Every so often I get questions in my inbox asking me a subjective question - a question like "how does the Monochrom compare to a black and white converted photograph from the Leica Q / Leica SL"?
I actually like these questions; they challenge me to trace back my thought process to when purchasing these cameras and re-validate the logic I used. I purchased the Leica Monochrom with the understanding that it was the best tool available for shooting black and white photographs. I bought the Leica Q to be a lightweight travel companion. One is not supposed to fill the niche of the other (at least for me).
While that was the logic when I purchased the cameras, the reader's question prompted some interesting internal debate. Is the black and white image quality of the Monochrom really superior in a side-by-side shootout? I almost never carry two cameras like this at the same time, so I don't have much real world basis to judge, just my perceptions from using each. So challenged by the question, I decided to take the Leica Q and the Leica Monochrom for a quick shootout today.
A few notes: I've previously tested that the Leica SL and Leica Q deliver very similar image results, so I decided to only bring the Q out for this test. Theoretically there will be minor differences between the SL and Q and Monochrom, but I'm not doing a scientific review, and figured the Q could represent on behalf of Leica's best color sensors. On the topic of science - there is none to be found here folks. I don't shoot paper focusing targets for hours on end or setup precision tools to compare these things. I did this shootout hand held on the streets of Cambridge, England. The framing between the two cameras is not scientifically accurate. I am a real photographer that wants to do realistic comparisons, not science experiments. If you are too anal to accept these minor differences, please find another blogger.
With all that out of the way, let's briefly describe the shooting setup. Since the Leica Q has a fixed lens, there isn't much to discuss there..... but I did use the in-camera frame line selector to display a 50mm crop on the images so that I could match the lens I was using on the Monochrom. For the Leica Monochrom, I shot a 50mm f/2 Summicron lens. I shot both cameras on Auto ISO, Aperture Priority, and in RAW with -1/3 stop exposure compensation. The same aperture was used on both cameras.
When generating the black and white for the Q images, I just moved the desaturation slider in Lightroom to 0. I made no other edits (which is why you can see some dust spots.... ick). Also, be sure to click on any image for a full screen preview.
Example I: Window
This was my first comparison, because it was a scene with some nice detail and contrast. The brick have a lot of tonal variety due to their age, so that made it interesting for a comparison. First, lets look at the color image from the Q, then we'll look at the desaturated Q vs Monochrom.
Ok, so the Monochrom is maybe darker and has less tonal variety in the brickwork than the Q desaturated image, but I'm sure if I edited it, I could get them to look the same..... With a boring subject like this, not sure I really have a preference for the "winner" because both are uninteresting!
Example II: Bike
Not only do I look stupid photographing a brick wall, but it's also not interesting. So to spice things up for the second side-by-side I went wild and found a bike leaning up against a wall to photograph. I know, pretty wild.
This wild and crazy example is actually more interesting. I certainly could not differentiate which camera produced which image. I would say there is maybe a touch more dynamic range (tonal difference) in the shadow detail in the Monochrom image?
Example III: Street
I love photographing this street, particularly the awesome line of chimneys, and frequent visitors to ScenicTraverse.com will recognize this street from a dozen or so street photographs I have previously shared. Anyway, today I decided to shoot up the street for the comparison (I definitely prefer the composition shooting the other direction, but live and learn)
In this comparison we really start to see the differences between a desaturated color image and the Monochrom files. First, the highlights in the Monochrom are lost and blown out (a common problem), while there is still cloud detail in the Q image. The simple explanation for this is that the Q saves color in three channels, and detail in those channels is lost at different rates, so a blown highlight in a color image may not be totally lost - you may be able to recover some detail from one of the color channels. The Monochrom just captures luminance values, so lost is lost. If you want more information about how and why this happens, I suggest reading about the Bayer Color Filter and the Monochrom's lack of one.
Also interesting in this example is the shadow detail. The Q shadow is much harsher and more contrasty, while the Monochrom file is flatter and has more detail in the shadow. Personally, I would rather have the shadow detail and underexpose a little more to preserve the highlights - meaning I'd vote for the Monochrom file in this comparison. Could I get the same result with editing the Q file? Probably.
Example IV: To the Water
Lets get saucy.... In the above example I postulated that I could probably generate the same looking file from either camera, so this time I am going to challenge myself to create two photographs that are as similar as possible. IE: Can I create the same photograph in Lightroom from either camera?
A quick note: I did not science this. Obviously the photographs are not the same, but thats okay. I spent about 3 minutes trying to match them up in Lightroom, and got this result.
Like I said, not scientific, and it really would be hard to do so. They are completely different lenses with completely different contrast, bokeh, and sharpness. But I'd say the result is generally similar. With more tweaking I could probably get them even closer, but this is good enough for me to stamp it as complete. PS - I like the Monochrom file better, but that is probably because I like contrast, and the 50mm lens I'm using from 1983 has a knack for contrast ;-)
Example V: Chimney
For this last comparison, I did a similar test to the above, except that I processed the images in Nik Silver Efex instead of Lightroom.
I'll let you draw your own conclusions here, but look at the tonality of the white clouds, tonality of the sky, and detail in the shadows.... While the photos are similar at first glance, there are certainly differences.
When photographing a subject that didn't have much dynamic range (example I - the wall), the results were pretty similar and boring. But as the images got more complex with highlights, shadows, white and blacks to contend with, differences certainly started to emerge in the final product.
In Example V I used Nik Silver Efex to make the photographs similar, and although the tone on the brick is pretty similar, the Monchrom has better rendering of the white in the clouds and more detail in the shadow.
Back to the reader question, the answer is that the files are similar, but certainly different. And this is where preference becomes so subjective. The Monochrom has interchangeable lenses, is a rangefinder, and lacks autofocus. The Q is a fixed 28mm lens, but has fast autofocus, and is deadly silent. Neither is better - its a matter of personal preference. The Q is a simple camera that can deliver tremendous results, while the Monochrom requires more work to use. At the end of the day, I choose the tool for the photographs I want to create on that day.
If this post has interested you, be sure to read about my experience photographing the Tour de France using the Leica Monochrom.
Leave me a comment and let me know what you think!