Over Confidence with the Leica M Monochrom

Shooting with the Leica M System takes practice. At first it’s not easy, but the more you use it, the easier it gets until after a while it’s just instinctive. You lift the camera to your eye, adjust the focus tab, overlap the two images in the viewfinder and press click. Or at least that is what you do if you shoot Aperture Priority all the time. If you don’t use AP, it’s a little more complicated, but being a street shooter, I need to capture my subjects very quickly and Aperture Priority is a must. It alleviates the need to set shutter speed leaving you with nothing but focusing to worry about… Unless you’re shooting with a Leica M Monochrom.

The Monochrom is a superb camera. It is black and white only, full frame and captures an uncanny amount of detail, so much detail that numerous people have stated it produces a sharper, more detailed shot than most black and white medium format cameras. I can’t back this up as I have no experience of MF cameras either digital or film. What I can say is that of all the 35mm cameras I have ever shot, both digital and film, nothing I’ve ever seen compares to the clarity, sharpness and tonal gradation that the Monochrom achieves. It is simply outstanding… Until it bites you in the ass!

I live in Scotland. Scotland, albeit a fantastic country full of haggis and whisky, is grey. We don’t get much sun here, so setting an M camera up for street shooting is easy. Here’s the drill…

  1. Fire it onto Aperture Priority
  2. Set slowest shutter speed to 1/60th of a second
  3. Set Max ISO to 5000 or 8000 depending on wether you are shooting day or night
  4. Get out on the street – you’re ready to go

This set up works great when the sun you do get in Scotland is forcing it’s way through layers of grey cloud. It never fails. Keep your lens wide open, click the button and let your camera sort out shutter speed and ISO and you have your photo. But last week I went to London for a day and took the camera… When I got home it bit me in the ass.

I took about 40 shots, got home and uploaded the shots from the card and all but a few were overexposed. Why? London was sunny! I was shooting wide open with the camera set up for grey Scottish light and the bright sunlight in London was just too much for the Monochrom. The (non-technical) reason for this is that the Monochrom has no Bayer filter and therefor lets in more light. Too much light hitting a sensor will burn out the blacks and cause overexposure. With a colour camera (one with a Bayer sensor), you can save nearly all overexposed shots by playing around with the colour channels in Photoshop, Aperture or Lightroom, but with the Monochrom you only have one channel – black.

The settings I should have used are…

  1. Fire it onto Aperture Priority
  2. Set slowest shutter speed to 1/125th of a second
  3. Set Max ISO to 2500

So there I was, sitting looking at 40 odd overexposed shots thinking what a waste and I started to delete them one by one, but then came across a few that had just enough black in them that I though I might be able to save some.

It’s testament to both the Leica M Monochrom and Leica lenses, that even in the harshest of sunlight and wide open with a shutter speed that is too slow, that they can capture and render such strong contrasts. It may be the main reason that Leica lenses are so damn good.

I opened up one of the shots in Silver Effex and started playing around with the contrast slider and hey presto, and totally by (happy) accident, came up with an image that looks like a deliberate hi-key shot. I played with a few more and managed to save 8 or 9 of the 40 i had taken. Lucky!

Lunch

So the moral of this story is that when you use a manual camera, specifically a Leica M Monochrom, just remember the word “manual”. Don’t rely on settings you used in one location just to “automatically” work elsewhere. Photography is all about capturing light and if your camera is set up for a different type of light than the one your shooting in… it’ll bite you in the ass!

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Published by stephencosh

Street Scooters Soul

2 Comments

  1. Stephen,

    Unless I have misunderstood your blog post, I’m not sure how the change in settings you mention is going to help. The issue you are facing is not caused by having your ISO too high or your shutter speed to low, it’s caused by the exposure meter giving an inaccurate reading. Exposure meters always try to expose to an average of 18% greyscale. If the scene contains more bright tones than an average of 18%, the image will be incorrectly exposed.

    You don’t mention it specifically, but I’m assuming you are using Auto ISO. This is fine. But the point is, whether you have your max ISO set to 200 or 2000, whether your minimum shutter speed is 1/60 or 1/125, the camera’s exposure meter is still going to see the scene as an EV value of x, and adjust the camera settings accordingly.

    The way I work in these sort of situations, where I can see the scene is too bright (or too light) is one of two ways:

    1) I go manual. Take an average light reading from something that reflects around 18% of light (pavements are good for this), and set the camera’s exposure accordingly. If you’re shooting RAW then you have enough exposure latitude to deal with any slight changes in light

    2) I stay in aperture priority, and take my exposure reading from the average 18% value, half press the shutter, recompose and shoot the shot. With a bit of practice, you can do this very quickly.

    Reply

  2. My point is really that you should always be checking your settings for your environment, especially with the Monochrom as it is less forgiving than a colour sensor. I had the ISO set to auto with a max ISO which allowed for the dull skies of Scotland but when I wen to shoot in London it was a lot brighter and because I never adjusted my max ISO level, it burnt out my images.

    Reply

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