Why the Leica M11 is a glorious relic in an age of camera phone convenience

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Five years isn’t a long time in Leica-land, but the photography world has turned upside down since the Leica M10 landed in January 2017. Since then, computational photography and AI editing have replaced amateur snapping – and that’s why the new Leica M11 now stands out as a relic of the old-fashioned way.

Yet the fact that the Leica M11 is an absolute anachronism—a steam train in the world of Virgin Hyperloop—only enhances its appeal. It’s a camera with no autofocus, let alone busy little algorithms to piece together the best bits from your burst of photos. But its manual-only shooting and rangefinder focusing preserve a style of photo-taking that’s the polar opposite of Google’s Magic Eraser.

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Some would argue that Leica’s M-series cameras are trophies for the nostalgic, or badges of honor for the wealthy camera snob. But while it’s hard to disagree that the Leica M11 costs more than $8,995 / £7,500, it’s also possible to appreciate that it exists. I will probably only own quartz watches, but that doesn’t mean I can’t dream of buying a hand-wound Tag Heuer Carrera.

The difference between the Leica M11 and many other vintage tech is that its nostalgia appeal isn’t just skin deep. It is a fully fledged tool that adds modern conveniences in the right places, and really offers something different from anything out there. And with a direct lineage that extends to the Leica M3 in 1954, it’s also pretty unique in the world of consumer tech.

a connected experience

So what makes the Leica M11 special? Full disclaimer: We haven’t fully tested it yet, so we can’t comment on the performance of its new 61MP full-frame sensor just yet. But the appeal of the M-series concept lies in its size, rangefinder focusing, and simplicity, and all of which are still intact on the new Leica model.

Like its predecessors, the M11 offers a classic rangefinder experience with an optical viewfinder. Instead of using the autofocus system to lock onto its subject, its viewfinder has a central window that brings two ghost images closer together. Turn the focus ring to bring these two images closer together, and when they’re perfectly lined up, you’re in focus.

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It sounds complicated, but it quickly becomes second nature – and it brings some advantages. First, the optical viewfinder lets you see around the edges of your frame, which can make you feel more connected to a scene than just staring at the barrel of an EVF. Plus, thanks to the lens’ depth-of-field scale, you can use ‘zone focusing’ to help you shoot faster without focusing at all.

It’s a more complex point-and-shoot experience than a phone, but it inspired famed street photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson to call his Leica rangefinder “an extension of my eye.” The M-series removes buttons, settings, distractions and automation while keeping you engaged with the traditional photo making process – it’s good to see the M11 survive the world of computational photography, despite the prohibitive price tag.

And the M11 is much more than just a blatant throwback; After all, you can buy a second-hand Canon AE-1 film camera for a really vintage feel. A first on an M-series camera, the M11 comes with 64GB of internal storage—a feature that is strangely lacking in most mirrorless cameras—which helps to compensate for the lack of a second card slot. Its new 61MP sensor gives it a very high resolution for a camera of this size, and gives you the option of shooting a 36MP or 18MP snap using the full sensor area (albeit with pixel binning).

fully formed

The other advantage of the Leica M11’s manual-only approach is size. Because Leica’s rangefinder lens lacks autofocus motors, and because the camera doesn’t have in-body features like image stabilization, it’s too compact for a full-frame camera. The size difference isn’t quite as noticeable compared to today’s mirrorless cameras as it was back in the SLR days, but the M11 is still half the thickness of the Sony A7 IV, which has a much smaller lens.

This makes it the same size as the Nikon Z fc, another retro camera with a more sensible price tag, but one that has a smaller APS-C sensor and inferior lens. A big part of the Leica M11’s appeal is undoubtedly its stunning, yet tough, design, but it again serves a practical purpose—it’s ideal for street and reportage photography.

While the Leica M11 is undoubtedly an indulgence, that price tag can at least be rationalized with the knowledge that this is a camera that is built to last a lifetime. The only odd thing is that the black version’s housing is partially made of aluminum, as opposed to the classic brass-and-magnesium construction of the Silver Mode, yet both models cost the same.

Despite this oddity, the M11’s legacy makes it quite a niche in the consumer tech world. There are very few current lines with lineage that extends directly back to the 1950s—a quick survey by the Nerdshala team found the Braun LE01 wireless speaker (based on a resurgence of its LE speakers from the 50s), the B&O Beolit ​​20 raised) Beolit ​​radios of the 1930s), and the Klipsch Heritage Heresy IV (the successor to the 1957 loudspeaker). Yet none of them are as iconic as the Leica M-series.

manual flag hoisting

Does this mean that we recommend buying the Leica M11? No – that would be ridiculous considering its price, and as mentioned we haven’t hit the streets yet. Realistically, the sensible choice for anyone who enjoys a rangefinder experience with modern features is the Fujifilm X-Pro3 – you can buy five of them for the price of the M11, and the X-series has some lovely primes. There are lenses.

But that also doesn’t mean that in a world of falling camera sales and increasingly homogenous shooting experiences, we can’t celebrate the existence of the Leica M11. Sure, it’s only been able to justify its existence by mining its luxury brand and heritage, but it’s no freak cash either. It’s a finely tuned photography tool that, nearly 70 years after its arrival, still has its merits in 2022.

In many ways, all of this makes the M11 the anti-Google Pixel. From the Google Pixel 4 in 2019, Google pioneered a form of computational photography with features like Night Mode, which fully automates the snapping experience.

Today’s camera phones are great devices for most people, but it shouldn’t be at the expense of niche classics that are a lot more challenging to master, and a lot more satisfying. Despite its slightly ridiculous price tag, it’s good to see that the Leica M11 remains a torchbearer for that kind of shooting experience.

  • See our guide to the world’s best mirrorless cameras

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