Home Uncategorised Leica Q2 Monochrom hands-on review

Leica Q2 Monochrom hands-on review

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Introduction

The Leica Q2M is the company’s fourth monochrome camera in the last eight years. It is especially interesting because it is the first non-rangefinder camera with a black-and-white sensor.

I think it’s worth starting with a little history of monochrome cameras.

Back in the early days of digital capture, Kodak ruled the world with cameras costing tens of thousands of dollars. In 1991 they introduced the DCS 100 DM3 with a 1.3MP monochrome sensor; this was based on the Nikon F3 camera, and it had a separate DSU (Digital Storage Unit) which went over the photographer’s shoulder (and was extremely heavy). It cost around $25,000. There is a fascinating article about it at Nikonweb (see references at the end of this article).

Click on images to see them full-size and to scroll through all pictures in this article

In those days the demosaicing process was not as good as it is now, and that camera produced two or three times the definition of the normal colour version. Combined sales of the colour and monochrome version were apparently 987 cameras.

In 2001 they produced a 6MP black and white sensor behemoth based on the Nikon F5—The Kodak DCS 760M. By now there was competition from Nikon, with the D1 and D1x, and the price was a slightly more manageable $8,000.

There is a very good piece on this camera by Pete Myers on Luminous Landscape—see the link at the foot of this article.

Sadly Kodak completely failed to capitalise on their head-start in digital imaging, and especially the on the concept of a monochrome camera. Despite producing the first full-frame dSLR in 2002, by 2005 they were out of the professional camera market altogether, the last camera being the DCS Pro SLR/n in 2004. I had one, it was a fine camera if a little quirky! But they never shipped the monochrome version.

Leica had great success with their M8, and then full-frame M9 digital cameras and the idea of making a monochrome version of the M9 seemed a bold and interesting move. I had a test camera in April 2012 and was lucky enough to be at an exciting launch of the M9 Monochrom in November 2012 in Berlin. I still have and use my own M9 Monochrom. It was, and still is, a great camera.

The 24MP M246 Monochrom was announced on 30 April 2015. The  M10-Monochrom on 17 January 2020 with a new 40MP sensor, and now, less than a year later, we have the Q2 Monochrom with a 47MP sensor derived from that in the Q2 (and SL2).

I had the Q2 Mono for around only three weeks for testing last August. Covid-19 meant that I couldn’t make any trips with the camera, but I took the time to look carefully at its performance in comparison with the SL2 (which has essentially the same sensor but with a colour filter array).

As usual, I should emphasise that my job with Leica is as a camera tester, and my responsibility 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 critical.  I don’t get paid for writing these articles (either directly or indirectly). I’m not told what to write, and although I do show the articles to Leica first for fact-checking, that is all that they do.

Why a Monochrome Camera?

Technical reasons

With a colour digital camera, the sensor itself can detect only the intensity of light, but it has a colour filter array to allow it to create colour images. The process of converting the image to colour is called demosaicing. This calculates the colour for each pixel based on the colour filter, and the results from the surrounding pixels in groups of four. The colour filter array reduces the amount of light reaching the pixels by around one stop, and the demosaicing process affects the resolution because of the combining of information.

With a monochrome camera, you don’t need the colour filter array. This means that each pixel gets the maximum amount of light, thus improving the high-ISO characteristics of the camera and the dynamic range. As there is no demosaicing process, there is no loss of resolution. Each pixel is represented directly in the final image.

Of course, there are also downsides: Many of us have become used to converting colour files to monochrome using the channel mixer in our processing software. This, in effect, allows us to apply filters to our images after the event. With a monochrome camera, if you want a red filter, you need to put it on the lens rather than relying on your computer.

Another issue is that, despite the higher dynamic range, it’s more important to ensure that you don’t overexpose bright areas. With a colour camera, you can usually extract some detail from one of the other colour channels. With a monochrome camera, once it’s blown out there is nothing to recover. This is slightly exacerbated by the higher base ISO of the sensor (usually twice that of an equivalent colour sensor).

Photographic reasons

Demosaicing techniques have improved over the years, and although there is an obvious improvement in resolution without a colour filter array, it’s not quite as sensational as it was when the M9 Monochrome appeared in 2012. Added to this, 47MP resolution should be quite enough for most uses.

But, having spent a lot of time with all of the Leica Monochrom cameras over the years, I’ve come to think that the most important reason for shooting with one is how it changes one’s approach as a photographer. For me, at least, it makes me think much more about the structure and composition of an image. With the previous M Monochrom cameras, shooting normally with the rangefinder you did still see the subject in colour, the Q2 Mono takes this a step further in that you see the motif in black and white through the viewfinder. You start to think in black and white.

Body and Design

Leica’s design department people have gone from strength to strength, making increasingly beautiful and functional cameras. The Q2 Monochrom is no exception, and, with its grey and white markings, it is indeed handsome.

From a functional and operational point of view, except for the obvious lack of white balance controls, the grey lettering and the changed ISO values, the Monochrom is identical to the standard Q2.

The Lens

The lens is the same as that of the Q and Q2: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it! It’s a wonderful lens, compact and very sharp, it does soften up a bit at the corners, especially at wide aperture, but most of the frame is pin-sharp right from f/1.7. A simple twist of the lens engages Macro Mode and changes the distance gauge most delightfully. Close focus is 30cm in normal and 17cm in Macro mode.

Controls

The aperture ring is on the lens with the shutter speed on the top plate (just like the Leica M cameras). This makes the camera seem very familiar, Both the aperture and shutter speed dials have an A(auto) position.

  • A on both = Program Mode
  • A on shutter dial = Aperture Priority
  • A on Aperture dial = Shutter Priority
  • A on neither = Manual exposure

Three function buttons can be assigned as needed, and the now-familiar Leica rear buttons with Play, Function and Menu are all present. Personally, I would have liked to see a joystick such as the one found on the SL and SL2.

The Digital Zoom

Digital zoom is something of a dirty word in the photography world, probably from the days when small megapixel cameras offered gravelly shots at apparently extended focal lengths.

The Q2 Monochrom is a bit different because the base resolution is so high, and because the implementation is so good and so consistent with the Leica rangefinder.

Implementation of crop mode or digital zoom in other cameras usually involves the EVF/LCD zooming in. With the Q2 Mono, as with the Q2, you can change between four focal lengths using the zoom/lock button. Choosing a longer focal length simply puts framelines in the display, showing what you are going to get.

If you shoot JPG files then that is exactly what you do get. If you shoot DNG then the image is not actually cropped. However, if you use Lightroom or Lightroom Classic, then the DNG file appears in the cropped form (you can use the crop tool to change or remove the cropping in post-processing).

The four digital zoom modes

Focal lengthPixelsSizeEffective aperture
28mm8368 x 558447MPf/1.7
35mm6704 x 447230MPf/2
50mm4688 x 312814.6MPf/2.8
75mm3136 x 20966.6MPf/4.6
“Effective aperture” refers to the depth of field effect

I think this is a great feature and, with the increased resolution of the Q2 Mono, it makes the 50mm crop zone perfectly usable and the 75mm okay at a pinch (especially as the lens is so sharp).

Of course, it doesn’t actually turn the lens into a different focal length, and the aspect ratio of the resulting image is exactly the same. What you lose is the depth of field relating to the cropped focal length. Basically, this will always be the same as that of a 28mm f/1.7, so it’s harder to use bokeh to isolate the subject.

Due to the big demand for review cameras, I don’t have one in front of me, but if you want more details, then please refer to my original review of the colour Q2.

Image comparisons

During the test period, I had neither an M10 Monochrom nor a Q2, both of which would have made interesting resolution comparisons. However, my old friend and partner in crime, Sean Reid is doing a very detailed comparison of these three cameras. More about that later.

I thought it was interesting to compare the Q2 Monochrom to three of Leica’s recent high-resolution colour cameras, the M10, the M10-R and the SL. Of course, the lens used is an issue in that one can’t do real oranges and oranges comparison. In this case, I’ve used the 28 Summilux-M ASPH for the M10 and M10-R and the SL 24-90 at 28mm on the SL2. Images were all shot as DNG, and the colour images were converted to black and white in Adobe Lightroom.

For all these tests the camera was set on a sturdy tripod with a two-second shutter delay. To try and limit focus variances, shots were all taken at f/5.6. The shutter speed was allowed to vary to ensure that the images were as consistently exposed as possible.

Here is a full example of the test scene:

Resolution

Of course, I’ve shot hundreds of images, but in terms of the resolution, I thought it was more sensible to do a resolution test at 200 ISO. I’ve used the centre of the frame (roughly) for the comparison. The M10 and M10-R Images have been upsized in photoshop so that they are the same size as those from the other two cameras.

In addition to this resolution comparison, I did a series of shots of a hedge at about ten metres at different apertures. Sadly there was some movement in the hedge, and on some of the shots, there are obvious signs of blurring. I no longer have the Q2 Mono, so I can’t redo them, but although most of each frame is very sharp, it isn’t all perfect, and I think that posting examples might be misleading, added to which they are very boring.

However, what I found was that the Q2 Monochrome shots had an obvious advantage in the centre at all apertures, with a real magical presence to the files, at f/1.7 and f /2.8, the Q2 Mono was slightly softer at the corners than either the SL2 or the M10-R. Stopped down a little more, the corners were about even, but even at f/8 the Q2 Mono still showed an obvious advantage in terms of presence and detail.

High ISO Performance

Base ISO on the Q2 Monochrom is 200; there is also a pull option of ISO 100. For this test, I made comparisons at the following ISO values

  • 200 ISO
  • 800 ISO
  • 1600 ISO
  • 3200 ISO
  • 6400 ISO
  • 12,500 ISO
  • 25,000 ISO
  • 50,000 ISO
  • 100,000 ISO (Q2 Monochrome only)

I loaded the groups of four DNG files directly into photoshop, magnified them to 100% and then taken a screenshot and labelled it.

Looking at these comparisons, it’s evident that the Q2 Monochrome has a considerable advantage over the other three cameras, especially as the ISO value increases. At higher ISO values, it’s probably about 1.5 stops better. Together with the higher resolution, this is obviously going to be a real advantage when shooting in very low light. It’s quite remarkable how much detail there is, even in the 100,000 ISO shot, even the banding is very well controlled. An impressive performance.

Conclusion

Sadly, because of Covid restrictions and the relatively short time I had the camera I didn’t manage do any street photography, and precious little portrait photography either. Hopefully with the results of the Pfizer vaccination test this week we will all be on the move again before too long.

The Q cameras have been a real success story for Leica and a perfect example of their talent for finding a photographic niche and making it their own. The only real competitor has been the Sony RX1R II with its 35 mm Zeiss lens, but Sony has not updated this since 2016 (which, with the rapid product cycles, sounds like they’ve abandoned it).

I have to admit to starting off feeling that in this day of 48MP resolution there wasn’t really a need for a monochrome version of the Q2, but I have to admit to having been quite captivated.

The superb high ISO performance is a real bonus when shooting in low light and gives one extra flexibility in normal light.

The resolution might not be needed, but the look of the files is so wonderfully clean and ‘present’.

I think that this camera is going to be a real hit with street and travel photographers, indeed, anyone who shoots primarily in black and white.

Acknowledgements

Special thanks to Peter Kruschewski and Stefan Daniel at Leica camera for supplying the test camera and answering questions.

Thanks also to Emma who has to put up with me moaning and bellyaching when I write these articles

References

Sean Reid has done a great deal of comparative testing with the Q2 Monochrome.

He is planning to publish 4 articles over the next few days on his site reidreviews.com. It is a subscription site, but very much worth the modest fee, Sean doesn’t do any dramatic ‘teasers’, he doesn’t have any brand allegiances, and I really feel that he is doing the most useful and honest testing of cameras today.

  • Review based on extensive field testing as well as studio comparison tests of rendering and noise levels (at various ISO settings) for the Q2M, Q2 and M10M with 28/1.4 Summilux ASPH
  • Studio resolution and vignetting tests comparing the Q2M, Q2 and M10M with 28/1.4 Summilux ASPH
  • Field and studio comparisons of how the Q2M renders tonality with each of the three Leica colour filters
  • A studio comparison test of highlight headroom and usable dynamic range for the Q2M, Q2 and M10M with 28/1.4 Summilux ASPH

In addition

Jarle Aasland’s article on the DCS 100 on NikonWeb
Peter Myers review of the Kodak DCS 760m at Luminous Landscape
Jim Garvey’s article The DCS Story 1987-2004
Jonathan Slack’s review of the Leica Q2
Jonathan Slack’s review of the Leica M10 Monochrom

More from Jonathan Slack on Macfilos

15 COMMENTS

  1. As always, appreciate the in-depth review, in particular the comparison shots.

    The high ISO performance is quite remarkable, especially given the high resolution.

    As a Q2 (and SL2) user the resolution might not strictly be needed but, in particular not he Q2, it is appreciated for what it enables in post (cropping in particular, whether in editing or in camera with the frameline crop modes).

    It’s an interesting move by Leica, given how successful the Q/Q2 have been.

    • Thanks for that Narain – someone somewhere else said he didn’t ever want to see another clock face 🙂

      I have had to considerably eat my words about resolution – technically I don’t think it’s needed, but I think the pictures look different – even at web sizes, I can only think that it’s to do with ‘sampling’ rather than actual resolution (they don’t, after all, look sharper). My feeling is that it’s most obvious on areas without a great deal of detail, but with subtle tonal differences.

      But it could all be my imagination!

    • Haha – I’m sorry to have turned the knife. . . but, stick your 28 ‘lux on the M10M . . . . . the only disadvantages are
      1 close focusing
      2 seeing the scene in colour through the rangefinder
      best
      Jono

  2. So I figure you are already in heaven on earth,what you do for an encore? Love your reviews and favorite photos here the dog, the stroll in wooden lane, and the beached boat. Thank you, is the wooden lane the same one you photoed in XVario Paula article.

  3. Great review and comments, Jon! This is the first Leica Monochrom that really looks like film to me. Blacks seem deeper and the tonal range is luscious. Worth serious consideration.

    • Hi David
      Thank you – I’m not sure it exactly looks like film (at last, not until about 10,000 ISO!). But the tonal range is certainly wonderful.

      I’m seriously wondering myself at the moment (counting the kidneys).

      All the best

  4. excellent review, Jonathon.

    I suspect that with the Q, i’d always opt for the colour version. Whereas I may be tempted by an M monochrom. Not sure why.

    • Hi Jason
      Thank you.
      Funny – I feel rather the other way around. I think it’s because the Q2M is a complete thing, whereas an M10 Mono would always be arguing with my M10-R for the lenses. And also being able to see the viewfinder in black and white.

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