Thursday, November 15, 2018

Test of the Leica Monochrom versus the 69-year-old Leica IIIC film camera

Leica IIIC rangefinder body and 50mm f/2.0 Leitz Summitar thread-mount lens
Dear Readers, a business trip brought me to Washington, DC in late October. I arrived early on a Saturday and decided to check out the Leica Store on 977 F St NW. The store is in a strategic location: the Imperial Capital, seat of power and unbridled (and corrupt and uncontrolled) spending, half way between the White House and the US Capital, and near tourist sites like the Mall. The staff at the Leica Store are very nice and were glad to see me using my 1949-vintage Leica IIIC with its 50mm f/2.0 Summitar lens. I have written about this IIIC before and used it for a month in Nepal during my 2017 trip. Similar to the Leica Store in Hong Kong that I visited in 2014, this one had shelves covered with fantastic camera bodies and lenses, and superb photographs were hung on the walls.
Leica Monochrom Type 246 with 50mm f/2.0 Summicron-M lens (from US.Leica-Camera.com)
I had always wanted to try the Leica Monochrom, a digital rangefinder camera with a monochrome sensor. It has a body about the same size and shape as my 1962-vintage M2, but this one has a 24MP 24×36mm B&W CMOS sensor with no color array or low pass filter. Pseudo-photographers on popular photo web sites like Dpreview bash the idea of a monochrome camera, but serious workers around the world do some amazing work with it. Unfortunately, the Monochrom body alone costs about $8000. Hmmm.....

Regardless, Mr. Paul at the store let me do a quick test. We went outside to F street to find a suitable subject. A restaurant next door had white plates and cups that were glowing in the sun.
Leica Monochrom with 50mm f/2.0 ASPH lens, DNG file opened with Photoshop Elements 11 and contrast reduced. Resized with ACDSee Pro to 1600 pixels wide. Click to enlarge.
Fujifilm Acros film, exposed at EI=80, developed in Xtol, Leica IIIC camera with 50mm f/2.0 Summitar lens.
The Monochrom DNG file has a tremendous tonal range. In the example above, I reduced the contrast to show details under the table, while not allowing the white dishes to become featureless glowing white blobs. But surprise: the Acros film also recorded all the data. I could probably increase the contrast to reasonably match the Monochrom scene. I scanned the 35mm negative at 3600 dpi with a Plustek 7600i scanner using Silverfast Ai's Tri-X 400 profile.
Full-size crop of the sugar packets in the Monochrom DNG file. Note the almost complete lack of grain.
Full-size crop from Acros film negative.
With a crop of the file to look at the lettering on the sugar packets, you can see that the Monochrom file is essentially grainless. The resolution is amazing. The Acros film file is clearly grainier and has lower resolution. But remember, this is the "primitive" and "obsolete" chemical recording media exposed via a 69-year-old optical instrument. If I mounted the newest version of the 50mm Summicron lens on my M2 camera, the resolution would be better, and an exposure on the now-discontinued Panatomic-X film might reduce the grain. Regardless, I am happy at how much detail film can record. It is not obsolete by any means (but the prejudice on the part of film-haters certainly is).
Leica SL (from US.Leica-Camera.com)
I also examined the Leica SL. It is a gorgeous piece of Teutonic engineering and solidity (like the Leicaflex SL of the 1970s). The viewfinder is superlative. But this thing is a monster and feels as heavy as my Nikon F2 with motor many years ago (and that was a big machine).
Comparison of Leica SL and 1960s M2 (from Camerasize.com)
Sorry SL, I just will not carry you around when I travel, and if I am going somewhere by car, I may as well take my medium format cameras. Also, the minor issue of the cost - $11,300 for body and 50mm lens - is problematic.

In summary, I really like the Monochrom but do not need it now. It is a bit (OK, very) expensive. Black and white film suits my needs presently, and I prefer the way it depicts the scenes that I typically photograph. The Leica SL is just too big and heavy to interest me. Its lenses are as big as Hasselblad lenses. I want to thank the gents at the Leica Store in Washington for the test run.

Here are a few touristy film photographs from the venerable Leica IIIC.
Room with a view: 17th Street NW. Fuji Acros film, Leica IIIC.
Sunset at the WWII Memorial, Washington, DC.
Checking the scene at the Mall, Washington, DC
Pennsylvania Avenue at the FBI building. I used a GGr (yellow/green) filter over the Summitar lens.

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