May 10, 2012 at 4:20 PM ET
Leica introduced a few cameras today, the most interesting of which has to be the M-Monochrom rangefinder, essentially a black-and-white version of its flagship M9 camera. It's not the first monochrome digital camera in the world, but it's certainly the first high-quality general-purpose one.
In a way, however, all digital cameras are monochrome. The sensors in them detect only the presence or absence of light — they're fundamentally black and white. By putting a grid of tiny color filter in front of those sensors, image processors can learn how much green, blue or red light hit in a given area, and interpolate all that into a color image. What Leica did was simply remove the filters.
At first it seems like a gimmick; after all, you can always just remove the color from a normal picture, right? But modern cameras take data from multiple adjacent pixels — usually one red, one blue and two green ones, arrayed in what is called a Bayer pattern — and take a sort of average. So four single-color pixels become one blended pixel, reducing total detail and sharpness.
Leica's 18-megapixel sensor is full-frame (i.e. the size of a 35mm film frame, much larger than most consumer cameras), so it should provide extremely good image quality. However, achieving a proper exposure may in fact be a bit more tricky.
The camera itself is largely the same as the M9, meaning it has a small, low-resolution LCD and doesn't offer features found in many modern cameras, like live view or touch control. But Leica has always been about the image, and the M-Monochrom should produce images unlike those of any other camera on the market.
Unfortunately, the price is also similar to the M9's — that is to say, very high. There is no U.S. pricing yet, but the UK will be buying it for £6120, or nearly $10,000. It should be available starting in July.
Devin Coldewey is acontributing writer for msnbc.com. His personal website iscoldewey.cc.