During the Leica Akademie M9 workshop this weekend I got my hands on a Leica Monochrom for a few hours. The camera looks and feels exactly like the M9, minus the red dot and that everything is matte black chrome – stealth without gaffer’s tape out of the box… now that we got that out of our way a few observations in note form – I’m comparing b/w prints only, as only a print can ultimately tell the difference. 200% and 300% zooms on a computer display do look way different than a print.
– I plopped in the SD card from my “regular” M9 into the monochrom without formatting and was surprised that the monochrom displays the M9’s color files in color, yet the M9 is not able to display the monochrom’s files.
– The MM histogram spans across the whole 2.5″ screen and one can set the threshold for highlight and shadow warnings. I set mine to 5% and 95% respectively and the camera shows a red bar for blown highlights and a blue bar for blocked shadows on either side of the histogram.
– Just like any other digital camera, the MM is very sensitive in the highlights and has a whole lot of room for error in the shadows, in case of doubt: underexpose.
– Properly exposed, the MM’s dynamic range is very, very good. image #10 for example could reveal a whole lot more information with further tweaking.
– The MM’s tonality is excellent and “conversion” in Lightroom is done with a few clicks. I got the most pleasing results by cranking up the clarity to about 70 and little tweaks of the blacks, conversion is much faster than tweaking M9 color files. I did not use Silver Efex that ships with the camera.
– My main interest is high ISO shooting and the resulting gain in speed, I use my camera a lot at ISO 800+
– shot with a flash at night, the MM and M9 are pretty much on par at IS0 800 – even the noise levels look similar in the parts that didn’t get hit by the flash. 200% on my 27″ Cinema Display shows an insane amount of detail for both cameras… The MM may have a little better acuity, which you will see in very large prints only.
– The MM starts to shine at ISO 1600 and that’s where I’d use the camera the most, ISO 2500 is still insanely clean and the noise is very tight, it leaves Tri-X 400 and the M9 in the dust by far.
– M9 shows quite bit of color noise at ISO 1600+, which naturally can be eliminated with “color noise reduction” for b/w prints without impact on sharpness, matter of fact, b/w prints benefit from this move, as mottling disappears
– My test prints are 13×19 and M9 b/w prints still exhibit little noise at ISO 1600, especially in tweaked (underexposed) shadow areas. 2:1 views on the computer monitor tell a different story, the MM is much cleaner and I’d say one could see a big difference in a 40″ print. The point probably becomes moot at a normal viewing distance.
– MM ISO 2500 is very clean and useable, but the noise starts to exhibit white dots in the shadows, which may need some Luminance noise combat depending on print size (for more info refer ISO 5000). M9 ISO 2500 is useable in b/w, but needs color noise massaging.
– starting at ISO 5000 the MM seems to need Luminance noise reduction to pull the noise together. 13×19 print w/o noise reduction is sharper in detail, but exhibits moire, printed at 1440 ppi, probably due to high pixel frequency of MM sensor and interpolation issues in the Epson driver, as the moire disappears in a 2880 ppi print. noise and detail is still better than any other 35mm camera I know of. The noise looks very much like a stochastic screen for printing and will need help in the blacks, as shadows are very open. Upon further testing, I was not able to reproduce the moire, 2880 ppi print seems a little crisper with the MM files.
– there is no apparent banding in high ISO files
– Being able to shoot on the subway at ISO 5000 to freeze motion is fantastic
I shot a few frames at ISO 10,000 at night and would say that it is very useable with some tweaking, but honestly I’d need to spend much more time with the camera to make an educated decision. I’d probably use it as much as I used ISO 3,200 b/w film – almost never.
In all fairness, I was not able to do a direct side-by-side comparison and my initial response, before testing the MM was that I’d prefer the M9 because I could still keep a few shots in color and during testing the b/w camera I did indeed have at least one frame with the MM that absolutely does not work in b/w.
Long story short – the Leica Monochrom is a fantastic camera in all regards, and here is my conundrum… When I shot film, I used b/w film 99% of the time and color was the occasional thing, where I would either just carry a few extra rolls of film, or a 2nd body from time to time. Since I switched to digital, I happen to keep a lot more shots in color. The M9’s image quality is very good, but does leave room for desire at ISO 2,500, even in b/w. I also shot a whole lot more using a flash for the past few months and with that I don’t have the need for super ISO all that much at the moment, but that may change quickly. And then of course the Leica Monochrom hits the wallet with USD $7,950 before taxes.
top: no noise reduction, bottom: 30 Luminance noise reduction in LR, scan w/ auto levels, crop approx. from 13×19″ print (shot #7, subway, ISO 5000), link to 300dpi scan