Recently, Leica announced the new Leica M9 Monochrome rangefinder. A digital full frame sensor camera that shoots exclusively in monochrome.... black and white.
Of course, such a radical move has brought on the usual Leica "hater" negative chatter. I'll dispense with addressing the "overpriced - doctor/lawyer - leave it on the shelf" type attacks. But I do want to address those that are of the mind that this is a dumb idea.
First, let's get one thing straight, this is a niche camera. Of course it's a niche camera. In fact, when you consider the market numbers of Nikon, Canon, Lumix etc. etc. etc, all Leica cameras are niche cameras. So perhaps the M9-M is a niche within a niche. Regardless, I think it's an important niche.
Black and white photography has a long held standing in the "fine art" community. There's a mystery in black and white photography. Maybe the images are felt to be more cerebral since we're not immediately satiated by eye popping candy colors... I don't know. But I, for one, love black and white. And the more I shoot black and white, the more I want to shoot black and white.
Where I feel Leica's move is an important one is more about the first step. What will evolve from this beginning?
While current RGB sensors will produce a black and white image in the camera, those are jpeg files produced by the camera's firmware, tweaked to the manufacturer's interpretation of "right." The Leica M9 Monochrome camera will provide the photographer with a monochrome RAW file. This is where worlds open up that weren't open before.
Sure, you can convert your files with great software like SilverEFX or your own favorite software, but it's not the same. Personally, I like shooting black and white and I think black and white while I'm shooting. My current M9 is more often than not set to black and white.
With RAW monochrome files, suddenly, toning, print profiles, paper profiles... all the steps in the fine-art print process suddenly have a new and important role. Software, paper and printer designers have room to grow and to stretch.
Don't brush this off so quickly. Step back and watch what happens. It's a move that only Leica could do (though high-end medium format digital backs have been available in monochrome) and it suits the Leica style, product line and customer base well.
Niche? Maybe. Cutting edge? Definitely.