First things first; this is not a technical user review. Anyone can look up facts about the nuts and bolts of this (or any) camera, therefore I’m not going to waste time with that. I’m concerned with the user experience, which happens to be unlike anything I’ve ever experienced.
I’ve wanted to review the Leica M Monochrom since the second I found out it even existed. Being a B&W fanatic, the thought of using a camera that doesn’t record a shred of color info made me drool. Additionally (being a wedding photographer) the thought of an entirely b&w wedding made my little photo heart flutter with joy! I’ve thought about an entirely b&w wedding for a long time, but knew that it wasn’t a practical reality for my clients, so I asked around with some fellow photographers to see if I could come along as a “bonus feature” to someone else’s wedding. It’d be great because I’d get to play and their client would get some bonus footage. Thankfully, I was able to tag along on an adorable courthouse wedding with a sweet & chill backyard reception. I thought it fitting that this unassuming looking Leica was being used for such a low key & relaxed event.
When I first opened the package from Lensrentals.com, I was shocked at how tiny it was. It’s been a while since shooting a rangefinder and while I turned it over and over in my hands, getting acquainted with it, I couldn’t help but be impressed by the build quality & simplicity. There weren’t any unnecessary buttons. The LCD screen was compact & to the point; just enough of an image to know if you got a shot or not. No endless menus. The operation of the buttons was fairly intuitive. The light meter was uncomplicated and gave a green circle when all was a “go” for a proper exposure. It was sold, hardy, compact, and yet still remarkably light and dare I say, dainty? At least comparatively to lugging around my typical Mkiii & 70-200 2.8, it was dainty! It was remarkably refreshing to sling such a low profile, unassuming camera over my shoulder. It brought me back to my early days of photography where I’d head out on photo walks with my Pentax rangefinder, ready to snap a shot of anything that was even remotely interesting. Perhaps my favorite detail was the location of the SD card slot; under the bottom removable plate that screwed off, inside a compartment that resembled the profile of a roll of film.
I rented the Monochrom with three lenses, the Zeiss ZM 15mm f/2.8 Distagon, Voigtlander 50mm f/1.1 Nokton, & Leica 90mm f2.0 APO Summicron ASPH. I wanted to experience what this camera can do at a wide range of focal lengths, as well as make sure I had everything covered for the wedding. The lenses were small, and remarkably lightweight for being solid metal & glass. Even the 90mm was far more compact that I expected it to be.
Focusing the rangefinder with its split screen focusing certainly slowed me down a bit. Muscle memory kept wanting to press my shutter half way for auto focus, but I found as I became more comfortable with the split screen focus that I was grateful for the slow down. It helped me take my time, frame my shots, and really think about what I
was photographing and why. I shot more purposefully and with better direction so in the end I really didn’t have much to cull out, except for the shots with the Zeiss 15mm. The 15 mm doesn’t couple with the rangefinder so no matter what you do, the split screen will never focus. This threw me for a shock and I had to dig waaaay back to my experience with medium and large format to play the guessing game with distances. This was one lens were looking at the field markings on the barrel of the lens was vital! The lens certainly made you work for it, though, when you nailed it, there were big rewards. The clarity throughout the lens was remarkable with (what I considered) to be minimal distortion. There was a decent amount of vignetting, so if you aren’t as big of a fan of that as I am, you may want to pop on a filter that counterbalances that.
Perhaps the biggest challenge with the Monochrom was composing. There were seemingly handy, translucent guidelines that popped up in the viewfinder, but I found them to be fairly inaccurate, particularly with the 15mm. In fact, in the photo on the right, I couldn’t even see the flowers on the ground, or much anything above the telephone poles through the viewfinder. It was a bit challenging to let go and trust in the camera, and my instincts of focal length & framing. It lead to some fabulous little “errors” that turned into pleasant surprises as well as “errors” that were just total fails.
I found the Voigtlander 50mm to be the closest to “true” of the three lenses. It coupled well with the Monochrom’s viewfinder and allowed me to feel incredibly connected to the picture making experience. Discreet, light, and sharp as a tack, it was incredibly fun to use. I spent much of the time shooting at 1.1 and found that aperture coupled with the Monochrom’s gorgeous range of recorded luminance values to produce a b&w image unlike any other. Deep, velvety shadows, smooth pearl-like highlights; this lens/camera combo is the things photographer’s dreams are made of. I thoroughly enjoyed the fastness of Nokton. While I’ve often shot at 1.4, getting down to that 1.1 was a magical experience. It was refreshing that the manual, split screen focus of the Monochrom allowed me to be able to focus fairly easily in the low light of dusk, not to mention in the candlelight of the reception at the groom’s father’s house. So long as I could see, I could focus.
To round out my experience with the Monochrom, I needed to also have some experience with with a longer focal length; the Leica 90mm f/2.0 APO Summicron. Having never worked with a 90 prime, I found the focal length to be
quite comfortable. The lens was quick, and it’s bokeh rendered gorgeously with the Monochrom’s abilities. Although I had expected the Leica lens with the Leica body to be the combo I enjoyed the most, it didn’t end up that way. At times I did find myself wanting “more” length out of the lens and would become slightly frustrated when I moved in for a tighter crop only to find I was now too close to focus properly. However, I don’t blame the lens. I chalk that up to operator adjustment getting used to what the focal length can and cannot do. I would, however, have liked to see what the Leica 135mm would have done. Perhaps on my next time renting!
Overall, I’m not surprised I fell in love with this little camera. It is an amazing inspirational tool and it lived up to all the things I thought it might be before I had tried it. Perhaps the only thing I hate about it is its price tag. At just shy of $8,000 retail, it is most definitely a purchase one needs to be 1000000% certain of before making. I imagine the most common question that gets asked of this little camera is if it’s really worth it; if it really does produce something so different it can’t be replicated with another camera. I suppose similar lenses & proper b&w editing could produce something like the Monochrom. I will assert that there is still a place for the Monochrom as it’s own camera. There is something incredibly different about the tonal ranges of greys that you just don’t get with the conversion from color. There is something to the experience of using a rangefinder vs. a traditional SLR that allows for a little more “magic” to happen. The process slows you, changes, you, makes your eyes see in a different way. To me, that’s everything. We’re photographers because we have a unique point of view & way of seeing. Any tool that contributes to that vision is a worthy tool to have. Now excuse me while I go raid my piggy bank.
Lisa is a D.C. area based wedding & portrait photographer. See more photos from this post on her !