Three months ago I swapped camera systems and moved from Canon to Leica, specifically their M Monochrom. I swapped from a range of L lenses to a Leica Summicron 35mm f/2. Leica products are expensive and I am far from rich; I literally had to cash in my entire Canon system of body and lenses and still hand over cash that would buy a Nikon D4. Did I mention the camera only captures black and white images? Hence the moniker Monochrom.
I sincerely believe I was destined to be paired with a rangefinder. Over the many years of my continuing life as a photographer, only relatively recently did I veer from manual mode and manual focus to using auto focus and those other bohemian modes, like aperture priority! And, whilst spending so much time bending lenses to the lines and facias required for capturing architecture, my heart beats to the style of candid scenes of life in the streets.
This Monochrom is very much true to the tradition and brand that is Leica and, to all intents and purposes, still very much an M (which stands for Messsucher, a German term for the combination of rangefinder with viewfinder). Controls are pared to the minimum; manual focus and aperture via lens rings, aperture priority or shutter speed and ISO. The matrix of colored filters that overlay the sensor to allow cameras to deduce color information is missing. The Monochrom’s sensor simply records luminance and, without the Beyer matrix layer interfering in the path of the photons, is all the more sensitive to light.
Leica says, “It is the first full-frame, 35 mm format digital camera to be designed exclusively and without any compromises for black-and-white photography.” and they don’t lie about this. There are no bells and whistles to distract you from those elusive and decisive moments.
Baffled by the choice to spend so much and to exclude the photographic world of color, there are some key questions people often ask.
One immediate observation is that the Leica system of cameras and lenses are compact. In the quest to capture a scene without being noticed – not so simple, even with a camera phone – this camera absolutely wins over similarly capable DSLRs; they are bigger and comparable lenses have imposingly large front elements. My 35mm has a filter diameter of 39mm and most of my old Canon lenses were 72 or 77mm. No one remains ‘candid’ when facing an 85mm f/1.2L.
Personally, the range finding focus system is a major selling point for me. By looking through the range view finder, and not the lens, the scene is bigger than the captured frame. This is quite a significant boon for composition, however, the unawares can shoot quite a few frames before realizing the lens cap is still on!
Why only black and white?
Black and white photographs are, to my subjective self, a purer aspect of photography. I see the absence of color as a more honest and naked medium. The color of a captured image is affected and interpreted by the capture device, the image processing, print medium and, of course, the non calibrated eyes of people. It seems to me that we can represent luminance more accurately and uniformly for everyones eyes. Often, in my shooting days before Leica, I would view a scene and decide it will be black and white and expose accordingly. Color can certainly be a distraction.
Why not convert color images to black and white and retain the flexibility?
The answer to this is a combination of the creative and the technical. I love representing the world with black and white images. This being the case, I wonder why I should compromise this creativity by having my scene captured by a device which is simply interpreting the luminance of the scene through Beyer filters and, subsequently, I have to go through a similar process converting the color image to my own flawed memory’s version of the scene. No thanks.