5 frames with...

(First) 5 Frames with the Leica Monochrom and 7Artisans 50mm f/1.1 – By Rob MacKillop

October 6, 2019

After a bit of a windfall, I suddenly found myself able to indulge in a camera I had been intrigued by, and yes, consequently lusted after since it first arrived on the scene: the Leica Monochrom. I purchased it used from Red Dot Cameras, and it literally arrived the next day. Mine is the first iteration, based on the M9 body. The 7Artisans 50mm f/1.1 was available at a much lower price than the Leica lenses, so I ordered one from this website. It too arrived the next day. Great service all round.

I won’t waste time repeating the technicalities of the sensor, suffice to say that this camera shoots only in b&w. I believe it to be the only 35mm format digital camera in the world designed purely for black and white photography. I would say as much as 90% of my images these last ten years have been b&w, so naturally I was drawn towards it. Despite a decade of shooting with many cameras, the Monochrom is my first rangefinder…

I had never appreciated the skills required for snapping at speed with a rangefinder, though I suppose zone focussing is widely used, more so than with auto-focus cameras. For my first shots I spent most of my time trying to understand how best to achieve focus, and came to an understanding that it is best to have the moving image cross back and forth before nailing onto the static image. I dare say my technique will improve.

I think this was my first attempt, and the focus is a little out, but the softness of the 1.1 aperture made my choice of focal point – the white handle of the white cup – all the more difficult to get sharp. Despite that, I immediately noticed that the image was in sepia – yes, I was apparently shooting jpegs. So, I then choose both dng and jpg files from the menu, with the intention of comparing them later on. I do like this image, despite my somewhat poor focussing technique. The softness of the image is lovely, with nice, subtle contrast.

This time I focussed on the iron, still at f/1.1 (if it’s there, you might as well try it out) and I was very impressed with the out-of-focus parts – again very subtle and smooth. I’m already in love with the camera and lens…

Something more nebulous (pun intended) with a puff of cloud between two silhouetted trees. The dng file is extraordinary in its cloud detail. I do like a camera and lens combo that gives me good clouds, after all, there are a lot of them about Edinburgh. Seen in its full-screen raw glory, the cloud rendition is very impressive.

Number 7: lucky for some, but I had a bit of difficulty getting focus just right. Had the owner of the house not suddenly appeared, asking in a loud and aggressive voice why I was photographing his gate, I might have nailed it better! I decided to go visit some less boisterous neighbours. But before that, a little word about the “grain” in this “7” image. It’s not film grain, of course, but digital noise, yet noise has rarely looked so beautiful and natural. It beats any digital noise I’ve had from other cameras.

Ah, my first cat shot – something I’d been resisting, but this one just walked up to me as I was in the garden practising rangefinder focussing. As the Monochrom is my first experience of a rangefinder, I need to practise basic skills, and to keep focussing on a subject that is moving directly at you is not the easiest of tasks. I took eight shots, and this is the best. I had thought the lens was set at 1.1, but it must have moved, or I accidentally bumped it to 1.7, which, on reflection, gave a little more definition in the centre of the frame.

All the above shots were in-camera developed jpegs of around 6 or 7 mbs. The dng files show a LOT more of everything, but for online viewing I find the jpgs to be rich enough – print would be a different story. I’m pleased with the in-camera sepia rendering – selenium and “cool” also available. Of course, this toning is not preserved in the dng files.

The camera is superb, has a wonderful heft, feels solid and reliable, and is straight-forward and intuitive to use, simple really. I’m looking forward to what images we can produce together.

The 7Artisans lens seems very capable, is tuned specifically to Leica’s rangefinder, and looks perfectly at home on the Monochrom body. Together they seem to make a good team.

I might invest in an after-market thumb rest and grip, and eventually another lens or two, as well a small collection of filters – I am, after all, shooting black and white…

Rob MacKillop
Edinburgh, 2019

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  • Reply
    Phil Harrison
    October 6, 2019 at 11:01 am

    Excellent photos Rob, especially the cat, which is just perfect. Looks like you have a great combination of body and lens AND you know how to use them. I would agree with your thoughts about sticking to the jpeg’s, much more natural looking filmic images. Your sky example of dng has the detail but looks very clinically digital, resolution isn’t everything.

  • Reply
    Rob MacKillop
    October 6, 2019 at 11:26 am

    Cheers, Phil. I’m well aware that resolution isn’t everything, but it is something, and it’s nice to have it when needed. But more importantly the camera and lens together do what I hope they would do – a simple but often seemingly unattainable result.

  • Reply
    Philippe André
    October 6, 2019 at 11:42 am

    The optics 7 artisans are surprising ! I own the 50 f / 1.1 and the 35 f / 2 and the prices are incomparable ! Soon will come the 75mm and all subjects will be affordable 😉 I do not know the monochrome Leica, I stopped at M8-2 and sold, too bad up iso. I tested the M10P … a marvel, but also a fortune ! Cogratulation for your images, very good for the first shots of telemetry !

    • Reply
      Rob MacKillop
      October 6, 2019 at 11:52 am

      Thanks, Philippe! Up to 10,000 ISO on the Monochrom, more than enough for my photography. And, yes, the 7Artisans lenses are great value. I hope to get the 35 and 75mm lenses before long.

  • Reply
    Steve Wales
    October 6, 2019 at 1:11 pm

    Glad you’re enjoying the MM9, the pics look very promising indeed.
    PS Have you calibrated the the 7A 50mm f1.1, or confirmed using the chart provided. I have a copy of the 7A 28 f1.4 and it’s out by a cm at minimum focus (0.7m); I need to get my AOG and rectify this. Fast lenses should be shot wide, right?!
    PPS I’d love the M246 or better still the MM10 (or should I say M10M) when it comes to market, but wondering if it’s one or two kidneys I need to sell… 😉

    • Reply
      Rob MacKillop
      October 6, 2019 at 1:45 pm

      Hi Steve. A friend calibrated it for me, saying it was a little out, hardly noticeable.

  • Reply
    Robin Gray
    October 6, 2019 at 9:47 pm

    Rob, great write up of your first steps with your Monochrom, and I really like your photos. I am currently considering the same model as you, and your article is encouraging me to go for it! I live not far from you, in Fife, so clouds and rain are equally familiar!

    • Reply
      Rob MacKillop
      October 6, 2019 at 9:58 pm

      Ha! I urge you to get one, Robin. Lots to shoot in Fife – paint it black (and white)! Cheers.

  • Reply
    Bob Cunningham
    October 7, 2019 at 4:00 am

    The photo of the cat is brilliant, and was worth the trial and error.

    • Reply
      Rob MacKillop
      October 7, 2019 at 7:59 am

      Cheers, Bob. The cat now has an agent and a lawyer, and is suing me for royalties 😉

  • Reply
    William Parker
    October 7, 2019 at 10:07 am

    Lovely images and for what it’s worth I like the sepia tone. Red Dot serviced a couple of my vintage Leicas but unfortunately they no longer offer this service.

    • Reply
      Rob MacKillop
      October 7, 2019 at 11:05 am

      Cheers, William. Yes, the sepia is subtle enough to be to my liking.

  • Reply
    Jim Kuo
    October 10, 2019 at 8:37 pm

    I’ve had my MM for the past five years and recently acquired the 50/f.1.1. Indeed, it has lots of “character” wide-open, but stopped down from f.4 and smaller and it becomes a modern optic. Making up for its size and bulk, you have two lenses in one!

    • Reply
      Rob MacKillop
      October 10, 2019 at 8:53 pm

      Indeed, Jim. It’s a wonder lens for the price. I must get the others in the range before they hike the price.

  • Reply
    Des McSweeney
    October 28, 2019 at 8:55 am

    Hi Rob and thank you for your lens and camera insights. I have spent an age over the last couple of weeks looking at Monochroms at Red Dot, at auction and even one rare well priced one at Leica London… boy the temptation is massive as I also mainly take B&W. I have a perfectly good Leica digital that I use to convert from colour. Guessing that you have other cameras, have they fallen into disuse and are your M photos considerably more satisfying than ones who will have converted using your other cameras. I had the good fortune to live in Fife for a year, boy I still miss it five years on. All the best. Des

    • Reply
      Rob MacKillop
      October 28, 2019 at 9:28 am

      Hi Des. I’ve been going through changes in my shooting habits this last year, and have now ended up with the Monochrom 1, an old Leica IIIg, and I also bought a second-hand Leica Q. I subsequently decided that although I like film colour, I really don’t like digital colour, so I swapped the Q for an M-A, the updating of the Leica M3. With an adapter I can use the old Leitz lenses on both the Monochrom and the M-A. I’m happy! As regards b&w – the Monochrom gives me the b&w tones I’ve been trying to get for years. No more colour sliders to waste my time with! I’ve just looked at a few Q shots which I converted to b&w, and they look very digital, nice but not what I want. There is a big difference to my eyes between the converted files and the native Monochrom files.

      There’s nothing for it, Des, you’ll just have to buy one! If you do get one, my tip is to underexpose by a stop, preserving the highlights. There will be plenty of info in the shadows to extract if you want to. And most people think the original M9 Monochrom gives less digital-looking images than the newer (typ 246?) version. At first the new version looked like a great upgrade, but now some photographers are going back to the first version. Make sure you get one with a replaced sensor, as some original sensors degraded over time. Good luck!

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