"As John Cheever said, the main emotion of the adult Northeastern American who has had all the advantages of wealth, education, and culture is disappointment."
—Walker Percy, Lost in the Cosmos
Regular readers will know that I've been calling for a monochrome digital camera since forever. Historically, there have been a few—an early one from Kodak, a monochrome medium format scientific back. Today, another one has been announced.
I figured this was coming. Evidently, God ignores my importunings but Satan attends. I'm just bitterly disappointed that it's Leica which has heard this call. Why, Lord, why? Why couldn't it have been Pentax or Canon or Nikon or Olympus or Panasonic? It's a bit like wishing for a modern Shelby Cobra-style roadster and learning that you (for only a theoretical value of "you," i.e., not I) can purchase a superb replica from Superformance in South Africa...for $80,000 sans engine.
Leica, of course (as I've also said before), is photography's "Veblen good," defined as a commodity "for which people's preference for buying them increases as their price increases, as greater price confers greater status, instead of decreasing according to the law of demand" (Wikipedia). It is absolutely the last cameramaker that I would have wanted a monochrome digital camera from. Which, of course, by the umbrella axiom, probably guaranteed that Leica would be the first company to come through.
Is it better or worse to not have something available at all, or have it "available" but out of reach?
And, is there any difference?
So today's a bad day. Of course, as Ctein failed to prove yesterday, I am (probably) not the center of the Universe. Which would mean I should shut up with my caviling and kvetching and leave others to their affairs, which do not concern me.
It is possible, after all, that some good might come of today's news. The new camera might excite discussion; those who do use the Leica M-Monochom might usefully elucidate some of its actual, non-theoretical advantages and uses compared to conversions from Bayer-array sensors, which might make its qualities and properties more clear to photographers in general; it might stimulate increased interest in the idea; and...and...
...And, of course, it's always possible that Leica's foray into the segment will inspire some more ordinary company to follow suit and offer a practical monochrome digital camera, as I've been wishing for all these years.
Oh, all right then: I still suffer from that peculiar human affliction, hope.
Here are the links for today's new Leica cameras:
ADDENDUM: Obviously, I'm not being entirely serious in this post. However, here's one serious concern: it always worries me when proof of concept depends on a product that's an outlier in some other way.
For instance, I began calling for what became the mirrorless segment (large-sensor non-SLR compacts) in about 2004. So I was greatly worried when the very first one that reached the market turned out to be the Sigma DP1. The reason was that it was an outlier product in several ways that had nothing to do with its being a large-sensor compact: it had an atypical sensor, and it was made by a company that was somewhat behind the then-current standard in terms of operability.
The problem is that if the proof-of-concept product fails, then that can count against the concept. Let's imagine that the M-Monochrom fails in the market...nobody buys it. Then any other cameramaker might say, "Well, Leica tried it, and it failed. That means it's not viable, so we're not going to try it." The problem, of course, is that the Leica monochrome might fail because it's an ~$8,000 camera, not because it's a monochrome camera. Maybe there's a market for monochrome cameras, just not for monochrome high-priced cameras. It does stand to reason that someone spending that much for a camera will want it to do what most people want their cameras to do, i.e., shoot in color. It's not the sort of expense that most people can bear for a second body, or for occasional use, or to experiment with.
As Matt notes in the Featured Comment below, a monochrome camera would be an excellent learning tool for students, too. (A case I made in my "Leica Year" posts.) But certainly not at this Leica's price.
If Nikon, say, put out a monochrome version of the D5100, for the same price as a regular D5100, and it failed in the marketplace, then, fine, it would be reasonable to conclude that no one wants a monochrome camera. But the danger is that the Leica will fail because of its price, and yet people will ascribe the failure to the wrong cause and be led to the wrong conclusion.
Thankfully, the mirrorless segment survived the danger posed by the "contaminated" proof of concept embodied by the first product to reach the market. I can only hope (seriously) that monochrome-sensor cameras will also.
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Original contents copyright 2012 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by Matt: "So frustrating…I feel your pain too, Mike. A commodity monochrome should be the new student camera for learning composition, tonality, and technique apart from the worries of color management. At 8000 USD for the body only, this is about as far from a student camera as one can get."
Featured Comment by Robart Roaldi: "OK, Cosina, now's the time."
Featured Comment by Harry Lime: "As usual all the talk is about resolution and sharpness, when black and white really is about exposure range and tonality. I sure hope this camera has a serious increase in dynamic range compared to the M9. Twelve to fourteen stops better be in the cards.
"But in the end it's a moot point. The camera is $8,000 and out of the reach of all but the very wealthy, or well established photographers who can recoup an investment for such a specialized tool.
"The great irony of course is that nearly all of Leica's beloved Magnum photographers could not have afforded an M9 for most of their careers, and even today, buying the minimum of two bodies for serious work would be a financial challenge for most of them.
"People will counter that Leica has always been expensive, and of course this is very true. But that gap has widened to the same proportion that nowadays separate the 99% from the 1%. When I bought my first Leica and lens almost 15 years ago, it did not cost as much as a new compact car."
Mike replies: "...Black and white really is about exposure range and tonality." Amen. That's another risk of a vanguard product: that it will not provide what it ought to provide, which also skews analysis of the concept's viability. That has happened many times in industrial history. Of course it's too early to evaluate the M-Monochrom.
As far as prices are concerned, I would like to see an actual comparison of equivalent Nikons or Canons and Leicas in, say, 1955, 1965, and 1975. I remember hearing that in the 1970s Leicas cost about 150% of the competition, but I don't have chapter and verse on that.