jueves, 10 de mayo de 2012


By José Manuel Serrano Esparza

Leica has introduced today, during an event held in Berlin, its Leica M Monochrome, the first full frame digital camera in history featuring a 24 x 36 mm sensor exclusively designed for black and white photography.

Though evidently the Leica M Monochrom is a camera greatly resembling the appearance of the Leica M9 digital full frame for color, to whose classic M line it belongs, the decision taken by Leica to manufacture a rangefinder camera only aimed at black and white

makes up something unprecedented and clearly showing the huge significance bestowed by the mythical German firm to monochrome images 

and their giant specific weight in the History of Photography, highly linked to the analogue golden era, and which goes on utterly in force.

Not in vain, the search for the emulation of black and white chemical emulsions magic in the digital sphere has been a steady yearning since the arrival of the first top-notch quality 24 x 36 mm digital captors, with manifold solutions that with a greater or smaller level of similarity strived after reproducing the image traits of monochrome films of well-known versatility, special image aesthetics and global quality of it, like for instance the Kodak Tri-X 400.
It´s curious and even fascinating the step given by Leica with this just arrived camera, which is historically and conceptually linked to the analogue black and white photography, which has been in a high percentage the vital diachronic epicenter of the brand since the launching into market of the analogue 35 mm format Leica 1 (Model A) in 1925 until this glittery 2012 digital Leica Monochrom, likewise in 24 x 36 mm format.

What happens is that already immersed into digital era, the new Leica Monochrom and its 18 megapixel CCD sensor (made by Truesense Imaging, Inc. of Rochester, New York) exclusively developed for black and white photography and lacking a low pass filter, color RGB filters on the photodiodes and Bayer filter whatsoever, starts a new stage in which it will be achieved a greater benefit of the second to none optical quality of the Leica M highly luminous aspherical lenses, which have always required excellent captors, both analogue ones - chemical emulsions- and digital ones - electronic sensors- .

Already in the analogue period, the quality tests with Leica M objectives were made using the best feasible analogue captors,

Otto Geier, supervisor of the Optics Department of Leitz Canada (on the right) examines under the attentive look of the legendary lens designer Walter Mandler (on the left) a roll of 35 mm Kodak Panatomic-X 25 ASA black and white film - featuring a very long curve and remarkable preservation of detail in both high key and low key areas- exposed with a Leica M3 and a collapsible Summicron-M 50 mm f/2 in the Leitz factory at Midland, Ontario (Canada), in mid fifties. Photo: Leica Camera AG

id est, 35 mm black and white chemical films featuring very low sensitivity (ASA 20, ASA 25 and ASA 32) which were, are and will be with difference the ones drawing the maximum qualitative potential of lenses, thanks to their exceedingly fine grain, great resolving power, excellent contrast and a wide tonal range, without forgetting the very important acutance. Needless to say that the best available developers were chosen to get optimum results.

This highly reliable method has been used during great part of XX Century and the current XXI by so prominent and historical lens designers like Max Berek, Walter Mandler, Helmut Marx, Lothar Kölsch, Horst Schröder, Peter Karbe, Sigrun Kammans, Michael Heiden and others until nowadays, and also by world class pundits on the knowledge of Leica lenses features and their history like James L. Lager, Erwin Puts, Marco Cavina, Geoffrey Crawley, Tom Abrahamsson, Brian Bower, Günter Osterloh, Paul-Henry Van Hasbroeck, Ivor Matanle, Gianni Rogliatti, Ed Schwartzreich, Lars Netopil, Dick Gilcreast, Dr. Bahman Bawendi, Kobayashi Hirofumi, Will Wright and others.

To quote only an example, only four years ago, during late October and early November 2008, one of the first tests carried out in the world with the Elmar-M 24 mm f/3.4 lens was made by Tom Abrahamsson with such objective attached to a Voigtländer Bessa R4M analog camera loaded with Fuji Acros 35 mm black and white film subsequently developed with Beutler, verifying that this wideangle lens created for the Leica M8 was also highly appropriate for use with very fine grain chemical monochrom emulsion and achieved an amazing image quality with b & w film comparable to the one attained by the Apo-Summicron-M 50 mm f/1.4 ASPH with identical emulsion, reaching the conclusion that there isn´t either a black and white film or a digital sensor (always understanding that the lowest sensitivity monochrome emulsions in combination with the suitable developers are the ones getting more of the huge qualitative power of the Leica M ASPH lenses) able to 100% resolve all the quality that these lenses can deliver, which gives Leica a more than remarkable confidence regarding the future launching into market of brand-new products of its 24 x 36 mm format Digital Rangafinder M System of cameras and lenses.

Though there were superb colour emulsions like Kodachrome 25 and 64, Kodak Ektar 25, Fuji Velvia, etc, the best possible choice to verify the real quality of the Leica M lenses were always the benchmark black and white chemical films (of which Kodak Panatomic-X, Kodak Technical Pan 25, Adox CMS 20, Kodak Agfapan APX-25, Rollei Ortho 25, Rollei ATP 1.1 and others, are examples relatively recent and relevant) with the aforementioned qualities, and so has been done for almost 90 consecutive years by Leica in Wetzlar, Midland (Ontario, Canadá) and Solms, going on being in my viewpoint the most reliable method in this regard.

I have got the firm conviction that the Leica Monochrom state-of-the-art new monochrome CCD sensor in sinergy with the M lenses and the astounding Silver Efex Pro 2 software (based on the features of traditional chemical darkroom and able to emulate up to 20 different types of famous black and white films from ISO 32 to ISO 3200) will greatly imitate with a praiseworthy level of accuracy (now already within XXI Century, in the digital environment) the unmatched image qualities of the best 35 mm black and white emulsions - to practical effects analogue captors- boasting very low sensitivity between ISO 20-32 and also of other ones sporting higher sensitivity and unique aesthetics like the Kodak Tri-X 400 and Ilford Pan F 50, but with the qualitative level of those same films in medium format 120 rolls (in this regard, the great quality of the Leica Monochrom new state-of-the-art CCD is a great advantage, because it makes possible to shoot at normal, intermediate and high isos without noise, unlike the chemical films which in greater or lesser extent reveal grain on digitizing the negatives with a virtual drum scanner, even those ones sporting  the lowest ISOS) and it will attain black and white images apparently superior -particularly regarding sharpness and filmlike aspect- to the very good converted to monochrom colour files of the Leica M9, which will continue being a formidable choice for colour photography - albeit the market circumstances will probably demand a new digital sensor inside the future M10 improving image quality between ISO 2000 and 5000).

The Leica Monochrom will draw a much greater benefit of the photons (the luminic quality of the pixels will be superior, since the camera is capable of outputting one pixel of data for each pixel captured), with black and white digital archives more belonging to the field of high end medium format analogue cameras with top-notch lenses, low sensitivity film and digitization of the negatives with virtual drum scanner than to a 24 x 36 mm format camera, always understanding that there are currently in the market professional reflex cameras for colour photography like Nikon D3 and D4 and Canon EOS 5D Mark III, etc, which get a superb image quality likewise similar to medium format, above all as to resolving power and contrast - in some other important sides, analogue medium format keeps on prevailing -.

And although the Leica Monochrom sports - in the same way as the M9 and M9-P- a 18 megapixel sensor, the integral optimization for black and white and the lack of all the aforementioned filters, will make that the B & W images rendered by the uncompressed DNG archives of the new monochrome Leica photographic tool exhibit a level of detail, microcontrast, acutance and global visual resolution probably similar to professional 40 megapixel digital medium format cameras, but with direct and very pure top-notch quality black and white 14-bit uncompressed RAWs featuring a visual resolution of detail equivalent to roughly 36 Megabytes and showing a superior filmlike aspect - specially in prints of differenty sizes on photographic paper, where its full potential and real differences will be revealed to the utmost -, greater portability, ease of handling and ability to shoot handheld, without forgetting the fact that the announced range of sensitivities between approximately 320 and 10,000 ISO will enable to win between one and two steps in comparison with the Leica M9 and M9-P.

In this regard, in order to properly verify the capabilities of the Leica M Monochrom under real working conditions, the Magnum Photographer Jacob Aue Sobol fulfilled a special assignment for Leica: a one month trip on board of the Trans Siberian Railway - with some stops in Moscow, Ulan Bator and Beijing- making as many pictures as possible with a Leica Monochrom attached to the new Summicron-M 50 mm f/2 ASPH.

And after this stint, in which he made around 30,000 photographs, most of them shot at ISO 6400, some substantial conclusions were reached:

- The quality of image rendered by the camera at high and very high ISOS is astounding, to such an extent  that ISO 6400 in the Leica Monochrom is roughly equivalent to ISO 400 with the M9 and M9-P, and there isn´t any noise between ISO 2500 and ISO 6400.

- To shoot black and white with the Leica Monochrom is greatly a filmlike experience, becoming a relish for those pros and connoisseurs who have always had a penchant for B & W chemical photography as an expressive and creative means.

- Jacob Aue Sobol, an outstanding black and white photographer who has always used analogue cameras (Contax G2, Contax T3 and Ricoh GRS1 - a good photographer can make good pictures with any camera- ) and medium and high speed B & W 35 mm chemical films like Kodak Tri-X 400 often exposed in low light and subsequently using speed enhancing developers to get remarkable high contrast look, with a final very good printing technique, getting a unique intimacy approach through the suitable choice of subject matter and composition, could verify that taking pictures with the 24 x 36 mm digital Leica Monochrom is a rather filmlike experience with possibilities and versatility to spare, along with a superb image B & W images yielder able to tackle any conceivable photographic commission, thanks to its amazing efficiency at high ISOS and the traditional optimization of Leica rangefinder cameras for handheld shooting.

- The Leica M Monochrom is not a fetish product at all, but a real photographic tool to work with it and take black and white pictures with a level of image quality, sharpness, contrast and dynamic range far superior to the good results that can be achieved by the best professional full format dslr and rangefinder cameras converting their colour RAW archives to B & W.

On the other hand, this brilliant and original idea carried out with the Leica Monochrom flatly verifies not only the full viability of the 35 mm digital Leica M System concept, but also something that can be absolutely fundamental in future: the progressive scalability of the Rangefinder M System supported by the huge confidence provided by the amazing optical and mechanical quality of the Leica M Lenses, specially the last generation aspheric ones mainly calculated by Peter Karbe and in whose mechanical construction Andre de Winter has played a prominent role, in such a way that the synergy between Leica M lenses and the better and better digital sensors which will appear in the short and long term will go on being great.

Likewise, in the same way as when using the best monochrome films which always demanded a very accurate exposure to get the best results, the black and white professional and connoisseur photographers  will have with the Leica M Monochrom a new breakthrough display offering a RAW data histogram allowing a very precise control of tonal values for the optimization of exposures, what is a significant improvement over the conventional histograms made till now, often highly influenced by the JPEG compression.

Besides, as a further outstanding feature, the Leica Monochrom includes a 2.5-inch 230k-dot color LCD TFT with sapphire glass.

At the same time, Leica has announced that it will offer Leica Monochrom users an exclusive service of manufacturing of top-notch quality photographic copies on black and white baryta paper through the renowned German laboratory WhiteWall, created in Berlin in 2003 by Stefanie Harig and Mark Ulrich - two enthusiasts of chemical classical B & W photography whose dream was always attaining to make monochrome copies on paper done from digital archives emulating to the maximum the traditional positives made from black and white film negatives on baryta paper as qualitative benchmarks- , with the invaluable support of Hubert Burda, an art historian, international level collector, CEO of the Hubert Burda Media editorial group, a man featuring a great passion for chemical black and white photography of XX Century and possessing a number of vintage monochrom images made by famous photographers, as well as being currently one of the main shareholders of Whitewall.

This is a further hugely relevant hint clearly showing the great confidence the legendary German photographic firm has on its new Leica Monochrom as a generator of direct and very pure black and white digital images boasting filmic traits amazingly similar to the ones delivered by the best monochrom chemical 35 mm and medium format films since the very instant of the photographic act, since Whitewall works with black and white baryta photographic paper Ilford Galerie FB Digital (called Harman Galerie FB Digital since July 30th, 2008),

with artisan production standards greatly resembling those pertaining to the black and White Fine Art sphere - which keeps on being the world qualitative reference, specially with large format 8 x 10" ( 20 x 25 cm) analog cameras- , with different stages using processes inherent to the traditional manual handcrafted development of black and white films with wet chemicals, classic exposure on true b & w photographic paper containing silver halide - which guarantees maximum sharpness and detail richness, aside from providing a lot of decades of durability- and the subsequent making of copies on baryta photographic paper, in such a way that on watching an enlargement made from a very pure and direct monochrom digital DNG archive captured in the very instant of the image creation with the Leica Monochrom, an expert might express his conviction that the image was taken exposing high quality medium format very low sensitivity black and white chemical film with an analogue MF camera and top quality lenses.

This also links up with the purest Leica philosophy ( greatly embodied by Theo Kisselbach with his darkroom techniques and the Leica Schule revived by him from late forties),

Henri-Cartier Bresson: Jawaharlal Nehru announces Gandhi´s death, which has just occurred, to the crowd gathered outside his home in Delhi (India). January 30th, 1948. Magnum´s First Exhibition at Westlicht Schauplatz für Fotografie in Vienna (Austria). 2008. Photo: José Manuel Serrano Esparza

which throughout its whole history, both in the chemical stage and now in the digital one, has deemed that the gist of photography and the true touchstone to unquestionably check the quality of a photographic system lies on the prints on genuine photographic paper made in different sizes, far beyond what can be seen on a computer screen or enlarging to the utmost with excellent image softwares like Adobe Photoshop.

In this regard, Leica has things clear: both in the chemical scope and the digital one, black and white photography was, is and will be the benchmark of quality, such as is proved by this remarkable bet fulfilled by the German firm, bearing in mind the market circumstances - probably, only Leica could be the first to do it - , but in my opinion, there are high chances that the Leica M Monochrom will work very well not only in terms of sells but above all as to unprecedented filmlike results and unique satisfactions with black and white photography it can give to those ones having the opportunity to make B & W photography with it in genres like photojournalism, streeter, travel photography, etc, with the great advantage that the impressive optical quality of Leica M aspherical lenses not corrected by firmware in combination with the exclusively B & W state-of-the-art 18 megapixel sensor of the Leica Monochrom allows to get superb and very pure DNG archives with almost no manipulation, enabling a margin of manoeuver in postprocessing far greater than the one attained with lenses corrected through firmware (yielding RAW archives with a strong in camera processing in the moment of photographic act), specially regarding to focusing more (120% more of focus and even more without any problem), enhancing of the sharpness, fostering of the tonal range by means of small exposure adjustments, etc.

The Leica M Monochrom sets a completely new standard in B & W electronic images of amazing quality, with a laudable digital emulation of the filmic image aesthetics and realism of best monochrom very low ISO medium format chemical emulsions, and the further chance of opting (among the 20 films available through the Silver Efex Pro 2 software) for other well-known black and white chemical emulsions featuring higher ISOS, unique character and more grainy appearance like Kodak Tri-X 400, Fuji Neopan 400, Kodak T-Max 400, etc.

It´s a a return to the future, with very solid ground in the past, and sturdily rooted in an almost hundred years experience as a world class photographic firm in which along with the cameras and lenses of the German concern, the successive ranges of superb Leitz Focomat 35 mm enlargers

were the ones indicating the way to achieve the best possible results from 24 x 36 mm B & W films and the subsequent high quality copies as a top priority, with classic chemical darkroom handcrafted working criteria that Whitewall manages to greatly emulate,

 with Durst Lambda

and Océ Lightjet laser printers alike, which get a flawless symbiosis between the classic black and white chemical photography and the digital one, using baryta paper Hamar Gallery FB Digital.

This quantum leap just accomplished by Leica regarding the qualitative level and image aesthetics of digital black and white - which goes far beyond the very important elimination of filters and which follows to great extent the filmic image features of the best monochrom 35 mm and medium format chemical emulsions, does open a new stage in the History of Black and White Photography, and apparently marks the future of digital monochrom photography, which will go on striving after emulating the one based on silver halides as much as possible.

 Photo: José Manuel Serrano Esparza

Dr. Andreas Kaufmann, CEO of Leica Camera AG and driving force of the legendary German photographic firm along with the formidable staff of optical designers, mechanic engineers and workers who have been able to guarantee not only the survival of the firm in the digital scope, but the consolidation of Leica as a successful worldwide top-notch leader in the launching of photographic digital products second to none in terms of sheer optical and mechanical quality and prospective future, to such an extent that after the arrival of the 35 mm rangefinder Leica M9 and the medium format Leica S2, they have just managed to attain a dream come true: the creation of the Leica Monochrom, a rangefinder 24 x 36 mm format digital camera exclusively devoted to black and white photography, rendering exceedingly pure and direct B & W uncompressed DNG archives with an excellence in global image quality, resolving power, contrast and image aesthetics amazingly similar to the one delivered by the best medium format analogue cameras exposing the benchmark chemical ISO 25 black and white emulsions with their negatives digitized through professional virtual drum scans and getting huge TIFF archives, and the added choice of emulation of up to 20 different B & W famous classical films -some of them with unique traits of appealing grain and character- through the sterling Silver Efex Pro 2 software.

Andreas Kaufmann, the man who took the helm of Leica in 2005 (joining to it with his Salzburg-based ACM Projektenwicklung GmbH, and acquiring a majority stake of over 97% in 2006) turning it into a leading thriving digital brand with revived splendour, has also been for many years a passionate lover of classic black and white photography and is the owner of Leica Galerie in Salzburg (Austria), having endeavoured at every moment to enhance the Leica Galerie halls all over the world.

´I think that nowadays black and white is as relevant as it was formerly with film ´ 
´We have taken one step further: It´s the new Leica Monochrom´
Andreas Kaufmann, Berlin May 12, 2012

Its brainstorm of launching into market the first camera exclusively intended for black and white photography is a milestone in the History of Photography.

Copyright Text and Indicated Photographs: José Manuel Serrano Esparza. LHSA