Leica’s M cameras have a rich heritage and scores of devotees who cling to their simple, manual operation and bright optical viewfinders. Photographers with years of experience with the system can feel right at home picking up the latest digital model, or a film body that’s been making images for decades. A big part of that is Leica’s devotion to body design, which certainly classifies as iconic after more than sixty years. Another is servicing photographers with specialized versions of its cameras, like variations of its digital M models devoted to black-and-white photography.
By removing the color filter from the image sensor, these M Monochroms—the first based on the M9 and the second on the M (Typ 240)—net black-and-white images with crisper detail and smoother tones than color images from sensors of comparable size and resolution. Its latest M10 Monochrom ($8,295), based on the premium M10-P, shares much of its body design and mechanical components, including a touch LCD and quiet shutter mechanism. But it bucks the trend of simply removing the color filter array from an existing sensor to make a black-and-white camera.
The M10 Monochrom sports a newly designed 40MP full-frame CMOS sensor. It has a lower base sensitivity, down to ISO 160 from the ISO 320 sensors used by the previous models, so you don’t have to rely on neutral density filters to use a wide aperture under bright light. And it can be set as high as ISO 100000, making photography possible in the dimmest of conditions.
The camera body is, aside from some aesthetic differences, the same as the M10-P. It matches most 35mm M bodies in size, so it feels as comfortable in your hands as an M3 or M6. The viewfinder is a 0.72x magnification, with a bit better eye relief than the previous-generation design, so eyeglass wearers will have an easier time seeing the 28mm frame lines.
You also get built-in Wi-Fi and support for the clip-on Visoflex EVF. The camera works with the Leica Fotos app to transfer images to your phone—a plus for social media posts while traveling. I didn’t get a chance to set it up and try it, but because the wireless system is the same as other M10 models, it’s already supported by the app.
Aesthetically, the Monochrom is only sold as a black chrome body. Leica has swapped out red engraving in favor of gray, giving the camera an even more understated look than the M10-P. From the exterior, the only indication that it’s a black-and-white camera is a Monochrom badge, engraved in small block text on the top plate.
Why Not Convert?
Let’s face it—a few clicks or taps is all it takes to change a color image to a black-and-white one, and every digital camera with a color sensor will let you make monochrome JPGs in-camera. So, to paraphrase Jerry Seinfeld, what’s the deal with black-and-white sensors?
To start, understand that camera sensors are black and white to begin with. The CMOS sensor inside your iPhone or dedicated digital camera uses an additional filter to remove certain wavelengths of light at each pixel site. The most typical design, named after inventor Bryce Bayer, uses a four-by-four repeating pattern of green, blue, and red to add color to photos.
Because of this, there’s some interpolation—computational guesswork—required to fill in gaps. So far it’s the best practical solution to making color images, but it does so at the cost of some resolution. Some color cameras use multi-shot modes, coupled with sensor movement, to sample color at every pixel site to get around the need to interpolate. Leica has promised to add that function to its SL2 later this year via a firmware update.
Omitting the color filter array entirely means that light is sampled at every pixel site, without the need for multi-shot sampling techniques. You’re not converting an interpolated image, but rather getting your monochrome image directly from the sensor. This nets shots with more detail and smoother transitions between tones.
There’s also a psychological aspect. When you pick up a camera that’s incapable of color imaging, you look for photos that will work well in black and white. Whether it be the play between light and shadow, interesting bits of texture of contrast, or a moody portrait, you’re certain to look at the world with a different eye, just as you would with a 35mm camera loaded with Tri-X or HP5.
A Quick Test Drive
I’ve had a Leica within arm’s reach, in one form or another, for close to fifteen years. I started with an M8, later moved to the M (Typ 240), and still use an M3 when I want the film experience. Needless to say, the M10 Monochrom felt right at home in my hands, and will in yours if you’ve used the system before.
I was invited to try out the M10 Monochrom preceding its announcement. As much as I would have loved to have it on hand for a few days to get a really good feel for it, it wasn’t in the cards this time. Instead, I was able to take the camera on a photo walk through Manhattan.
A late afternoon appointment dictated what type of shots I was able to make. By the time I exposed the first frame the sun was already dipping below the horizon. But Manhattan is alive after dark, and streets wet from rainfall certainly make shots pop with specular highlights.
Raw images loaded up in Lightroom without issue—Leica cameras use the standard Adobe DNG format, so you don’t have to wait for a software update to load them. Even though the software hasn’t yet added a profile to fine-tune processing for the camera, I was very happy with how flexible the files are.
It’s easy to tone shots to taste, whether it be a little bit of extra contrast, opening up details in the shadows, or saving a shot that I managed to underexpose by a few stops. I did observe clipping in some instances—I used some longer exposures to add a bit of motion blur to shots, and didn’t set my f-stop low enough to compensate.
Experience and Results
Leica devotees who have been waiting for a black-and-white M10 have been rewarded for their patience. The M10 Monochrom offers several improvements over the Monochrom (Typ 246), including a slimmer body and improved optical viewfinder, Wi-Fi, and a much better add-on EVF. The rangefinder experience is there.
And while I’d like more time to use the camera to render a verdict on the sensor, my initial image quality impressions are positive too. The Raw output is quite malleable, the monochrome output has lovely tones, and there’s plenty of resolution. If you adore black-and-white imaging, this camera will, at the very least, pique your interest.
But if you want an M10 Monochrom, you’ll need to spend a sizable amount of money. It’s priced at $8,295, without a lens. We’ll let you know know if it’s worth that hefty sum when we get to spend more time with one for a full review.