Leica. If you know anything about photography (or frankly, you don’t know much at all), you know it’s the best. Just like an Apple product, a Brioni suit or a Porsche 911, it’s an object that has, in many ways, redefined its entire category. The first Leica, developed in 1924, is widely credited with popularizing film photography.
Arguably the most vaulted system in the German camera maker’s oeuvre is the M series. First introduced in 1954 with the Leica M3, the M was revolutionary from the start, revolutionizing the 35mm with its bayonet lens mount and viewfinder. It’s James Bond’s camera. (Ian Fleming gave 007 a Leica M3 in The golden finger.) Steve Jobs, never better at praising other brands, introduced the iPhone 4 by comparing it to a vintage Leica in quality. Zendaya took her last Instagram photo with a Leica M10. Then there’s Jason Momoa, whose obsession with the M-series has led to a growing (and very valuable) collection, including a 1958 M2, M3 and Leica M10-D. Along with his assortment of Harley Davidsons and knives, the Leica Ms are his must-haves.
The cameras are known as much for their beautiful minimalist exterior as they are for their internal engineering. What makes the M series so exceptional? Ask any devotee and you’ll get a different, but equally passionate response. There is the industrial simplicity of its design; color accuracy and quality; the tactile and sensory experience of shooting it. The Leica M system is the most compact full frame interchangeable lens camera system. The Leica MP was used by Martin Hartley in his -30 degree Celsius exploration of the Arctic Ocean. As one user, a photographer with a 1959 M2 he’s sported for decades, told me on the street, “[Leica Ms] are timeless.
Last month, Leica discontinued the M11. A new Leica, especially an M, is an event in the world of photography. The brand only releases a camera when it feels it will transform the market. At $8,995, it’s an investment to say the least.
Considering all the lore and the exorbitant price, you have to wonder if the M11 is worth the hype – I certainly did. How does it feel to shoot it? Can an extra camera, extra resolution and iconic design be worth the price of a new car (even a basic one) or, say, four new MacBook Pros? I managed to get my hands on one (it’s no small feat; the first version of the M11 sold out within hours; for those considering a purchase, rest easy, it became widely available again this month -this).
Some basics and first thoughts: Leica cameras are unique in that the rangefinder presents two images of the subject. To focus, you line them up. It takes a minute to get used to, but once you’ve done it, there’s something very tactile and beautifully intuitive about the M. I’m no professional, but I found the quality almost instantly cinematic; the process of using the camera becomes more and more natural with each shot. The functions and settings are integrated very simply on the main body; the camera feels solid (the black M11 is actually the lightest M ever), and shooting on it is a haptic experience.
For more details, the M11 has over 50 changes from the last version, the M10. These are both external and internal. For one, the new M has a much larger battery – 64% larger than the previous version. It has the first physical port with a USB C, allowing you to transfer data and charge the camera on the go. There’s an all-new sensor with a much higher resolution (60 megapixels) than anything else on the market, allowing you to create incredibly large prints or crop your images; it is also the only camera capable of changing the output resolution of your files. COLOR IS SPECIAL: The ultra-fine IR + UV filter allows for better light transmission, giving more precision in color images. The M11 is also the most customizable M ever; allowing you to shape the setup to suit your own photographic style and vision. I found myself slowly adapting and shifting the controls bit by bit as I photographed friends in and around East London.
At the same time, as with all Leicas, the M11 is incredibly minimal. There are only three buttons on the back: play, function and menu. The iconic design remains more or less the same; it is a mechanical device, very responsive and light, as beautiful in its classic industrial design as in its interior. The M lens mount remains the same as the very first Leica M, meaning any M lens can be used. As for the price, there is no denying that this is a serious investment. It is perhaps worth saying that Leicas are built to last for decades (the originals are still in use and resale values are high). The value is there. The intuitive quality and beauty of the M-Series puts it in a class of its own. But it is a commitment.
As for this new release, even with a few changes tying the latest Leica to the age of social media, the M11 is ultimately rooted in Leica’s original values. It’s a nifty device, developed with equal faith in the tradition it sets as the cutting edge. Frankly, after a few days of use, there is no going back.
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