I was invited to the new Leica store in SoHo to check out some of their latest gear this week. I knew about their compact offerings, the X2 and D-Lux 6, so I knew what I was getting myself into. But their was one product that called out to me, something completely unique among all current digital cameras. The M Monochrom — a camera that shoots only black and white.
By removing the mechanism that filters light into discreet colours before reaching the sensor, Leica was able to create a camera that is more sensitive to light, with images of a higher resolution. Shots out of the M Monochrom are terrific in low light, with a tight grain pattern and sparkling levels of detail, all in a camera with no auto-focus, no flash and no "easy" mode.
Only a company like Leica could get away with something like this. Only a company that can buck market trends by relying on a loyal niche market and exorbitant prices could offer a product that so blatantly challenges the status quo. After all, when any digital image from any digital camera can easily be converted to and from black and white with the push of a button, who would want a device so inherently limited?
Luckily for Leica, the answer to that question is the exact same people who buy their cameras already. Obsessives, hardcore enthusiasts, and those who seek an experience that, for them, signifies a purity of form and technique. Oh, also, rich people. Did I mention an M Monochrom costs around $US8000? So yeah, you have to be rich to buy it.
What is it like shooting with an M Monochrom? For the brief time I got to toy around with it, it pretty much matched the classic Leica rangefinder feel that belongs solely to them, no matter how hard companies like FujiFilm try to emulate it. It is disarming to look at the LCD after you've taken a photo to see a black and white image, but it immediately makes you think about your decisions in a whole new way. It is contemplative and challenging. I loved it. Full size images here.
There are limitations on the processing side of things, though. Normally, when you convert a colour digital image to black and white, you can make adjustments to the luminance values of each colour using software like AlienSkin or Adobe Lightroom. These manipulations can drastically alter the look and feel of your photo. With the Monochrom, however, those colour channels are non-existant. You can no longer simulate a red filter or a blue filter. You actually have to shoot with real, physical filters on your lens to really control tone, requiring even more forethought in shooting.
The good people at Leica weren't able to tell me if the Monochrom would evolve into future models, or if it is a one-time experiment. Whatever the case, it's great to actually see a company do some experimenting. Unfortunately, the only companies that can afford such experiments are ones that must charge out-of-this-world prices for their products.