Why Don't More Manufacturers Make Monochrome Versions of Their Cameras?

Why Don't More Manufacturers Make Monochrome Versions of Their Cameras?

With Leica having just released the beautiful but insanely expensive M10 Monochrom, there’s a good question why other camera manufacturers don’t do the same. Would you buy an Sony a7M III, a Fuji X-M3, or even a Canon EOS Rm?

A quick summary of what Leica has done with the M10 Monochrom: The Monochrom series of cameras are built without a color array filter sitting on top of the sensor. Camera sensors can only detect luminance and cannot detect wavelength, so this Bayer color filter mosaic is placed over the pixel sensors to allow it to detect the intensity of red, green and blue light.

Bayer filter

A Bayer filter. (Used under Creative Commons)

The result is that less light is hitting the pixel sensors, and by removing this mosaic, the sensor can no longer differentiate colors, but is more sensitive and able to offer greater detail, as well as creating something similar to film grain rather than noise when pixel-peeping. As B&H Photo’s Allan Weitz eulogizes in this video, the gradation of tones in the resulting images is far superior (your mileage may vary), though it would take a true aficionado to appreciate the difference. For most photographers, processing a raw file in black and white is probably enough, but for the hardcore, what Leica offers is something that can genuinely be appreciated.

(By the way, to those that think that $8,300 is not that expensive for a camera that shoots only monochrome images, be sure to check out the Phase One XF camera coupled with an IQ3 digital back. 100 megapixels of black and white, medium format goodness. Enjoy.)

Phase One XF camera

The Phase One XF camera. When your retired uncle asks you what camera he should buy for photographing the ducks in his local park, tell him to get this one.

If you’re wondering if you can simply crack open your own digital camera and pull off your Bayer filter, I’m delighted to tell you that it’s possible, but according to the intimidatingly knowledgeable Joseph Wisniekski, it’s not exactly a simple process. It sounds like there’s a good chance that you might expose yourself to some pretty nasty chemicals, and the exact procedure will differ between manufacturers, if not between individual cameras of the same make, so there will be a fair amount of trial and error. If you fancy converting your 5D Mark IV, it’s probably useful to have more than a handful of them available so that you can refine the process.

As Wisniekski explains in this forum post over on DPReview, you simply need to “dissolve the color filters and the microlens array from the sensor using other dangerous solvents and possibly more heat. There’s nothing more fun than hot solvents: the heat multiplies strength as irritants, carcinogens, and explosives.”

If you’re wondering if you can pay a company to do this for you, it’s possible, but you’ll need to hope that the camera you want to convert is one that the company is set up to convert. A simpler option might be to buy an already-converted camera, such as those for sale through MaxMax, a small business in New Jersey that has a long history of converting cameras. However, expect there to be a bit of a bump in price to the second-hand, modified camera that you’re about to buy. This is a niche process requiring ridiculously specialist knowledge and, understandably, it doesn’t come cheap. A Sony a6000 that would cost you a little over $400 from that secon-hand camera store will set you back $2,000 once it's been completely disassembled and that pesky coverglass, micro lenses, and color filter array have been pried from the surface of the sensor. (I should add: given the amount of work, equipment, chemicals, and expertise that go into this process, that's a bargain.)

Late last year, Canon announced the EOS Ra, a camera designed specifically for astrophotography. Essentially, Canon took the EOS R and incorporated an infrared-cutting filter that allows the sensor to receive up to four times more hydrogen-alpha rays at the 656nm wavelength. This means that distant nebulae and other subjects can be captured without any “unwanted infrared contamination.” Basically, it sees night skies really well.

Canon EOS R and the Canon EOS Ra.

The Canon EOS R and the Canon EOS Ra. If you stare really closely at the sensor, you can see a very small difference because of the missing filter. (I'm lying.)

Right now, you can grab a regular EOS R for $1,800, while the astro version is $700 more expensive at $2,500, though that’s only a few hundred dollars more than the regular R’s price at launch. Given that Canon was essentially adding a component (the IR cut filter) to the EOS R to make the Ra, with a monochrome version, they’d instead be omitting a component (the Bayer filter), so at a glance, logic suggests that it shouldn’t add dramatically to the price. Of course, it’s probably not quite that simple, even before economies of scale are taken into account. For example, someone a lot smarter than me will tell us in the comments the implications for the dual pixel autofocus.

Autofocus aside, would a monochrome version of the EOS R have as broad appeal as an astrophotography version? Possibly not. The beauty of the Leica M10 Monochrom is that it is a compact rangefinder that lends itself well to street photography (and people who love to focus manually). If it were just a case of size, perhaps a monochrome version of the EOS RP might be a little more realistic, and it could offer a suitably compact unit when coupled with an RF pancake, if and when such a lens emerges.

A more obvious (affordable) monochrome camera would be something from Fuji, and there have been rumblings about this in the past. With the compact bodies and slightly more hipster leanings, I’d certainly be tempted by an X30m, an X100Fm, or an X-Pro3m. If I’ve just tempted you, please note that you can snag yourself a monochrome X100T from MaxMax for $2,600.

Fui XPro3

The Fui XPro3. If you look really carefully, you can tell if this camera has had its Bayer color filter array removed. (I'm lying. You can't.)

The guys at Fuji Rumors have been campaigning long and hard for Fuji to release a monochrome version, and if you fancy offering them your support, you can add your vote to this poll. You’d imagine that if Fuji is bold enough to produce a digital camera with a concealed rear LCD (i.e., the XPro3), a camera that only shoots in black and white doesn’t seem all that niche, surely?

What do you think? Which camera would you convert? And should Fuji take the risk and bring an affordable monochrome camera to market? Be sure to leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Lead image courtesy of Leica-Camera.com.

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27 Comments

Daniel Medley's picture

The notion of an affordable monochrome only camera is indeed appealing. However, to be honest, I think I would be more interested in a single purpose stills camera from Sony/Nikon/Canon/etc. I don't do video. I have no interest in video. I will never do video. I'm a stills shooter. Plus, if such a camera was a raw file shooter only. Imagine the reduction in feature bloat such a camera would make possible.

Michael Holst's picture

As camera brands keep adding more and more features to their cameras I wouldn't be surprised if what you just described becomes a thing. Although, tech keeps getting cheaper and more standard so I could see it never happening because why make something so stripped down if it's not cheaper to do so.

I'd be tempted to buy one of these Fuji Monochrome cameras if I wasn't more keen on getting BW film instead.

The Nikon DF ditched video and was just a retro-styled still camera, but I don’t think it sold well enough for Nikon to come out with an updated version. Which is a shame, because you could get Nikon’s then-flagship D4 sensor for about half the price of a D4.

Kirk Darling's picture

This was gone over a thousand times. There is no "feature bloat" to put video into any DSLR that has Live View. In fact, the Canon 40D, which had Live View but not video, could be hacked to turn on a video capability. What you want is a camera without even Live View. Good luck getting anyone to buy that today.

The economics of a luxury brand differ greatly from those of a general electronics manufacture. That’s why. Leica operates like a couture fashion house or a luxury watch maker. A company like Sony/Canon more like The Gap or Swatch company. This insulates Leica and let’s them execute design and marketing exercises. They don’t even all have to be successful. The point is to start a conversation, inspire, and stimulate a customer base.

It's such a niche market that it probably wouldn't be worth it for most manufacturers. Leica manages it because nobody bats an eye when they charge an absurd amount for their cameras to account for their low sales volume.

Leica Germany assembles the M cameras by hand. The technicians are experts in their field that merit very competitive salaries. The production pipeline for such a small brand has a very expensive overhead. So some see this as a justified price for a luxury brand with low volumes like you stated. Also, the change from M9 to M240 and then another change to M10 was VERY expensive for them because they couldn’t reuse most of the parts from their predecessors. First because of CCD to CMOS then because of the size change. (This is why almost all the camera manufactures camera look the same for as long as possible). It seems like their partnership with Huawei’s has granted them a little more cash-flow and freedom.

Rk K's picture

Every manufacturer assemble their cameras by hand...

Here’s hoping fujifilm comes through with one. As an x100f user, I would probably be one of the first to purchase.

jim hughes's picture

An affordable true monochrome camera would be great but it's not going to happen.

You can, however, see the world in monochrome through your mirrorless EVF, which is a great thing IMHO, leading to interesting photos you might otherwise have missed, and better composition. I recently wrote a blog post about the "Picture Control" feature in my Nikon:

https://jimhphoto.com/index.php/2020/01/21/see-it-in-bw-with-picture-con...

Daniel Medley's picture

"An affordable true monochrome camera would be great but it's not going to happen"

If I were a betting person, I'd be willing to bet that Fujifilm could very well come out with one. Look what they've done with MF. Fujifilm seems to embrace niche markets. Of course, I suppose it depends on what "affordable" means to various people.

I personally would love a square format sensor, not a big fan of the current standard 3x2 aspect ratio

Christian Lainesse's picture

While we are all wishful-thinking, I want a digital Fujifilm TX-2 / Hasselblad Xpan 2.

Lenzy Ruffin's picture

The only market for such a camera is people who currently shoot so much b&w that their eyes are trained enough to discern the difference.

There's probably not enough of those people for such a camera to be viable.

It sounds cool to get "all those extra gradations," but that's really just another manifestation of gear lust.

I'll trade those extra gradations for flexibility in post. Shooting raw and tweaking Acros in post is a much better option for me.

If I had that kind of money laying around, I'd buy that Leica, though. It's like buying a BMW or a Mercedes...you don't end up at one of those dealerships just because you needed a car. It's okay to do that if you can afford it.

Pedro Pulido's picture

because camera profiles or presets, whatever you want to call it.

Nick Rains's picture

The Leica Monochrom design has one other major advantage not mentioned so far - it's simply a lot sharper (with good lenses of course) than a camera with a normal Bayer filter, including the M10. The Bayer interpolation introduces a loss of accutance, which is generally quite acceptable. It's only when you see an image without that degradation that you realise what compromises are actually being made.

Another observation; I have seen the results from a Sony with the Bayer removed. Mush. The image were just not as good as even a decent B+W conversion from a colour raw.

I should be getting my hands on the M10 Monochrom next week, looking forward to it.

Rk K's picture

Even for monochrome photos I want the ability to mask by colour. It is incredibly useful. A true monochrome camera takes worse monochrome photos, unless it's really dark and you need the extra light.

Kirk Darling's picture

Are you talking about filtering? I guess with the Leica monochrome, it's back to yellow, red, and green lens filters.

Rk K's picture

That's fine if you have the time to do that (so not for street photography!) and you don't need the fine control.

Well, I have decided to focus again on black & white, and I would buy the Leica if I could afford it. So, I will save some money and order the 'refurbished' Fuji from MaxMax, and ask my sister to bring it to India when she visits. Else, I will wait for Fuji to launch their monochrome version. I did vote 'yea' on the poll. I am a Nikon user, but I would gladly use the Fuji for street work. As I said, I would have bought the Leica, but, as my Chinese brethren say, "Qian bu gou le"! I do have a rich uncle, but sadly he won't buy the Leica for me!

Chirag Wakaskar's picture

Fuji is more likely to come out with a full frame model before coming out with a monochrome model because the demand for the former would be much more. The high iso photographs from Monochrom look incredible, however some of us do love the grain of pushed film.

Not sure about that. B&W just needs a new sensor, FF needs a whole new system.

Zack Schindler's picture

If Fujifilm came out with a monochrome only special X100Vm version and charged an extra 25% I bet that would sell a lot of them.

Dan Howell's picture

https://www.maxmax.com/shopper/category/9241-monochrome-cameras

https://petapixel.com/2019/11/29/nikon-d850m-vs-d850-a-comparison-of-mon...

I would consider sending my D800 to them for conversion and just buying a new D850 for main camera. I would be interested in seeing a head to head comparison of files from M10m and a D800m or D850m w/ my Zeiss Otus lens.

dierk topp's picture

I love and do B&W analog and digital.

I got one of the very first CCD M Monochrom 7 years ago and I loved it. Last year I noticed the typical sensor corrosion and got an interesting upgrade offer from Leica. Since a few months a have the M Monochrom 246 and love it even more. Now I have live view and can use all my lenses from 12mm Voigtlander to 90mm Leica Macro or the very old Leica Hector 135mm and even any adapted lens. For example I tried the 85mm Otus on it and it worked. That was not possible without live few on the first MM! Due to severe problems with my eyes I got the EVF and use it all the time. Magnification and focus peacking works great like I know it from my Sony cameras.

If you look for a second hand M Monochrom 246 and for some very good Voigtlander or Zeiss lenses, the price could be interesting compared to any converted camera!

Only pictures of cameras, but no example of a real Monochrom.

Here is one, hand held from Hamburg, ISO 10.000!
and here are many more, some are ooC for direct judgment
https://www.flickr.com/photos/dierktopp/albums/72157711381079637

While I can appreciate that the concept is kinda cool, if I'm going shooting and know for sure it's going to be B&W, I'm just going to shoot MF or LF film, personally. Besides that, I'm very happy with the B&W results I can get with a regular old RAW file out of my DSLR. All that adds up to me almost certainly never buying a monochrome-only sensor.

Antonio Labayen's picture

I have the Leica M 246 Monochrom and the image quality is just stunning compared to its color counterpart. I had been hoping for the Sigma Foveon L-Mount full-frame which I just heard will be announced soon. The monochrom sensor is a highly specialized tool that precludes a steadfast dedication to black and white imaging. Leica can make a move like this because of a very high percentage and history of its users dedicated to black and white, much more I think than other camera makes today.