I have been lucky enough to test all three of Leica’s monochrome cameras. The 18MP M9 Monochrom was launched in Berlin amongst much excitement in November 2012. The 24MP M246 Monochrom was announced two and a half years later in April 2015. We have had to wait nearly four years for the latest version: the M10 Monochrom which was announced earlier today.
I think that for many of us the M10 was the ultimate digital expression of the Leica rangefinder camera. The design team had managed to reduce its size to that of an M7, to speed it up, quieten the shutter and streamline the operation. Then came the M10-P with an even quieter shutter.
Click on images to enlarge
The M10 Monochrom retains the quieter shutter of the M10-P but adds a completely new 41mp monochrome sensor (7864 x 5200 pixels, or 40.892MP). Of course, this brings up a number of immediate questions:
- Are the M lenses good enough to support such resolution?
- Does anyone really need this much black and white resolution?
- Are the M10 electronics sufficient to deal with such big files?
- Is it possible to hold the camera steady enough with no stabilisation?
- Is it possible to focus accurately enough with the rangefinder
I’ll be looking at these questions in the course of this article.
As usual, I should emphasise that my job with Leica is as a camera tester, and my job is to report problems to Leica (which I certainly do!). On the other hand, I would never miss out anything which seemed to me to be valid criticism and I don’t get paid for writing these articles (either directly or indirectly). I’m not asked what to write. Although I do show them to Leica first for fact-checking, that is all that they do.
In the past (and always by chance) it has turned out that testing cameras has coincided with one of our trips abroad. This time it hasn’t been the case; what’s more, I’ve had a pretty busy time at work. So, apart from a brief working trip to Cornwall (where it rained every day), the images in this article have been shot mostly within walking distance of home (or in a local pub!).
The M10 Monochrom body is beautiful to behold. Indeed, I think this might just be the loveliest of all the variants (perhaps of all the digital M cameras). The body is a stealthy black chrome, with no red dot (just the big screw of the M10-P). It has no logo on the top plate, just the word MONOCHROM engraved in small letters at the front (mine also has P03/15 engraved to indicate its prototype status). On the back it says LEICA CAMERA WETZLAR – MADE IN GERMANY but, in common with the engraving on the top plate, this is not picked out in colour.
The shutter-speed dial has the values picked out in white (as usual), but the A setting is grey rather than red, and this goes for the M setting on the ISO dial and the red dot on the on/off. The rear plate is the same as on a normal M10, with LV, PLAY and MENU buttons on the left and a four-way rocker switch on the right, together with a central button. The thumbwheel and its bump are also the same as the M10.
The whole effect is very discreet and really smart.
Operation, Speed, and Menus
If you put a much larger sensor into a camera with the same processor you are inevitably going to impact on the speed of processing. This is certainly the case with the M10 Monochrom. Shot-to-shot times, writing to disk and review times are all slower. So perhaps this isn’t the camera for sport!
On the other hand, I mostly use Sandisk Extreme Pro 64GB 95ms SD cards and, with the camera on continuous-fast, it takes ten DNG files at high speed before pausing, and another ten before really slowing down.
I can’t imagine anyone using continuous on a camera like this, but it does show that for measured shooting the slightly slower processing times are unlikely ever to cause an issue. Certainly, I’ve never been inconvenienced by it.
On the rare occasion, the camera is behind itself reading or rendering a file it shows the file number (rather than a question mark or error).
If you’re a fast shooter you should be aware of this issue, but for most normal photographers it won’t ever be relevant. The important point is that as far as I’m aware there is no shutter lag involved, whether you use the EVF or not.
I’m not going into the menu system in any detail. As expected, it is pretty much identical to that of the M10, but with colour and white balance options removed.
Having spent much of the last year using Panasonic and Fujifilm cameras, I find it a real joy getting back to Leica’s simple but functional menu system. I think it’s sometimes overlooked how much purpose and determination Leica put into keeping it like this.
Focusing and Image Stabilisation (or not)
The Leica M rangefinder (or, in German, Messsucher, hence the “M”) was first released in 1953, and it wouldn’t be unreasonable to wonder whether it is still fit for purpose for a 41MP sensor 67 years later in 2020.
I’m not fortunate enough to own a 50 or 75 Noctilux, but I’ve found rangefinder focusing with my 50 Summilux Asph and 75 APO Summicron to be easy and reliable, even wide open (I mostly shoot wide open). I have a practice game I play, which involves focusing with the rangefinder, and then checking whether it’s correct in the EVF, it always reassures me what a wonderful tool a rangefinder still is.
Which brings me back to the EVF. I know there have been a lot of complaints that it’s rather old school, and I long since stopped using it with the M10 (I’m pretty good at focusing with a rangefinder, and I like to see around the subject).
I found that I liked using the EVF with the M10 Monochrom; partly because it was nice to see the image in black and white, but also for focusing: I think it works best with focus peaking turned off, and with auto-zoom turned off (with zooming on the front button). For most images, I found there was a shimmer of excitement over the area in focus, with no need to zoom in for critical focus. I particularly enjoyed using it with the 60mm Macro Elmarit R.
For those lucky enough to have a Noctilux or the 90 Summilux, I imagine, the EVF will be a real benefit, but I’ll only use it when I want to see the end result before I take the picture. Surely the point of a Leica M camera is the rangefinder (at least that’s how I see it).
With respect to image stabilisation, of course, it would be nice to have it, but the very quiet shutter and the solid body seem to have made camera shake a relatively minor problem. In addition, the fantastic high ISO together with the extra stop you get without the colour filter array means that you can use the ISO settings to preserve a high enough shutter speed. In this context, I found the 1/f 1/(2f) and 1/(4f) minimum shutter speed in the Auto ISO settings particularly useful.
Image Quality, Resolution and ISO
I’m afraid that I was dead set against Leica increasing the resolution from 24MP which seemed to me to be the perfect compromise between quality and convenience, resolution and file size, perfectly capable of a good-sized print and fast processing.
But I’ve changed my mind: the extra price to pay in terms of processing power and storage space really is small in the face of the extra advantages in terms of image quality and crop-ability.
With the SL2 and now the M10M I’ve found myself shooting just with a 50 or a 35, when previously I would have used a zoom, or a 35 and a 75 (and the lens changes that that implies).
The monochrome sensor in the M10 Monochrom foregoes the Bayer filter required in colour cameras. With a Bayer filter, groups of four pixels (red, green, green, blue) are processed in a batch and then separated into four pixels in the demosaicing process. This means that theoretically, the Monochrom has four times the absolute resolution of a colour sensor.
In fact, the modern demosaicing routines are very good, and so the resolution bonus with a monochrome sensor is perhaps nearer to double rather than x4. But that still left me wondering whether M lenses are up to a comparative resolution of 80MP.
I thought I’d test this with my idea of the Leica M Triumvirate:
- Leica 28mm Summilux Asph
- Leica 35mm Summilux Asph
- Leica 50mm Summilux Asph
I shot my tame copper beech hedge at a nasty ten metres at f1.4, f2, f4, f5.6 and f8 with each lens. All of them lost a little at f1.4 and f2 in the very extreme corners (the 35 FLE was probably the best). Stop down a little and the corners are perfect, but, even wide open, all but the very corner of the frame is beautifully sharp.
Unfortunately, I don’t own a Leica M246 Monochrom, but I do have my M9 Monochrom with the CCD sensor, and I thought it might be interesting to do some comparisons between the original Monochrom (from 2012) and this new version.
I took pictures of our kitchen dresser in low artificial light with each camera on a tripod with ISO between 160 and 10,000 (for the M9M) and up to 100,000 (the maximum ISO on the M10M) I did 100 per cent comparisons at natural resolution, and with the M10M scaled down to match the resolution of the M9M. I then made A4 prints at critical ISO values.
What is immediately clear is that both cameras are actually quite usable right through the ISO range, but there has been a huge boost in image quality over the last eight years, and the difference between the cameras in terms of noise amounted to about two to three stops. So that the M9M at 10,000 ISO was marginally better than the M10M at 100,000 ISO but not as good as the M10M at 64,000 ISO.
Dynamic range is quite a different thing, you still have to be a little careful not to overexpose the highlights, but the amount of detail which is hidden away in the shadows in files from the new camera is nothing less than breathtaking.
The easy part is to say that this camera is a joy to shoot with, a joy to handle, and produces wonderful images quite suitable to make very, very big prints. The only possible functional criticism which I can find is that it’s a little slow processing images and writing them to disk (SD Card).
But why a monochrome camera? Sure, it was exciting and interesting in 2012 when Leica brought out the first Monochrom, and arguably the resolution benefits were bigger then, when the M9 sensor was just 18Mp.
These days, converting from colour to black and white in post-processing is much easier, it allows you to change the conversion on different colour channels. And the higher resolution of modern sensors surely makes the increase of resolution of the monochrome sensor largely academic.
But shooting with a black and white camera imposes a discipline on the photographer which can be really valuable: It makes you really think about the structure of the image and the composition, whereas colour encourages a think-about-it-later ethos.
And then there is Leica. While other manufacturers chase each other’s technological tails and moan about falling camera sales, Leica have the courage to produce excitingly different cameras, free of the function fetish of their competitors and still brave enough to produce something which really is exciting. I am absolutely convinced by this camera and it has been a real pleasure to have it and shoot with it for the last four months.
© Jonathan Slack January 2020