Equipment

Comparing the Leica Monochrom to a Sony a7R II

What Is A Monochrome Sensor And Why Does It Exist?

Leica cameras have always been exciting to me. I think it’s mostly because of how expensive they are. Holding and using something incredibly out of my budget gives the shooting experience a little extra magic. But even with that magic, I normally pass over them to rent something more practical. When the original Leica M Monochrom camera came out in 2012, I, and others around the office thought it was interesting. But why make an $8000 camera that can’t even shoot color photos?

 

The idea is that the sensor will yield a more detailed image, and perform better in lower light. To explain simply, each pixel on the Monochrom sensor is capturing light and only reading luminance values. A pixel on a color sensor is reading light that has been filtered by using color filter array (CFA) to distinguish between green, red, and blue. You can see in the illustration below the grid pattern normally used, with each photosite only recording one color. By removing color from the equation, all the light is hitting the sensor uniformly, and can lead to a more detail captured.

 

I don’t want to debate whether or not a monochromatic sensor can render more detail. I will leave that to the comments section. I’m simply curious if there is a noticeable difference when compared in the normal mediums in which we view photographs; especially considering the resolving power of recent cameras. To find out, I’ve taken side by side photos with the Leica M Monochrom (Typ 246) and  the Sony Alpha a7R II and blind tested some people in the office. I wanted to know if they would be able to tell which camera costs roughly $5000 more and has the dedicated monochrome sensor. The cost difference doesn’t matter so much when you can rent, but it’s an interesting factor to consider. I also want to note that this is not a technical comparison. These images were taken in real world situations with cameras that have different metering systems. Multiple exposures were taken of each image to ensure the closest visual match.  The lenses used are the Leica 35mm f/1.4 Summilux M ASPH II and the Leica 50mm f/1.4 Summilux ASPH.

Let me introduce the panel of experts.

Leica shooter and owner of an M9, Zeiss certified, BFA in Photography, Lensrentals Repair Manager, Expert in all things photography
Aaron Closz
Leica and Sony Shooter, Senior Lensrentals Technician, walking encyclopedia
Joey Miller
Co-Owner of Lensrentals.com, not a photographer, extreme skeptic
Drew Cicala

What Are We Looking For In This Comparison?

Aaron: We should be seeing finer detail out of the Leica because it’s not interpolating the information. Essentially each pixel site is recording the luminance value hitting it …and that’s it. Whereas with the Sony, we are going to get luminance values of three different pixels mixed together to give us the information. So we should technically be able to see a higher resolving power from the Leica. How that is translated into bokeh when shooting with narrow depth of field I am curious to see. I would imagine it’s different but very difficult to tell the difference in the out of focus areas between the two. It’s going to be a matter of finding where we can see the – as opposed to your general contrast which is what we are going to see here- see if there is a difference of how smooth or harsh something might look. There should also be an interesting difference in how it is translating the colors.

Aaron continues to share his thoughts on doing a comparison like this one.
Aaron: People are always wondering why people would pay this much for a Leica and why they can charge so much, but typically if you are the person doing these things you aren’t questioning it. You understand why you are willing to do it. You aren’t just buying into a philosophy- it’s a philosophy you are pursuing yourself.
Drew: There is that but like most things- that’s the reason people started doing it but it’s not why most people do it now. It’s like buying a Maserati.. it costs 15 times more than your Ford Focus but only goes twice as fast. It’s twice as good at this one specific thing but it costs 15 times more and it does literally everything shittier. You’re more uncomfortable, you can’t store anything in it, you can’t strap your kids in the back seat but it does this one thing twice as good as the average car. So for people that really care about that and that’s what matters to them more than anything else- it’s worth the money. But for every person that does it for that reason, there are 20 people who buy it because they are willing to overpay to get the best possible thing and status symbol. They don’t actually care that they have a fast car, they care that they have a Maserati. And Leica is the same thing. Because you know, If I’m willing to overpay in this one narrow area it shows I’m a high-end consumer. And a lot of those people have a Maserati because it goes really fast, but guess what, they have another car to go to the grocery store. And when they just need color pictures of their kids they have something besides the Leica Monochrom for that.

Is there a noticeable difference? Here are the images.
  
Drew: I’m going to say the left one is the Leica. It seems to have more in focus.. or resolving more.. or more contrast. I’m just guessing that one is the Leica.
Joey: I think I’m the opposite, I think the one on the right is the Leica because I think it has smoother transitions from highlights to shadows.
Aaron: Yeah…I think I have to agree with Joey. It’s the amount of contrast and again, how smooth it is in the highlights. I’m also looking at the noise here in the background and if we are at that high of an ISO.. it just looks more smoothed out on the left. The slight exposure differences are a bit funky. I’m wondering how different the metering is.
(Answer: Left: Leica M Monochrom (Typ 246), Right: Sony Alpha a7R II)

  
Drew: I guess the one on the left is Leica. Just looks more like a Leica to me. From what I see from Leica images, it looks more like that. I don’t know if this means anything…because I’m not one of you people, but it’s interesting to me that the foreground is much brighter but the background is much darker in one image.
Aaron: Yeah, that’s very interesting.
Joey: I’m going to say the one on the right is the Leica. There are more controlled highlights, and again, slightly higher contrast.
Aaron: Hmm.. are they focus in the same area?
Joey: Looks only slightly different. I like this a lot.
Aaron: I almost want to say the left one is the Leica. This one is really tricky. I get more detail out of the left one. hmm.. Yeah, going Lefty.
(Answer: Left: Leica M Monochrom (Typ 246), Right: Sony Alpha a7R II)

At about this time Drew checked out because he has a business to run. It is very interesting though that he has guessed each comparison correctly over the Leica experts. Maybe they are overthinking it?
  
Joey: I think I gotta go with the one on the left as the Leica. Looks more detailed. Smoother transitions.
Aaron: The left one is crisper.
Joey: Wait, does that look like purple fringing? but not purple- around the collar…
Aaron: Yeah… it’s only on one of them
Joey: I may switch my answer…hmm…no I’m sticking with Leica.
Aaron: yeah me too…I think the right one is Mr. Leica.
(Answer: Left: Sony Alpha a7R II, Right: Leica M Monochrom (Typ 246))

  
Joey: One on the Right is the Leica.
Aaron: The right one is Leica.
(Answer: Left: Sony Alpha a7R II, Right: Leica M Monochrom (Typ 246))
  
Joey: I’m going right [for Leica], more controlled highlights, more detail.
Aaron: Yep, me too.
(Answer: Left: Leica M Monochrom (Typ 246), Right: Sony Alpha a7R II)

  

Joey: I’d say the right is Leica.
Aaron: I agree. The dynamic range seems better in the photo on the right.
(Answer: Left: Leica M Monochrom (Typ 246), Right: Sony Alpha a7R II)

  

The exposures on this set are slightly different. When Shooting, the light was changing a lot and when set to the same exposure I was getting different results on each camera.
Joey: Ok I think the left is Leica. Wait, no… The one on the right
Aaron: I think its right as well. Lefty looks noisier. I think I’m going back on myself… I find myself looking at different things each time. Detail.. texture.
Joey: so the obvious answer is.. does it matter? We have side by sides… if we were just given an image would it matter?
Aaron: I think if you are noticing something consistently with a particular set up it’s not going to matter as long as you like what you are getting.
Joey: It’s like picking your film stock.
Aaron: Sometimes you will get more appealing results with one setup…I’ve only ever seen Monochrom images that are extremely contrasty to the point where they look grainy. I don’t know if I’m confronted more with imagery that has been processed. I haven’t used the particular camera a lot to know what image comes straight out of it. I almost expect that over exposure.
(Answer: Left: Sony Alpha a7R II, Right: Leica M Monochrom (Typ 246))

——
This is what Joey and Aaron had to say after I showed them the answers to each comparison.
Joey: I wonder if the Sony has a better dynamic range… I think I know what camera I’m going to buy now.
Aaron: I’m curious to see the original color images to see how each color translates.
Joey: I prefer the Sony. Though, I would be interested to see a comparison at ISO 25000. I’d like to check for banding. Personally, I prefer the Leica in some of them. I thought the skin tones in the portraits looked better. I’ve always come from the standpoint of the tool being the least important part; never geeked out on expensive equipment. I assumed the Leica Monochrom would be better and I think it’s definitely more fun to shoot, but the Sony did outperform in certain situations.
Aaron: I prefer the simplicity of the Leica and I’m engaged with the things that matter most, I’m not doing anything else with a Leica camera but making photographs. Bottom line, shoot with what inspires you and excites you and makes you want to shoot.

I think it depends on your intent. I really believe that the print would be better with the Leica, but it’s something we would have to test. Just because from a technical standpoint, we should get a cleaner, finer resolution on the Leica. I’d be very curious.
Joey: But does the resolution bump on the Sony make up for it?
Aaron: That’s an interesting way to look at it.
Joey: They may be neck and neck.

Final Scores: Drew: 2/2 Joey: 2/7 Aaron: 4/7

Conclusion

While the reasoning behind the experts’ guesses was sound, it was often wrong. I did find the note of possible fringing in the third comparison to be a great observation, but surprisingly it wasn’t enough to tip the panel in the correct direction.

After sharing this comparison and getting feedback, I think it would be very helpful to see how the cameras would react differently in extreme color conditions such as a bright red sunset or extreme high ISO (25000). It may just be that the Leica Monochrom is only a better tool for certain situations. So much better that we could tell the difference? It doesn’t seem so.

What are your thoughts on this comparison? How many answers did you guess correctly? We would love to hear your opinions in the comments below.

 

Sarah McAlexander

Lensrentals.com 2016

Author: Sarah McAlexander

I’m Sarah. I have a BFA in Photography from the University of Memphis. I’ve been shooting professionally for over 6 years. When I’m not working here or freelancing, I enjoy yoga and traveling.

Posted in Equipment
  • drDave Elliott

    If you looked for gradations and detail in the contrast, it was almost always the Sony which provided it. And the Leica clipped into white when the Sony did not.

  • Guilherme Mauricio

    These guys are no experts, trying to compare dynamic range, noise, and highlight control between the Leica and the Sony. And sadly, neither does the author seem to know what Leica Monocrhoms are about.

    They’re about micro contrast. Which translates into “true resolution” and perceived sharpness in high frequency detail.

    To properly take advantage of the lack of Bayer filter, you need highly detailed textures (fabric is a good example, but the pictures here are a little bit too close to make a difference) or extremely fine detail (grass at a distance). And you need to compare full resolution photos – of course, with the same resolution. Once you resize the image, you’re comparing the image editing’s ability to downsample pixels.

    Take a look at Sony’s sample pictures for it’s pixel shift tech incorporated into the A7R III and look at the images in full resolution. These guys know what they’re doing, and that’s the sort of difference you should be looking for in a bayered vs debayered photo.

    This “test” was a total flaw.

  • Theorist

    In your opening explanation, you don’t say anything about the post processing that I saw. Was nothing done?

    Also, one of the comments addresses the issue of physical color filters. Perhaps you should have used these as appropriate with the Leica to indicate what it can do at its best.

    Finally, the left image of the woman at the end does not expand.

  • TCav

    There are lots of ways to do B&W conversions, so without knowing what method was used, it’s difficult to know how a 36MP RGB sensor would compare with a 24MP B&W sensor.

    See http://www.dyxum.com/dforum/case-study-conversions-to-black-white_topic29870.html

  • VPR

    Great article and, as others have noted, a good exercise in “bias detection”. Both cameras are great, just different (although the Leica clearly loses on price)

  • Jo Brodsky

    violates everything about good testing – including: letting judges hear each others’ comments, a ridiculously tiny statistically irrelevant participant panel, far too few trials, no control over images – etc etc etc – entirely meaningless in other words – and more – stupid and misleading.

  • Chas Herren

    24mp camera equals 42mp camera. at least. End of story.

  • Mark Cho

    This was a great article, super interesting. I own both (well, an A7s II not an A7R) and I often find myself wondering why the Leica. However, it is supremely enjoyable to use as well as very discreet, even more so than the A7s II.

    It makes sense to me that the Sony has better dynamic range, it’s a far more modern sensor and ultimately these sensors are commodity parts, available to whoever wants to buy them as long as the price is right.

    I did find trying to check for resolution and sharpness to be nearly impossible in these sample images. It looks like it got resized for web use? Plus, I couldn’t always tell if it was a case of one camera being slightly better focused than another? I particularly felt that way about the bearded driver image.

    I think another interesting angle for the article would be to add the question: “Which image did you like better?” rather than “Which is Sony, which is Leica?”. I think people view these images suffering with confirmation bias, possibly identifying the “better” image as the brand they prefer?

    In any case, both are great cameras. Personally, I tend to use the Sony mostly for work and the Leica mostly for play.

  • Paul Menard

    with the older monochrom i tried it was much sharper at 100% than bayer, so if you had access to that you could probably tell easily.
    sigma cameras are extremely good at black and white, with the foveon sensor :), i think i prefered the foveon sensor but the leica glass…

  • Mr Will

    Ken Rockwell tested his arse and discovered that it was the bendy bit half way along his arm.

  • Lee

    Interesting and smart choice picking a larger megapixel camera for your “CFA/bayer” camera. That should somewhat equalize the results. If you did M240 vs M246 (or A7 II vs M246, if we wanted to compare across brands) I would expect a very clearly visible difference in detail and noise. At least that’s what the Epic [standard] vs Epic Monochrome tests show.

  • James Sarrett

    I hit every one, but I think I know why. Hint: it’s not resolution. It seems to me that in images this small, made from ones that large, and where you have sampled at or greater than the maximum spatial frequency of the lenses, you’ll get basically the same sharpness from both captures, when you’ve downsampled (assuming you did it well, and photoshop usually does). All the ‘fine detail’ is pretty much gone when you get to the web resolution. i.e. if you had a white pixel next to a black one, at half the resolution you’re back to a grey one, which is what you would have seen with the same lens on a camera that only sampled at the half resolution.

    To my eye, the real difference in them is the tone mapping, and the overall exposure curves from each. I see what looks (sort-of) like a higher gamma applied in the Leica images. Some of that can be pushed around by the RGB->Gray conversion factors, and some of it is just in the on-camera image processing (and the sensor and ADC). Plus if you’re using a higher bit-depth pipeline, (e.g. RAW + photoshop), you can often push that around a fair bit.

    Since it’s for art and not photometrics, I say go with what works for you. I’m getting what I want out of a old 150$ Canon EOS-M.

  • DISQUS

    Right on brother! Leica was a venerable camera and lens maker but has become a fallacy driven by emotion, bias and profiteering.
    Like what Hannes said, for most of Leica’s history it was film. Nowadays Leica is playing catch up with the Japanese makers who have far more resources to develop digital technology. Far be it from me to rain on peoples’ parade and say the emperor has no cloths, but if you’re on the fence about Leica and are thinking of buying with the belief that it makes technically better images because “it must be better because it cost so much”, and “you get what you pay for”, save your money. You buy Leica for the shooting experience you get with a rangefinder that is simpler to use than it’s Oriental counterparts. The other reason is so you can feel good about showing off your $7000 camera to your friends. Don’t buy into the hype and don’t believe 90% of what the reviewers say. News flash, most reviewers are beholden to the camera makers in some way and want to preserve their relationship with them and keep getting free gear, vacations and who knows what else.
    Rockwell is not beholden to Leica but he likes German stuff, being German himself. I recall him writing about men with low self-esteem.

  • DISQUS

    If I remember correctly, Kenny Rockwell tested the Leica lenses on the Sony and got soft results. He concluded that the Leica lenses and the Sony sensor didn’t play well together. A better approach may have been to use one of the better Zeiss lenses designed for the Sony.

  • taildraggin

    It’s remarkable how good the sensors are in disposable cameras today.

Follow on Feedly