Fstoppers Reviews the Leica Q2 Monochrom: Are Black and White Cameras Worth It?

When it comes to niche cameras, Leica is probably somewhere near the top of the list. This is especially the case with Leica Monochrom cameras. The most recent release from the company is a black and white version of the compact fixed lens camera, the Leica Q2. The new Monochrom version promises lots when it comes to image quality. 

Build Quality and Design

As with most Leica cameras, the Q2 Monochrom continues in the tradition of exceptional build quality. Although it's not quite on the level of an M series camera, the build and design are still some of the best on the market. It has a wonderful feel in the hand, which almost makes up for the hefty price point. Overall, the solid construction feels great, and the way the dials switch and click is satisfying, to say the least. Even the way you switch to macro mode on the lens is extremely smooth and shows off that typical premium build from Leica. 

Although it may not be completely fair to compare the Q series of cameras to the M series, the rangefinder-inspired the design of the Q2 really does invite the comparison. Now to be clear, the Q2 cameras are not rangefinders; however, some of the design choices offer a vaguely familiar experience. This is mostly down to the location of the viewfinder, button layout, and also the location of the dials. The flat body and grip-less, sleek design, is also similar to Leica M series cameras, and personally, I think it's great. 

The biggest difference between the M and Q series of cameras is that the Q is a "modern" mirrorless camera. What I mean is that the Q2 cameras offer autofocus features, video features, and also focus by wire. For some, this may take away from that "authentic" Leica experience, but I think it just makes it easier to shoot with. 

Compared to the original Q2 camera, Leica has made some very subtle changes to the Monochrom edition. The first is the leatherette finish; the Monochrom feels smoother in the hand. The matte finish and monochrome lettering also offer a very stylish and stealthy look to it. Also, Leica, in typical fashion, has also removed the red dot logo from the front of the Monochrom camera. 

Other than that, the Monochrom is almost identical to the original Q2, especially when it comes to overall handling and usability. 

Ergonomics

In my view, Leica cameras in general tend to have pretty poor ergonomics. This has been the case for almost every Leica camera I have shot with, except the SL2. As much as I love M series cameras, they're pretty poor when it comes to ergonomics, mostly because they don't have a grip or a comfortable place to rest your fingers. 

This is also the case with the Q2 and the Q2 Monochrom. As great as they feel in the hand, when it comes to actually shoot with it, the lack of having a grip does reduce some of the pleasantness of the experience. This is not to say that the Q2 and Monochrom are dissatisfying to shoot with, simply that the experience could be better.

Having said that, I appreciate the fact that the overall design is more important than a few ergonomic complaints. Therefore, I don't think this will or should be changed, because many Leica cameras are predominantly about design and aesthetics. I can't imagine an M series or Q series camera with a grip, and personally, I find the add-on grips to be quite unsightly. Nonetheless, it's still an important point to mention, because cameras such as these almost require some kind of strap, whether it be a neck strap or a wrist strap. 

The Monochrome Benefit

There are very few camera manufacturers that produce completely monochrome cameras. In fact, there are only two companies that come to my mind, and they are Phase One and of course, Leica. I've never really felt the allure of having a completely black and white camera; however, I decided to compare the new Monochrom to its colorful counterpart and see if there are any benefits. 

To produce the Monochrom camera, Leica stated that they had to redesign the whole sensor. Simply removing the color filters just wasn't sufficient; therefore, a great deal of effort was required in order to produce the final product. 

High-ISO Performance

One of the key benefits that Leica was able to exploit by removing the color filters was the sensor's light-gathering ability. Removing the filters allowed the sensor to gather a full stop more light at any given ISO. This meant that Leica had to reevaluate all the ISO settings, and the base ISO was moved to 100 instead of 50. Although users lose a stop of low-ISO performance, the real benefits are to be had in high-ISO scenarios, and this is something we tested in several ways. 

In the above comparison, the Monochrom was shot at ISO 12,500, whereas the original Q was shot at ISO 6,400. Even with the disadvantage of a higher ISO setting, the Monochrom produces significantly cleaner images when compared to the Q2. For photographers that require great low-light performance, the Monochrom is a huge upgrade in that regard. We cover this point in greater detail in the video linked above

Dynamic Range

Another key benefit that Leica confirmed was that the new Monochrom camera has improved dynamic range. This is something we were able to confirm too. The Monochrom definitely produces images with cleaner recovered shadows. Even when recovering images that are five stops underexposed, the Monochrom remains very clean compared to the original Q2. 

The above images were underexposed intentionally in a controlled environment and then recovered in post to the tune of five stops. What's brilliant is how well the Monochrom is able to keep details intact in recovered shadows. The Monochrom is also much cleaner in comparison to the original Q2. 

Simply put, the Monochrom is a big upgrade when it comes to low-light performance and dynamic range. 

Sharpness and Detail

One of the other things that Leica claims about the Monochrom is that the new camera will produce better, sharper, and crisper details. The removal of certain filters means that details will be much clearer in the Monochrom. In our testing, we haven't found this to be the case. In almost every scenario, both in "real-world" and controlled scenarios, the details and clarity between the two were pretty much identical. There is no noticeable change in how much detail the Monochrom captures when compared to the original. 

This is the case when you're pixel-peeping and even in macro, mode as you can see in the comparison above. Both cameras produce an identical amount of detail. 

The Look and Feel

This point is entirely subjective; however, when it comes to the look and feel of the images each camera produces, there are some differences. These differences are not significant by any means, although some black and white photographers may prefer them. 

Sophie.Hanaa

Personally, I don't really see any great benefit from the Monochrom when it comes to the look and feel; however, as mentioned above, this is a subjective point. I think the differences when it comes to look and feel are negligible at best. Any perceived differences could be easily matched through some very simple changes in post. 

What I Liked

  • Fantastic build quality.
  • A huge upgrade when it comes to low-light performance. 
  • Improved dynamic range. 

What I Didn't Like

  • More expensive than the original. 

Final Thoughts

Leica is known for producing cameras with limited features, and this is something that works for its brand. On that basis, the Leica Q2 Monochrom sits perfectly in the lineup among other high-priced luxury cameras. The improvements in low-light performance and dynamic range are sure to catch the eyes of some Leica photographers. Overall, I think this is a good camera; however, if I had to, I'd purchase the original Q2 and simply convert in post. 

The low-light performance and dynamic range benefits are useful, but I'd rather have the ability to shoot in color and black and white. I can imagine that for some, the low-light benefits may be crucial, and for those of you, this is a worthwhile update. For most other Leica photographers, I think the Q2 would probably be a better fit. 

You can preorder the Leica Q2 Monochrom for $5,995 using this link

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18 Comments

Charles J's picture

It seriously doesn't matter whether black and white cameras are worth it. It's a Leica. This means people will write 2,500+ word long think-pieces on why using it requires a specific mindset, refined skill, and how it ultimately represents a critical vector by which the photographer experiences the purity of monochromatic imagery. Also, merely touching the camera detoxifies your body of heavy metals.

From what I see, there is no significant difference between the Leica Q2 Monochrome images and what can be duplicated with minimal adjustments in an editing program from a full color sensor camera image. But speaking as a person who will NEVER buy this camera... I know it'll fit perfectly in someone else's hands. It fits a niche. If using it makes someone happy and drives them to create good work, then the Q2-M is a great product. I'm glad the camera is out there for them.

Nick Rains's picture

"From what I see, there is no significant difference between the Leica Q2 Monochrome images and what can be duplicated with minimal adjustments in an editing program from a full color sensor camera image."

Regardless of anything else, a sensor with no Bayer array is a: better at high ISO due to the blue component of the filter not absorbing about 50% of the light and b: due to there being no colour interpolation, you must get a sharper/crisper/higher acutance image compared to a similar resolution colour sensor.

And this shows in prints which IMO should be the final arbiter of a camera's performance. I have shot with both the M-Monochrom and the new Q2 Monochrom and so have first hand knowledge of this. I suspect the writer of the article only looked at the computer screen - try making A1 prints and you'll see the difference.

This is engineering and physics, not just my opinion.

Usman Dawood's picture

Replying specifically to points raised about me here and not any other points.

The print argument is more relevant when comparing images shot on film. These are digital files so viewing them on a screen to compare is probably a better idea; especially because of all the different printing methods and interpolation involved when converting a digital file into physical media.

Nick Rains's picture

Sorry, with respect, can't agree there. Maybe if you are outputting for digital devices like iPads and for social media - hardly demanding media - but once you start making prints of any decent size, the true quality (or not) of images is revealed whether film or digital. As an example, you cannot truly judge output sharpening on a screen, unless you are also outputting to screen only.

Lee Christiansen's picture

I'm going to have to call you on your sharpening comment.

It is entirely possible to judge sharpening directly on screen. I use a 4K 31" Eizo and it offers a ppi of 149.

Good quality print is typically at 300 dpi, but the printing process requires an overlap of printed dots whereas a monitor doesn't need to overlap the pixels, so in actual fact we can view an image on this monitor at printed size and see the same aesthetics of a printed image - and so we can judge sharpening just as accurately.

It's one of the things I love about this monitor (and other 30" ish, 4K monitors affordable the same). But people forget how pixels and dots work sometimes, and the numbers don't need to be the same.

I never realised until I got a enlightened education on monitor setups etc from the head of UK Eizo sales. That guy knows his stuff...

Nick Rains's picture

You can only approximate the effect of sharpening on a screen, and, as you said yourself, the printing process involves overlapping dots of ink not discrete pixels. If you sharpen prints using a RIP then, yes, the distribution of the dots includes calculations for the sharpening effect but if you output sharpen in Lightroom or Photoshop then the subsequent ink dot screening is effectively irrelevant at that point.

Also, if you use a 149ppi monitor and view at 'print size' you are looking at the image at 50%. This is the nearest you'll get to a meaningful view but your sharpening specifications are now wrong - how do you view a 1px radius effect at 50% view? It's an approximation only. Retina screens are much closer a print in ppi but the colours are not as accurate.

Look, you can interpret the view on the screen and get a broad idea of how it will look - obviously - but no genuine judgement of sharpening can be resolved until you commit to a size and make the print. The screen cannot emulate things like dot gain, surface reflectance, ink load etc.

What you are conflating is capture/creative sharpening and output sharpening. They are not the same thing at all. Here's a useful link to an older John Paul Caponigro article that might help:

https://www.johnpaulcaponigro.com/blog/8188/output-sharpening/

Usman Dawood's picture

I think we'll have to disagree about the printing point then. Comparing digital files via a screen is more than effective. Also, demonstrating a comparison of two printed images on video is pretty pointless. Especially when that video is uploaded onto YouTube.

With digital comparisons, people can actually see any potential differences, even on YouTube.

Nick Rains's picture

I was really replying to Lee's comment.

On screen comparisons can of course be made and they are meaningful up to a point but, yes, on screen is all we have here.

You said you saw no different in image detail or sharpness. OK, I believe you - you didn't see it. That's not my experience though, and in blind tests using big prints, Monochrom photos get picked out every time. I'd love to show you such prints but you'll just have to take my word for it. :-)

Usman Dawood's picture

I'd love to see them. Not sure how it could be arranged but you have any ideas lol?

Nick Rains's picture

If you ever get to Queensland, let me know!

Jacob H.'s picture

I downloaded one of the images in the article and the properties of the file confirmed my expectations. These are at best 114k jpeg files of 668x1000 pixels with 96dpi and 8 bit depth. WIth this it is hard to even distinguish images made with an iPhone3 from those made with a PhaseOne camera. Next to that our monitors might be able to display sharpness (provided 100% view), but they usually have a dynamic range of 6-8 stops at best. To fully appreciate the quality you really need to look at very good prints. Even in our studio we only use the monitor displayed images for quick culling. Having said that, it really pays off to have a good monitor...

Usman Dawood's picture

Theres a link in the video description to the raw files too :).

Jacob H.'s picture

Thanks, I haven't noticed it before.

zeissiez lee's picture

Shooting in colors and do conversion in post-processing allows adjustments by color channels. For example, by shooting in color, one could adjust the brightness of the skin tone by increasing the orange channel. By using a monochrome camera, the only way to darken the sky is to use a physical orange filter.

g coll's picture

Would love to own this camera. Forcing oneself into what some may view as a limitation can often boost creativity.

Usman Dawood's picture

Lots of people say something similar. I think there's value in limiting features.

Raphael Hoermann's picture

What this review misses (but what the comparison and the other image clearly show), is that this monochrome sensor is capable of producing images in "black and white" and not merely digital monochrome. There are actually clean whites and deep blacks in the images shot by the Q2-M whereas the one from the Q2 are merely grey. Even in the whites from the Q2, there are some smudges of grey. I think this capability to emulate well-exposed gelatin silver prints in the black and white tones is very impressive.

Usman Dawood's picture

But that’s what we’re testing and comparing. We’re comparing to see the differences between a true black and white camera vs a converted BW camera. It’s quite literally the point of the video and comparison.