Category Archives: Leica M9

The Leica Monochrom Conundrum

In 2012, Leica introduced the M9 Monochrom, a dedicated monochrome (B&W) camera, the first digital black and white camera in 35mm format. According to Leica, the Monochrom “builds on the rich tradition of analog black and white photography and brings authentic monochrome photography into the digital era.” With a full native resolution of 18 megapixels, the Monochrom easily bested similar megapixel color sensors; unlike Bayer sensors, the Monchrom sensor records the true luminance value of each pixel, delivering a “true” black and white image straight from the sensor. In addition, users could apply characteristic analog toning effects like sepia, cold or selenium toning directly from the camera; just save the image as a JPEG and select the desired toning effect, “no need for post-processing.”

The Original Leica M9 Monochrom with CCD sensor

Of course, few Monochrom owners are going to shoot jpegs. Most are going to shoot RAW files and post-process, and to that end, Leica gave original owners a free copy of Silver Efex when they purchased the camera: ” Purchase includes a plug-in version of Nik Silver Efex Pro™ software, considered to be the most powerful tool for the creation of high-quality digital black and white images. For pictures that perfectly replicate the look of analog exposures, Siver Efex Pro™ offers selective control of tonal values and contrast and an extensive collection of profiles for the simulation of black and white film types, grain structures, and much more.”

Which leads me to note the contradiction. Invariably, Leica users champion the uncompromising standards of the optics, while often simultaneously dumbing down their files post-production to give the look of a vintage Summarit and Tri-X pushed to 1600 ISO. As noted above, Leica themselves seem to have fallen for the confusion as well. They’ve marketed the MM (Monochrom) as an unsurpassed tool to produce the subtle tonal gradations of the best B&W, but then bundle it with Silver Efex Pro software to encourage users to recreate the grainy, contrasty look of 35mm Tri-X. 

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A Place I’ve been to a Time or Two Lately. Taken with the M9M, Processed in Silver Efex

Clearly, Leica claimed and marketed the Monochrom, not merely as a black and white digital camera but as a digital camera that could accurately recreate the black and white film aesthetic. The distinction may be fine, but it’s a distinction just the same, and I think it gets to the heart of what I see as a misconception about the Monochrom’s actual output. Don’t get me wrong: the Monochrom delivers stunning black and white files, super clean past 800 ISO, beautifully subtle tones, file sharpness rivaling Bayer sensors with twice the resolution. It’s just that its files don’t look like film capture, and as I’ve noted in previous posts about my Digital Tri-X solution, it doesn’t particularly take to Silver Efex emulations, where a cheap D200 or a 4 mp Sigma SD15 Foveon best it for emulating the film look.

An M9M file minus the Silver Efex Film Emulation with some minor grain added. ISO 800.
Me. M9M, ISO 800 out of camera file, no emulation.

Here’s a Monochrom file processed in Lightroom without further film emulation:

Here’s the same file run thru the Silver Efex Tri-X emulation:

Here’s a Nikon D200 10 MP RAW file run through the Silver Efex Tri-X Emulation:

Finally, here’s a 14MP (actually 4.6mp when calculated in the Bayer manner) Sigma Foveon file from an SD15 run through the Silver Efex Tri-X emulation:

Now, acknowledging that aesthetic preferences are precisely that, preferences, my analysis is as follows: 1) The straight Monochrom file is nice for what it is – a digital B&W photo. It avoids that plastic look too often seen with digital B&W files and it has a nice graduated tonality. 2) The Tri-X Monochrom file is nice, but it doesn’t look like Tri-X. Too sharp, not enough grain structure evident. 3) The D200 and the Sigma Sd15 files are digital Tri-X, although the D200 benefits just a bit from less sharp optics; the Sigma file, even though <5mp, shows a sharpness and depth I doubt you’d get on a classic Tri-X shot with a 35mm Summicron. Sharper optics, sharp sensor.

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Leica Q2 Monochrom

So, the question becomes, is the Monochrom worth it i.e. do we need a dedicated digital B&W sensor if our goal is, as per Leica ad copy ” to have a tool that combines state-of-the-art […] digital technologies to deliver black-and-white images of incomparable quality”? It certainly doesn’t hurt, but probably not. Don’t get me wrong: I love the idea of the Monchrom and its output can be stunning when done correctly. And it feels and performs like a Leica M, which is no mean feat. It’s definitely a fascinating camera and I applaud Leica for sticking their collective necks out and producing them.

But if you’re buying it to give you a leg up on recreating the B&W film look of your photographic youth, you may want to look at much more cost effective solutions I’ve noted elsewhere. It’s not something that you can’t also do with a regular Bayer sensored digital camera if you take your time. The key seems to be using a Bayer CCD sensor in the 10-12 MP range like that found in the Nikon D200 or the Fuji S3 Pro. Other alternatives are the DP1/2/3, SD14 or SD15 Foveons whose functional MP counts are somewhere around 10MP as well. It seems that 10MP is the sweet spot for both taking advantage of Silver Efexs’ simulated Tri-X grain structure and giving a resolution look similar to that you used to get with you M4, Summicron and Tri-X shot at box speed. A CCD sensor seems to help too.

You can put together a D200 with a AF 24mm Nikkor or older Nikkor Zoom of your choice for $200. An SD15 is going to run you $550 with a really fine Sigma optic like the 24mm EX DG. A twelve year old CCD Monchrom is going to run you $3500-$4000. Is it worth the price differential? That’s not a question to ask Leicaphiles, as, with Veblen Goods, you don’t buy on price but rather other intangibles. But, for all its cache, you don’t need a Monchrom if you aspire to, in Leica’s words, “to transform analog black and white into digital.” A ratty old D200 or Fuji S3 PRO will do just fine.

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Maybe I Need to Rethink This

Leica M8

The M8. I Had a Love/Hate With This Camera for Many Years

As you know, I’ve been, at best, ambivalent about Leica in the digital age. I’ve taken a lot of cheap shots at their digital cameras over the years, M digitals included. I’ve been skeptical that the Leica M film experience could be transposed to the digital age. Part of the problem is digital capture simply doesn’t lend itself to simplicity – it requires electronics and LCD screens and nested menus and all the afflatus that gives rise to digital bloat, and Leica isn’t immune to it in spite of their best intentions to keep things simple.

It seemed, at least in the beginning, that Leica’s continued emphasis on simplicity had become less a design ethos than a marketing slogan, or worse yet, a cynical way of attempting to paper over inferior product. It’s not like Leica, as anyone selling a widget, isn’t above self-serving puffery. Let’s face it: the M8, pleasing to look at and fondle like previous film Leicas, arrived with some serious issues: buggy electronics, color capture issues, battery problems, dismal ISO capabilities, a shutter that sounded like a construction-grade staple gun. The M9 fixed some of it, but I couldn’t help but think that Leica was over their heads in the digital age, where quality had less to do with traditional Leica hand-craftsmanship and more with technical expertise, technical expertise being the forte of large manufacturers like Nikon and Canon.

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Leica M3

And then there was the Leica ergonomic, the felt experience of operating one that was so seductive with their film M’s. The film M’s just feel right. Refined yet simple. No intercession of electronics to do things for you (before the M7 at least). Radically minimalist design, uncluttered viewfinder, big bright mechanical rangefinder. Simple wind-on, imperceptible shutter click, rewind. Advancing the film offered just enough throw and resistance to make the act pleasurable as its own experience. Many Leicaphiles carried our M’s around the house with us – why? because they stimulated that part of the lizard brain connected to the hand. Film M’s made you a gearhead.

I’m not sure that ergonomic simplicity transfers over to the digital M’s, or at least I was skeptical at best. While my M8 looked like an M it didn’t feel like one. Whatever magic they packed into the M4 was simply not there in the M8. Where the M4 felt fluidly effortless and simple, the M8 felt clunky and convoluted. Where the M4 shutter whispered, the M8 sounded like it was shooting high-velocity projectiles. Figuring out how to format a card or change ISO invariably devolved into multi-thumb fumbling of wheels, buttons, and menu options, all while your subject fleeing as if from a school shooter. Efficient it wasn’t.

But …. if your interest was traditional B&W photography, as opposed to digital hyper-realism, in spite of what sensor rankings and 100% cropping geeks declaimed, the M8’s output was astonishing. B&W from the M8 just had the look, a function of the CCD sensor and its increased IR sensitivity which produced thick, film-like B&W files. All you needed to do was add a bit of grain. I was willing to put up with the quirks – the random freeze-ups, the glacial boot-up times, the god-awful swack of the shutter – to get that B&W output. It was that good, a monochrome camera to rival the Monochrom.

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Leica M240

This is all prelude to the fact that I’m having to rethink my opinions these days [shock!]. I bought a used M240 a while ago, not expecting much, and found that I really liked it, as in really. Wanting a digital camera to compliment my aging GXR and my exasperating Sigma SD Quattro (another love/hate thing), I’d thought of the usual alternatives – an X100, X-Pro, D4s – and then decided against them. It was time to buy a digital M.

To make a long story short – I liked the M240 so much I splurged and bought the camera I’d always really wanted – the Monochrom, the original CCD version based on the M9 platform. Found a nice one with an updated, non-corrosive sensor. I’ve totally fallen in love. It’s a digital M4. It’s got the feel. Hell, it even looks just like a black chrome M4. As for output, I’m convinced there’s a roll of Ilford HP5 rated at 800 ISO hidden in there somewhere.

An M5 w/ HP5 @ 800 ISO, an M240 DNG Run Through Silver Efex … or a Leica Monochrom?

So, going forward I’ve decided to go all Steve Huff on you, amusing you with various posts about the Mono and the M240 and how they compare to an M5 with HP5. This weekend, I’m going out with the M5 and a 35mm VC loaded with HP5, the Mono and the M240 and see how they each render the same subject. If you’ll indulge my geekiness, I promise no 100% crops or duplicate shots of fence posts. I’ll try to keep shots of the wife and cats to a minimum.

Leica Monochrom
Leica M9M

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The Red Dot

I’ll admit I don’t like the red dot. It’s tacky. When Leica was Leica, there was no red dot. I’m proud to say that, when I bought my first Leica, there was no such thing as a red dot. The red dot is post- Leica M5, the M5 being both the best and worst thing Leitz ever did. Best, because it’s the last and best version of a hand-assembled M, incorporating everything Leitz had learned about interchangeable lens rangefinder cameras up to that point and, in spite of what its detractors claim (invariably they’ve never used the M5), its a better, more complete camera than the film M’s – M4-2, M4-P, M6, M7 – that came after it, which were essentially retrenchments to a fixed formula. Worst, because Leitz confused a marketing failure with a technical failure and returned to the meterless M4 in M4-2 and M4-P versions, both of which signaled Leitz’s transition from producing professional cameras to models aimed at the consumer market. Hence, Leica’s slow inexorable slide into professional irrelevancy and the rise of internet-era clowns claiming the title “Leica Photographer.”

That’s One Ugly-Ass Red Dot IMHO

The ‘Leitz’ red dot goes back to the company’s Binocular and Microscope divisions, which
used the dot on their products for many years before someone decided to impale it on the hapless R3 and M4-P. Binoculars from the mid/late 60s have a rarer black ‘Leitz’ dot. As best I can tell, the Leitz red dot first appeared on the 50th Anniversary Leicaflex SL2 in 75 followed by the1976 R3. As for the M’s, it’s first seen on a preliminary 1977 run of a few hundred M4-2, and then into full production of the M4-P, which is, with its numerous top plate markings and huge Leitz red dot, the ugliest Leica M ever, although you can get rid of the red dot easily by replacing the vulcanite. Revisionist history aside, for late 70’s – early 80’s Leicaphiles, the red dot coincided with the end of the most desired models (M3, M2, M4, and M5) and represented a perceived decline in the quality for which Leicas had theretofore been known.

  • 1980 black M4-P red dot
  • 1983 chrome M4-P red dot
  • 1987 R5, red dot moved to the right side
  • R6, R7,RE, R6.2 red dot on the right
  • M6 (1984) Leitz red dot on top center
  • R8 (1996) Leica red dot moved to the left again
  • M7 (2000) Leica red dot on top center

Leica’s final film camera, the MP (2003), thankfully did away with the red dot, although it’s been resurrected with the digital M’s and all the other assorted digital models they’ve produced. Why, I don’t know.

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Leica has learned to monetize the red dot and certain consumer’s aversion to it. Witness the M9-P upgrade, which allowed you pay $US1995 to upgrade your red dot m9 for a dotless M9-P. Granted, removal of a red dot alone didn’t cost two grand — Leica also replaced the LCD screen with sapphire glass (apparently a good thing they hadn’t bothered to use on the original M9), and threw in some new leatherette. They also got rid of the tacky M9 logo on the front plate. Gotta admit, the M9-P looks a lot better than the garden variety M9.

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A Tale of Three Cameras

Peter Davidson is a former commercial photographer who now shoots for himself with a “hopelessly outdated” M9. The photos are all Mr. Davidson’s

Here are two cameras, both important, but separated by twenty years. The Kodak Brownie 127 and Leica M6. Each a delight to hold, simple to use and each delivering that photographic experience as a photographer, I relish. The opportunity to capture some fleeting quintessential moment that not only speaks to and for me, but to others. Personally, there is no argument as to which camera was the more valuable. The Brownie of course. And not just because that Brownie was my first camera back in 1965 and the M6 merely my first Leica in 1985. No, it was because the Brownie’s simplicity enabled me to see while not thinking (or indeed knowing) how to capture that what I saw. It just worked. And basically any camera that works well, and I don’t just mean in the mechanical sense, is essentially a means to an end. They are tools. So is this strange phenomenon of Leicaphilia a love of photography or of the tool? What is going on?

As I’m typing this, my nine year old and hence positively prehistoric and ancient (for digital) M9 is balefully staring back at me with its even older (25 years old in fact) Summicron IV single eye. Alongside is standing my equally old 90mm Tele-Elmarit with its fine coating of lens-fungus that gives results in a kind of cut-price Thambar way. All are in beautiful mint condition (apart from some fungus of course, but that is nothing). I look after my cameras. They are my tools and I trust that if I look after them, they will look after me. I shake my head at the wannabe war photographers who love to own a brassed and abused camera because of its ‘patina’. If it was previously owned by HCB, ok. If not, no thanks.

I’ve been a working advertising cum editorial professional photographer since 1971. That means, though still spritely for a man now pushing seventy years old with two major heart attacks under his belt, my eyes are not what they were. Nor are many other things. And I’m retired. All of which means I now photograph for myself and no one else.

So to return to my opening paragraph and the M6. I didn’t know any professional colleagues in my photographic field who owned a Leica back in the day. It wasn’t really the right tool for most jobs. Or any job really. It was full frame, in 21st Century speak, and as such technically limited. The Hasselblad was much bigger and hence better technical tool. As was 4×5 film and 8×10 film. The same rule applies today of course. For 35mm, or full frame if you prefer, the SLR ruled as it still does, but that is now changing. Basically, what I’m imperfectly trying to say, is that I was a TTL man through and through. The rangefinder was alien…

With my Nikon I could see exactly what I was shooting and focus quickly anywhere in the frame and could change a film roll almost one handed in the dark. The M6 was non of those things. What it was though, was a beautiful mechanical thing. A gorgeously built icon of photography. So, finding myself with some money to spare, I bought one. And found it so slow and difficult to use it drove me mad. It didn’t suit my photographic style. So I put it away for over twenty years, bringing it out occasionally to try and master the damned thing. Gradually, very gradually, it began to grow on me as my shooting style changed and I warmed to the experience. I realised, as I had long suspected, the camera wasn’t at fault, the fault lay with me.

I discovered I only needed to return to the Kodak Brownie state. Shoot don’t think. Relax. Let the camera do the work. Trust in the camera. Finally I began to fully appreciate the quiet unobtrusiveness of the small lens/camera form factor. Less intimidating for my subjects, being humble and quiet and therefor better. After nearly forty years as a photographer, I began to ‘get it’. So, of course, I sold my M6…

And bought an M9. Why? Because while I appreciate film, it’s a total pain in the arse. All my life I’ve battled Kodachrome exposure intolerance and while I loved Tri-X granularity, the whole film processing snafus, dust, scratches and water marks I can do without. And while I loved splashing about in darkrooms for hours, frankly I haven’t got many hours left.

The M9 is a flawed camera and hopelessly outdated. On paper. However, it’s secretly a film camera. That’s because it’s limitations are clear and to get the best from the camera you must work within its limitations and not in spite of them. Then it rewards you handsomely. And really, isn’t that the basis of the whole analogue resurgence? And it’s monochrome output, if the ISO is kept below 800, is to my mind the digital equivalent of Tri-X. You see, I know what this camera does. When I pick it up I know, for instance, that I will not have pressed some obscure button and accidental changed the shooting mode. Everything is simply laid out, visible and accessible. It works. It doesn’t get in the way. I don’t have to spend hours prodding menu buttons to make it do what I want. So of course I’m thinking of selling it…

Mainly because I’m finding it ever harder to focus manually. But what to get? I’ve checked out the small compact competition and they are fine, with quick auto focusing and comparatively very cheap but compromised either by ergonomics, sensor size or physical lens size. The thing is, on the M9 the 35mm Summicron lens is tiny. Really, really tiny. The Q by comparison has a huge ugly lens on its front. And it’s too wide at 28mm. And it’s fixed. I’m not convinced enough yet to part with my beloved M9. And if I do, it might have to be another Leica. Beloved? Did I use the term ‘beloved?’ Oh dear, have I contracted the strangely communicable disease of Leicaphilia? As I said earlier at the beginning of this piece, what is going on? Or as our yoof might text, WTF?

Yes, I am more attached to this camera than I am to my other long held and venerable cameras. The M9 welcomes my hand, feels right, comfortable and reassuringly solid and dependable. As do my Nikons of course… But they, in the end, are more tools for technical photographic challenges, while the M9 is more a tool for the heart, for expressiveness and intimacy. For capturing the human experience. It facilitates creating photography of meaning. So of course, as with any favourite craftsman’s tool, it also captures the heart of the photographer. How could it not?

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Determining the Shutter Count on the M8/M9

Less than 1000 actuations

“Shutter count” is a big issue when selling your digital camera, rightfully so as it gives a good idea about how the camera has been used. Digital cameras, being exclusively electronic, have a limited usable lifespan directly correlated to amount of use, unlike mechanical film cameras that tend to be maintained better by frequent use.

Unfortunately, the first few iterations of digital Leicas – the M8 and M9 – don’t allow easy access to shutter count data, ( not sure about any models past the M9, so this could presumably work for those as well if actuation totals weren’t made available in a menu) with most folks resorting to investigating EXIF data from the camera files and then converting certain hexadecimal numerical values (typical digital Leica weirdness; I’m sure there’s someone somewhere trying to make the argument that this lends greater authenticity to the experience of determining shutter count).

There actually is a way to determine shutter count via your M8/M9 without resorting to a slide rule:

Turn the camera on.
Press the right arrow key 4 times.
Press the left arrow key 3 times.
Press the right arrow key 1 more time.
Press the info button.
Scroll down to body debug data.
Press Set.
Scroll down to NUMEXPOSURES.
Turn camera off to exit.

Simple, like all things Leica.

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*You’ll find a 9150 actuation M8 for sale here at reduced price of $1350/shipping. I refuse to sell this on Ebay. Someone will get a really nice M8 if that’s your thing.

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