Although it is based on the Leica M9, the Leica M Monochrom has no colour filter array, so it can only record black and white images. However, as Leica is a German company, the camera is called the Monochrom, not the Leica Monochrome.
This means that every one of its 18 million pixels is used to record brightness values, and there is no demosaicing of the red, green and blue signals to create a full colour image.
Removing the RGGB (red, green, green, blue) filter array above the sensor has a number of effects. Firstly, more light can reach the sensor, which is good news for noise control because the signal requires less amplification, which is prone to introducing noise.
The fact that more light reaches the Leica M Monochrom sensor means that it is effectively more sensitive than the Leica M9's sensor, so the base sensitivity setting is higher.
Consequently, the Leica M Monochrom's native sensitivity range runs from ISO 320 to ISO 10,000, but there's also a low-end extension setting of ISO 160. In comparison, the Leica M9's native sensitivity runs from ISO 160 to ISO 2,500, and there's an expansion setting of ISO 80.
Traditionally, Leica cameras are favoured by reportage and street photographers, and these users often need to use middle to high sensitivity settings, so the Leica M Monochrom's higher base setting is likely to be good news for them. Those who need to use very fast shutter speeds or shoot with a wide aperture can resort to shooting with an ND filter over the lens.
Like the Leica M9, the Leica M Monochrom has a 2.5-inch monitor with 230,000 pixels. This is disappointing enough in a camera that has a retail price that's just a shade under £5,000 or $7,000, but it in a camera that retails for around £6,000 in the UK or $8,000 in the US, it is staggering.
Reviewing images on the screen of a pre-production sample Leica M Monochrom revealed that the screen isn't as detailed or as sharp as that of a mid-range DSLR that costs a fraction of the price.
One difference between a Leica rangefinder and a DSLR or compact system camera (CSC), however, is that the screen is only ever used to review images. There is no live view system.
Accordingly, images are composed in the Leica M Monochrom's optical viewfinder. As in the Leica M9, this provides a larger field of view than the mounted lens (down to 28mm), and it displays the most basic exposure information in large red LEDs.
Naturally, focusing is manual only and uses a rangefinder system whereby the lens ring is rotated until the floating image lines up with the one visible through the viewfinder. This takes some care and practice.
Build and handling
Leica's M-series cameras have a build quality that is second to none. It's not really news then that the Leica M Monochrom has a wonderfully solid feel, it is constructed from a single piece of magnesium alloy with a textured leather coating and brass top and bottom plates. It is a thing of beauty.
Although its body is large in comparison with the current crop of mirrorless compact system cameras, it's important to remember that the Leica M Monochrom houses a full-frame sensor and it is considerably smaller than the full-frame DSLRs that are currently on the market.
Although the LCD screen isn't the most detailed, it is useful for checking exposure, since the shadow and highlight warnings can be set to operate at levels that suit the photographer. The warnings are shown in red, which stand out well against the monochrome image.
Like the Leica M9, the Leica M Monochrom has none of the exotic modes found on the average digital camera - it is intended for use by a photographic purest who wants to concentrate on the key aspects of exposure and composition.
Nevertheless, it is possible to select one of three tones (Sepia, Cold and Selenium), which can be applied to JPEG images as they are recorded. There are also a number of filter options that emulate the effect of using optical filters on black and white film photography.
As yet we have only been able to inspect the results from a pre-production sample of the Leica M Monochrom, but they are very impressive. Noise appears to be very limited, and even in the shadows shots taken at ISO 2500 have only a fine grain visible at 100 per cent on the computer screen. Tonal gradations also look natural and smooth.
We spoke to Leica Akademie tutor Brett (he doesn't use his last name) who used the Leica M Monochrom with the new Leica APO-Summicron-M 50mm f/2 ASPH lens (£5,400/$7,195) for a couple of days. He told us that although he is very impressed with the camera, it will take a little while before he learns how to get the absolute best from the DNG format raw files.
Because he has found that the Leica M Monochrom records a lot of detail in shadows and noise isn't a major issue, he recommends that images are exposed for the highlights.
He's also a fan of the new Summicron 50mm lens, but warns that it is so sharp that it emphasises the drop-off in focus, which is quick, so it's absolutely essential to get the focus spot-on, especially when shooting wide open.
Clearly with a retail price of around £6,000 in the UK or $8,000 in the US, the Leica M Monochrom isn't going to sell in huge numbers, but from the reaction to its launch it is obvious that it holds huge appeal to the Leica faithful. It seems to sum up both the history and the future of Leica as a great photographic brand.
It's about getting the best black and white photo possible, and this means gathering the maximum amount of luminance data in-camera. It comes with Adobe Lightroom and Nik Silver Efex Pro 2, recognising that in the modern age some adjustment is often necessary to get the desired look.
Results may look good straight out of the camera, but there is usually room for improvement. Traditional black and white photographers shoot to produce a negative that has all the information required to create a print, and dodging and burning are just part of the process. It's just the same with digital photography.
While the Leica M Monochrom can produce JPEGs for that instant result, the DNG raw files have the most data for manipulation.
It's early days yet, and we have yet to test a full production sample, but the Leica M Monochrom looks like it could be the ultimate camera for shooting black and white images.
We anticipate that many well-heeled and professional Leica users will invest, keeping their existing Leica M9 or Leica M9-P for colour work while the Leica M Monochrom is reserved for black and white shooting. Nice.