New York High Line - Leica Q2 Monochrom

Shooting New York's High Line with the Leica Q2 Monochrom

Revisiting on my favorite New York landmarks with Leica's extraordinary, back-to-basics black and white digital camera

The Leica Q2 Monochrom is anything but a practical camera, for as its name implies, it captures images in black and white. Only black and white. That may sound preposterous and limiting when color images can be easily converted to black and white, but "limiting" doesn't have to be a negative trait. It can also be positive, for it means working with less. Capturing images with a camera that sees the world only in shades of gray; forcing the photographer to pay greater attention to light, shadow, line and shape. A camera with clear purpose and intention. Photography in its purest, most potent form.

Because I primarily create landscape images, I'm accustomed to carrying heavy camera bodies, lenses, and tripods. Working slowly and methodically. Taking time to carefully time and plan my compositions. Spending time in Lightroom and Photoshop tweaking hue, saturation, and countless other settings.

As much as I enjoy this style of photography, I've been craving a simpler experience. A smaller, lighter camera that fits in a shoulder bag. A camera I can comfortably bring with me "just in case" I stumble across something worth shooting. A camera that feels more immediate, impulsive and spontaneous.

To shoot less in the mindset of "I'll edit this image later", but "I'm creating this image now."

I considered a variety of different compact cameras, but nothing felt exciting or new to me. I also considered breaking out my old Canon AE-1 and buying a bunch of film, but as much as I love the aesthetic and experience of film, didn't feel like dealing with the hassle and expense of developing and scanning.

That's when I started looking at used Leica Q2s, and stumbled across the Monochrom variant. Maybe it was all the obsessive Ripley watching I'd been doing, but whatever the reason, I got excited again. I was especially thrilled when I found a used copy with an extra OEM battery, two thumb grips, plus a few "stealthy" accessories to further conceal the camera's identity, for about $4000 (nearly $3,000 less than everything new, at retail).

Yes, even used that feels stupid expensive and excessive, but when you think about it, the cost is about the same as a full frame, high megapixel mirrorless camera body and professional lens from Canon, Sony, Nikon, etc. And in my experience, Leicas hold their value quite well (likely because their owners take good care of them).

I sold some old camera gear I was no longer actively using, bought the Q2 Monochrom, and brought the camera to New York for a trial run.

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First Q2 experience in New York

New York was the ideal backdrop to test the Q2 Monochrom. I've traveled there countless times for business, shows, museum crawls and everything in-between. Outside of photography, I've always been a bit of a urban planning nerd (maybe it was all the Sim City I played growing it), so I enjoy and appreciate New York's density, ease of mobility, and efficient use of space.

On nearly every trip, I have made it a point to visit one of my favorite spots: The High Line. A two-mile-long elevated railway on Manhattan's West Side that has been transformed into a popular pedestrian walkway. City officials and real estate developers tried to tear the abandoned railway down in the late 90s after years of neglect, but local community activists and architects saved the structure, thanks in part to landscape images created by (one of my favorite photographers) Joel Sternfeld, who documented the railway's newfound natural beauty.

Left alone for decades, the railway had become a haven for wildflowers, shrubs, grass, and even trees. Sternfeld's images helped imagine what the railway could be, and save the structure from demolition.

New York West Side Line - Credit: Joel Sternfeld, Friends of the High Line
New York West Side Line - Credit: Joel Sternfeld, Friends of the High Line

Redesigned and renovated, the High Line is now an integral part of the revival of Manhattan's West Side, including Chelsea Market, Hudson Yards, Little Island, Pier 57, and more. So successful in fact, the city recently expanded and extended the railway (imagine if they just kept going, connecting more streets).

The High Line may not be as raw and wild today as when Sternfeld photographed it, but it's still a fantastic place to shoot. I'm especially intrigued by the mix of old and new world architecture rising alongside the railway. How close the buildings stand, and their dramatic sense of scale against the pedestrians walking underneath.

New York High Line 2024 - Leica Q2 Monochrom
New York High Line 2024 - Leica Q2 Monochrom

Shooting with the Q2 Monochrom also meant I could take photos in the middle of the day with strong sunlight and dark shadows (unlike color landscape photography which typically favors softer, more diffused light in the mornings and evenings). The Q2 Monochrom also forced me to visualize my images differently and pay even greater attention to shapes, lines, lights and darks. Light is an important component when using any camera, but essential when shooting in black and white.

With my color digital cameras, I often shoot using a black and white picture style to remove distractions and clarify my compositions, so seeing black and white through the Q2 viewfinder was not a new experience for me. But there was something different when using the Q2 Monochrom, for I knew the preview was as good as the image would likely get. If a subject appeared dull (contrast wise) through the viewfinder, no amount of Lightroom or Photoshop would help. I needed to get the image right in camera, in the moment. An experience that felt similar to the high-wire act of film, but in digital form.

The benefits of monochrome

From a design and engineering perspective, the Q2 Monochrom is a fascinating camera because it exists through subtraction. To create the camera, Leica removed the Bayer color filter array from the regular Q2, exposing the baseline, grayscale digital sensor. On the outside of the camera body, Leica also removed their iconic, red badge for an even more minimal, sleek look that's undeniably beautiful.

But the benefits of a strictly monochrome sensor go further. Without a color filter array standing in the way, the Q2 Monochrom sensor is more sensitive to light. This means improved ISO performance throughout its supported range (100-100,000) with less noise and detail loss at elevated levels.

For example, while in New York, I took my teenage son (a budding jazz musician) to a couple of clubs in Greenwich Village (Smalls and Village Vanguard) and shot handheld with the Q2 Monochrom in dark, dimly lit rooms. I set the camera's minimum shutter speed to 1/60 of a second to help mitigate camera shake (for the Q2 doesn't have IBIS) and set my aperture wide open using the oh-so-satisfying clicked aperture ring on the lens barrel. The Q2 then automatically raised ISO to 5000, 6000, etc to accommodate.

Even at these extreme ISO levels, the images are surprisingly clean, as seen below in the saxophonist's dark shirt, which exhibits very little noise. In retrospect, I probably could have raised my shutter speed even higher for less motion blur and finer details. If I frequently photographed bands up close in small, dark clubs, the Q2 Monochrom would be an incredible camera to use.

Smalls Jazz Club, Leica Q2 Monochrom (Original, Left - Detail, Right)

If denoising is needed with Q2 Monochrom images, the best tool I've found is Topaz Photo AI. Not only does it do an exceptional job removing noise and restoring details and sharpness, but it's the only option I can use because neither DxO PureRaw 4 nor Adobe's Denoise AI in Camera Raw/Lightroom work with Q2 Monochrom DNG files.

How Q2 Monochrom raw files are different

Editing Leica Q2 Monochrom DNGs is a different process than converting color raw files to black and white. Photoshop and Lightroom don't provide lens correction profiles for it, nor does the latest version of DxO PureRaw. Thankfully, the Q2 Monochrom embeds lens profiles in every DNG, which are then used to fix distortion and vignette.

Additionally, color controls cannot be used to edit monochrome images. With color raw files, hue luminance may be adjusted to brighten and darken images (e.g., lowering blue and cyan luminance to make skies darker, or raising yellow and orange to brighten skin tone). But that's not possible with monochrome DNG files, for they literally have no color information in them to edit with.

Empty Color Mixer panel in Lightroom Classic
Empty Color Mixer panel in Lightroom Classic

Straight out of camera raw DNGs are like color raw files, meaning they are low contrast, with their dynamic range compressed towards the midtones. Lightroom doesn't offer Leica camera matching profiles for quick conversions, so Q2 Monochrom DNGs must be edited by hand.

This means adding a fair amount of contrast to make the blacks and whites pop, plus (if necessary) midtone contrast using the Clarity, Texture and/or Dehaze tools in Lightroom. Everyone will have their own preferred look, but for New York I wanted deep blacks and crisp whites. I found that the DNG files had plenty of latitude when lifting shadows and compressing highlights, and really came alive when editing.

Because the DNG files can't be edited using color, I will likely invest in a set of 49mm color filters (or perhaps just an orange one) to selectively brighten and darken colors and add some extra punch and contrast to my DNG files (just like the old days with film).

Will I keep the Q2 Monochrom?

Overall, I had an amazing time using the Q2 Monochrom in New York. I don't think I captured any extraordinarily great images, but the experience of using and experimenting with the camera was fantastic. I have another trip planned for later this summer where I'll be using the Q2 Monochrom again for street/travel photography, so I'm definitely holding on to the camera through then.

After that, I'm honestly not sure. I love using the Q2 Monochrom, but the lack of a flip/articulating screen is problematic, for I like to compose images by raising and lowering cameras from eye level to get unique perspectives. This proved to be more difficult and cumbersome than expected. Similar in experience to DSLRs I owned and used a decade ago.

The Leica Q3 has an articulating screen, so odds are there will eventually be a Q3 Monochrom with a flip screen. The Q3 also has IBIS, which would be even better when shooting handheld at night or inside dark interiors. All that said, the MSRP of a Q3 Monochrom will likely be crazy high (mid $6k, easy). Perhaps the Q2 Monochrom will burrow its way deeper into my psyche between now and then and I won't be able to resist a Q3 version, but we'll have to see.

For now, the Q2 Monochrom is an insanely fun and inspiring camera to shoot with. A "back to basics" photography experience unlike anything else.