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, 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


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 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
  • Wonderful article. The comments show the bias and preconceptions of the “experts,” while their results show nothing better than chance guessing. To my eye, I preferred the Sony images most of the time. Fringing, by the way, is a function of the optic, not the sensor, so if they’re both using the same lens, it shouldn’t matter. Your article is essentially a blind taste test of a $100 bottle of wine vs. a $20 bottle, and the “experts” couldn’t tell the difference, and then when confronted with their failure, come up with some weak rationalizations. Great job.

  • Jonathan_T

    fascinating stuff, agree with J.L. Williams, this should be done more often in photography tests to remove fanboyism and prejudice.

  • Sri Prabha

    Great comparison to start off with. A few points, with clarity and prescence settings in Lightroom ,one can match outputs quite closely. Another big point,is actual printing. Here is where you may see some differences,but it’s highly doubtful. At the end of the day, whatever you’re most comfortable making work with is important, but I’m highly suspectful of paying 8000 for a camera. I’d rent it for sure though.

  • You have a good eye! Yes, The displayed answer is correct. Can’t win ’em all.

  • Ben C

    To be fair, it is Leica that is making the Leica name also about the sensor. You can’t say the sensor is not part of the equation when Leica themselves are making a claim for a monochrome sensor giving one of their models a distinct advantage.

  • Ben C

    That’s sometimes said to be a good adage for parenting, too 🙂

  • Butanding

    I got 6 out of 7, and I haven’t even held a Leica (I do have the A7R II). Are you sure about the results for the first image?

  • Carleton, Thank you for the kind words! These photos were shot with a range of f-stops. f/1.4 to f/8. Each set was shot with the same lens at the same aperture setting to eliminate as many variables as possible when comparing image quality.

  • DrJon

    I’m going with DV (below) to agree that a colour sensor just offers so much more flexibility in post-processing. For example using Black+White Projects (my favourite monochrome conversion tool) you just select the colour filter you want to apply and see what you get. This is much more convenient than having to decide before taking the shot and most likely only having a small screen (with who knows what DR) to decide from.

  • Carleton Foxx

    Great test and another feather in the cap of LensRentals. But one of the things people always say is that lenses only show their differences when shot at very wide apertures or at the extremes of their focusing range. I can’t seem to find the f-stop these pictures were shot with. Were they all at a 4 or 5.6? Or were some at f/1.4?

  • Hannes Böck

    very, very funny!

  • Hannes Böck

    Leica is about the shooting experience and the lenses. not about the light registering medium. there was no leica film and no leica sensor. what you saw and see today is the optical qualities of the lenses. so if you shoot 2 different sensors with leica lenses you will get a “leica image”. if you want to know if the monochrom leica is any good you have to compare it with a film leica.

    if you want to compare systems you have to shoot the sony with sony lenses. if you shot the leica monochrom with sony lenses the difference would be bigger then between the 2 sensors. i am pretty sure that you can make your samples look identical in post.

    but i understand that the question was if it´s better to leave out color information before or after registering of the light. to answer that you might want to get the brightness levels matched. otherwise you can´t judge translation of color to grey tones and your test is missing the point.

  • Joey Miller

    You know, I’ve been thinking along similar lines. I may run some tests this spring when the weather is more cooperative. I’m currently testing lenses for astro use, with the goal of making a definitive list of stuff we carry and how well it performs for star stuff.

  • Joey Miller

    100% agree. I will say there is a romance shooting with the Monochrom. It’s akin to loading an old film camera with TMax or Acros 100 and just rolling with it. Sometimes romance is worth it.

  • Joey Miller

    To be fair, Drew shaved off his beard recently. But I will never betray mine like that.

  • Joey Miller

    I should register that domain.

  • Albert

    Couldn’t use one even if I wanted to. Skin gets incredibly irritated.

  • Albert

    Interesting, and fun. That said, I have never posted a BW image without choosing precisely how I wanted it post-processed. Also, with so many attractive options to aid in this, it is really hard to understand the appeal in a pure monochrome camera. Silver Effex 2 is my personal go-to.

  • binotto

    Thanks for a really fun article! I’m guessing that the greater dynamic range of the Sony sensor plays a role in those “smoother transitions”. That and a lot more pixels. The monochrome sensor does punch above its weight (this was clear comparing the original Monochrome with the M9) – just not that much above its weight. In the end, I think the appeal of the Monochrome is in the creative constraint it gives you in the shooting process.

  • obican

    Some guy at had some very extensive testing with a very large number of coins and none of the US coins can be reliably used in such a scenario. Too much sample variation.

  • almeich

    Only if they flipped the coin a large number of times.

  • Boris Massieux

    I don’t know if I would get a better result to such type of test. However, what really surprises me when people discuss such differences is that they seem to not recognize a Leica type of image due to the Leica treatment. All Leica camera I’ve been able to use, when in monochrome mode, have a special treatment of color sensibility, which I guess is due to algorithm use. Blue colors are always treated in a special way, yellows/oranges too. In my opinion, Leica really take care to bring more dynamism and contrast (I mean differences in areas of the photo due to differences in the color of the objects within – e.g. a walking pass in the middle of a green field under a bright blue sky with clouds – to better separate them). You can recognize that if you are used to see Leica files.

  • jrconner

    Consultants are often wrong, but never stumped. The same is sometimes true of experts.

  • obican

    So if they flipped a coin each time, it’d be correct more often than Joey and Aaron. Funny.

  • Chris

    I’m curious to see if the leica monochrom would do a good job as an astrophotography camera, using different filters and stacking the differently filtered images together

  • Snugge Dr.

    it would be interesting to see a comparison using native e-mount glass ie 35mm or 55mm sony zeiss and comparable leica glass.

  • J.L. Williams

    I really enjoyed this. I’ve suspected all along that a lot of gear bias wouldn’t stand up to a double-blind comparison test, and this made a good case. Clearly the differences were so minor that the identifications were no better than chance.

    It also interested me that nobody ever said, “I’m stumped” — they always came up with both a choice and a rationale for that choice, even though the results show the rationales must have been fictitious. It seems the power of myth in photography is very strong…

  • Joey Miller

    At least the three of us agree on one thing. Beards are great.

  • I got two out of seven, which is pretty bad considering I own an A7RII ?. I think the shooting experience of the Leica might be more enjoyable since I really like rangefinders but based on this I wouldn’t get one for image quality alone.

  • DV

    Something to keep in mind with these comparisons is that on a bayer array camera, the nature of B&W conversion can change depending on user taste. A monochrome sensor behaves much like black and white film, and you need to use lens attached filters to filter out certain frequencies to enhance an image or capture the proper contrast of a scene based on the light source. Remember the bag of blue, orange, and yellow filters? Were any of these Leica shots taken with lens filters used? What were the B&W conversion settings in LR/C1/RAW converter du jour?

    On a Bayer camera, while there may be less pure luminance information, you have gained spectral information based on the filtered colors in the array, which allows you to effectively simulate those filters in post without quality loss. So while you may not get the absolute maximum in luminance information, you may make up for it with tonal controls that would be otherwise unavailable. Whether or not sacrificing some pure resolution for this flexibility is the right choice is, IMO, an exercise left for the creative user.

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