A Week with Leica Monochrom M246

This is not in any way a review. I need to spend more time with this camera to write a more comprehensive analysis of things I like and things I don't like. The title is misleading as well, I know. I started writing this post a week after I received the camera. By that time I've accumulated enough feelings and thoughts that deserved to be in a post I started writing. The more I wrote, the more I understood that it doesn't tell the full story. More weeks passed and today I finally feel I have said what I wanted to say. I didn't change the title, even though a month has passed because these thoughts are exactly the same as they were after the first week. They have, of course, amplified significantly in the direction of being more positive. Perhaps the constant daily amplification of these thoughts is the reason it was so hard to publish this post in the first place. 

The feeling of freedom while shooting Leica MM (246)

The feeling of freedom while shooting Leica MM (246)

You wouldn't expect anything less from Leica than a perfection, would you? The new Leica Monochrom Typ 246 (MM246 for the future reference) is precisely that - a perfection. It is a camera that has been created for a single purpose of taking black and white photographs, and it excels at that.

The feature set of the camera is not very important for this overview. You can read many reviews online talking about the sensor, the body, the ergonomics and so on. I will sum this into as few sentences as possible. Yes, the sensor is amazing. Because it doesn't have the Bayer overlay and no antialiasing filter - images are extremely sharp. Yes, it performs better in low light than M240, with a price of lowest ISO being 320. Yes, almost everything else about the camera is the same as M240. The built quality of the camera is amazing. I can probably write the whole article about the precise German engineering and how the camera feels great, but perhaps I'll do the praise some other time. 

Let's backtrack a little. My previous camera was Leica M6 TTL. I took a lot of black and white pictures with it, and at the end of the day, it was me, all tired, looking at a bunch of film rolls I needed to process. After the processing was over and the film dried out, it was me again who looked wearily at the many feet of film that had to be fed into the scanner. I loved the element of surprise, when the scanner finally saved the 30Mb file and I opened it to see all the fine details of Ilford Delta 100 and all the things I got right and all the things I got wrong. Processing and scanning, however, sucked most of the joy out of the photography. Of course, it is fun at first. I'd even go further and say - it is fun with the first 50-or-so rolls of film. After you get the processing to a perfect science it becomes an everyday task. You can say that I should have used the lab, but in half a year I shot film I was able to make the money I've spent on the scanner and a mini lab at home probably 2-3 times over. With the cost of processing and scanning being $20+ per roll it wasn't that hard at all.

Notice the amount of detail and sharpness of the picture below. I've included a crop where you can see individual pixels. 

I needed to get the joy of photography back somehow without ruining the element of surprise that I enjoyed very much with film. It seemed like Leica 60 Edition would be the answer to this problem, but not at that price. I also used filters quite heavily during the film days to achieve desired black and white look. I know that with a color camera you can do that in post, which a lot of people like to do, but I'm a perfectionist in a bad sense. I need the black and white photography to be done right. I didn't want to make any sort of decisions after I took a picture. This is where the fun is for me - taking pictures, not sitting in front of the computer.

Getting the right exposure was trial and error. Thanks for Leica MM (246) I didn't miss this opportunity.

I also want to bring another point. When you shoot color and then convert to black and white you, of course, do have more control on the one hand. On the other hand, you don't have an ability to go far enough like you would have with true black and white camera. This problem comes from the order of processing information. With a black and white camera, you put a filter in front of your lens. This changes what kind of light gets through and what kind doesn't. Most black and white filters are colored pieces of glass that prevent certain frequencies from getting through.

The source (real world) you "change" with filters is infinitely complex. Essentially you have an unlimited dynamic range and unlimited bit depth, because what you are filtering is the real world. This makes pictures perfect and without any artifacts. When you shoot color, you let all of the information in (at least the visible spectrum) and save it to a file, which (depending on the camera) is somewhere between 12-16 bits.  The continuity of the frequencies and infinite complexity of the real world is instantly lost through the conversion of analog reality to a digital file. Then you open your color photo in Lightroom and try to kill brightness of certain frequencies. Some would want to make blue skies black, so they reduce the brightness of the blue channel. In the end, you can make it of a certain darkness, but you won't be able to go as far as I can with, let's say, a Dark Red B+W filter. The reason for this is the information you work with does not have a continuous blue tone from horizon to the zenith in the sky. In other words, it has been digitized and is discreet, as opposed to continuous. This causes banding and noise to pop when considering making blue sky darker. This would be even worse on the high contrast edges. I can go on and on about why true black and white camera is better for the black and white photography, and perhaps some day I will write a post about it with clear examples, once I buy myself an M240. So far I've just seen quite a few failed attempts on-line to convert color photograph into a black and white. 

My wife Camilla through a B+W #29 Dark Red Filter

Let us go back to the discussion of joy. As I mentioned earlier, I wanted to skip the processing and scanning, which MM246 accomplishes perfectly. What about the element of surprise I liked so much? First there are two elements of surprise, the good and the bad ones. The good one is when I process the film I shot a couple of days ago, scan it and see a beautiful picture I forgot I've taken. The bad one is when I have done all that but the result is flawed while expectations were much higher. I like simple geometric forms, symmetry and subtle changes in values along with harsh contrast zones. When I shoot I try to frame and expose in such a way that all the details are seen and the picture represents exactly what I saw that moment. Shooting a rangefinder surely imposes the element of surprise on everything I do. This is a nature of the camera where you're not looking through the lens. If with the M6 I could not control that element of surprise, with MM (246) I got total control over it. 

When you get the exposure right with Leica MM (246) the black and white tones are out of this world.

The first thing I did is I turned off the preview. My screen stays black all the time when I shoot. If I need to take that one perfectly symmetrical picture, however, I turn on Live View and see exactly what I'm shooting. I can also finally shoot in infrared without guessing the focus offset as well. The result is I got goods of both worlds: controlled composition, focus and exposure when I need those, and the element of surprise. 

Now let's focus on the economics of things. Remember that I got the scanner and my own mini processing lab at home to control what I spend on shooting film. As I said all of these paid off well, perhaps even several times around. When I bought MM246 I didn't really think about it. I love photography, but I don't like spending my evening with the chemicals and the scanner. My bottleneck was literally how much film I can physically process and scan without it piling up. But when I finally got the camera I went ahead and calculated the upside anyway. The truth is that MM246 pays off in about two years. Two years of shooting and processing film cost me the price of the brand new MM246. Surprising, right? That doesn't include the fact that I will sell my M6TTL and, most importantly, the cost of free evenings. 

More details. Look at the crop that allows you to read the instruction on how to use the pay phone.

I take multiple steps to photography. First, when I find a subject that I feel is interesting and evocative, I take immediate action to make a picture of it. At first, the reaction is purely subconscious and spontaneous, but then I start to think about the essence of the subject. I'm in this situation here and right now. I'm submerged into my thoughts, my environment and current context I'm in. All the excessive information can get in the picture and distract from the essence of what I'm photographing.

So for me, it is here and now, my thoughts and my context, but for someone who potentially enjoys this picture, it is just contextless noise that covers the subjects with layers and layers of information. At times, it covers them so thickly, the feeling and the moment I've captured are no longer there. Once the initial rush fades out and I start to think about the subject, I make  more informed decisions. I try to throw away things that are not part of the picture. I've learned this by reading a book that is not related to photography - "Ernest Hemingway on Writing" by Larry Phillips. Ernest is like no other writer valued the process of shaving off everything that is essentially unnecessary. I take more thoughtful pictures this way. When I get home I import them and make a report about that day.

If you read my blog, you see that I post new pictures on a daily basis. This is the initial process I do for editing. From about a 100 pictures I take a day I leave 10-20 that I like and that I post in the blog. Being the initial editing process, these pictures still float in the context of that day. I'm still attached. I leave pictures in this state for couple weeks, maybe a month. The moment I post them, I know that there are some bad pictures that I'm simply attached to. In theory, when the attachment fades off I should spot the bad ones and delete them. In reality, however, rather than deleting them, instead I leave all the pictures in a special folder and when they become old enough I pull what I still like into the gallery. In a couple of months, I will perhaps edit the gallery as well and remove everything I don't like. 

The above-described process works only if there is nothing that distracts me. Before Leica MM (246) it was Leica M6 that held me back at times. I still think that M6 is one of the best film cameras. It is very intuitive. You don't even have to think. I always used built-in light meter and almost always ended up with properly exposed negatives. The downside was if I were close to shooting 4 rolls I would hold my self back. I would never take more than one picture of the same subject as well. I knew that when I get home processing and then scanning 4 rolls of film will take the whole evening at best. MM (246) has freed me of this burden. The battery is so good, I never ran out of power during the day and I didn't have to worry about processing and scanning. I do take a bit more pictures than I did with M6, but the whole editing process doesn't take more than 20 minutes at most.

This is a story of my Monochrom.