Monochrome Cameras: Epic Quality, or Expensive Indulgence?

There are a few digital cameras on the market today that have monochrome sensors. These sensors work the same way that color sensors work, in that each pixel, or picture element, senses the amount of light that strikes it. The key difference is that color sensors have one of three, red, green, or blue, filters above it, called a Bayer pattern array.

My wolfhound looks up at me in a recent monochrome image. I thought the tonal qualities in this image worked out pretty well.
My wolfhound looks up at me in a recent monochrome image. I thought the tonal qualities in this image worked out pretty well.

The real question is: what makes a monochrome sensor superior to a color sensor that has a decently high pixel count, basically any new camera sold today?

Sometimes  the idea of a monochrome camera isn’t even clear to consumers. While reading around the web for this piece, I came across an article on monochrome cameras from Adorama that listed two non-monochrome cameras , the Olympus OM-D E-M10 Mark IV, and the Fujifilm GFX50S II. The article says the cameras “allow you to switch between monochrome and color shooting modes,” but in case you just woke up yesterday, that is every digital camera made in the last 15 years.

I don't know where I got this glass dolphin; it might have belonged to Dorothy Milligan at one point. Anyway, I photographed it with some Christmas lights to illustrate an image that was mostly made of color.
I don’t know where I got this glass dolphin; it might have belonged to Dorothy Milligan at one point. Anyway, I photographed it with some Christmas lights to illustrate an image that was mostly made of color.
You can see how profoundly different an image of color can appear in monochrome.
You can see how profoundly different an image of color can appear in monochrome.

The article added that, “…you’ll be able to capture low light images far better than you could with a color sensor.” But who, in 2023, has a problem capturing images in low light? I routinely roll past ISO 12,800 with little in the way of noise.

I asked a photographer friend who had a monochrome Leica what he liked about it, and he said it made, “…nice files, with really crisp, dark blacks,” but then said, “the color Leica images converted are fine.”

He later sold the camera, saying he didn’t shoot with it enough to justify owning it.

Ah, there’s another point: the Leica M11 Monochrom (that’s the way they spell it) lists for $9195. No, that’s not a typo.

I got out a few cameras and played around with both their built-in black-and-white options, and options in Adobe Lightroom for converting color images into black-and-white, an activity I try to do several times a year. I had fun, and made some images I liked.

Then, along comes the elephant in the room: sharing, displaying, or exhibiting your images, color or monochrome, somewhere that matters. I see a very pointless chase unfolding before me: faster, bigger, better images, shared and diluted by cluttered, heavily monetized social media sites on which potentially brilliant 46-megapixel, super-clear, high-ISO gems get posted to Facebook or Instagram, compressed by their servers and never shared at resolutions higher than 2000 x 1400 pixels, which is equivalent to 2.8 megapixels.

I have a buddy (who lives in another state) who seems intent on chasing the photographic dragon, and it seems that all that camera power and photographic prowess is squandered on the ever-increasing views on smartphones.

The other side of that, though, is harder to see and appreciate, and that is the experience of making pictures is fun and exciting even if the images aren’t fully exploited on the other end.

My bottom line: monochrome cameras probably have a place in a few photographer’s lives, but for most of us, including me, shooting in a color camera’s monochrome mode is more than enough for the occasional creative excursion.

And if you do enjoy pushing the limits of camera technology, find a way to really take advantage of it by printing, publishing and displaying those amazing images.

Wheatgrass waves in the breeze on a recent photowalk.
Wheatgrass waves in the breeze on a recent photowalk.

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