I used to carry one camera, but now I carry two. Why two? My main camera is a Leica M Monochrom, because I shoot black-and-white almost exclusively. However, there are times when I want to shoot color. Or I want a fast autofocus camera. Or I want a second focal length. I can get all of that with the versatile Leica Q. For me, it’s an ideal complement to my Monochrom, even though it’s more likely than not that I’ll end up processing the shots for black-and-white.
My alternate camera used to be an X Vario, which I still have. The Q is a better fit for me, because it’s full frame (as opposed to APS-C), and the attached lens is much faster (f/1.7 versus f/3.5-6.4). More importantly the Q has an extremely fast autofocus. I tend to manual focus most of the time, but there are situations where a fast autofocus is helpful, especially in low light. While the Q’s viewfinder is electronic rather than optical, it does a pretty good job of approximating the optical experience.
As with the X Vario, I initially purchased the Q so that I could capture color, for those shots where color is a critical component. Also as with the X Vario, most of my shots end up in black-and-white after being processed. What can I say—I watch a lot of black-and-white movies, and I prefer black-and-white photography. John Alton is one of my favorite Hollywood cinematographers. He sums up the power of monochrome this way: “There is no doubt in my mind that the most beautiful music is sad, and the most beautiful photography is in a low-key, with rich blacks.”
So how does the Q stack up against the Monochrom for black-and-white? Surprisingly well, considering that the Monochrom sets the bar about as high as it can go for digital black-and-white photography in a full-frame format. The Q’s sensor-lens combination is sharp without being harsh. And the images have a broad and smooth contrast range that converts well to grayscale. Being a color camera, the Q has a Bayer filter that converts the incoming light to the various colors, so it doesn’t have the same extended dynamic range, extra light sensitivity, or lack of distortion that the Monochrom has. On the other hand, the Q has a very fast and unusually accurate autofocus that has been useful when photographing moving objects. The processed photos from the Q also have a different look than with the Monochrom, which opens up new aesthetic areas to explore.
For the past few months, I’ve been carrying both cameras at the same time in a Billingham Hadley Small camera bag. This particular bag can fit a Q, a Monochrom with an M-mount lens attached, a second M-mount lens, and an iPad Air 2. There’s even room for additional batteries, SD cards, spare lens caps, and the typical odds and ends that find their way into a camera bag. I don’t like to have two cameras strapped around my neck bumping into each other, so one camera is usually out, while the other stays in the bag.
I’m just starting to get a handle on the strengths and weaknesses of the Q. Every camera has its sweet spots where it can truly shine. And every camera has its limitations, which are those areas where it tends to underperform the competition. While I’ll very impressed with the Q’s speedy autofocus, I’ve settled back into manual focusing for most shots. It’s partly a habit, based on six years of using rangefinders. Because the lens and viewfinder operate much as they would on an M camera, I feel comfortable using it like an M with a 28mm lens attached. Unlike an M, it can focus down to 30 centimeters using the standard focusing mode. And there’s a macro mode that focuses all the way down to 17 centimeters. With the macro mode, the distance markings on the lens change over to a new set of markings that reflect the macro distance range.
Of all the images from the Q that I’ve processed so far, this photo titled Tokyo Shadows #1 is my favorite. It shows the broad range and delicacy of tones that this camera can produce. Look at the gradual shift in texture and tone as the brighter areas transition to dark shadow. There’s an extraordinary amount of detail here. And while the image is sharp, it’s not hard on the eyes. Of course, this kind of shot depends heavily on the available light and shadows, which depend on the sun being in the right position relative to the building. I had only a short time to grab some shots before the shadows shifted to another part of the building. Then they faded away altogether.
Here’s a good example of what John Alton was talking about when he expressed his admiration for low-key photography with rich blacks. With the photo titled Manhattan Store Window #1, the mannequin is lit with a single spotlight. This minimal approach can provide the maximum amount of depth, which helps the figure to stand out from the background. The reflected buildings then appear to be the subject of her gaze. With a less capable camera and lens, it might be more obvious—at first glance—that this is simply a mannequin in a store window. Paradoxically, with a high-quality camera and lens (such as the Q), we’re more likely to be fooled because of the life-like shadows and detailed textures.
Sometimes you want the subject of the photo to appear to be emerging from darkness. This can be particularly effective with black-and-white photography because the darkness can be truly black with no distracting color cast. With the photo titled CEATEC Tradeshow, the four figures are sharp and distinct, despite being surrounded by various black and gray backgrounds. This can be a good test for a digital camera’s monochrome capabilities. A top-notch camera and lens will be able to clearly define the figures, even ones that are only subtly different from the background. A lesser camera-lens combination will tend to muddle those differences, so that any understated compositional elements or geometric juxtapositions are lost to the viewer.
Another worthwhile test of a camera-lens combination is its ability to define and distinguish between conflicting spatial planes, even though the photographic medium itself is essentially two-dimensional. With camera systems that are capable of conveying an awareness of these spatial planes, you can create a tension between the two-dimensional and three-dimensional qualities inherent in the image. With the photo titled Cosmopolitan Lobby, you can see this tension play out in the display columns and mirrored ceiling. The photo invites the viewer to decode the image by determining what is being viewed directly, as opposed to being viewed indirectly as a reflection.
You still can’t beat the Monochrom for full-frame digital black-and-white photography. The lack of a color-based Bayer filter really does make a big difference for the Monochrom. The Q, however, does offer some unusual advantages, including fast autofocus, macro capabilities, and a high-resolution electronic viewfinder. And as I hope you can see from these photos, the Q is a highly capable monochrome camera in its own right.
— David English
This is a guest post by David English, who has a day job as a technology writer. He has written articles for CNET, Film & Video, PC Magazine, Sky, and other publications. David started shooting with a Leica camera in March 2009 using an M8.2. He is currently using an M Monochrom, X Vario, and Q. You can see his photos at protozoid.com. His main website is davidenglish.com, and his classic film blog is classicfilmpreview.com.