Leica 246 Monochrom vs Leica SL Desaturated - Comparing Black and White
I admit that I seldom desaturate color images into black and white. I only do that as a last ditch effort to save an image that was metered in the worst way possible, whether from my own shortcomings or from extreme poor lighting conditions. I'm old school in that way. When I shot in color, back in the days of film, I made color prints. And when I shot in black and white, I made black and white prints. Simple!
And like everyone else, I discontinued my film work flow and moved on with my life when digital became the medium of photographic choice. Needless to say, for the longest time, I only shot in color, given that there wasn't a black and white digital option. Then, Leica introduced the first generation M9 Monochrom. And believe me, I loved it. I loved it so much that I shot it half the time for the course of its model run. And when Leica replaced it with the M246 Monochrom, I shot it exclusively for two years.
But having a Leica Monochrome body for the sake of shooting black and white exclusively may be somewhat of an indulgence that many cannot justify. Besides, it is not as if one cannot have black and white digital images without a Leica Monochrom body. All one needs to do is desaturate a color photo.
But the question has always been there about the authenticity or the quality of a desaturated color image. Is it the same as a true monochrome image? Or is it worse. Now, I've already covered that topic in two earlier write-ups during the summer. Long story short, for the most part, it is good enough. But yes, a true black and white image from a Leica monochromatic sensor is better.
Because of that, I continued merrily with the M246, and supplemented my color photo needs with the M240. It was great having to deal with only one system at a time. That meant carrying only one battery type and traveling with only one type of charger. But then Leica ruined everything by making everything better - without going all the way. Of course, I'm talking about the Leica SL.
Well, that complicated everything. My one system work flow grew into a two system headache - albeit still using M-mount lenses primarily. And so for a while, I adapted to a Leica SL and M246 combination, in order to have a monochrome body together with my now preferred Leica SL. But unfortunately, this compromise wasn't working out. Dealing with two different system slowed down my Leica SL workflow. Plus it made no sense to continue with a M body camera as my backup.
Soon it became evident that using two systems no longer made any sense. Therefore, I updated my two camera system to two Leica SL bodies. But that meant losing my beloved monochrome sensor. If only Leica introduces a monochrome version SL. Until that day, the only alternative for me is accept desaturation as an acceptable option.
I mean, how bad could it be?
Well, to make that determination, Anna and I decided to do a test, comparing sample images from both the Leica M246 and the Leica SL desaturated. In conducting this comparison, we decided to go to Victoria Park - and when I say we, I mean Anna. Long story short - we never made it there, because Anna wasn't dressed warmly enough (although if the truth be told, I'm just not into parks).
Instead, we ended up in this low rise walkup tucked away across the street from Times Square (which is a mall in Hong Kong). I've always been curious about what's inside. It's one of those unassuming building that you'd never think twice about. But I always see cool looking people going in and out of there, so I figure there must be something worth exploring. So we decided to have a look inside - and when I say we, I mean me. Besides, I needed a place where I could test high ISO and dynamic range. And looking in from the entrance, the narrow passageway looked pretty poorly lit. It seemed an ideal place to do our comparison.
We also decided to shoot in a laissez faire fashion - in other words - meter without great accuracy. We figured that part of the test should evaluate the dynamic range of the two Leica camera bodies to see how much we could push or pull the exposure in Lightroom.
So how was the Leica SL desaturated compared to the Leica M246?
The short answers is, desaturating Leica SL color images into black and white isn't "bad". Under normal lighting conditions, from low to medium ISO levels, the desaturated SL images appears optically similar to the black and white images shot from the M246. In fact, I would even say that I cannot eyeball any significant difference between the two - even when side by side. Perhaps the whole point of having a dedicated monochrome sensor is bunk.
However, it should be noted that the RAW 24 megapixels Leica M246 files are around 36.5 mb versus the RAW 24 megapixels Leica SL files at 44.5 mb. From the perspective of file size, the Leica M246 has a clear advantage.
Then again, digital memory storage is cheap.
From the looks of it, it is beginning to appear as if there really isn't any discernible or significant difference between true monochromatic and desaturated image files. If that is the case, then there really is no reason to continue with this charade of carrying a monochromatic Leica body. For the most of us, good enough is good enough.
But hold on - good enough isn't the same as the same. Good enough still means worse - albeit not that much worse. It's the devil in the details that make a difference for some. And I am afraid that there is enough detail for me to include the Leica M246 in my work flow.
If I really have to split hairs, the Leica M246 is still significantly better when the light is bad. It has much cleaner High ISO files when the available light is minimal. Although to be fair, the desaturated Leica SL images don't appear noticeably inferior when the available light is reasonable. And if compared to desaturated files from other camera brands, like the Canon 5D Mark IV or the Nikon D810, the difference may even be less noticeable.
As for dynamic range - now for the goof - I didn't goof enough to test that. Surprisingly, my metering wasn't too off! Who would've guessed that I would've stayed within a +/- 1 stop variance for most of my shots. With that said, I must say that the dynamic range of the Leica SL is somewhat forgiving (which I have tested in previous reviews). However, under low light and high ISO, the Leica M246 is still king.
To my eyes, I am truly convinced that there is a certain pop to the black and white images from the Leica M246 compared to desaturated images from the Leica SL. There seems to be somewhat more range in the gradation of dark and light values. In other words, the dynamic range retains more details on the M246 sensor when compared to desaturated images from the Leica SL.
At this point, it may be useful to remind ourselves that the Leica monochrome sensor is different from any regular run-of-the-mill color sensor. Because the monochrome sensor does not record any color data, it is able to record light and dark values with greater accuracy than the color sensor on the Leica SL. As such, it is reasonable to deduce that the Leica M246 will produce better black and white images than the Leica SL desaturated. This means increased detail, more accuracy, and greater range in gray scale tonality.
But is the difference in rendering between the Leica M246 and Leica SL desaturated significant enough for me to burden myself with a monochromatic rangefinder with my two Leica SL combination?
To be perfectly honest, choosing to shoot in black and white photography or color photography, is a conscious decision. For me, it's the same in digital, as it was in the past with film. And besides, the circumstances determining when I shoot with the M246 or the SL would likely be different. With that understanding, I will continue to carry two Leica SL bodies with me to accommodate most of my needs, while bringing the M246 as a horrible light alternative when the need arises.
As a consequence, I can no longer pull out a monochrome body whenever I want, without planning ahead, since it won't be in my bag at all times. But I suppose it's more important for me to have a Leica SL backing up my primary Leica SL. If only Leica comes out with a monochrome version SL, that would solve all my problems. But until then, desaturation is the acceptable alternative.
All images in this writeup have been optimize in Lightroom. I should have cropped some of the images, since they weren't leveled... but since I haven't posted an article in over two weeks, I decided not to.
Also except for the exposure, all edits in post were the same between the Leica M246 and the Leica SL. Thank you Ken for bringing that oversight in disclosure to attention!