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Leica M Monochrom Preview

by Shawn Barnett and Mike Tomkins

Leica returns to its roots with the new M Monochrom, a full-frame digital camera whose sole purpose is producing beautiful, clean monochrome images without the impediments of color. The impediments of color? We'll get to it in more detail soon enough, but put simply, most digital cameras are monochrome, creating color through the use of red, green, and blue color filters spread out over the sensor. The Leica M Monochrom removes those filters, and captures only light and dark values at each pixel. Since black and white photography is essentially the capture of light values regardless of color, the Leica M Monochrom is better equipped to capture accurate light intensity values at each pixel, unencumbered by red, green or blue filters or the demosaicing interpretation necessary to make a complete color image. If your goal is better black and white photography with a digital camera, the sensor in the Leica M Monochrom is what you've been waiting for.

Like its color predecessors, the Leica M Monochrom uses an 18-megapixel sensor. ISO range is a bit different, though, ranging from 320 to 10,000, with a "low" or "pull" setting of ISO 160. Images are saved in JPEG or DNG format to an SD/SDHC card. The Leica M Monochrom also has a 2.5-inch LCD monitor with 230,000 pixels. See below for more detail.

Weight and dimensions seem to be about the same as the Leica M9-P we reviewed earlier this year, with Leica specs coming in at 21.16 ounces (1.3 pounds; 600g) body only, and dimensions of 5.47 x 1.46 x 3.15 inches (139 x 37 x 80mm).

Features here are no different from our M9-P sample, including the lack of the bright red Leica logo featured on the standard M9. Across the top of the M Monochrom, you see the Rangefinder window, the Brightness sensor, the Bright Line Frame Illumination Window, and the main optical Viewfinder. The lever to the right of the lens mount switches among the three sets of framing guides; the choice of lens mounted usually selects the proper set of framing guides mechanically as the lens is mounted.

The only major external differences on the Leica M Monochrom from the M9-P is the deletion of the large Leica logo and manufacturer note from the top deck on the left side (the M9 also has no logo on the top deck). The camera name is also no longer printed in bright white, but instead appears stamped with what looks like only a light gray into the right side of the accessory shoe. The serial number appears on the left side of the accessory shoe. They went for minimalist to drive home the monochrome message, it seems.

Whereas our M9-P had LEICA CAMERA AG GERMANY on the top deck and no name on the back, the M Monochrom stamps something similar on the back. Here controls are identical to the M9-P, and the LCD also includes the extremely hard sapphire glass LCD cover.

The simple set of controls makes the Leica M-series digital cameras easy to use, so we're happy to see that they didn't change a thing.


Leica M Monochrom Tech Info

Sensor. The Leica M9 and M9-P were based around a ~24 x 36mm CCD image sensor provided by Kodak, the KAF-18500. Since this was a custom design made specifically for Leica's M mount cameras, the sensor wasn't listed on Kodak's catalog, but we do know that it incorporated an IR-absorbing cover glass, and had reworked designs for both the pixel structure and microlenses when compared to the earlier, stock KAF-10500 chip used in the Leica M8. We understand that the Leica M Monochrom retains this same sensor, but without the color filter array that overlaid the photodiodes of the standard KAF-18500.

The advantages of this change are several, and they're key to the significance of the M Monochrom's announcement. First, simply by removing the CFA significantly more light reaches the sensor. That's because each photodiode now receives the full color spectrum, rather than only one of three colors. This immediately translates to an increase in the sensor's base sensitivity. With no CFA, there's also no need to interpolate, sharing information between neighboring pixels to create the final image. This interpolation, which happens in almost all full-color cameras, spreads noise out from each pixel to its immediate neighbors, resulting in a coarser, blotchier noise pattern that's more objectionable to the eye. By discarding the CFA, there's no longer any need for interpolation, and the result is a finer-grained, less objectionable noise pattern.

The same is also true of image detail: with no need to share information between adjacent pixels, final images can be significantly sharper than is the case in the M9 and M9-P. (And thanks to the lack of an antialiasing filter, the M9 / N9-P already had great per-pixel sharpness.)

Sensitivity. So -- we mentioned that ISO sensitivity is a key area in which the Leica M Monochrom offers advantages over its color siblings, but how much of an improvement? Well, the original M9 / M9-P are restricted to ISO 80 to 2500 equivalents, which seems rather limited by 2012 standards. (But then, these are cameras from 2009 that we're talking about.)

By contrast, with the same sensor the Leica M Mono manages a range of 320 to 10,000 equivalents, pretty handy even among modern cameras. (In fact, it's a bit high at the low end, and this is acknowledged with a new Pull ISO mode that drops the sensitivity to 160 equivalent.)

There's also an Auto ISO function.

Performance. One area where there doesn't seem to be any improvement on paper--and this is unfortunate, because it's also an area of weakness--is the M Monochrom's burst speed. Like it's predecessors, it's manufacturer-rated for two frames per second. In our testing of the M9-P, we didn't even manage that, measuring a stolid 1.6 frames per second. We're holding out hope that the M Monochrom might manage a touch better thanks to the lack of demosaicing, and the lesser need for noise reduction at lower sensitivities, but it's unlikely to be a significant difference.

Optics. The M Monochrom, like other Leica M-series cameras, has a Leica M lens mount on its front panel. Since M mount lenses have manual aperture and focus control, there are no direct mechanical or electronic connections between lens and body.

With that said, the metal lens mount does include a sensor which can read a 6-bit Lens Identification barcode on the mounted lens, allowing the M Monochrome to identify the lens model without any electronic connection between lens and body. This is used to correct for vignetting beyond that achieved with the sensor design (and specifically, the offset microlens placement towards the edges of the image frame). The M Monochrom can also key off the lens type to set the frame selector function, which simply indicates an approximation of the attached lens' coverage in the viewfinder. (You can manually override this with the frame selector lever.)

Rangefinder. It's clear when you look at the front panel of the Leica M-series that it doesn't feature either an SLR or a real-image optical viewfinder: three windows of varying sizes peer back at you. The M Monochrom is a rangefinder camera, and all three windows contribute to the overall viewfinder image.

The largest of the three, at the very edge of the camera body, provides your view of the scene in front of you. The middle window provides illumination for an adjustable preview in the viewfinder that approximates the periphery of the frame based on the currently-attached lens. This bright-frame indication moves as you adjust focus to account for parallax, but the frame size doesn't change, and is hence accurate only at a distance of one meter. Finally, the smallest window is the rangefinder, and provides a second view of the scene which is overlaid on the viewfinder image. When the two precisely overlap, the center of the image is in focus. The more out of focus you go, the further the images are from overlapping, an effect that is as if you had slightly crossed your eyes.

There's also a small exposure indication in the viewfinder, consisting of three LEDs. When the center LED illuminates, the camera's meter believes your exposure to be correct. If either of the other LEDs illuminates, then your exposure is off in one or other direction, but there's no suggestion how close you are to correct, so some experimentation is involved in finding the center point.

Display. On the rear panel is an LCD display, which is unchanged from that in the M9 and M9-P. With only a 2.5-inch diagonal and a 230,000 dot resolution, it would be decidedly dated even for an affordable compact camera, let alone on a camera of this price, and it's a shame that Leica couldn't revisit this feature, albeit probably understandable given the relatively small market for a black-and-white camera.

The LCD display still has a sapphire glass cover, as in the M9-P. If you're not familiar with sapphire glass, it's a purer form of glass that's stronger and more scratch resistant even than the much-hyped Corning Gorilla Glass, and other such chemically-strengthened glass types. It's the same type of glass used for the window over the barcode reader in supermarket checkout scanners, and other places where scratch resistance is key, so you can rest safe in the knowledge that your relatively small, low-res LCD is safe from harm.

Exposure. As we've already mentioned, the Leica M Monochrom has no mechanical or electronic connection between lens and body, and hence the aperture must always be set manually. That also removes the opportunity for Program or Shutter-priority exposure, and so the M Mono offers Aperture-priority or Manual only.

The M Monochrom offers only center-weighted metering, read with a cell that captures light reflected off the shutter blades. The center-weighting is accomplished by making the center blades lighter, fading to black on the outer blades.

Available shutter speeds are 1/4,000 to 32 seconds, plus bulb.

Flash. As you'd expect, there's no internal flash strobe in the M Monochrom. There is a hot shoe for external strobes, compatible with the Leica SF 58 and SF 24D strobes. X-sync is at 1/180 second.

Color toning. The M Monochrom might be a monochrome camera, but it does default to saving files in the color JPEG format, and it would perhaps be a bit of a waste not to take some advantage of that fact. Leica does so, offering a color toning function that lets you select either cold, selenium or sepia toning for JPEG images.

Connectivity. One area in which the M Monochrom makes its simplicity clear is in its connectivity: there's a USB 2.0 High Speed jack, and... that's it. No video output connectivity of any kind, no wired or wireless remotes, or any of the other numerous jacks that clutter up the sides of the average digicam even at the entry level, let alone high-end models.

There is, however, a thread for a mechanical cable release in the shutter button.

Storage. Storage is equally straightforward. The M Mono accepts Secure Digital cards including the higher-capacity SDHC types, and stores images in either JPEG or DNG raw formats.

Power. A proprietary lithium ion rechargeable battery caters to the M Mono's power demands. No CIPA rating has yet been provided, but we'd hope for at least a very slight increase in battery life, given the reduced processing demands with no demosaicing and less noise reduction needed. The M9-P had a life of 350 shots, about average for a system camera, but surprisingly low given the lack of autofocus, live view, or a built-in flash.

Pricing and availability. The Leica M Monochrom ships in the US market from late July 2012. Pricing is set at US$7,950, which puts it at almost a thousand dollars over the list price of the M9, when it was announced back in late 2009.