Leica is looking to charm us with the beauty and mystery of black-and-white photography once again. The German camera maker is announcing the Leica M11 Monochrom, its first new offshoot of last year’s 60-megapixel M11 and its fifth digital camera to only shoot black and white. Launching today alongside the blacked-out $9,195 camera is a new Summilux-M 50mm f/1.4 ASPH. lens, which focuses closer and has more aperture blades than the current model, selling for $4,495 in black or $4,795 in silver.
If you’re unfamiliar with Leica’s Monochrom cameras, here’s a quick once-over of the formula: Leica takes its latest M or Q camera, takes out the color filter array of the sensor (rendering it incapable of taking a color photo), stealthily blacks-out most of the design and removes the famous red dot logo, and then it prints money selling it to gullible rich people who secretly want to cosplay as Henri Cartier-Bresson. I, too, wish I was an OG of classic street photography (or, you know, rich), but I’ll settle for the week I got to shoot with the M11 Monochrom and the fun I got to have fawning over the joys of true black-and-white photography.
I’ve used every iteration of Leica Monochrom cameras, and while the M11 Monochrom follows the usual playbook, it’s actually debuting some new features over its base M11 counterpart. In addition to the usual monochromatic treatment of the M11’s pixel-binning capable sensor, the new Monochrom ups the internal storage from 64GB to 256GB and opts for a fancier sapphire crystal rear LCD cover over Gorilla Glass — the kind usually found on high-end watches. Past Monochroms have often featured extra niceties over the base M of their respective generations, but those improvements always first premiered in a P variant, like the M10-P. So if you’ve been pondering what kind of potential upgrades an upcoming M11-P camera may have, you can probably bank on some of what you see in the new Monochrom.
New features aside, the M11 Monochrom uses the same aluminum build and matte finish as the black M11. And being based on the M11 also means it’s lighter than the M10 Monochrom it’s replacing, with better battery life and a built-in MFi-certified USB-C port on its non-removable bottom plate. But the 40-megapixel M10 Monochrom is still a very formidable camera in 2023. With a new high price of about $9,200, the M11 Monochrom is $900 more expensive than the 2020 launch price of the M10 Monochrom, following a yearslong trend of ever-increasing prices since the M10 debuted at $6,595 in 2017.
The new Monochrom is also around $2,000 to $2,700, more expensive than you can get a used M10 Monochrom for right now. I know the most loyal of Leica faithful have some very deep pockets, but as nice as the quality-of-life updates of the M11 Monochrom are, it’s definitely not a no-brainer upgrade over the prior generation this time around.
The M11 Monochrom does have 20 more megapixels of resolution than its predecessor, and its sensor captures a wider dynamic range while simultaneously climbing to a higher 200,000 ISO and reaching a slightly lower 125 base setting. But the M10 Monochrom was no slouch with its 160 to 100,000 ISO range, and the jump from 40 megapixels to 60 can make you feel the sluggishness of your computer’s processing times more than it makes you feel those extra 20 million pixels are doing a ton for you. The new Monochrom can certainly deliver some stunning image quality and sharpness, but so could every one of its forebears at their respective lower resolutions.
I think if you’re coming from a much older Leica Monochrom or looking to take your first plunge into these deep, dark black-and-white waters with the latest and greatest, the M11 Monochrom makes some sense (as much sense as a lovably illogical camera can make). But if you own an M10 Monochrom, you have to really covet the greener grass of a lighter camera; otherwise, you may feel like it’s not radically different from what you already have, especially since the M11’s somewhat sluggish implementation of USB-C and Wi-Fi / Bluetooth for transferring photos to your phone doesn’t feel like quite the night-and-day difference over the M10 generation I thought it would.
While the technical benefits of the M11 generation and its subsequent firmware updates (including the handy highlight-priority exposure mode) are all here in the new Monochrom, it still suffers from the same high-ISO trappings as its predecessors. Yes, you can now shoot at ISO 200,000 and see in the dark, which is inarguably awesome and fun, but you must tread very lightly.
The files at these lofty ISOs have as much depth and flexibility as a piece of balsa wood, exhibiting strong banding at 200,000 that will make many feel they’re not usable files. Like previous Monochroms, you have to shift your mindset from underexposing at lower ISOs to preserve highlights to nailing your exposures at high ISOs or going slightly brighter and darkening the shot in post-processing to try and tuck that noise away. But this is the nature of Monochrom cameras, and just like ISO 3200 film, it’s a look that’s worth exploring.
That’s kind of what the M11 Monochrom, and all Leica Monochrom cameras, are about: the look. The technical advantages of a monochromatic sensor are cool and alluring, but these cameras are ultimately for romantics — nerdy romantics, I’ll concede, but it’s romance nonetheless.
It’s really quite easy to fall under the spell of a Monochrom. While you can create compelling black-and-white imagery with any digital camera or by shooting film, the Monochrom mixes modern conveniences like being able to shoot at see-in-the-dark ISOs with a slap in the face of emotion. You think your life is boring and monotonous? Not when you document it with the Monochrom. You think random snapshots of everyday life feel like the outdated and out-of-touch early days of Instagram? Nope — now it’s art.
Black and white imagery just hits differently, even when it’s overused as a cheap crutch of unearned authenticity. You can call it timeless or classic or whatever fanciful marketing drivel some may parrot, but it tugs at your heartstrings like few other visual mediums.
The M11 Monochrom has technical advantages and benefits that give it an edge in ISO performance and image sharpness, but its greatest strength is that it takes some decisions away from you. The world through its lens is forever black, white, and shades of gray. When you voluntarily live with a restriction like that, it can feel like you have carte blanche to feast in your creativity. In a lot of ways, I feel like it’s the one Leica most worth owning if you can just pick one.
Oh, wait, you own another Leica that you shoot in color with, too? Well, good for you then, I guess.
Photography by Antonio G. Di Benedetto / The Verge