f/Egor: A Fetishist’s Guide to the Monochrom (Part 3)

After getting downright dirty in details in Part 2, we’re going to begin Part 3 right where we left off — in the mud and the grime and the goo of image quality discussions…

Highlight Fetishists

There’s been a fair amount of internet chatter over the fact that clipped highlights in a Monochrom are well and truly clipped, and that you can’t reclaim highlight detail from the RAW file, as you might with a color file. The reason color cameras have a little extra highlight headroom is that they assemble an image from three different color channels — so if one of the channels isn’t quite clipped, your RAW converter can interpret this unclipped channel as “detail.” Contrary to this, the Monochrom records only a single (albeit much higher fidelity) luminance channel. So, when a highlight clips, there’s no second or third channel from which to recover possible data.

I spent an inordinate amount of time (days) shooting specular highlights and purposely overexposing scenes using both the M9 and the Monochrom. I took hundreds of shots to compare how the Monochrom responded to blown highlights, versus the M9.

Here’s what I found: When I purposely overexposed a scene (such that large expanses of highlight detail would “clip”), I could indeed recover a tiny bit of additional highlight detail in the M9 files. Interestingly, when shooting the M9 and the Monochrom under identical conditions and with identical exposure settings, my M9 shots are consistently a half-stop less exposed. So, I wonder if that factor (more than the three color channels) isn’t ultimately responsible for the M9′s ability to display just a wee bit more highlight detail in an identically exposed file?

To see how minuscule the differences really are, take a look at the following shot, in which an entire strip of windows on the high-rise building blew out the highlights on both the M9 and the Monochrom files. Using Lightroom 4, I was able to reclaim some of the “blown” M9 highlights, resulting in the crop shown on the left. The Monochrom file, which contains no recoverable highlights, is shown on the right. Pixel peeping and a whole lot of squinting reveal that there’s slightly more detail in the M9′s blown highlight region than the Monochrom’s… but the difference is really rather insignificant.

I’ll spare you from the gory details and the burden of looking through any more of the hundreds of comparison photos that I took, and will jump right to the conclusion: If you accidentally overexpose a shot, the M9 will allow you to recover some highlight details that the Monochrom will not. If you accidentally underexpose a shot, the Monochrom will allow you to extract much more shadow detail than the M9. If you properly expose a shot, the Monochrom will give you a much cleaner file across the board, and with more usable dynamic range.

The shot below is a classic example of overexposure. It was a sunny day, and I failed to take the man’s white shirt into account — blowing out a rather large section of highlights. Plain and simple, I botched the exposure. But whether I used the M9 or the Monochrom, the man’s shirt would still be blown out. From my tests, I know the M9 would have allowed me to recover a tiny amount of the shirt detail (a percent or two, at best), but it would not come anywhere close to “fixing” my exposure error.

You might think the key to using the Monochrom is to underexpose, but it’s not — it’s to expose correctly. And in the Monochrom’s case, “correctly” means “don’t expose to the right.” This is somewhat counter to everything we’ve been told about color digital photography, and it took me about a week to get comfortable with this notion. Initially, I would err in the other direction, and purposely underexpose my shots. But there’s no reason to underexpose unless you truly don’t care about the shadows. In the case of specular highlights, they’ll always be there (at least that’s true in my city of glass-enrobed high-rises).  No amount of underexposure will prevent these specular highlights from blowing — so who cares if the Monochrom’s specular highlights are a pixel or two larger than the M9′s? Particularly when the Monochrom’s shadows are so much cleaner and its mid-tones so much richer. But that’s a topic for the next group of fetishists…

Low Light Fetishists

For every up there’s a down — for every give, a take. Thinking in terms of the Zone System, I’ve seen that the M9′s Bayer filter gives me a slightly extended Zone VIII. But, in exchange for that, it takes away visual fidelity from Zones 0 through V — In my book, that’s a pretty fair tradeoff in favor of the Monochrom — lose a little something in one zone, gain something in six zones!

You might wonder why I’m including Zone 0 — after all there’s no detail there — it’s just black. The reason is that the Monochrom’s noise floor is so much lower that, unless you’re using high ISO’s, black really is black — not some dithered, noisy grey. Not only that, but files from the Monochrom contain ridiculously greater shadow detail (zones I and II); much less obvious noise in zones III and IV; and even a tiny bit more discernible detail in zones V and VI.

Removing the Bayer filter (and thus the camera’s color capabilities) means over an entire stop of additional light reaches the camera’s sensor. And with no color, there’s no need for color management or white-balancing — both of which require additional signal amplification, which also magnifies the noise. Furthermore, in color cameras, the noise gets processed through the de-mosaicing algorithms right along with the rest of the image. This tends to “spread” the noise even further across the image. When you use software to convert a color photo to B&W, the negative impact of that color noise does not disappear — it merely desaturates while it continues to rob the image of actual detail.

I’ll write more about the Monochrom’s noise characteristics when I address the Noise Fetishists, but for now I want to talk a bit more about the Monochrom’s shadows and mid-tones.

As you’ve probably learned over the years, digital sensors are linear. This means each stop contains twice as much data as the stop below it. Under ideal conditions, a perfectly exposed 14-bit file might contain over 4,000 shades of grey in Zone VII, but it will contain only 64 shades within the shadows. That’s why we’ve all been told to “expose to the right” with digital cameras — that’s where most of the data is!

Of course, just because the sensor can theoretically record this many individual shades of grey doesn’t mean it can actually “see” that may. Lens performance can obviously affect what the sensor sees, as can any filters applied in front of that sensor. Antialiasing filters and Bayer filters both rob the sensor of light and, therefore, resolution. Since the Monochrom contains neither an antialising filter nor a Bayer filter, it delivers maximum light to the sensor, meaning it can come closer to displaying the theoretical maximums outlined above. This is particularly important in the shadow regions, where digital sensors are already less-equipped to deal with minute levels of detail and smooth tonalities.

Almost every photographer who’s spent time with the Monochrom, has written about its rich and beautiful greys. This comment is almost always met with great derision from detractors who can’t or won’t understand why this is true. And the reason it’s true is that, with more light reaching the sensor, the sensor is able to distinguish between a greater number of luminosities, which results in far less visible dithering. Consider the following illustration. All three blocks represent an attempt to draw an area filled with 38% luminosity. On the left, I used 1-bit (2 greys) of data to create a 38% luminosity. In the middle, I used 2-bits (4 greys) to create a 38% luminosity. On the right, I used 4-bits (16 greys) to create a 38% luminosity.

All three blocks represent an attempt to display the exact same shade of grey — but it’s obvious that the higher-bit version does a better job of it. And this is why the greys appear so much richer in the Monochrom: The more bits of data you capture, the more shades of grey you can display. Removing the Bayer filter allows more light to reach the sensor, which increases the apparent bit-depth of each zone, meaning each zone can display more greys. In the case of the shadows and mid tones, this is a huge advantage since, as explained above, those zones inherently contain far fewer greys than the highlight zones.

Noise Fetishists

As discussed in my dissertation to Low Light Fetishists, the absence of a Bayer filter lowers the Monochrom’s noise floor substantially.

Unlike the film days, when “grain fetishists” were defined as people who actually liked the appearance of grain, “noise fetishists” are the opposite — they despise the appearance of digital noise. And well they should. Digital noise is just plain ugly. That’s why it’s so great to have a camera that minimizes it (rather than masking it). I have no problem claiming that an ISO 10,000 Monochrom file has far fewer detail-obfuscating “artifacts” than a Tri-X negative shot at ISO 400 — but that doesn’t mean I’d never use Tri-X again. Quite the contrary. Film grain is made from clumps of tonal clusters and adds a rich texture to a photograph, while the Monochrom’s noise looks like a very fine dusting of static spread evenly across the frame. The Tri-X simply looks more organic. But the reality is, the light dusting of Monochrom noise steals very little image data from a photo. If you’re a resolution nut, you’ll be thrilled at what the Monochrom is capable of resolving at high ISOs.

I’m simply stunned by the low noise characteristics of the Monochrom, and by the very fine character of that noise.  And frankly, up to ISO 3200, that “dusting” of noise is so minimal as to be essentially non-detrimental. At ISO 3200 and higher, the “static” is more visible, but I wouldn’t be inclined to call it objectionable. If smooth tonality is your goal, the Monochrom is your camera.

Curiously, as a self-professed grain fetishist (and as I mentioned in my discussion of Film Fetishism in Part 2), I actually find the Monochrom’s high ISO files too clean. I know this sounds ridiculous, but when I shoot at dusk, night, or in dark environments, I actually expect to see grain. No, I don’t want to see noise, but neither do I want to see a file so smooth and detailed that someone would think it was taken at noon on a sunny day. For this reason, when I shoot dark scenes at higher ISO’s, I actually use software to add some artificial film grain to the image. I know some of you will consider this sacrilege, but I’ve got a psychological aversion to clean files shot in darkness. So, yes — I’m actually complaining that the Monochrom has too much fidelity at high ISO’s. And though I would never wish for a higher level of digital noise, I do kind of miss the grain. Like I said way back at the beginning of Part 1, we’re all just a bunch of fetishists, and this happens to be one of mine.

To illustrate how low the noise really is, I present the following photo, which I suspect will go down in the annals of history as “the most pedantic test photo ever published.” Yes, it’s a full-frame photograph of my lens cap taken at ISO 10,000. A small section is shown zoomed in, so you can see how unobtrusive the noise really is — even with Lightroom’s Clarity slider set to its maximum value of 100.

Unfortunately, I did uncover one noise-related issue that I don’t think will find too many devotees — a situation that, for lack of a better phrase, I’ll call noise patterning. Specifically, if I shot at ISO 3200 or higher and then used the geometric transformation parameters in Lightroom’s Lens Correction panel, it would induce an underlying visible noise pattern throughout the image. Similarly (and more egregiously) if I simply rotated an image in Lightroom, it would induce a checkerboard-like pattern within the noise, which would appear throughout all the shadow regions in a photo.

If I pretended to be Cartier-Bresson — never rotating or geometrically altering an image — then I was never able to see any noise patterning, and no amount of aggressive dodging, burning, or contrast modification would ever reveal even the slightest hint of a pattern. But since my photographic skills are aligned more with mere mortals, I occasionally wanted to rotate or geometrically alter an image — and when I did that with an ISO 3200 (or higher) file, I’d induce a noise pattern into the photo. Although I suspect at least one photographer somewhere in the world would employ this flaw as a “special effect,” I can safely say that the majority of us do not want this.

I have been working on this issue with Leica, and the problem appears to be related to Adobe’s interpolation algorithms. Specifically, the Monochrom’s noise is so “clean,” that when you use Lightroom/Camera Raw to either rotate a high-ISO image, or perform any lens distortion or perspective corrections, moire-like patterns are introduced into the noise. This doesn’t happen with color cameras because the noise is blurred by the interpolation process.

The following example illustrates this phenomenon (as well as why I resorted to photographing lens caps). Here, the lens cap photo shown above has been subjected to a distortion correction of -30 in Lightroom’s Lens Correction module. Unless you have optimal room lighting and a well-calibrated monitor, it might be a little difficult to see the moire-like pattern in this down sampled web version, but you should be able to make out the design when you look at the zoomed-in section where Clarity is set to 100:

Leica informs me that Adobe is actively involved and is now working to modify their algorithms for the Monochrom. In the meantime, those who own a Monochrom and shoot at high ISO values might want to avoid rotating an image or modifying its geometry in Lightroom or Camera Raw. Fortunately, if such actions are unavoidable, there is a reasonable work around available: simply up-sample the image before applying the transformations.

Specifically, you can open the Monochrom file in Camera Raw and up-sample it from 18.1 megapixels to 25.1 megapixels. Save the up-sampled file and use this as the basis for your image manipulations. Up-sampling the image dithers the noise just enough to make Adobe’s rotation and lens correction algorithms far less intrusive.

The following example illustrates the workaround. Here, the lens cap photo has first been resized to 25.1 megapixels in Camera Raw, then subject to the same -30 Distortion Transformation in Lightroom. As you can see, this almost completely eliminated the moire-effect.

Although I certainly don’t consider this a “show stopper” (particularly since an effective workaround exists), those who routinely work at high ISO’s and who perform a lot of geometric alterations or rotations need to be aware of this issue. Hopefully, Adobe will be able to tweak their algorithms sooner rather than later, and the extra up-sampling step will no longer be required.

Interface Fetishists

I’ll grant you — there probably aren’t too many Interface Fetishists reading this. But I didn’t spend 15 years designing professional audio hardware and software products without learning at least a little something about user interface design. Consequently, during the time I was investigating the camera’s dynamic range, I “designed” what I think is a much better interface for alerting photographers to the presence of blown highlights and/or blocked shadows. I will present these recommendations as a series of escalating suggestions to Leica:

Suggestion 1: If highlights or shadows clip, put a big thick red (or blue) bar across the screen. Make it big, bold and obvious. Currently, there are only two ways to see if any highlights clipped: you can look at the far right of the histogram and try to see if the right-most 1-pixel wide line is red (indicating clipping), or you can look at a tiny thumbnail of the image and see if there are any red pixels within it. If there’s a lot of ambient light (which there always is when I clip a highlight), then it’s nigh impossible to see a few tiny red pixels on that LCD. If I’ve taken a photo and mostly just care whether I’ve clipped anything, it would be nice to have a couple “idiot” lights appear on the LCD — that way, I’d know with just a glance whether or not I need to retake the shot.

Suggestion 2: As long as you’re mucking about with the firmware, add an option to the “alarms” menu for highlight/shadow clipping. This would make the camera beep if the image clipped within the constraints set by the “amount” menu. Normally, I’m the first person to turn off every audible sound in his camera, but this function would be very useful to any photographer who worries about clipping, but who doesn’t want to check the LCD after every shot (event and/or wedding photographers, for example).

Suggestion 3: Better still, since I really don’t like a camera to make noise, make it vibrate instead! Granted, this feature would require a hardware modification (and not just firmware), so consider this a ‘freebie’ suggestion for some future model of Leica M.

Suggestion 4: If you’re feeling ambitious, I would like to offer a further improvement on Suggestion 1: instead of a big red (or blue) bar, put a big red (or blue) number on the screen, indicating what percentage of the pixels clipped. For example, if 2.3 percent of the pixels clip the highlights, put a big red “2.3″ on the screen. That way I can decide quickly whether or not I care about the clipping.

Suggestion 5: To refine Suggestion 4 even further, consider this: It’s not as important how many pixels clip, as it is how many contiguous pixels clip. A few small regions of clipping likely indicates specular highlights, and I’m less likely to be concerned about that. What I’m more concerned about is clipping large regions where I would prefer to see a tiny bit of detail. So, instead of indicating the total percentage of clipped pixels, the big red/blue numbers could indicate the largest area of contiguous clipping in the image. Like it or not, the camera has an LCD, so let’s at least use it effectively!

Beach Fetishists

A few years ago, in a fit of jaundiced lucidity, I realized that nearly everything mankind had ever invented — nearly every moment of inspiration or technological leap — was ultimately motived by one of two purposes: laziness or the urge to procreate.

“What about money?” you ask.

“Merely a means to an end,” I counter cynically. “A way to buy oneself more recreation; more relaxation; more procreation.” Mankind is, perhaps, the only species that will work incredibly hard for the sole purpose of banishing even the most simple tasks from their lives. It’s all part of some grand master plan. Even global warming, I theorize, is nothing more than a way to create more warm, inland beaches. We can’t all live in Rio, so let’s make more Rios.

Man’s ultimate desire to turn life into a popular bossa nova does, at times, infuriate me. Like, for example, every time I read an article on the internet that complains about the Monochrom’s default output being too “grey.” ¿Que? Grey is good! Grey is desirable! Grey allows you, the photographer, to manipulate an image the way you want to manipulate it. Grey lets you add contrast where you want it. It lets you accentuate micro-contrast where you want it. It lets you dodge, burn and create a path through the image for the eye to follow. It lets you call the shots. Just because the files come out of the camera with a lot of beautiful grey tonality does’t mean you’re required to display them that way. You could, instead, spend 60 seconds inside Lightroom, Photoshop, or one of a myriad other applications and make the file look the way you want it.

Have we really gotten so lazy that we demand our cameras make all our processing decisions for us? I suspect it’s only a matter of time until a camera is nothing more than a little ball that sits atop our heads and continuously records everything in the spherical space around us —analyzing it, comparing what it sees to a giant database of the most “liked” images on Facebook, then selecting those moments within our sphere that best match those images. Our little head cameras will then apply “appropriate” processing to the images it selects, and wirelessly upload them to the web before sending out an automated tweet from our Twitter account, linking to our Flickr page and exclaiming “Hey, look at these 7 amazing photos I just took!” Yet all we’ve really done is walk 2-blocks to the local coffee shop for a machiatto and a chance to chat up that cute barista.

Grey is good. Grey is malleable. Grey is traditional. And grey is exactly the way I want my raw images to appear. But then, I’m not one for lazing about on beaches…

Purity Fetishists

Besides the beach fetish, there’s another sort of hang-up that prevents some folks from accepting the notion that the Monochrom’s low contrast file is an ideal starting point for image processing — and that’s the fetish that dictates that no image processing should ever be needed if a photo is taken correctly. There are those who believe a camera can be judged only by examining its pure, unprocessed and unadulterated images, and that any form of processing obscures the capabilities of the camera in question. But what constitutes a pure and unprocessed image? There’s no such thing. In the digital world, an image is nothing more than bits and bytes. There is no image — there is only a mathematical interpretation of an image. Your computer’s RAW or JPG converter (or the camera’s built-in converter) merely interprets these numbers and assembles an image based on a conservative estimate of what the software thinks the photo should look like. I don’t necessarily buy into the belief that a bunch of algorithm coders know more than I about how I want my image to look.

The idea of a “pure” image is a myth. Many whose photographic lives began after the demise of film seem to believe all those great, classic film photographs are somehow “pure” — that they couldn’t possibly have been manipulated since Photoshop didn’t exist. Little do they know about the magic of darkroom chemical selection; the mysterious art of the dodge and burn; the wonders of graded contrast papers; the flexibility of multigrade papers and variable contrast filters; and of the miracles of potassium ferricyanide. You don’t really think W. Eugene Smith would get hopped up on poppers and spend 72 straight hours working on a single print just for the fun of it, do you?

Freudian Fetishists

Some people believe that a camera is just a camera, but the Freudian Fetishists know better — they know that a camera is a mainline to their soul. Some believe a photograph is something to be seen, but the Freudian Fetishists believe it’s something to be understood. Are you a theorist? A thinker? An existentialist? A reader of the ULTRAsomething photography site? Then you’re a Freudian Fetishist, and you’ll understand what I mean when I say that one of the Monochrom’s greatest attributes is the psychological advantage you gain from losing any possibility to shoot in color.

If this statement makes you roll your eyes in disagreement, it stands to reason that you are not a carrier of the Freudian gene. Those who manifest Freudian proclivities are the type who prefer prime lenses to zooms, since primes force them to see their surroundings within the confines of a particular focal length, which sharpens their eye and heightens their sense of photographic opportunities. By restricting focal length, Freudian photographers know they actually increase their photographic options.

The same applies to shooting B&W. I’ll admit, even though the majority of my M9 images get converted to B&W, that knowing it can shoot color means I still keep an eye out for color. Such flexibility actually dilutes my vision. I’m well aware that 99% of the people will read this and dismiss it as ridiculous. But, for me, it’s true. There’s just something about the rigidity of shooting in B&W that inspires me. Post-capture B&W conversion has always felt wrong; like cheating; like a special effect rather than a dedicated choice. The Monochrom frees me from the distractions of color and from feelings of fraudulence.

Egor Fetishists

By all rights, this should be a rather small and exclusive group of fetishists, with a membership hovering somewhere around one.

I’m always surprised how many people seek the opinions of others as guidance. But then, nearly every one of my favorite movies rates below a “3″ (out of 10) on IMDB, so you can see why I might think this. My tastes can best be described as “fringe.” Whether I ultimately like a camera should have no bearing on whether anyone else likes the camera.

Still, anyone who’s made it to the end of this article deserves some kind of closure — some indication of my overall personal assessment of this camera. And so, for the purpose of “entertainment” and with all caveats firmly articulated, I’ll deliver my final proclamation… right after I admonish one more group — the Impulse Fetishists.

Impulse Fetishists are people who form strong opinions about cameras and lenses simply by looking at a few photos on the web. I have no idea how someone can look at a photo on a website — a photo that they didn’t even take — and draw a conclusion about the camera that took it? Or how that same person can reach a conclusion about a camera’s imaging capabilities by simply looking at a web photo that displays only about 3% of the RAW image’s total resolution? I suspect, having seen enough Impulse Fetishists to polish my cynicism to a blinding glare, that hundreds (if not thousands) of people will see this article and instantly leap to a conclusion. They won’t read the article. They won’t even look at more than one or two pictures. But they’ll have seen “enough” to draw a decisive and incontrovertible conclusion. I’m quite comfortable publicly dismissing this fetish and all its practitioners, since I know none of them will actually be reading this text.

There is no doubt that I love the Monochrom. I am a B&W photographer. If I never had to worry about pleasing anyone other than myself, I would be perfectly happy to never take another color photo. I have always wanted a black & white digital camera, and ever since I first learned how color digital cameras worked, I’ve known that a black & white version would have certain fidelity advantages over its color counterpart. The fact that this camera was developed by Leica, and not one of the more mainstream companies like Canon or Nikon is, for me, a real stroke of luck. Not because I’m a brand loyalist, but because I’m a rangefinder shooter — and the advantages of a rangefinder are essential to the way I photograph. So to have my dream camera (a black & white digital) available in my preferred format (a rangefinder) is like winning the lottery.

But winning the lottery is what I’d have to do in order to afford this camera. Truthfully, if I sold my M9 (plus some other cameras and lenses), I could scrape together enough cash to buy the Monochrom. But that would leave me without a single color digital camera. And while it’s true that I would personally be happy to only ever shoot B&W, such ideology does not mirror that of any clients I might wish to pursue.

In one hand, I’m holding the camera of my dreams — the single best match for my photographic proclivities of any digital camera ever manufactured. In the other hand I’m holding nothing — no wad of cash; no list of clients clamoring for B&W photos; and no galleries screaming for my quirky and blurry little slice-of-life prints. In order to achieve equilibrium, I must either free up one hand by relinquishing the Monochrom, or I must find something of equal value to put into the empty hand to balance its cost. And so, unless any of you readers know someone who wishes to employ a discursive wordsmith with a black & white photography fetish, my time with the borrowed Monochrom has come to an end — replaced with a fond but fading memory of the best digital camera I’ve ever used.

-grEGORy simpson

grEGORy simpson is a professional “pounder.” You may find him pounding on his computer keyboard, churning out articles for both the Leica Blog and his own blog at ULTRAsomething.com. Or you may hear him pounding on a musical keyboard, composing music and designing new sounds. Frequently, he’s out pounding city pavement and photographing humans simply being. And that sound you hear? That’s either the sound of him pounding on doors trying to get hired or, more likely, it’s the sound of him pounding his head against the wall when he doesn’t. Fellow pounders are welcome to follow along on the ULTRAsomething Facebook page or G+ account.