Masterpiece or Mistake
The Big Announcement
Leica finally made their announcements and in the wake of hysteria, the crowds are already protesting. A BW only camera? Why would a company go through all the technical hoops of releasing a camera that has one primary function? See what Forbes Magazine things of the Leica Monochrom.
The reason is Leica does not need to appeal to everyone. In fact, they hardly have to appeal to any large number of photographers. The majority of the camera buying market does not use rangefinders, can’t imagine life without auto focus, and is busy learning how to edit videos because now their clients expect them to be cinematographers. The audience asked for more features and every other camera company (in the 35mm world) has answered. Now, Photo-Expos around the world are filled with talks on “How to market video to clients.” What a colossal mistake!
I don’t know where this went off course, but I like photography because it presents two simple challenges:
- Create a 2D image that reads as strongly or stronger than its 3D original.
- Take a moving scene and distill it into a still image without loosing any of the action.
Notice that “color” is not a prerequisite for my concerns with a photograph. If you can create a Powerful and Active image, color is inconsequential. Monochrom is an exercise in understanding value.
Is it worth it?
After buying an M9, people would come up and ask me, “…so, is it worth it?” My response was, for me it was worth it, for you, “I don’t know.” An $8,000 enthusiasts camera may not be worth it, depending on your resources. But if you are into many of the additional hobbies that I run across in the Leica world such as cars, boats, planes, really expensive travel, and watches, then $8K is a drop in the bucket. Of all the expensive hobbies, Leica is still relative cheap.
If however you a 19 year old college student with the prospect of $100,000 of student loans facing you, then the Leica Monochrom would not be the best choice for you. First, I would say that limitations to artists are useful. Learn on an M6 with BW film and you will eventually be better photographer. Anyone I knew in school, who could go out and buy exactly what they needed for their craft usually produced garbage. Innovative solutions are born through economy and resourcefulness. Years later, after the student loans have died down and an artist has made the very best they could with very little, it becomes time to step up the gear.
From Leica’s Point of View
If Leica can sell out a camera for $8k, why would they sell it at $4K? Surely they could sell more cameras at $4K, but who knows if they want to produce that many cameras. They balance cost to production in a way that keeps people fiending for their equipment. Its brilliant. No camera company has such a fanatical following of lovers and haters. It reminds me of the old statistics they used to run on Howard Stern. I cant recall the exact numbers, but people who hated him actually listened longer because they wanted to hear what he would say next. Its quite amusing.
So Why BW Only
The M-Monochrom is a specialized solution to a certain set of photographic problems. If a tool only has to do two or three things, it gives it a huge advantage over is competition. I expect the experience of using the camera to be very agreeable. It will end the conflict of “should it be a color picture or a BW?” Problem solved, its black and white. One less thing to think about.
At ISO 10,000 you can take a picture in candle light that will easily rival Delta 3200 film pushed a stop or two. This is a huge bonus. And as a professional, if you sell a single image in a gallery with the camera the it pays for itself.
And all of those BW filters will finally get some digital use again. For anyone who shot film they understand that no amount of post production can equal the use of a filter. I can’t wait to put an orange filter on a Monochrom and see how far the image can be pushed.
What could have been fixed?
There are three things I would have changed about the M Monochrom.
- BODY SIZE: Leica should make an effort to return to the size of the Leica MP. The added height of the M6ttl and M7 are not needed and the added thickness of the digital M’s would not be missed.
- SHUTTER RELEASE: The shutter should feel like a film camera. I would pose a challenge to Leica since they are a talented bunch of engineers. Make the shutter feel like the film cameras and deaden the sound of the curtain to be at least as quiet is the film cameras. When you consider that a few years ago there were piles of “experts” on forums explaining why a digital M would be impossible, you can see that the realm of possibility is broader than expected. A quieter shutter and smoother release would be heavenly.
- LCD SCREEN: No one buys a Ferrari and then outfits it with tires from a garage station. There is a certain level of quality that exists with me M Cameras and the screen is a generation or two behind the curve. It would be great if the next screens could be retro fitted to the older bodies. I would not even care if Leica wanted to charge $1000 to make the swap.
The ideal camera for me is one which remains in the same outer shell because the human hand is not scheduled for a re-design anytime soon. But what needs to change are the components. If Leica continues to make bodies in the M idiom, it will be very useful if things like the sensors and screens can be swapped out. Will they do that? I would not hold my breath, but when I had a chance to meet with some of the German Leica team last year, they asked for my thoughts. So why not let them know?
Hopefully all of the fanatical browser refreshing has died down. We have an M Monochrom, a new 50mm APO-Summicron (which I will write about later), and an X2. Thursday happened, the world did not end, and we can go back to life as usual. The only difference now is whether we decide to put ourselves of THAT waiting list for a Leica Monochrom.
Today I am off to start another weekend workshop at the Leica Akademie. Looking forward to it.