Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Leica M9-M

I snapped this picture yesterday of a strangely empty restaurant. The circles, empty space and just two persons busily intent on breakfast appealed to me. 

Leica recently unveiled the M9M. (M for Monochrome). This camera that has had the colour filters over the sensor removed so that only monochrome images can be captured. The advantages of this, primarily, is so that images will be sharper with higher resolution as each pixel captured gives one output pixel. (There being no 'blurring' from demosaicing sampling from nearby data) It also means sensitivity can go as high as ASA10,000, which is plenty high enough for available light shooting which is a Leica's forte. Mmmm, nice. Not so nice is the price.

I can better understand the reason behind this cameras introduction (if not the silly price) if I think back to my film days. Shooting on Tri-X, or any monochrome film, the crispness of the grain revealed in the print had a certain quality that was lost when you used colour film. This was down to colour film having multiple  layers of sensitive emulsion. In monochrome, you only have one. Simply put, to make a print, light is transmitted through the film and, the more emulsion layers it has to pass through, the fuzzier it becomes. This means that grains in a monochrome single-emulsion show crisply and with bite, while in colour, the image tends to be softer. The same in a sense, it seems, applies to digital capture. Hence the M9M.

Exposure is going to be much more difficult to control in the M9M, due to there being no colour channels for RAW exposure data to be recovered. So highlights will readily clip to white. So with this camera, it will be like shooting with transparency film and highlight exposure will be critical. Much harder technically to do. And filters will be needed to adjust the tone curve, just as in film. Back to the future huh? And will this increase in detail, sharpness, resolution transmit itself to the visual print? Yes, it should do ... for those who might know, like the ears of musical folks with high-end hi-fi, there will always be a difference.

However, while I try to get the best I can from whatever equipment I happen to be using, and sharpness and technical quality is important, it is always secondary to the image itself. Personally I use a Leica more for the pictorial quality inherent and unique in my thirty year old lenses regardless of the sensor, be it film or electronic. Resolution and sharpness are only a small part of what makes up a good image.

Even the cheapest camera can give outstanding images in the right circumstances irrespective of camera quality. Having said that, if I was given an M9M... I certainly wouldn't refuse it and would definitely enjoy its capabilities, but I don't think I'll be asking my bank manager anytime soon for a loan of $8000 to purchase a second monochrome body for what is an almost imperceptible improvement in real-world image quality. Money no object? Yup, I'd have one in a flash. But I don't, so sadly I wont...

Just so you can compare, the picture below is from my own M9 and the one below it, the M9M. What do you think?

Picture below from the M9M shot at ISO 2000. Thanks to Steve Huff where you can view more examples.

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