Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Leica M-Monochrom and our Love of Rangefinders

Earlier this month Leica announced the M-Monochrom, an eight thousand dollar digital camera that shoots only black and white, and I recently had the opportunity to spend a day shooting with a pre-production model.

Shot with the Leica M-Monochrom

Shot with the Leica M-Monochrom

Maybe the lovely Tony (pictured above) is scratching his head because he's wondering why on earth anyone would spend eight thousand dollars on a camera that shoots only black and white.  Why not buy a camera with the advanced "color" feature, and convert the photos to black and white later if that's what you want?  If you believe Leica, the rationale is that the elimination of the color filter array results in better light sensitivity, since the filter array isn't cutting the light, and better detail, since there's no demosaicing required.  And, in Leica's words, the image is a "true" black and white, since each pixel registers full luminance values.

And it's true, the detail and tonality are remarkable.  But consider for a moment the Foveon X3 sensor, and the Sigma cameras that use it.  No color filter array, no demosacing, full luminance registered at each pixel location.  And, get this, it shoots color.  The point being, there's no technical necessity to limit a shooter to black and white, just to achieve the alleged advantages that limitation brings.

So then, what is the real reason that someone would spend eight thousand dollars on a digital camera that only shoots black and white?  The real reason is that it's an eight thousand dollar digital camera that only shoots black and white.  It's the same reason anyone would shoot with a rangefinder at all these days: it's obtuse to the point of cool.  Or, more charitably, limits breed creativity (a topic about which I've written before).  Of course historically there were actual advantages to rangefinders, but the advent of digital obviated most of those advantages to one degree or another.  DP Review recently tried to articulate the appeal, but basically these days it boils down to, "I am a bomb-ass photographer, and a baller to boot; I like my exposure controls physical, my focus manual, and I'll be goddamned if I'm going to shoot in color.  Check out my sweet Leica man-jewelry.  Yeah, they left the "e" off the end of "Monochrom" on purpose.  Less is more, man."

I sound scornful, but I'm really not, I see the appeal.  And so does everyone else, judging by the incredible popularity of the micro four thirds format, and other rangefinder-style cameras.  Leica is the only company making an actual, true digital rangefinder (though based on the eBay prices of the six year old Epson RD-1, other manufacturers might want to consider it).  But plenty of the new mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras bring that rangefinderesque joy, perhaps none more so than the recent Fujifilm X-Pro 1.

Tony (of head-scratching fame), let me borrow his X-Pro 1 for a recent day of shooting on the Golden Gate Bridge.  A tough subject if you're concerned about "originality" since, as the sign in the adjacent gift shop mentions, it is the most photographed bridge in the world.  (The sign does not mention that it is also the world's number one suicide destination.)

Shot with the Fuji X-Pro 1

Shot with the Fuji X-Pro 1

As soon as you start using the X-Pro 1 (or any other mirrorless interchangeable lens camera) one advantage of the Leica (and the Epson RD-1, for that matter) becomes immediately clear: fifty years worth of truly superb lenses (at truly bone chilling prices).  Unless you want to use an adaptor, there are currently three lenses available for the X-Pro 1.  The 35mm is a brilliant lens, fast and sharp, a real joy.  But after using the glorious 35, the 18mm seems a bit soft, and the 60mm spends most of its time hunting around for focus.  Limiting myself exclusively to the world's most boring focal length was an interesting creative challenge, but using only one lens does rather call into question the value of an interchangeable lens camera.  But using the X-Pro 1 feels like using a camera; it's got physical dials in all the right places, including an aperture ring on the lens; it's got a viewfinder that takes all the advantages of an SLR viewfinder, a rangefinder viewfinder, and a digital screen, and crams them all into one improbable package.  It's got those silly little modern niceties like auto focus, and color, but it's also got that great retro appeal, that classic, dyed-in-the-wool je ne sai quoi.  All 10,000 people on the Golden Gate Bridge who were carrying a Canon Rebel around their neck looked at this camera out of the corner of their eye as they passed.  One guy stopped and asked me (in a combination of what I believe was Japanese and broken English) if it was a Leica.  If Fuji's goal was to capture the essence of a Leica in a more modern, usable package, I believe they are now free to lean back, clasp their hands behind their heads, and let loose a maniacal laugh.

The Leica M-Monochrom and the Fuji X-Pro 1


While the Leica M cameras and the X-Pro 1 feel like brethren of a sort, like they share some fundamental philosophy, there are other philosophies on offer in the mirrorless, interchangeable lens world. A couple days ago I got my hands on a Sony NEX-7.  It's another small, mirrorless, interchangeable lens camera with a rangefinder style body, so it fits right in.  Sort of.  Compared to the X-Pro 1, it's less like using a camera and more like using an electronic appliance of some kind.  But it's cheaper, smaller, faster, and has a better selection of lenses.  The pictures look great, and it can manage some basic tasks that flumox the X-Pro 1, such as focusing in anything less than broad daylight.

Shot with the Sony NEX-7

It has no retro appeal.  No one looks at it out of the corner of their eye.  Instead, it just works, all the time.  I miss having an aperture ring on the lens.  But not too much.