Leica's New $9,000 Manual-Focus Camera Is Already Showing Its Age

But the M11 is still the best digital Leica ever

Key Takeaways

  • The M11 will cost $9,000 for just the body. 
  • Leica finally replaced that stupid bottom plate with a flip-open door. 
  • The manual rangefinder system struggles with super high-resolution sensors.
Leica M11 camera hanging from its owner

Leica

Leica's latest M-series camera costs $9,000. That's without a lens and over $2k more than the M10 at launch. And yet it will probably sell as well, if not better, than ever. 

Leica knows its core audience is more interested in rendition and looks than in high-tech. They love that these old-style rangefinders can look and handle just like Leica's old film cameras. But because this unchanging traditionalism is a feature, it presents a dilemma—how can Leica keep people on the usual digital-goods upgrade cycle if nothing much changes?

"[You] buy an M body for the luxury. Now there's nothing wrong with buying an M due to their superb fit and finish, but let's not kid ourselves here about what the main attraction is. When so much of the appeal comes down to the look and feel, anything that hinders that is going to be a bigger deal than, say, a run of the mill Canon workhorse," gadget fan and commenter Velvet Spaceman writes on The Verge's forum

Small Changes

It’s a hard problem. Change nothing, and why would anyone replace the old model? Especially for the price of a small car. But change too much, and you’re messing with the fundamentals. At the center of this is the pretense that a Leica is a camera that will last a lifetime. This was true when we all used film, and is a huge part of the Leica branding. But in the digital age, that’s just not true. It doesn’t matter whether the camera’s body is built from solid brass or its internal mechanisms will keep operating for decades when sensor and viewfinder tech improves annually. 

The answer has, until now, been to make small internal changes. The M11 has bigger changes than most, including one utterly radical external change—the bottom no longer comes off. 

"It’s the usual Leica thing, where you buy self-imposed limitations for the creative sake of it."

M11 in 2022

The M11 may be Leica’s best digital M-series body yet. It remains as simple to use as ever, only shoots still images (no video), and has manual focus through a rangefinder window. The sensor has been updated to a 60 megapixel model with more dynamic range, and Leica has added a USB-C port for charging and transferring photos (you can copy pictures directly to an iPhone via the Fotos app). 

The silver version has Leica’s usual brass top plate, but the black painted version uses aluminum. This reduces the weight by 100 grams (3.5 ounces), or around one-fifth the total. And then there’s the bottom plate.

Leica M11 in black and resting on a table

Leica

In its film-shooting incarnations, the M-series Leica required you remove the entire bottom of the camera to insert the film. The idea was that it made for a more stable rear plate (to hold the film flat) than cameras with opening backs, although some later M models also had a flip-up rear panel. 

Leica stuck with this design foible with the digital M. You have to take the entire plate off to change the SD card or battery. That means taking it off a tripod and also risks dropping and losing the plate. Now, you get a proper door—and a newer, bigger battery because of it. The M11 can shoot up to 1,700 photos if you use only the optical viewfinder.

Speaking of that viewfinder, it’s getting to be a liability. A rangefinder uses a separate window to view and focus the image. This is fast, immediate, and works well in any light. But it’s also way less accurate than autofocus or focusing using the electronic screen of a mirrorless camera. 

Bottom view of the Leica M11

Leica

DP Review’s Richard Butler argues that the M11’s high-resolution 60MP sensor shows focus errors more than ever, showing the shortcomings of a manual rangefinder. And the M11 has a stabilized live-view on its screen, which makes the rangefinder even less appealing.

"It’s the usual Leica thing, where you buy self-imposed limitations for the creative sake of it," photographer, journalist, and camera reviewer Andrea Nepori told Lifewire via direct message. 

But if you’ve ever used a Leica, digital or not, you’ll get the appeal. They’re beautiful machines that deserve their status. They’re just not particularly well-equipped for the modern world, unless all you want is a $9k camera (plus lenses) that works and feels exactly like a film camera. Which many people do.

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