Interview: Leica's Roland Wolf and Justin Staley Talk New M-Monochrom Camera and Black & White Photography
By Complex Magazine | Sep 10, 2012 | 1:56 pm
Revolution vs. Evolution. Which is better? In the world of consumer electronics, the former is always more marketable than the latter. But is it better? If you ask the folks at Leica, one of the world's most renowned camera companies, they would say, No. Since it's founding in 1913, Leica has worked tirelessly to refine its line of cameras, tinkering with and pushing the limits of what a compact camera can do. All that tweaking has lead to the release of one of Leica's most noteworthy models: the M-Monochrom. A black and white camera based on its time-tested M camera base.
Complex’s Video Director, Jonathan Lees, took a trip down to the new Leica Store and Gallery in Washington, DC to see the new exhibit of photographer, Jacob Aue Sobol’s new black and white works exclusively utilizing the new Leica M-Monochrom camera. While there, he had a chance to sit down for a lengthy discussion with some key players from the legendary German camera brand including VP of Marketing and Corporate Retail, Roland Wolf, and Product Specialist Justin Staley.
Interview by Jonathan Lees
Leica has an involved and interesting history. How are you guys telling a story, now, to modern digital consumers and modern photographers?
Roland Wolf: Over the years, we created a set of values that we live by. Our past is our future. What we did is create an instrument. Whether there’s film in it or whether there’s a sensor in it, is really irrelevant because the values and virtues of a rangefinder camera are really irrespective of if you shoot film or digital. Especially these days where it’s not so much about achieving a certain quality level anymore, as it was when you were first entering digital, when you were really able to tell a difference between a film image ‘cause of its characteristics and its resolution and how it appeared. And today...the Monochrom is really a camera [where] the image feels like film. But, you know, the thing is, the M system is really what a lot of people, when they hear of Leica, think of, because it’s the tool that was used by a lot of the most respected photojournalists when photojournalism emerged and had it’s heyday with LIFE magazine and Time magazine. When we entered the digital world, we wanted to continue that system. So we were really trying to find a solution that made it possible for our customers and our photographers to continue using an M camera the way they were used to, and the lenses that they have been using for many years. For us, it’s a continuation.
Like an old Schott leather jacket, or Red Wing boots, there's been a resurgence of classic, timeless design. And I noticed that when the [Leica] M came out, people were gravitating towards this camera. And I feel that the rest of the camera industry was stumbling, trying to figure out what the consumer wanted.
RW: I think you are spot on, and I would have to go back to my product manager days, which was 2000, 2001. That’s when we started a whole new line of compact cameras. Obviously, I would look at the competition, and I would go to these shows where other brands would present the new compact cameras. And not only was I a trained photographer, but also a product manager for digital compact cameras, and I couldn’t figure out how these cameras worked. So, I would stand there and play with some of these oddly shaped, oddly colored cameras, thinking, Why are you trying to reinvent the wheel? Since photography has such a rich history and cameras were designed in a certain way for a reason. People are not only used to it, but, the way these cameras evolved, there’s a reason for it. Sometimes you don’t have to reinvent the wheel—what you have is a good thing. Just because it switched from film to digital, doesn’t mean you have to change everything around it.
Was there any hesitation from Leica utilizing full manual controls for a new digital form?
RW: I was in Germany still at the time. We’re a small company. I think that it’s an advantage sometimes, and sometimes it’s a disadvantage. But we are very close to our customers. We are very close to those that use our products. I don’t think a day goes by in Germany where we don’t have a professional coming in to talk to the product manager or talk to our Leica staff about their experiences with the product. People were asking for a digital rangefinder. So it’s kind of an informal market study. Market research. You get the feedback. Of course, we have been building M cameras at that time for 46 years. So for us, it made sense to continue the M system. And it comes back to what I said earlier, because of the advantages that a rangefinder has for street photography and for photojournalism. And what we felt was still valid. We got that feedback from the market, too. Doesn’t mean there aren’t other areas that you couldn’t explore, but this is really what Leica stands for, and continuation makes sense for us.
Is it because you did so well with the M system that you were allowed to experiment and bring it back to something people loved photographically or was this [the Leica M-Monochrom] something that truly tested well with photographers? Obviously 50 Magnum photographers wouldn’t come to Leica and tell you to put something into production. Why did you make a black and white camera?
RW: The idea had been out for a while. You’re asking a good question, whether it was based on the success of the M9. I think it helped because the idea was a lot older. The theory of creating a black and white sensor was something that we’ve been kicking around for quite some time. Did the success of the M9 help to make the push to realize it? I would say yes. Most likely. But is has been something that we have been discussing and thinking about for a while.
Justin, as a product specialist, what have you seen put into this camera that’s sort of unprecedented; that’s different than the way Leica has built other digital Ms?
Justin Staley: Besides the sensor, besides the way it’s processing through and creating files...the beauty of it is, it’s just another M camera. The menus are the same. The control buttons are the same. That’s really, to me, one of the things about the M system, that keep its linearity: If I would pull an M-3 from 1954, and put it right here on the ground, besides the wind lever on top and the screen on the back of it, it looks virtually identical. And I always chuckle and laugh when I’m out someplace with an M9 under my shoulder, and I walk into a restaurant and a waiter says, “Hey, nice old-school camera.” Half the time, I say, “Hey, thanks, man,” and the other half of the time, if I’m feeling cheeky, I’ll turn and frown, and show them the screen on the back. They will be like, “That’s digital?” It’s that lineage. It’s that longevity. That’s why I usually go with the Porsche 911, because it’s that lineage of car. It’s evolutionary, not revolutionary. It’s evolving. It’s taking in and messing with the design. Tweaking what’s there, what’s special about it, and celebrating that.
I understand there are photographers that would lose their minds over this but how do you convince a public that this [shooting with a Monochrom] is any different than desaturating an image, using Silver EFX, Lightroom, or Photoshop?
JS: There’s just something inherent to the way the sensor works and sees. When you have a color sensor, you’ve got a whole process that happens to the data of the chip, because you got a pixel that’s red, a pixel that’s green, and a pixel that’s blue. You’ve got that division of data. So I’ve got a data point that’s green, that’s red, that’s blue. On a digital camera with a bayer filter, I have “what’s my red value here?” And “what’s the green value?” And “what’s the blue value?” The camera has the process of demosaicing, where it takes those little color tiles and blends them together, and multiple pixels become the data for one. People say the [Monochrom] camera is three more times the resolution. It’s not 3x the resolution. They are looking for a number to justify it. And it’s not a number, it’s the way the process works.
Demosaicing is a really interesting term, but if you think about a mosaic on the wall, you stand fifty feet [away] and look at it, you see the image. You walk up and put your nose up to it, you see this tile is orange, that one’s blue. And you see different shapes and the different patterns of it. And when you step back from it, and it snaps back into that picture. And that’s sort of what’s happening here. But not having that process in the camera is allowing it to resolve much finer detail. But the other thing I noticed, being a black and white photographer, something about black and white film, and the way it captures an image, and the tonality, and the smoothness of tone in that image. This camera, with the way the sensors see light. And the way that they’d profiled it...when you suck these images in the lightroom, they’re flat. They’ve got this amazingly smooth tonal range that seems to just go forever. And having that ability to capture even in a bright sun, is a really contrasty scene. And keeping details in your highlights. And keeping details in your shadows. And then being able to say okay, what do I want?
And that is what the public is just starting to understand. They are getting to know about dynamic range. It’s now becoming a marketing tool for other cameras. That’s what made black and white so interesting...it’s not just black and white. There are tonal shades into the millions.
JS: And that’s the thing about film: Film had these amazing smooth shifts of color. And it’s hard to see that on the monitor. You can’t see that projected. Looking at Jacob’s [Sobol] work on the prints on the wall...That makes me want to challenge some people. I want to shoot some film, [and compare it] side by side, to this. And see what the results are. See what kind of results I’m truly getting out of it because I think it will give a run for its money. I was already making M9 files. I was just talking to someone in a black and white workshop that I teach, I have 20x30-inch prints made of black-and-white conversions off of a M9. And when you see that they are basically grainless—I’m at a 400 ISO, it’s virtually grainless. I’ve shot tons of Tri-X over the years. Tri-X shoots at 20x30. It’s got grains. It’s got texture to it. And to have that ability, it’s almost this [feeling of]...”Wait a minute, this doesn’t feel right. That was 400 ISO.” Because I’m so used to having this grain, that texture, the silver quantity in that image.
RW: I’m glad you are asking these questions, because this was exactly the reason why I wanted Jacob’s work over here. I think you need to see the work and the print to understand what the camera can do. Cause I, quite frankly, was a little shocked when we made the announcement and to see reactions from educated photographers: Just questioning the existence of that camera, and why wouldn’t you just work with a raw file and remove all the color information? It’s not the same. It’s absolutely not the same. You cannot produce what this camera does, with a true black and white sensor, with a color camera. The Bayer has a lot to do with it. You’re not interpolating the information. You don’t have the software trying to piece things together. You have one pixel, and that pixel doesn’t have that color filter in front of it anymore. So it’s either full or empty. It fills up much quicker. By removing those color filters, you get a lot more energy into the pixel, which means you actually increase the ISO of the filter. So the noise levels go down. You increase the ISO. You increase the resolution, just by removing that Bayer filter. The theory of removing that Bayer filter has a lot to do with the camera having a higher resolution, less noise. Not in pixel count, but as in, what it can display, the level of information it can display.
Does affect aliasing at all?
JS: The M cameras haven’t used an AA filter at all. There’s software embedded in the camera, looking for moiré that’s trying to automatically kill it when it sees it. Not having color information, I’m not sure moiré is possible on this camera. I haven’t done the test to see. Where you’re getting moiré is when a single pixel is a piece of data. The example I give at a workshop is: You are photographing at the beach. At some distance, a grain of sand will be the size of the pixel. So, you have a red grain of sand, a green grain of sand, and a blue grain sand. And de-mosaicing can’t figure this out cause it doesn’t have any overlap. It doesn’t have any edges to latch on to. So it’s seeing these individual things, that’s why you get that pattern that looks prismatic. If you magnify the image, you see the red dot, green dot, blue dot. This doesn’t have the red, green, and blue dots. It just has amplitude.
Why is black and white, film or digital, so romantic? Why do black and white images seem to be always interpreted as “realistic”?
JS: Ralph Gibson—New York City photographer; fine art, nude photographer—would tell you that color photography is two steps removed from reality because it’s a fraction of time. It’s freezing time. And it’s two dimensional. It’s two degrees removed from reality. As soon as we go to black and white, we are three degrees removed from reality. Something magical happens at that point. I’m going to say the ordinary to extraordinary. We don’t see the world in black and white. We see the world in color. There’s a simplification that happens. In our mind it’s just a bit more complex. And as a photographer, if you photograph in color, Julia’s red dress against the white wall separates her from that white wall. But if I was to photograph her in black and white, I have to now know the tone of her dress will respond in a certain shade of gray. And her skin tone is going to respond in a certain shade of gray. And where does that fall? And what happens to it? Well, red and green reproduce basically the same thing, same tone of gray. It disappears. And that’s when you start using color filters. That’s where the creativity starts to come in.
That’s where the M-Monochrom opens up for you. I can pull out my old red-25 filter, put it on the camera, and change the color. Now my sky is going to go dark. Skin tone is going to go white. Go porcelain. I can do those effects in camera. “Okay, Lightroom, black and white, red...and slide it to make adjustments.” I can shoot it that way and get the effect. If I put a red filter on a M9, I’ve just eliminated all my green pixels and all my blue pixels. I’m relying on digital conversions to do that. It really is a different experience, a different process. And I feel Leica is very attuned with the craft of photography. It’s got art and it’s got science. It’s the blending of those two things that make it interesting. But I think [the problem] with digital is that we forget that craft. It comes down to how can we push pixels around? How much can we manipulate? When do you say when? Think about the old guys in the darkroom, and having some of that control, and having some of that magic, that really happens. It’s having your fingers wet in the chemistry. I think some of the romance comes back with this. The romance of black and white comes back with it. We have the control. Where you as the artist, make the decisions and decide how you want the image to be printed. The tonality of it, and the feel of it. The contrast of it. How black your blacks are and how white your whites are. Do you want your picture to be dark? Be Lynchian and be Film-Noir. Deep dark, rough, gritty kind of look. I photograph that way.
[The camera] is for those who know, as photographers, exactly what they want. The people who truly go out there to take pictures to “make” a moment. To make it personal. To make it historical. It’s a hard sell but, to me, you guys just sold it.
JS: It’s an unique product. That to me is Leica. We are very much into making a specialized product. That’s what has kept us around. We haven’t tried to make a tool for everyone. Often times, if I’m talking to a class about the introduction to range finders, I’ve got people who haven’t used a range finder before. They’ve only used a SLR. I will often equate a SLR camera to a Swiss Army knife. It does everything well. Anything you want to do photographically, you can do with a SLR camera. And the M camera is really like a specialized tool. I’ll equate that to a chef’s knife. If you want to chop vegetables, a chef’s knife is way more efficient. There are certain things a chef’s knife will do extreme efficiently, but if I want to open up a can, which one’s better? The swiss army knife is better than opening up a can of soup. By realizing we are a specialized tool and not trying to do everything. It’s to me one of the things that kept the brand very special.