PHOTOOG Photography writings by Olivier Giroux


Op-ed: The Leica M8 would make more sense as a B&W camera


My name is Olivier and I am addicted to the idea of owning a Leica M camera.

My problem (trying to service my addiction ;^) is that I can’t justify it. I have no interest in debating the issue of price, except that the non-trivial cost warrants a thoughtful and level-headed justification. At this time in October of 2008, the M8.2 fixed just about every known issue with the camera except the most important one: the less-than-stellar digital imaging system.

There are four basic things that are wrong with this system…

1) IR sensitivity pollutes images with either a magenta or a cyan cast. This distortion of the source data is really permanent damage to the image – correcting the cyan cast inevitably amplifies noise in the red channel.

2) Risk of developing color moiré pattern from high-frequency detail. Again the source data has to be improved for outputs to be free of moiré.

3) Poor performance at sensitivities above ISO-800 compared to the competition today. The benchmark to compare against is not color negative film, that’s a don’t-care, it’s modern professional DSLRs in the same market category (D700/5D-II)(ignoring that they cost ½ as much). The M8 needs to see a 1.5 - 2 stop improvement to be competitive in this environment.

4) While good, resolution is not class-leading. Leica lenses deserve better.

One thing that I think is not wrong with the M8 is the 1.33x crop factor. It offers an excellent balance of quality overall, without skewing the system towards telephotos too much. I imagine the cost would rise with a 1.0x sensor, which would only serve to make justification more difficult. The Leica lens stable is full of good choices for the 1.33x factor too, for example the 28/75 pairing for which many interesting permutations are available.

Entertain this thought experiment if you will… what if the M8 lost its Bayer color filter array? Change nothing else, just strip away the CFA and turn the M8 into a black & white camera.

Let’s see how this would affect the four issues I listed above:

1) IR sensitivity is much less of an issue. Magenta casts appear as luminance variations that are not as distracting, cyan cast appears as light fall-off. Full-resolution IR photography becomes an option using a filter on the lens to block visible light.

2) Color moiré is no longer possible. High-frequency detail is recorded simply as fine detail, in all its glory.

3) Sensitivity improves by 1.5 - 2 stops as the color filtration no longer consumes light; all wavelengths contribute to luminance.

4) Real world resolution improves by 1.5x - 4x depending on situations because no interpolation is necessary to produce image pixels. 10MP is a terrific resolution for a monochrome sensor.

The result of this single modification, a simple ECO for Kodak, would be a stunning black-and-white M8 camera. One that can stand its own in the modern competitive environment, and would now be priced appropriately taking its tradition into account (assuming the price is the same).

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