“I don’t know how I would deal with a snow landscape. I would be on thin ice because the whites are so undefined with the Leica M 246 it’s not even funny. Live like a vampire – avoid the bright light! Simply put always to live like red-haired person who cannot stand sunshine, and keep the camera 1/3 under exposure. Not 1 stop or 2 stop, just slightly under-exposed.” — Thorsten von Overgaard, The Leica M246 goes to Paris, 2015
As with most things in photography, this excursion started with a view. More pertinently, it began with a view through a certain viewfinder. Not any optical finder but THAT electronic viewfinder, the amphitheatre in the SL 601. Those who looked through its ground-breaking aperture in 2015 already know exactly what I am talking about. One look and I was, like others, infatuated.
Thus began my journey into Leicaland. I had not gone to the store to look at the SL but a Q. I walked away Q-less but certainly not clueless. I tried not to think about it; I just couldn’t get that view out of mind. Back I went to check it was as bright, clear and magnificent as I thought. Sure enough, it was indeed magnificent. So the deed was eventually done, and off I pottered to the Swiss Alps in winter equipped with the SL 24-90.
For the kind of scenery I like to capture, this set-up is proving to be a winning combination of versatility and guaranteed sharpness. Alpine mountains present complex, fragmented subjects to the camera and I found in the SL, then SL2, a nigh-on perfect tool with which to pull that detail out and print it big. When touring on skis, I can sometimes cope with the extra weight of the incomparably sharp zooms of this system. IBIS means I can dispense with the tripod. Lightweight pods in deep snow are of dubious benefit anyway. Whether winter or summer, however, increasingly I found myself shooting primarily black-and-white images and becoming utterly disinterested in alpenglow.
While in no way dissatisfied with the results from my SL, I began wondering whether weight and bulk could be cut by using an M Monochrom and a couple of lenses a 21 mm Super-Elmar and a 90 mm Summicron APO. In the 70s and 80s, the mountaineering camera system of choice was the Olympus OM and a selection of Zuiko lenses. Compact, light and eminently pocketable, it was in the kitbag of more than one member of Chris Bonnington’s 1975 “Everest the Hard Way” expedition. Why, therefore, could I not make a mono M system work in the mountains, knowing full well that the rig is not dust or weather sealed?
Lockdown descended, M10Ms were too expensive and unavailable, but a Typ M246 could be had at half the price from Leica Manchester. Living landscape photography like von Overgaard’s vampire thus began for this once red(dish) haired individual. It would be late August before I got to test it in the Alps and get an answer to von Overgaard’s question of what would happen with a 246 shooting snow, but before that I made it my go-to camera for everything. What did I discover in my journey to the dark side?
I found a simple joy in seeing the dowdy DNG output burst into life in Silver Efex Pro. The files are as close to true digital negatives as I think we probably come at this point in time. Contrary to von Overgaard’s injunction, I found that this living-like-a-vampire business was better at a good -1EV than just a third. What worked for him in Paris had little prospect of being transferrable to the Dark Peak, and it wasn’t. Provided ISO was not at 6400 or above, I found the files afforded complete creative control. I learnt that no matter how dark and dank the file looked on the LCD ( they actually looked better on the screen than when loaded into LR or C1, I needed to trust the sensor to yield something decent once the correct tools were used.
I thus marvelled at its extraordinary shadow recovery. If you wanted, detail in zone one could be found and sent all the way into zone three. I found the images to be far less clinical than my SL output. Dare I say it, a degree of creativity was perhaps set in motion that I never thought would stir. All driven by the playful latitude which lurks in the mid-tones of these Monochrom files. I found that instead of fretting about ISO increasing, I could let it float upwards to levels which would produce unappealing outcomes on a colour sensor. Noise looked like grain, detail was retained, and the mid-tones seemed to have a pleasing glow just not found on the SL.
Initially, I tried to put effort into using the correct screw in coloured filter for the scene typically favouring orange or red, but my discipline waned. And I found it not as pivotal to satisfying images as I supposed. More important was hooking up a Lee 75 filter system to enable me to use a polariser, six-stop NDs and N Grads. Now I can immediately sense the disdain. Surely, no one burdens such a svelte camera with these very ‘analogue’ contraptions? It does indeed look like a tragic confusion of concepts strapping this kit onto the archetypal reportage camera. But if you do not care for exposure blending (much or at all) and you want to slow things (like water and sky) down, there is no real alternative when trying to misappropriate an M camera as a landscape tool. I could run and skip along the moors with such lightweight kit, chasing what I thought was Mono light.
Hooked on monochrome
So far, so good. It’s not even winter, and I have not ventured anywhere near a city for lowlight urban shooting to test its higher ISO performance. Still, already I am hooked on the simplicity of Monochrom only work. I developed a deep trust that, in the depths of the darkness I repeatedly committed to the sensor, something exciting could be extracted using the superb contrast sliders in Silver Efex Pro. I stopped looking for an essentially polished image in the camera, probably for the first time since picking up a digital. As long as focus and composition were sorted, radical underexposure to save the highlights became a new modus operandi. My shutter-to-chimping ratio improved significantly.
July 2020 was perhaps the most sultry on record here in north Derbyshire with greyness predominating on far too many evenings across the moorland edges. A month which I might ordinarily have written off for improving my mono game slowly shaped up into one in which I felt I was taking a huge step forward. I found myself high and far out on the gritstone edges an hour or two at most before darkness when there was nil prospect of a sunset or golden hour. But, equipped with the M246, I was capturing scenes out of the drabness which would just not have presented as sensible with my colour eyes on.
Now I am not for one moment pretending that a mono conversion could not be obtained from what I recorded this July. My point is that by starting to think and to visualise these edges through the mono-only sensor of an M246, a new type and time of photography began to open up for me. I discovered that I did not always need hard, high-contrast light to produce satisfying mono images of the natural rock sculptures which adorn these edges.
In the Valais
By late August, I was able to return to the Alps for ten days of mountaineering in the Swiss Valais. During this trip, my practical difficulties in using the rangefinder began to coalesce and gang up on me. I got around shooting the 21mm lens by using the VF-2 electronic viewfinder rather than a strapped-on optical wide-angle device. Being benevolent to this aged viewfinder, it is at best a guide to what is going on out there in front of the camera, and that is especially the case in changing outdoor light. My eyesight is disastrous in multiple respects, and rangefinder focusing was a challenge from the start. I often use short telephoto lengths in the mountains and tried a 1.4x magnifier when using the 90 mm APO, but it did not seem to improve my hit-rate on nailing focus via the RF.
Every time I picked up the SL2, it brought into stark contrast to the difficulties I had in focusing the M246 and began to test my willingness to persevere with my new-found mono habit. It is not that I craved autofocus. For much in the mountains, it is hardly critical. What I did increasingly long for were ‘modern’ focusing and compositional aids. Manual focusing through the modern generation of electronic viewfinders is, in my view, an unadulterated photographic pleasure when out in challenging environments. On occasions, the magnification and peaking options help, but the calibre of modern EVFs is such that, even with my mix of Magoo-like short-sightedness my simultaneous need for near-sight correction, my lazy left eye and my poorly corrected astigmatism, even I can see the scene pop into focus through the viewfinder of SL cameras.
I began to want to move my focal point around the landscape to produce different effects and not to be confined to a central point when soldiering on with VF-2. Zone focusing at f/8 was not the answer, but it had been my predominant means of getting shots using the 21mm lens. Factor in mist and fog enveloping my state of the art varifocal specs in the winter months and I had more than a little doubt that I could make the M Mono system satisfying and fun to use.
I was not, however, prepared to kick the habit that easily. The solution, it seemed to me, must lie in Leica producing a high-resolution OLED viewfinder that could slot onto an M camera. How naive! What heresy!
Investigation revealed this was never going to happen for the M246, but that something better than the Visoflex might, just might, be fabricated for M10 series cameras. But there was nothing in the pipeline.
Enter the Q2M
Now, a Visoflex atop an M10M is a jump up from VF-2, but it is still a quantum leap behind the viewfinder we now have in SL2. A sense of proportion also intrudes. With just a few quid back from £8,000 for an M10M and Visoflex, it made little sense to have still a sub-optimal set of focusing aids for my eyesight deficiencies, albeit an eccentric focal point at least became viable in Live view of the M10M.
I was reconciled to hanging on to the M246 and biding my time, but then came the Q2M. I reflected that nearly always I had the 21 mm lens strapped to the 246, and so it came to pass that my mono habit could be fed by the ‘apparent’ limitation of having a fixed 28mm lens. In what must rank as impulse buying within one hour I got the 246 and M lenses valued at Leica Store Manchester and the team there quickly sorted out a cash-back deal to equip me with one of the first Q2Ms to go into orbit.
The Leica Q2 Monochrome is, quite simply, the continuation of the joy and discovery I experienced using the M246 taken to the next level. It may feel intrinsically less serious than an M camera and, perhaps, testing will show that its sensor is not quite as high-ISO-capable as the M10M sensor. This, for me, is irrelevant. The feel of the files is every bit as deep as M246 DNGs. I now sense that in Q2M I have the aesthetic capabilities and fun which I found to reside in the darkness of M246 files, but with the compositional and focusing aids which will nurture my mono habit for at least another half-decade. Already, I can say that it is less of a vampire than the 246, more able to cope with some degree of brightness.
A week in November is not a long time to really get a detailed sense of Q2M. But already I can tell I it is going to delight even more than the M246. First off, an ISO level which you can confidently allow to float to 6400 before any unpleasant luminance noise intrudes coupled to IBIS renders the Q2M a landscape running gun at dawn and dusk. It is not often that landscape shots require or benefit from wide-open shooting. Shooting without a tripod, at f/8, at 1/15s on the Q2M at dusk becomes a cinch because of its ISO insensitivity.
Consider the throwaway shot of the creased gritstone boulder below. By rights, this should just not be possible. Not because the camera can’t see in the dark but because with needing to go as high as 6400, we would expect truly awful rendition of detail, all the more so as we pull the shadows out. Sure, there is noise—we can see it under the rock where shadow recovery has been at its most aggressive—but what may always continue to surprise and delight is that with these mono sensors we no longer feel that we are just getting by with some wretchedly grainy, impressionistic snapshot.
Instead, what we have here is very usable retained sharpness of the creases (which we could usually expect noise to smudge terribly) and, most astonishingly, individual pine needles still clearly differentiated and not blown out. The credentials of the Q2M as the vampire’s accomplice seem to be truly intact.
Next up, the middle tones of the files appear to me every bit as fecund as those from the M246. Differences are nonetheless apparent. The doubling of the resolution yields crisper fine details. Quartzite pebbles and pits in gritstone obelisks are definitely more detectable without peeping too closely. In fact, textures of all kinds are just more prominent because of the resolution gain. The greater prominence of such detail might not suit a more impressionistic style. Still, the creative potential of a compact which can render detail in close-up shots on a par with 50MP modern medium format sensors is, in my book, an exciting new frontier in walk-around landscape photography.
There is then the dreaded issue of highlights. Von Overgaard’s playful rendition of his experience of using the M246 made, in my view, a compelling point: that the bright zones were handled very badly and zones 8, 9 and 10 got merged into too many bright blotches without detail. My sense so far is that, while major highlights still need to be watched like a hawk, that is now simple through the live-view histogram in the viewfinder. Lighter tones (perhaps 8/9 in the Adams system) appear to be rendered with more nuance and subtlety.
One of the problems I found with the M246 files is that very light grey or green lichens on rocks and gravestones would not appear blown out on the histogram but would regularly have no detail when being processed. Already, on the same subjects, I see more texture in these high(er) lights in the images from the Q2M. Snow was indeed a problem for the 246 sensor. Von Overgaard was right to be concerned. Its inability to consistently produce high(er) light detail on snow-clad alps late this summer was a disappointment and a reason why I concluded it would not ultimately work as a landscape tool in such environments with the outcomes I wanted.
The jpeg files are extraordinary. Not because the film simulations or the toning options are especially pleasing. Instead, what has astounded me is just how far these files can be pushed and pulled around when processing without the usual degradation this would inflict upon the file.
Robust is an understatement. I confess to using the larger-sensor Fuji system for some work, and its jpeg output is also very malleable. My initial sense is that these Q2M jpegs may even have more latitude in them. It is thus not catastrophic at all if you happen to forget to set the file format to DNG or simply wish to go with the weak sepia and selenium jpeg toning options.
As to those, well, I am not immediately impressed. I fear the software engineers have painted with a heavy brush. The ‘weak’ options look like 40% tonings in Silver Efex Pro. Toning is, par excellence, a matter of personal taste and judgment.
Nonetheless, compare the three shots below of the same scene: weak selenium out-of-camera; weak sepia OOC; and then a DNG file with structure and a 15% sepia tone applied. My own view is that the toning options may best be left to application when processing. It is a pity. With this much resolution on offer, the subtlety of toned jpeg output really should be more attractive than this. It is not sufficient for Leica to retort that the Q2M is designed primarily with DNG output in mind.
The aids to framing and composition are just brilliantly executed in Q cameras. The horizon line is a simple, intuitive tool for any landscape camera, especially when shooting quickly and off a tripod.
On the M246 I had two small red dashes which I found just plain unhelpful. I don’t want to spend any unnecessary time levelling images in Capture One when it can be so easily achieved in camera.
A new landscape camera
The wind blows for probably three hundred and thirty days a year along the grit edges of the Dark Peak. A cloud of fine pounded dust can be seen in the air on the wilder nights. These are not really places for cameras without dust sealing.
Whereas I would never have wandered about with the M246 at the ready—it went back into its bag immediately—without being heedless the extra degree of dust sealing in the Q2M has left me content to bumble along the edges at dusk this week with the camera where it should be: out and at the ready.
While many expect the Q2M to become the most luxurious ‘street’ compact yet delivered, for me, it will now be my constant companion on regular forays across the edges and plateaux of the Dark Peak.