When my twin daughters were born in the mid-’90s, I committed to documenting them exclusively in photos shot on a Leica rangefinder camera. I upgraded my vintage Leica M3 to the M6, which added an internal light meter to the iconic Leica body while keeping the “softer” lenses from the 1950s and ’60s that came with the M3. I exclusively shot Ilford HP5, a 400 ASA black-and-white film known for its uniquely beautiful skin tones.
When I shot black and white, I “saw” in black and white — hard to explain, but it’s one of the reasons this special film spoke to me. I dropped completed rolls at Focus Photo in Los Angeles, which prided itself on its black-and-white expertise. I was inspired by the work of Helmut Newton and other photographers I was shown at Focus, as I took grease pencil to contact sheets and hand–cropped the images as I wanted them printed.
I was a film holdout as far into the early 2000s as I could manage, but when Focus closed, along with myriad other lab options, and HP5 became harder and harder to come by, I bailed on film and moved to digital photography.
Shooting black and white on a digital camera felt like a cheat. Why waste all of that sensor data only to chuck most of it when converting the color image to grayscale in “processing” on my Mac, I wondered. Not only did it feel weird, but the image quality suffered, and I just couldn’t get the look I was used to. I still saw in black and white, but something was out of whack.
All of that changed in 2012, when Leica lent me its new black-and-white-only camera, the Leica Monochrom. Based on the body and sensor found in the Leica M9 rangefinder, the Monochrom devoted all of its sensor data to grayscale, without the waste of digital black- and-white conversion from color images.
Using the Monochrom meant I was truly seeing again in black and white, and the sublime images from the Monochrom brought me back to the days of HP5 film. Sure, the Monochrom was derided by the DSLR set, who always mock the cost of Leica products in their gearhead-like analysis, which seems better suited for Car and Driver than for the amateur photographer. German-made Leica sensor size and basic camera features rarely match up to Japanese competitors, and the Monochrom even less so. With prices in the mid-four figures for a black-and-white body, reviewers in magazines, blog posts and podcasts called the Monochrom “silly.” But I was sold and, thankfully, thousands of others were as well.
Leica subsequently upgraded the Monochrom to a new sensor in the body of the later M240 rangefinder, producing the Type 246. The camera still is black-and-white-only, and the only argument now is a geeky debate about whether the previous sensor technology is better than the new one — CCD vs. CMOS. The price tag: north of $7,000.
True, almost any Leica is expensive relative to the camera in your phone. But, at a time when the phone in your camera is excellent — including Leica’s technology embedded in the latest phones from Huawei — investing in a body and lenses means that your dedicated camera needs to be special, and even superb.
While the Monochrom may not be your only camera, it will probably be your favorite. It’s my go-to for street photography, travel photography, even on the sidelines at the Rose Bowl, where the smaller-sized rangefinder allows for the stealthy shots that made the quiet Leica M cameras the photojournalist’s choice for decades.
The Monochrom, or any rangefinder for that matter, is more difficult to shoot. With limited automatic features and no autofocus, using the Monochrom requires rigor and the attention usually reserved for a manual-shift sports car. I’m often reminded by others what “can’t” be done with the Monochrom, which only makes me more determined.
While I generally prefer softer-focus lenses, Leica’s APO-Summicron-M ASPH 50mm lens is the sharpest the company has ever made, and matches up perfectly when shooting my beloved UCLA Bruins in Pasadena. Pairing it with vintage cinema lenses of the 1960s delivers a beautiful bokeh, that pleasing quality of blur in the background and razor-sharp focus in the central image of a photograph. For me, black and white bliss.
Three essential pieces of photo gear
Fogg camera bag: This France-based husband and wife team fashions rangefinder-specific bags made of waterproof “convertible-top” material used on Italy’s finest sports cars.
Cura Sanada camera strap: Made using the same technique as the silk wrap used on Samurai swords, these straps easily fold and wrap around your wrist, while looking especially cool.
Vintage cinema lenses: These lenses, which capture that vintage film look for digital cameras, need to be modified to fit and work on Leica bodies. Kevin Li (kevincameras.com) is my source.
Leica M Monochrom Type 246