50 Shades of Monochrome by Jeremy M.
Taking photographs shouldn’t be about the gear, because getting hung up on technology is a quick way to cramp our creative process. Besides, if you do a quick search online you will quickly find some extraordinary images taken with smart-phones – hardly high-end DSLR’s. Clearly the tiny camera in your phone can work wonders in the right hands – just as the best pro-camera gear in the world is useless in the wrong hands. But every now and then it is worth talking about the technology, because sometimes it can really add to the artists’ vision. One such camera is the Leica M Monochrome – a camera that can’t take a color photo – and that changes everything. I asked my friend Jeremy M about his recent experience with this camera when he hired it for a couple of days in New York.
2HeadS: So why the Monochrome, tell me about this camera?
Jeremy M: The Leica M Monochrom features a full-frame (35 mm) format sensor with a resolution of 18 megapixels. It only records luminance values, which means it delivers true black and white photographs – and they come with greater brilliance, sharpness, contrast, and resolution than from an equivalent spec color sensor. A traditional Bayer sensor on your color camera uses three pixels to generate one colour. There’s a bit of red, green and blue that jointly end up as a color. On a monochrome sensor such as those found in the Leica M Monochrome or Phase One Panchromatic, every pixel is rendered somewhere on the 0 to 255 scale – so in effect you’re getting higher resolution than the same megapixel count on a same size Bayer sensor. It’s just luminance that’s needed, not colour mapping info pulled from three pixels. Therefore, the benefit is an increase in sharpness, and all things being equal, less noise so you can head into higher ISO’s than you might with a color sensor.
When it comes to color sensors, a couple of manufactures have non-Bayer designs that are promoted for their rendering qualities – Fuji and Sigma come to mind – but only Leica and Phase One have digital monochrome cameras that I know of (Sony and Fuji rumoured to have products soon).
2HeadS: Why not just shoot in color and then convert in your computer later, that way you have the best of both worlds?
Jeremy M: Well you don’t really, as the Monochrome will be sharper (all things being equal). But the monochrome also delivers a HUGE range of grey tones, it’s quite impressive and definitely more interesting to my eye than shots I’ve taken from colour to B&W in photoshop – but having said that, the Leica shots come out of the camera reasonably flat, and editing them in something like Silver EffexPro can really open them up – the files stand up to aggressive editing if required.
Another important point is that you have to visualize in black and white, and that makes you slow down and think a bit more. I found that a really interesting experience – definitely something I want to pursue. You need to be careful not to blow your highlights as there is simply no (red, green, blue) channel information to recover. Nothing. It’s either exposed OK or gone for good.
2HeadS: So you’re recommending this camera?
Jeremy M: Yes and no. I can’t afford one so I hired it. But it’s slow to write to memory card, and the rear LCD is pretty average (menus are great, and on the plus-side there’s a raw data histogram for tonal values. The difference from conventional histograms is that it displays unmodified raw data). The current Leica Monochrome is a full-frame CCD sensor and it’s delicious, but I expect a CMOS version (based on the current Leica M 240) will be out this year, and that will be a faster and better handling camera, so if someone was in the market now, I think waiting would be smart. Or maybe wait for a cheaper CCD one as current owners upgrade? One other point, it’s not just the camera – the Leica lenses are renowned for their optical quality and the 35mm Summicron I hired was flawless. I think I’d head wider, 28 or maybe 24mm next time, but there was no doubt in my mind that it was the combination of great camera and amazing lens at work here. Also, these wider lenses offer more depth of field at a given aperture so that would better suit street work, but it means I’d need to get even closer to my subjects.
2HeadS: Your street shots in New York are interesting. Tell me about these?
Jeremy M: Well it was the first time I have used a Range Finder camera with it’s manual focus, plus the first time I had shot street style before. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed focusing the Leica, but I also got some good advice on how to zone-focus and wade into the crowd with confidence. Shooting manually (manual focus and manual exposure) really paid off as you could take photos super fast (just don’t take too many as the buffer would slow things down). This manual aspect surprised me, it was really efficient and kind of underlined that a Leica is totally at home in this kind of shooting environment. It’s also very quiet and not very big, so you’re not spooking people by pointing big camera at them. But you have to get up close – I can see in my shots several where it would have been better if I was closer. Now I want to try a Leica M Monochrome with my usual photography, which is portraits and the likes, as I’m intrigued to know how it suits that kind of application.
2HeadS: Any closing comments on your experience with this camera?
Jeremy M: I’ve used lots of cameras and enjoyed them all, but the Leica M Monochrome was probably the most rewarding experience to date. I definitely want one. Sometimes I look at other peoples images online and when I eventually come to a color shot again it’s kind of jarring – there’s something really interesting about B&W work (from any camera/process), and the Leica M elevates that to another level for me. I’ve had some of these pictures printed quite large and the quality just so obvious, the prints are amazing, this camera ticked a lot of boxes for me.
2HeadS: What makes you shoot that specific moment? Do you follow the intuition or do you wait for a moment to happen?
Jeremy M: A bit of both. Sometimes the shot is there and you have to hurry – such as the young couple by the wall as the guy checks his phone. Other times I waited a while – an example being the fit guy on the advertising sign contrasted by the different cultures walking toward me. I thought it would be fun to get people by that sign so I waited a while and took several photos at this location. This was my fave due to the mix of back-stories that I could imagine these people having. The words “US Mail” on the post box in the front left was a fun element too.
2HeadS: I knew your studio photography as you’re an expert in lights that you control masterfully. In street photography you can’t control light or direct people, is this a big challenge for you? Or do you feel freer out in the street letting it go?
Jeremy M: Oh wow this was a big challenge for me. You know me too well :) It’s true I love my artificial lighting, so it was really different for me to try street shooting. Yes it was hard, because in New York the high buildings cause patches of light and shade that are side by side. You walk a few meters and it’s bright highlights, a few more and it’s dark shadows, so there is a lot of contrast when shooting B&W. The M Monochrome can be set on manual shutter speed and manual aperture – but with auto ISO. I didn’t really master this setting, but I suspect it could be very handy on the street. Not directing people was strange as well, but in NY there is so much going on around you that it’s a bit of a feast of opportunity. Smile, approach with camera visible, frame, acknowledge with a nod and smile and move on quickly to the next opportunity. I looked for contrasts, for lines, for patterns and so on. I missed lots of shots (hundreds!) as I wasn’t ready or in the right place quickly enough – but I knew there was always another photo not far away. Maybe this was another reason I loved this camera and the street work – it was quite a new experience for me.
2HeadS: I don’t recall seeing street photography from your hometown or in the city you live in… do you find easier to shoot in new/different places? Is it too much of a challenge to change the way you see daily routines?
Jeremy M: Well I live in Australia and to the best of my knowledge you can’t hire a Leica M Monochrome in this country. If I could, I would happily try it here, but I knew it would be easy when i was visiting New York. I am definitely keen to try some street work here, and a friend of a friend is helping with a loaner camera so I think that will happen. But NY was fantastic, you don’t have to walk far to find great subjects, and that city is so pumped that no-one seems to mind. I think you make an interesting point that when you visit another city you may have fresh eyes which makes it easier in some ways, but I also know that I’ve been thinking about locations to check out here at home once I get my hands on another Leica M. I once tried street here with a compact camera, but the focus hunted and there was not a way to pre-focus manually, so really the Leica felt perfectly in tune with life on the street – despite being a slower camera, it was faster to use. That’s an interesting irony don’t you think?
2HeadS: Where do people go to see more of your work?
More articles you want to read:
The Sacred and Profane Anna Zavileiskaia;
The Lost and Found World War II photographs;
The Omo Valley of Terri Gold;
Keiyo Street, by Sebastian Schlüter;
Ecce Homo by Evelyn Bencicova;
Autistic Solitude vs. Loneliness: the B Shot by a Stranger project;
Hymnal of Dreams, by Elijah Gowin;
From Transylvania with Love, by Vlad Dumitrescu.
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