In the history of cameras there has yet to be a brand with more mystique, more allure, more controversy than Leica. If you own a Leica people will come out of the woodwork to tell you “nice ascot” and lament about what a snob you are. If you don’t own a Leica you’ll spend days waxing on about the Leica “look” and contemplate selling major organs to fund the purchase of one. Regardless of which group you belong to there’s no denying that Leica makes special cameras, and that among them the Monochrom is unique tool which is both odd in it’s offering and compelling.
If you’re not familiar with the Monochrom, don’t worry, you’re not alone. The M240 seems to receive the most hype, and the M9 garners it’s fair share, it seems that for most folks the Leica M Monochrom goes unnoticed. There’s reason for that though, I suppose. In terms of sexiness the camera has an appeal that’s universal with it’s classic styling and familiar handling. In terms of practicality it’s appeal is less than universal as this camera only shoots in black and white. Yes, you read that correctly, the Monochrom only shoots images in black and white.
Before I talk about the Monochrom I want to share with you my experience about how I came to Leica’s, or rangefinders in general. Around the fall of 2010 I purchased a used M4 on a whim. It was a large purchase at the time, and one that I probably wasn’t wise in making, but I did. At the time I knew nothing about rangefinders, or at best, very little. What drew me to the camera was that it’s finely crafted, relatively stealthy, and exceedingly simple in it’s approach.
There are of course a ton of cameras which fit that same description, but alas, they are not a Leica. If you’ve ever been bitten by the Leica bug, or contracted Ernst Leitz disease, then you know the only cure is a Leica. There’s simply no substitute.
The Leica M4 was an experience which I did not take well to initially. My understanding of rangefinder cameras was limited, my skills with rangefinders even more so, and the combination frequently produced dismal results. It took the better part of a year for me to really grow into the camera, but once I did I was in love. Using the M4 became like second nature. I love my M4 both for everything that it is and for everything that it is not, and I think that’s what makes the Leica experience special.
Fast forward a number of years and the thought of a digital Leica began to dance in my head. The announcement of the M240 began driving prices on used M9 model cameras down to a point which allowed me to keep all major organs, but required the sale of the majority of my cameras. I purchased a used Leica M9 in the Spring of 2013 and proceeded to use it daily.
Around the Fall of that year the Monochrom surfaced on the horizon and my lust for it shortly followed. It wasn’t until early in 2014 that I would first get my hands on the Monochrom, but once I did it was love at first sight. A friend of mine owned one and encouraged me to “give it a shot,” which I reluctantly did.
My hesitation wasn’t because of the camera’s price, or the thought of something happening to the camera, but rather because I knew that if I tried it I would lust after it. The camera is, in effect, identical to the M9 which I already had, with the notable exception of some technological differences that allow it to record only in black and white, and at much higher ISO speeds than you would normally use with the standard M9.
I greatly enjoyed using the Monochrom which shouldn’t be a surprise given it’s similarities to the M9, but there was something for me that was missing. In a way, the Monochrom turned me on to something that was missing in my M9 as well. The Monochrom is this kind of camera that can “do it all”and while that’s not 100% accurate, there’s a lot the Monochrom can do. For example, it can shoot at ISO speeds up to 10,000, and actually make really great looking images as it approaches the upper ISO limits.
You’re thinking, “okay, so what’s it missing”, and I’ll tell you. When I got home after having used the Monochrom I looked at the files and they would best be described as clinical. They had some beautiful tones, and there was that infamous Leica “look”, but they were also very sterile. So much of the happenstance that I learned to love with my M4 wasn’t there. The images became largely about the technology for me and not so much about their content.
Often when I’m out shooting my mind is clouded with this running narrative. I’m rehearsing my first TED talk, daydreaming about starring in some sort of heist film in which Ryan Gosling and I play identical twins, and contemplating lunch all while also trying to find photographs. The M4 gets out of my way and allows me to have one less distraction while I’m shooting whereas the Monochrom, and I realized the M9 also, both add to that narrative. I’m chimping, waxing on about histograms, checking battery life, etc. . . When I should be worrying about making photos, and of course whether Ryan will have more lines than me.
So, while I was initially worried about lusting after the Monochrom something unique happened: I sold my M9. It didn’t happen the same day, and it might not have been the same month even, but in the end I did. Perhaps I’ll own another digital Leica M someday, and perhaps it’ll even be a Leica Monochrom, but for now I’ll stick with my M4 and enjoy the simplicity I fell in love with.
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