COLOUR MY WORLD (OR NOT)
By MICHAEL PERKINS
This camera costs $8,995 and cannot, will not ever, take a color image. How many would you like?
EVERY PHOTOGRAPH EVER CREATED BY A DIGITAL CAMERA, regardless of subject, technique or approach, begins as the very same thing: a black-and-white image. Even in an era of saturated and custom-manipulated color, our cameras originally create everything in tones of grey. Aesthetically speaking, that’s about as hard-wired a bias toward monochrome as you can imagine. And this means exactly what, and to who?
The science of how this happens is all rather basic, at least in the horrendously oversimplified way I’m going to explain it. In addition to the camera’s pixel-covered sensor, that assigns tonal value for a photo file in black and white, there is, in most cameras, a second sandwich layer, called a Bayer filter array, that combines with the sensor to assign color to those tones. This all happens without many of us giving it much thought, since black and white, at least mentally, is no longer the default mode for most of us, merely an effect that we achieve either by changing a setting on the camera’s shooting menu or converting color shots to b/w in post-production after the fact.
Where this gets interesting is when an affection for both mono and technical perfection meets the niche camera market, resulting in the creation of cameras that shoot nothing but black-and-white, inciting some wags to intone, “at last!” while many others query, “what are you, nuts?” Those who vote with the skeptics point to the fact that the pro-sumers who opt for such a machine, such as Leica’s M10 Monochrom, will part with nearly nine thousand clams for the privilege of enjoying one less feature than even the cheapest camera delivers. Wait, they say. You took something away from the camera and you’re charging more for it? Well, I gotta bridge I wanna sell ya…
On the pro-sumer’s side of the argument is the trickier, tech-ier underbelly of the issue. Turns out that the Bayer array actually degrades your images, reducing the amount of light that gets to the final file, compromising both sharpness and ISO performance in low-light situations. That in turn means that removing the Bayer array from the camera boosts its fidelity in a significant way, resulting in less loss in both cropped images and enlargements. Do these benefits register as must-haves for the average shooter? Does the romance of shooting in black-and-white only, which, as we’ve pointed out, used to be the default status of all cameras way back when, still have the allure that it once did, and for how many consumers? This is the part of the program where you do your own math and makes your own choice.
Now, let’s be honest. I love me some elite toys, especially the ones I would never, in a million years, actually purchase. I love $3,000 direct-drive analog turntables mounted in virgin-forest koa. I love $500 counter-top appliances that only de-vein and parboil jumbo shrimp. But the turntable can’t make my old Black Sabbath albums any better musically (nothing can, sadly), not can the shrimp gadget confer Wolfgang Puck status on my random kitchen meanderings. Could I take better pictures (whatever that phrase means) with the most technically advanced camera on the planet? Only if I can take good pictures with anything, from a cigar box pinhole to a NASA telescope. And, if you spend years failing to develop the eye for making pictures that connect with people, it takes more than a $9,000 bandaid to make that not be so.