Leica M Monochrom

I debated for a really long time about whether or not I should buy an M Monochrom.  The idea of this camera is fantastic.  It only makes black and white images.  It uses the ridiculously awesome line of Leica M glass.  It's small enough to carry around everywhere.  Its controls are straightforward.  It looks beautiful.  

But there's always a but, right?

In the case of the M Monochrom the "buts" are non-trivial.  It's expensive.  It's only 24 megapixels in an age of ever-increasing sensor resolution.  It doesn't have autofocus.  Some of the retro styling stuff is a pain in the ass (e.g., the bottom plate that has to be removed to get to the SD card and battery.) . And did I mention that it's expensive.

Still, my interest in the M Monochrom was not going away.  I rented one along with the APO 50mm f/2, perhaps the best 50mm lens in the world.  I tested it against an A7rii, which on paper should thrash the Leica, and at a fraction of its price.  I even bought an adapter to allow the Sony to take Leica M lenses so that I could attempt to factor out benefits of the optics.  In my testing, the M Monochrom wasn't better than the Sony from a technical perspective, but, in terms of image sharpness, it also wasn't that far behind.  The Sony certainly wasn't technically superior to the same degree that my Phase One XF + IQ3 100 is superior to the Sony.  Still, the M Monochrom + APO Summicron 50mm f/2 lens is almost $15,000.00, and for that much money, the spec geek part of my brain was telling me that it was no bueno that a $4,000.00 Sony A7rii + Zeiss 55mm f/1.8 combo could beat the Leica.  It's like a Nissan GT-R being able to outperform a Porsche 911 Turbo.  Craziness.

So, I returned the M Monochrom rental and thought I was done with Leica yearnings.  But, a few things happened.  One is that for the second time now, a Sony camera has failed to gel with me.  I bought an A7r when it first came out and got rid of it almost immediately because I just couldn't convince myself to shoot with it.  I couldn't resist the hype around the A7rii, nor the fact that a huge number of friends were migrating to it.  I bought one early this year, and it fared a bit better than its predecessor.  I shot a bunch with it and took it on several trips.  I got good images out of it.  But I just don't love this camera the same way that I love my Phase One, my Fujifilm cameras, or even my Canon DSLRs.  The A7rii is a great camera.  Just not great for me.

And then.

I went to a workshop at the Leica Gallery in San Francisco.  Before I knew it, I was laying down my credit card for the M Monochrom and the APO Summicron 50 and 90.  And begging forgiveness from my wife.

The thing that did it for me was when shooting my favorite subject matter, people, the very first image that I shot with the M Monochrom wowed me the same way that my very first shot from my first Phase One camera did.  The rendering.  The tonal gradations in soft shadows.  The detail in the files.  The extent to which I could push things around to achieve the contrast-y monochrome look that I love.  It was like magic.  All very subjective, but, I was in love with this camera right away.  (My mistake when I rented the M Monochrom was shooting a bunch of subject matter that's not my speciality: sensor and optical torture tests and a bunch of abstracts.)

Beyond my immediate infatuation with the files coming out of this camera, a couple of funny things happened almost immediately.  First, I found that I was hitting focus, even with manual focus and my old eyes, at almost the same rate that I hit with my autofocus systems, even when shooting with lenses wide open.  I was super surprised by this.  I had assumed that one of the big problems I would have with a Leica M in practice would be missing focus frequently on good shots which drives me nuts.  But that wasn't happening.  (I still have difficulty focusing it in low light.  In general with the rangefinder, I look for something with high contrast on the plane where I'm trying to achieve focus, use that to dial in focus, and then quickly reframe.  The lower the light, the fewer opportunities you have for high contrast thingies in your focal plane of interest.  None of this is too dissimilar from how autofocus works, or doesn't work, in low light.)

Second, I found that the rangefinder's big field of view through the viewfinder and being forced to focus manually was making me much more attentive to framing, as well as allowing me to use focus in much more expressive ways than I typically do.  That's a serious win.

So, the A7rii is benched.  I've asked Santa for a wide M lens for Christmas.  The M Monochrom and three M primes are going to be my near constant companions, alongside my Phase One, which I'm finding surprisingly useful as a carry-around camera with the waist-level viewfinder and the still-outstanding image quality at ISO 800.

Here's to loving your tools!

Picture of the Leica Monochrom M typ 246, ironically, taken with a Sony A7Rii

Kevin Scott