A half-dozen years ago, I began making the journey back to my photographic roots: black & white. For many photographers in the current digital age, “black & white” has become little more than a special effect, created after-the-fact through controlled desaturation of a color image. This process of selectively filtering certain colors to either accentuate or diminish luminosity variance is identical to what we did with film. The difference is that, with film, the color filtration occurs before the image is shot — meaning the photographer must possess the ability to pre-visualize the effect, and that the effect is permanent once the film is exposed. With digital, the filtering occurs after the image is shot — meaning the photographer can see exactly how a filter modifies the final image, and is free to alter it as often as necessary to achieve the desired effect.
Most photographers believe this to be ample justification for using color digital cameras whenever black & white is the intended output. Sadly — and although life would be so much easier if I were — I’m not most photographers. There are, in fact, many reasons to shoot “in” black & white, rather than simply converting from color. Besides the somewhat intangible benefit of discipline, which comes from the psychological knowledge that true B&W won’t give one the luxury of fixing the contrast later, there are perceptible benefits as well. My most common argument is that digital color cameras struggle with high contrast scenes, and (to my eyes) produce a far less pleasing tonality. No matter how much post-process color-channel mixing I do, I can never get the black & white tonality of my digital images to match the aesthetic appeal of my film images. It’s not that digital black & white images necessarily look worse — they just look different.
Which brings me back to where this article began — a half-dozen years ago. Back in those halcyon digital days, I was painfully aware (in spite of the obvious advantages of post-filtering images) that I wasn’t completely happy with the look of digital black & white photos. I identified this as a two-pronged issue: First, film has a non-linear response to light that creates a wonderful rolloff in highlight and shadow regions — regions that tend to either clip, posterize, or simply degrade into noise with digital. Second, properly exposed film displays a seemingly bottomless pool of grey tones — tones that appear somehow coarser and more dithered in their digital cousins.
Based on these observations, I soon surmised that what I wanted was a monochromatic sensor that recorded light in a non-linear manner, and thus mimicked the response curve of film. Of course, I had absolutely no idea if this was technically feasible, so around 2006 I began to read everything I could find on the technology behind digital cameras. That’s when I first realized that most digital cameras already contained monochromatic sensors, and that the color information they recorded was actually a software interpolation derived algorithmically from a color filter array placed in front of that monochromatic sensor. This, as most hardcore photographers now know, is the ubiquitous Bayer filter — a repeating array of green, red and blue filters, which create a mosaic that the processor inside the camera (or the computer’s Raw converter) interpolates into a color image.
From the moment I learned of this, I knew what I wanted — a camera with the Bayer filter removed. Granted, such a device would still fall short of my own personal utopia (a digital camera with a sensor that had the luminosity response of film). But by removing the color filter array and the subsequent image interpolation requirements, the camera would likely produce photos with greater dynamic range and an increased potential for richer grey tonality. As an added bonus, the lack of color interpolation would theoretically create even greater resolution (which was already one of the fundamental advantages of digital photography — at least when compared with 35mm film).
The production of such a camera seemed, to me, to be a “no brainer.” And when I expressed this opinion to a smattering of fellow photographers, they readily agreed that it was indeed a “no brainer,” but that I was the one with no brain. “Just learn to use Photoshop,” they said (unaware that I’d been a skilled Photoshop user since 1991). “Absolutely no advantage to such a camera,” said others (uninterested in my theoretical musings). “Prohibitively expensive to manufacture a monochromatic sensor,” claimed still more (who failed to realize that the sensors were already monochrome). I soon found a smattering of like-minded photographers posting similar desires on internet forums. They too were quickly dismissed by a collective flurry of taunts, bullying, snark and name-calling usually reserved for UFOlogists, Elvis impersonators and Uwe Boll fans. I realized that mine was a futile wish — unlikely to ever be granted.
So I did the next best thing — I started shooting film again. This two-hatted technique liberated me. If I desired ease-of-use, high-resolution and complete post-capture control of the contrast relationships within an image, I’d shoot digital. If my photographic desires leaned toward tonality, extended dynamic range and a certain ‘richness’ in the greys, I’d go with film. I had the best of both worlds, and I nearly forgot about my once passionate desire for a black & white digital camera.
Flash forward to May 10, 2012. That’s the day Leica announced their new M-Monochrom camera — essentially a re-engineered version of the Leica M9 with the Bayer filter removed. Not only is this the technological manifestation of my earlier dream, but it’s even packaged within the body of my all-time favorite digital camera — the Leica M9. I know serendipity when I see it, so I knew nothing would prevent me from obtaining this camera. Then I saw the price. Ouch. Funding the new M-Monochrom would require that I sell a significant portion of my current photography equipment. Is it worth it? I don’t know. Leica has yet to release the camera, and what few prototypes exist are held very tightly to Leica’s collective chest. Since May 10th, I’ve made several requests to Leica for a review sample. OK, it’s really several hundred requests — I’m hoping that if I annoy them enough, they’ll just mail me the darn thing so I’ll shut up.
On one hand, I can’t wait to get my hands on this camera. On the other, I’m dreading it. What if I love it? What if it really is the camera I’ve been wanting for 6 years? What will I have to sacrifice in order to get it?
To protect myself from these fears, I’m using the weeks prior to the camera’s August release date to “batten the hatches.” Specifically, I’m in the process of doing everything I can to persuade myself I don’t need this camera. I’ve been trying to shoot photos with the M9 that I don’t think would look as good (or at least the same) with the M-Monochrom — hoping to convince myself that post-capture black & white conversion is “better.” Similarly, I’ve been shooting photos with all manner of film cameras, using all types of film, which I’m developing in all sorts of chemicals — just to remind myself that the M-Monochrom will not, in any way, achieve the same sort of response curve as these shots. And just to give myself some breathing room, I’m making sure to take a lot of jumpy, scale-focused street shots — my “bread and butter” photos — which by their very nature are likely incapable of capitalizing on the obvious resolution advantages that the M-Monochrom is sure to exhibit.
In short, my goal for the next two months is to take photos that shouldn’t look any better if I’d used an M-Monochrom instead of my existing equipment — thus saving myself the anxiety of Craigslist, and the endless stream of nitwits trying to lowball me on price, or failing to show up at the appointed time.
But there’s another angle that has me on guard. In theory, the M-Monochrom should depict images with a look uniquely distinct from either film or color-converted digital. I’ve long maintained there’s no reason one camera technology needs to supplant another — that film and digital give different results, and thus can and should coexist happily. As photographers, we should seek to expand our visual vocabularies, not limit them. So what happens if the M-Monochrom renders an alternate tonality every bit as viable and useful as both film and color digital, yet completely and pleasingly different? Then what? Will I be shooting three formats soon?
So it’s all-hands-on-deck in the great ULTRAsomething hatch battening exercise. Will my efforts prove successful? Or will I succumb to the temptation to finally own the digital camera I once only fantasized would ever exist? There’s only one way to be certain… I need to shoot with an M-Monochrom for a couple of weeks. So, Leica, consider this my several-hundredth-and-one request. I’m waiting patiently for its delivery and to learn, once and for all, if all us crackpots who cried out for a Bayer-less camera were actually sane all along?
©2012 grEGORy simpson
ABOUT THESE PHOTOS: “Bottom’s Up” was shot with a Leica M2 and a 21mm Elmarit-M using ADOX CHS 50 Art film, developed 1:100 in Rodinal. “Photography’s Other Half” was also shot with a Leica M2 on ADOX CHS 50 Art film and developed 1:100 in Rodinal except, in this case, a v4 35mm Summicron-M lens was used. “Corridor, Portland OR” and “Waiting for the M-Monochrom” were both shot with a Leica M9 digital, using a 28mm Summicron-M lens. “Tornado Potato” was shot with a Leica M9 and a Voigtlander 50mm f/1.1 Nokton lens.
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