tri-X and Xtol at 1:2.

Inside the store, one I've never been in before, I walk tentatively towards the back counter. Last chance to back out of this thing. But, no, you don't drive an hour and a half on a whim. The expense is surreal, an unfathomable amount. But I'm already committed to this, and I know it.

They set the box out on the counter, but won't open it. "Only for serious buyers," the two gentlemen aver. I nod. I'm just an old country boy with a pickup truck outside and I know I don't look like the clientele who might buy such a thing. I study their faces for a moment, and then reach for my wallet.

The long drive home is a mixture of excitement… and worry. Repeated glances at the box resting there in the passenger seat next to me, imagining the things it might conjure. And thinking about the cost, wondering what the hell have I just done?


* * *


The backdrop for me, of course, is film. Decades of film. Kodak and Ilford and Fuji. And the hardware and glass… first Canon. Then Nikon. Later, Bronica and Hasselblad. Each wonderful in its own way.

Out of all that, though, nothing was as breathtakingly transformative as the Leica M6. Another day with the pickup truck parked outside a camera store, this time in Tysons Corner. And another wondering what the hell have I just done?

Some people never glom to a rangefinder. Some people grow to it slowly, with time only gradually leading them to its virtues.

Me, I knew instantly. This simple, spartan camera wrought, for me, a richness unmatched by any other. It was the perfect alignment of my photographic stars. And the M7 which joined it a few years later simply underlined it all.

So, really, that drive to Baltimore, and the M8 which came home with me, wasn't such a stretch after all.



* * *


The other part of the story, the other transformation, was the rise of digital and the collapse of film. Those of us who lived it are still astonished at the speed at which that all happened. Not least the long-storied camera and film marques that could not believe the news and so slid to their ruin.

For me, the first intimation that the ground was shifting beneath our feet came on a multi-day motorcycle trip deep into the mountains of West Virginia. At each stop during that trip I would dutifully extract from my tank bag the Nikon F5 loaded with Provia 100 behind professional Nikkor glass. And then, mostly on a lark, I'd swap the big Nikon for a little point-and-shoot I had also brought along. The Coolpix 950, a Christmas gift from my wife and children a few months prior, represented my first foray into digital photography. I considered the little 2-megapixel camera little more than an interesting curiosity. It suffered from hideous shutter lag. And I already knew that its limited dynamic range quickly circumscribed any high-contrast scene I might stumble onto.

I didn't expect much. And because I didn't, I was unprepared for what I saw, back home, bending over the light table, a few days later.

Scene after scene - dozens of them - shot at the same time, in the same light. First with the big Nikon… high-grade glass, high-grade film, high-grade everything. Then with the little Nikon with the tiny sensor and awful ergonomics.

I wanted to like the Provia slides more. I deeply wanted that, for the "pro stuff" to prevail. Having invested a lifetime of time and effort and money in a thing, we circle the wagons and close our minds.

Back and forth, peering first through the Schneider loupe, then raising my eyes to stare at the computer screen in disbelief.

The only thing I had in my ken like this was a decade earlier, during my experiments with Kodak's Technical Pan film. The images that came out of the soup then were remarkable for their clarity. There was an openness, a transparency, to those Tech Pan images that was astonishing. They were clean, in a way I had never seen from any other kind of conventional film.

And that's what I was seeing now, out of this crude, little Coolpix.




* * *


The M8 had a difficult birth. First there was disbelief that it would ever happen. Leica's official line in the early days was that it couldn't. A digital rangefinder wasn't possible.

A few years later Epson's quirky, little R-D1 disproved that.

And when the M8 did finally make its appearance it was almost instantly enveloped in controversy. Early reviewers quickly noticed that synthetic black materials rendered as magenta. That's a problem at weddings and in lots of other scenes, of course. Notwithstanding what we might imagine were the Teutonic grumblings back in Solms "why vould anyone photograph synthetic? Eet must be organic, natural!"

A lot of us fell back off the fence at that point.

To their credit, though, Leica got it sorted in pretty short order. They promised a pair of IR-Cut filters to every purchaser, a solution that, if inelegant, nevertheless fixed the problem. And so after a bit many of us climbed back up on the fence. And then fell off, on the other side.

Teething issues aside, the M8 was a revelation. Here, finally, was a high performance digital rangefinder, purpose-built to take advantage of the decades worth of fantastic Leica glass. Those of us who had that M-camera ethos buried deep in our bones but who had, out of necessity, strayed to various DSLR marques because that was the only way we could obtain the advantages of digital - it being overwhelmingly clear, even then, that sensor-based photography was quickly supplanting film - could come home again.

The M8 was good enough that its images still hold up remarkably well today. I loved mine and carried it with me everywhere. To work. When visiting family. On my frequent motorcycle trips. Everywhere.

But it was far from a perfect camera. Like the girlfriend who has suddenly put on thirty pounds, the previously svelte dimensions of the M were replaced by a sturdy thickness. Nothing we couldn't adapt to, of course. But, yeah, fat became the new normal.

The snick of the film M's shutter - so sublime that it put you in mind of a razor-thin slice of time itself being shaved - was gone, replaced by a cacophony of whirring mechanical sounds. I won't say it was an abomination. But it was close.

The haptics of the camera - how we interface and interact with it - was… well, let's just say it was kind of crude. One of the legendary qualities of the M was its propensity to disappear. Held there in your hand, it was an extension of your eye and your heart. You didn't have to think about it. The M8, with its slow processor, frequent need to be "awakened," and hard-to-see LCD screen was none of that. It worked well enough, but required a fair bit of attention.

Probably worst of all was the crop sensor, suddenly rending asunder all our carefully ingrained notions of what a particular focal length meant. Again, we adapted and adjusted. I ended up buying a 28 Summicron just so I could have something like my old 35mm back. Having a sensor that elongated every lens you put on the camera certainly wasn't the end of the world. But it was one more thing that you always had to be mindful of. One more translation you were always juggling in your head.

Worry not, though. We didn't know it at the time, but the great, good news was that the M8 had set us upon a journey.

Almost three years to the day from when the M8 was introduced… Leica announced it's successor. The M9 had the same slow processing, the same clumsy haptics. But it gave us something vital… a full-frame sensor. All of a sudden our lenses became normal again. The focal length that was inscribed on the lens barrel was what we saw through the viewfinder and what the camera rendered. I remember the joy I felt - almost a sense of relief - when all my lenses were once again "right."

And so we arrive at the crux of this tale. The M9 had become the go-to for many of us. Like my old M8, mine went with me everywhere. The years rolled on.

First came the leaks of what would eventually become the M240. Everyone knew a new camera was coming. Three year product cycles, right?

But then something strange. Rumors of a black-and-white-only camera began to appear. Most of us, hearing such conjecture, were dismissive. I, personally, thought it was about the dumbest, stupidest, nuttiest idea I could possibly imagine. Surely, Leica could not be that crazy!

Turns out, Leica knew some of us better than we knew ourselves. That M9 of mine spent most of its time in "black and white mode," a sort of pretend fantasy where you config'd it to produce a DNG+JPEG, with the JPEG rendering a B&W image… so the rear LCD would display that. The "real" image - the DNG - was still color, of course, and you still had to do a proper B&W conversion in Lightroom when you sat down later to edit - but at least the shooting experience gave the illusion that you were shooting black and white.

And because this new camera - "Monochrom," notably without the trailing 'e' - was such a surprise, there were some cameras in the first batch that were not spoken for. Including one at my dealer.

For me, what began as a lark quickly turned into a revelation. Like so many others, I was blown away by the richness of the Monochrom files. They combined acuity and detail and sharpness, added an organic, filmic character such as I had never seen out of a digital camera - and offered that up in an effortless, painless picture-taking machine. A Leica M, no less.

It was magic.

Me? I was head-over-heels in love. The days turned into weeks. The weeks into months. The months into years. The images turned from the hundreds, to the thousands, to the tens of thousands.

The M240 - announced mere weeks after the Monochrom arrived - eventually showed up at my dealer, and I dutifully purchased it, having long been on the list. But my heart wasn't in it - the only Leica M I have ever purchased that I wasn't overjoyed with excitement. The Monochrom was, for me, the epitome of everything photographic.

But even though the M240 sat forlornly on the shelf, it had offered up one tantalizing clue. You couldn't handle it, you couldn't trigger the shutter on it, without realizing that Leica had finally fitted a fast, modern processor, a vastly better LCD screen, and a much improved shutter to their new digital M body. The Monochrom, wondrous overall camera that it was, carried on with the rather crude appointments that came with the M9.

One didn't have to be a sage to see that those improvements would eventually make their way to the Monochrom. And what a camera that would be!




* * *


The M246 was, for many, a study in disappointment. The original Monochrom had had no predecessor. The marketplace it entered was virgin. And so while the potential clientele of the Monochrom - any version - has always been vanishingly small, at least the first version marched onto the field unopposed. The M246 had to fight for every sale it got. For every hardbitten type like me - utterly smitten with black and white photography and eagerly intent on advancing the art in any way we could - there were more who saw no reason to upgrade.

Much of that was simply because the original was so good. It was a uniquely special camera, its image quality so compelling that making a case for a "better" Monochrom would inevitably be a tough sell.

And unlike the original, the M246 didn't surprise. It delivered exactly, precisely what was easily predictable… the much improved body of the M240, the vastly improved haptics, the better shutter, and the higher-resolution CMOS sensor.

That CMOS sensor, in particular, came in for criticism. Cleaner than the CCD that preceded it, with greater dynamic range and much improved high-ISO performance, it nevertheless came to be seen by many as somehow lacking. To some eyes it didn't have the same magic as the original Monochrom. It didn't have the same "filmic" quality.

Owning both versions of the Monochrom, I had plenty of opportunity to compare the imagery between the two. I've never made a habit of doing "camera tests." Shooting brick walls on a tripod has never been my thing. But after thousands upon thousands of images, first with one camera, then the other, I think those criticisms of the M246 were and are unfounded.

Having already spent the money for both cameras, I no longer had a dog in the fight. If truth is to be found in our deeds, rather than our words, all I can say is that over time I began to pick up the M246 more often.

Both versions of the Monochrom are remarkable cameras. Both are special in a way that only the most die-hard black and white photographer can ever understand. I love them both, deeply. But of the two, on balance, the M246 is the better camera.




* * *


Confirmation bias is a thing. It's real. And it's ubiquitous. A fellow who spends $8,300 on something is probably the last guy in the world able to give an objective view of that thing.

The flip side is every bit as real. All the fellows who choose not to buy the thing. Their's is simply confirmation bias held in a mirror. Whichever choice we make, we seek affirmation of that choice, trotting out rationalizations stretching from here to Sunday. We human beings certainly are an insecure lot!

But the question still begs: How good is this new camera? How does it differ from those that came before it? And how, if I were to buy it, would it affect my photography?

How does one sort all that?

I don't have an easy answer, save take everything with a grain of salt. Including this, right here.

What I can say is that Jono Slack may be biased… but his is a gentle, wish-'em-the-best kind of bias, probably like most of us who have a long history with Leica. And although Jono does, indeed, do a fair bit of actual camera testing, that's not the central part of what he is about, and it's not what he publishes. What he does do is take pictures. Lots and lots of pictures. And then he reports on what he sees, what he finds.

And so when the new M10-Monochrom was finally announced, I did what I usually do first… and headed on over to his site (Jono Slack - M10-Monochrom).

Sean Reid's site is subscription, of course. But for the price of a modest dinner for two you'll have access for a year to what I think is probably the most objective technical analysis of all things Leica (Reid Reviews). If Jono gives you an artist's view, Sean gives you the technician's. Between the two of them you'll come away with a pretty reasonable idea of what's up.

And since we're talking about a trifecta of Monochrom's, I'll throw in one more… Gregory Simpson. Greg isn't a regular tester like Jono or Sean, but he very occasionally will review a camera for Leica. He did with the first two Monochrom's. He has an inestimable writing style and a penchant for honing in on the most salient elements. I was hoping against hope that Leica had, once again, cajoled him into doing a review. And, indeed, we got lucky (Ultrasomething).

That, for me, is the short list.

My own opinion?

Well, before I answer that I have to pause and reflect on the backdrop to all this: film. I shot film for decades. I love film. I still shoot film. I carry two long-expired boxes of film - one of Kodachrome 64, the other of Delta 3200 - in the dash pocket of my pickup truck, simply because seeing it there makes me feel good. It was film, in that M6 and M7 of mine, that made me such an ardent fan of Leica rangefinders.

But I can remember the first time I souped a roll of 120 Tri-X. It may have been the same emulsion, but the images that came off that roll bore no resemblance to the hundreds of rolls of 35mm Tri-X that I was long familiar with. It had a cleanness and a clarity I had never seen in 35mm, save for Tech Pan. I had an epiphany that day. I realized that the the size and quality of the recording media matters.

And although film may still be the benchmark, the reference I use for all things photographic… it long ago yielded the field to digital when it comes to quality. 35mm film still has its charms. But 35mm full-frame digital, from pretty much any camera, from any marque, beats it hands-down in terms of richness, tonality, detail, and printability.

Modern 35mm digital is so good, in fact, that even medium format film suffers in comparison. When I scan my 6x6 Hasselblad negatives I end up with huge, luxurious 390MB files. Viewed purely on their merits, they are wonderful. But they don't hold up to the frames that any number of modern DSLR, rangefinder, or mirrorless cameras routinely put out. Back in the day, with film, serious wedding, portrait, and commercial photographers used medium format almost exclusively. Now, with few exceptions, they're all using 35mm digital.

And so where, in all that, does the Monochrom sit? Either the new M10-Monochrom or its two predecessors?

I long ago said, of the original Monochrom, that when I stood in front of an important scene, a scene meaningful enough that I wanted to capture it in absolute full fidelity, for all time… I wanted the Monochrom in my hand. That thought held, with an asterisk, for the M246 - the asterisk being that neither the original Monochrom nor the M246 gave me my best black and white images. That award went to converted images from the 50-megapixel CFV-50c digital back on my Hasselblad. Even with demosaicing and a Bayer array, size usually trumps all.

But with its leaf shutter and 1/500 max shutter speed, the Hasselblad 500-series isn't exactly an apples-to-apples comparison with a Leica rangefinder. In natural light you need to have the Hasselblad on a tripod to realize the amazing quality from that digital back. Which is just another way of saying that you probably wouldn't have it with you in the first place when that fantastic, capture-it-for-all-time scene presents itself.

I'll pause once again and point out that assessing image quality in a digital file the way too many photographers qualify images - viewing jpegs from a web site on a computer screen - is a fool's errand. You need a raw file or a TIFF or a PSD - a lossless, uncompressed format you can dive deeply into. Or else you need to make actual prints. Very large prints.

If you do enter that realm then the sum of it all, for me is this… the original Monochrom produces better images than any film emulsion save, maybe, large format. The original Monochrom produces better images than converted black and white from all 35mm color digital cameras. The original Monochrom trails medium format digital.

The M246 produces slightly better images, on balance, than the original Monochrom. Again, there is no film camera that can compare, except for the kind that must forever live on a tripod. And there's not much, if any, in the 35mm digital world that's in the same ballpark. The M246 versus medium format digital is a closer race, but the edge still goes to the larger format.

The M10-Monochrom?

The latest black and white wunderkind from Wetzlar was both what we expected… and what we didn't. The "one more thing" surprise was the significant increase in resolution. Not many of us expected a new 40-megapixel sensor.

More isn't always better when it comes to resolution. All else being equal, camera shake becomes an increasing concern as resolution increases and pixel cell dimensions decline. There's a sweet spot that balances having enough pixels to provide sufficient detail, yet having each pixel site wide enough that sharp photos can still be made. Many of us thought that 24-megapixels in a non-IBIS camera system was about right.

The wizards in Wetzlar had another idea: what if ISO didn't matter? What if a sensor could be built that had such a high dynamic range, with such low levels of noise at pretty much any practical light level, that ISO could be eliminated as a factor?

And that's exactly what they did. The M10-Monochrom produces such stunningly clean files, at such astonishingly high ISO settings, that you almost don't have to consider it. Since the dawn of photography, the sensitivity of our recording media - first film, later silicon - was one of the triad that a photographer could never, ever forget. Along with shutter speed and aperture it dictated what we could, and could not, do.

With the M10-Monochrom you can, mostly, just let your ISO "float." And because you can do that, you can raise your shutter speeds with impunity. And because you can do that, you can still handhold this camera, in spite of its 40-megapixels.

That there is the miracle of the M10-Monochrom. A camera that realizes all the goodness of high resolution - the detail and acuity and clarity and tonality that is held in promise with all those pixels - without the sudden softness that all too often accompanies it.

It is a camera for the ages.




* * *


My cousin hands me the glassine envelope. "I found these in grandaddy's old trunk. No idea what they're of. I thought maybe you could do something with them?"

Carefully extracting one the 120 negatives, I hold it up to the light. The silhouette of a half-dozen people stare back at me out of the emulsion.

"Sure," I smile, my heart already ratcheting as I carefully replace the negative. "Let me borrow these for a few weeks and see what I can come up with."

Back home the next day, I pull the cover off the Hasselblad. The negatives are in remarkably good shape considering they must be over half a century old. Usually with old pictures you end up with an old print. Probably small. Cracked and faded and the best you can do is to scan it on a flat-bed and go from there. Negatives, especially negatives in good shape… well, they're a gift.

It takes only seconds to prep the first strip of four. A few puffs from the blower, the gentlest stroke with an anti-static brush, first one side, then the other. I take my time laying the strip in the X1's film holder, making sure the margins around the film are perfect.

There are thirteen frames, but when the first one appears on the monitor a minute later I know instantly what this is. A visit to Northern Virginia by my grandparents, probably sixty years ago. A four-year-old me is in the frame, along with my sister and several cousins. An entirely unremarkable family snapshot, a tableau no different from millions of similarly unremarkable snapshots all over the world.

Except… when you look at this picture you quickly realize that five of the eight people who stood there in the hot afternoon sun that long ago day… are gone. They are gone save the memories we hold of them, and the pictures we cherish.

I will spend many hours on those scans, spotting the TIFF's and making very large prints. And being reminded, once again, of the power of photography.




* * *


In the M10-Monochrom we finally have a Leica M coming full circle. The journey that began with the M8 has, with the fullness of time, at last reached fruition. The girlfriend, after struggling with her weight for years, has once again found fitness. The svelte dimensions of the film M's are back. Focal lengths are what they are supposed to be. The shutter is once again remarkable for what it doesn't say. And the camera is back to doing its disappearing act in your hand.

What it has gained, meanwhile, while away on that long journey, is something hard to believe. The wonder of a fantastical M3, one you could somehow load with 8x10 Tri-X, even while retaining its convenient dimensions and swiftness of purpose.

And since we're wandering around in the land of fantasy, it's not hard to imagine that Henri Cartier-Bresson, were he alive today and walking the streets of Paris, would have one. That's not a surprise, because Henri loved his art and the privilege of his station allowed him to mostly have whatever it was he wanted.

But on the other end of the spectrum we can also imagine Vivian Maier wandering the streets of Chicago with one. I suspect it would have been a struggle for her to afford such a thing, but photography was her life's passion, like it is for many of us. She used some of the best tools available back in the day. And so, yeah, I can absolutely see her finding a way to make that happen.

Not that any of us need an M10-Monochrom to make exceptional black and white images. Photographers, more than any other kind of artist I know of, labor under the conceit that equipment will make a difference.

It rarely does.

But, having said that, it's undeniable that sometimes it does. And even when it it's not making a difference to our image, it often can be found lifting our heart. For there is something ineffable, something wondrous, in grasping a fine tool. Wielding it well brings a joy and a charm all its own… not to mention a sense of responsibility. We harken to live up to what we know it is capable of.

And so sometimes it inspires us to take chances and to produce work that might otherwise have forever lain in the shadows.

And you can't put a price on that.