In these ongoing times of separation and isolation (lock down and shut up, walk don’t drive, and so on), I am determined, come what may, to remain accompanied. In the absence of human friends and family, I am coming to know my cameras as companions. They each have a distinct personality, an attitude and reliable modus operandi. I choose one and we set off together, see the same things, report back and have a long deep conversation about how the day went.
My reconnection with personal photography work began last March when we were all sent home and told to stay put. Creativity, I believe, is an essential ingredient for stable mental health whilst a sense of purpose is a fundamental human need. Photography and writing provide me with both.
In parallel, the thumb-twiddling stillness of lockdown has led me to pace up and down, sigh, and eventually turn to spending for comfort and companionship. I have, in retrospect, invested unreasonably heavily in Leica cameras and lenses. I am easily drawn towards the pursuit of excellence and have always loved learning and exploration (as well as online shopping). I am a fan of the optimum – how good can it be? I need to know. In search of a reason to counter the wild eyes of my partner and the accountants, I hope that sharing what I have learnt and made will make my sudden behaviour appear somewhat more reasonable.
Of all the camera kit I have ever hankered after, the Leica Monochrom (in any form), renders me the most split. On the one hand, I long to belong to that creative elite, the niche within a niche, one of the few who has the financial, practical and emotional wherewithal to shoot Leica (niche No.1). No.2 is the fundamentalist monochrome persona, forsaking all colours in the name of contemporary photographic purity.
But… I then remember myself. I love monochrome, this carries no doubt or hesitation. My first fifteen years of photography practice are a novella in black and white, a 50mm lens cemented to the front of my Nikon for all personal and 90% of commercial work. In that time I also had the good fortune to train as a printer at Lightfingers, a unique, high-end monochrome lab, next to the lift shaft at Belsize Park tube station. Occasionally we would have to pause for a rumbling train to pass as vibration blurred the print on long exposures, under the soft yellow light. It was literally a golden time wherein I learned that many of our most admired photographers were a bit rubbish at the basics, like camera settings and metering, and so the art of our printing was to rescue and champion images that often deserved to be binned.
I learnt the dark art of film processing formulas, was constantly told to ‘fully understand grade 2 papers before bashing out punchy grade 3 prints,’ (Thanks Max) and, in that subterranean labyrinth, met and fell in love with the Leitz Focomat V35 enlarger—a masterpiece of design engineering and sharp corner to corner output.
What does this reminiscing have to do with the Monochrom? Getting elbow deep into the nitty gritty of black & white processing, printing and presentation has bred a confidence in me. At the very outset of converting colour to mono in digital files, I am in tune with the fundamental elements of what it is I am working towards. I have never wished they were blacker, whiter, better, sharper, smoother or indeed less noisy—I admire grain as a truly inherent part of the picture that announces it was made by the action of light falling onto light sensitive matter.
And yet… I do want to recreate the darkroom, relive the glory days of manual focus and motordrives or celebrate the genuinely inferior historic glass of a bygone age. ‘If you want retro,’ said the demure 80-year-old mother of a publisher I once worked for, ‘I’ll come and fucking live with you!’ In 2021, I love Lightroom with a view out the window, a comfy chair, a cuppa and some loud music. I like to pore (paw?) over eyelashes and gasp at bokeh. I grew up poor on a council estate so, inevitably, alongside the huge telly, I really like expensive, refined and capable.
When my curiosity first succumbed to the Monochrom magnetism of Leica circles, I did some research and emailed some questions. The original MM, the M9 Monochrom clearly has a loyal following that verges on cult status. As Leica’s first full-frame digital effort, the M9 colour camera had a dramatic impact when it was launched in 2009. The legend of its CCD render is understandable—coupled with a Summilux or Summicron, the distinct Leica look (with familiar focal lengths from the film era) had returned—with free film for life!
The 2012 launch of the MM, took the world by surprise: No colour? The audacity! With the extraordinary ability to produce usable files at 10,000 ISO—at that time, the stuff of fantasy—the MM was a Leica milestone. The Monochrom 246 came next, upping the ISO further but shifting to the more amenable CMOS sensor we all know and love. The following remained strong.
Fast Forward to 2020, and ISO noise is becoming very well controlled in all full-frame sensors. The Monochrom advantage has significantly decreased and so challenges the fundamental raison d’etre for the MM. Lens and sensor quality has made quantum leaps. On the differences between converting colour from the M10 and the Monochrom output, I received an unexpectedly grey response (from a well-known character in the Leica fraternity): ‘It’s just more of the same.’ I strode on, undeterred.
Reading from the Leica’s own marketing of the Monochrom M10, I see I am promised unprecedented depiction of even the finest details, along with an exceptionally natural-looking sharpness alongside decreased, finer-grained image noise. These promises are indeed delivered on, the hyperbole is absolutely true and incontrovertible. Yet it is this small glimpse of the nature of the beast, as you may have garnered, that throws me immediately into conflict: These are not the qualities at the top of my aesthetic list. If my background was in the studio, or in 1885, I would be longing for a rendition that is piled high with detail and pixels conjoining, utterly free of noise or grain, much like the slow, low ASA sheet film or glass plates that would be my bread and butter. But where is the 35mm Tri-X pushed to 1600 in that?
And still, it kept me awake at night, picturing the endless, stepless range from Snow White on a fluffy white cloud (those eyelashes!) to a black cat in the coal cellar at night. The noiseless velvety swoop of tone under the moonlight. You get the picture. So, I did what any reasonable, fixated, underemployed (on account of lockdown) person would do under the circumstances. I bought one, from Lucan at Leica UK, a thoroughly nice and very helpful fellow who had the only one in the country at the time, stashed under the counter at Harrods. And with Next Day Delivery!
The physical and psychological weight, gravitas and Bauhaus charm of the all black bible black M10M are, literally, awesome. It is a thing of beauty (if your beholder’s eye leans that way). I put a silver Summilux 50mm on it and we went for a walk together in which I felt like a cross between 007, a cat burglar and Marcel Marceau, stealthily, silently casing out… the marshes.
I’ve shot over 10,000 images on the M10M. There is no denying it has a quality and render all its own. The files are rich and subtle, with exquisite separation of tone and more life in the shadows than Piccadilly Circus under lockdown, whilst the fragility of the highlights demands respect and with it, a newfound attention to the histogram. The M10M produces beautiful images up to at least 25,000 ISO which by rights should be unnecessary for normal purposes. Red, orange and yellow filters in three sizes now populate my camera bag in a thoroughly modern nostalgic coup. I have a growing collection of artisanal camera straps. Something is afoot.
With fast lenses, as with the M10-R, this Monochrom suffers more from vignetting than my M10-P (deeper sensor wells for the higher megapixel count, I am told) which for those seeking the look of film is probably considered a good thing. For me, still recovering from the jaw-dropping clarity and stellar performance of the Leica SL lenses, I am once again split. But would I give it up?
Just before Christmas, I heard from Lucan again. ‘Have you thought about the Q2M? I’ve been utterly blown away by it.’ Just selling, I thought. It’s not for me. I have the Q-P which I admire but have not fully bonded with on account of its wide view on things and disarming light weight. It has also been a bit overshadowed, as I enthusiastically plunged into the M10-P and M lenses for much of 2020. ‘It’s utterly charming,’ he continued. ‘You won’t regret it my friend.’ Having seen the recent Leica work on my new website, he declared, ‘it’s definitely a part of you.’
Embrace the Soul
The Q2 Monochrom page at Leica’s UK website starts with announcing how black and white photography continues to exude a unique fascination, mystery and beauty. Compared with colour photography, it is the most authentic manifestation of ‘painting with light’. Blimey! This matrix of desirable qualities embodied in a camera, and by proxy, in the user, is an alluring, practically irresistible proposition. See Me: I am authentic, fascinated, mysterious and practicing my art at the very etymological root of photography itself. All I have to do is fork out five grand (plus an artisanal strap of course).
Much like contemporary car advertising, we no longer hear about outright performance or handling but hey, look at that high-res screen with Apple Play! The run through of the camera’s photographic capabilities is unravelled later on, having focused first and foremost on the Q2’s intuitive and timeless soul and the matte black finish. Sign me up, I am ready to be intuitive, timeless, soulful and, I admit it, be the man in black.
Delving deeper, I discover that only the pure light levels are captured and rendered sharper. Additionally, this unique sensor also boasts significantly broader dynamic range and extremely low image noise. Sounds familiar. Yet added to this mix of impending perfection is a fixed 28mm lens, my least comfortable focal length. So many admirable attributes of this camera collide, rather than rhyme, with my own photographic ideology, my personal history and my current needs and desires.
My Q2 Monochrom arrived two days later. Now I am a niche within a niche with soul. So what happened?
The Q2M has made me rethink my point of view in more ways than one. I am a diehard 50mm fan who considers the wider 35mm focal length a little bit edgy. Despite my trepidation with the Q-P, the fixed 28mm lens is similarly a true gem and has that pin-sharp yet molten Leica look. Coupled with the mono sensor, the image is distinctly more contemporary than the M10M, though it is still emotional and clearly Leica. I have to work harder to use this space well, although the angle of view cleverly replicates that of a smartphone. This has, over time, baked 28mm framelines into my pre- frontal cortex!
Seeing the Light
Paul Reid, a Cumbrian photographer and fellow Q2M adopter has spent more time than me bonding with his camera and could scarcely be more enthusiastic. ‘I don’t know why but the Q2M has inspired me in ways I could never have imagined. The ordinary and mundane has become exciting! I’m drifting about singing to myself with joy as I look for the next story to tell, the next moment to capture.’
I am not sure if it’s only Leica that can prompt this level of unsolicited enthusiasm, but I can understand that thrill of finding the exact tool which reflects the very heart of you. He goes on to say, ‘I totally get how the Q2M isn’t for everyone. It is for me however a life changing experience.’ Clearly, for those it fits, it is very hard not to like the Q2M. I fully expect to become a member of that bright-eyed club. In the meantime, whilst I am still getting used to the new camera, it has led me to re-befriend the original Q-P, my first Leica. It has its similarities and differences—the lower pixel count is a treat to work with.
Plenty of Room
The future (and the cutting-edge present) clearly belongs to Mirrorless, yet they are not the only viable kit for making pictures. There is room in photography for noise and noiselessness, rangefinders, mirrorless and DSLR cameras. There is room for high and low megapixel counts, field cameras, roll film, iPhones, pinholes and whatever they call Polaroid now (is it maybe—Polaroid?) These are all tools for the job and horses for courses. Systems, unlike spouses, do not demand fidelity or an exclusive commitment. I can relish the immediacy of eye detection on the SL2 and the next moment engage with the M10-P rangefinder. It’s important to play—I have been out playing (on my bike of course) with the Techart AF adapter, some M lenses and my Nikon Z 7 (watch this space). Photography, at its best, is a means for self-expression and the only rules I value are those that discipline and refine that process.
A Victimless Crime
I admire Leica, still healthy, still growing, still developing an array of equipment that is superb to work with and produces signature results. I like hand-assembled lenses that take weeks to make and come with a hand-signed card. I like how they continue to make rangefinder cameras that, if they were introduced for the first time today, would garner literally no traction. Leicas do not shout. Their marketing feels understated and just a little bit hypnotic. As a company owner, quietly inducing desire in our customers, I relate. As I watch the strings make those puppets dance, I choose to believe.
And whilst the Monochroms have not elevated me to a higher plane of existence or given me the cool of Johnny Cash, they have added a welcome discipline to my approach. The one profound addition these cameras offer is the subtraction of colour—no more or less significant than choosing a roll of Tri-X. And that is that. I am now thinking in black and white. Job done!
I have decided that (to misquote Robin Williams) ‘a Leica Monochrom is God’s way of saying you have too much money.’ It is fundamentally an unnecessary machine. What it does can be very nearly, if not wholly, replicated with other Leicas, or even with much more humble kit in the same way a 13mm nut can also be undone with a pair of pliers. In print (and especially online), I could not, with a gun to my head, spot the difference between a native Monochrom file and a skilled colour conversion. And yet… it’s clear to me that whatever these cameras bring, it is discreet, subtle, magical and verging on invisible, like ambience or karma. In its defence, the concept and execution of the Monochrom pair is sublime. I will carry on with both these specialist instruments (alongside their colour counterparts). I think they demonstrate a magnificent, daring take on what refined and targeted equipment can be and present a thoroughly rewarding, homogeneous monochrome journey—the prime reason for using a Monochrom. Moreover, the implicit insistence on looking only at what light does, at tone, contrast, shape and shadow, brings me a more intense and conscious relationship with the experience of photographing. No small beans!
POSTSCRIPT: FAKE VIEWS
In the above article, there are three imposters—pictures taken with a full colour camera and then converted to monochrome in Lightroom. I perpetrated this brazen fraud to demonstrate, both to myself and you, the viewer, that the difference is indeed, quite slight most of the time. One featured rogue was not even shot on a Leica but, instead, with a Nikon Z7, (and a Leica M lens with the Techart AF adapter). Can you spot which fake “Monochrom” images are hiding in plain view?
And Finally, Reflection
I noticed while selecting these images that the Leica body shape, paired with my left- eye preference, has thoroughly favoured the landscape format. Note to self: Get a grip, the camera can also be portrait oriented. It also seems that the Monochrom M10 is inevitably paired with the APO- Summicron-M 50mm, a lens designed specifically for full frame digital use and launched with the first of the Monochroms in 2012. This is a perfect ergonomic and spiritual match—body and lens are each simple, direct and highly optimised. As a newcomer to the rangefinder world, I am most comfortable using this 50mm, with the 35mm Summilux FLE coming in a close second as I attempt to literally broaden my horizons and bridge the gap to the Q. The biggest difference I notice with my current work is not the sensor (there are five different sensors used in this article), but the dialect of the lens – the indisputable strength of Leica.