WHAT IS IT ABOUT Leica the brand, and particularly the Leica M rangefinder range, seen by many these days to not be at the at cutting edge of camera technology, that still makes them so desirable? In particular, why would a photographer be willing to make the not inconsiderable investment of £7500 into a camera such as the freshly launched M11, when modern mirrorless models have so many more features and for less?

Some of the attraction is certainly down to the heritage. The M11 is the latest in an illustrious  line,  and it’s a  model  that demonstrates  just how

the brand is aware of its history, and how it’s still very much pushing things forward. Leica also seems to delight in just keeping things simple and straightforward, and photographers relish that. A few years ago, for example, the Type 240 arrived with the ability to shoot video, but this was removed in the M10 and it’s not resurfaced in the M11. In many ways it’s a distraction, and those that want the full Leica experience are more interested in the fundamentals.

For many, myself included, using an M rangefinder camera is more about the essence of photography, the fact that you’re given direct control over every aspect of the image making process. Automation isn’t allowed to get in the way of the picture making process, which means you’re more considered in terms of how you use the camera and, with your technique sorted, you’re able to work fast and intuitively.

I also like touches such as the fact that I can see outside of the frame of the image. Yes, I know the frame lines on a Leica M are not always accurate, and that the closer you are to your subject the more inaccurate they get. On the M11 they’re set to be accurate at two metres. However, that ability to see outside the frame when using the rangefinder means I can spot things that I want to include within my image, that can often improve what I’m trying to create. Being able to work with a camera that comes with such quirks helps me make images that I find resonate more deeply.

Leica’s M Range

I’ve now personally brought and used every Lecia M digital camera (except the M10-R) since the first full frame model, the M9, which gives me a good perspective on the latest addition to the range. Why, you might ask, did I buy the new M11, when I already owned the M10, which offered me pretty much all of the advantages of the M system I’ve just talked about?

For me it was about the fact that I wanted more megapixels on board, which suits the kind of work I make and opens up the opportunity to enlarge and crop my images. I suspect that I’m like a lot of M camera users, in that I don’t rely on just a single model for my commercial work, but rather have horses for courses. For a long time I was a Sony mirrorless user, but I missed having an optical viewfinder, so when Nikon released the D850 I switched back to the brand for the versatility that a DLSR could provide. With this and the Leica to hand I’m well covered for all aspects of my professional life, and I tend to use the Lecia M for work that personally interests me.

Having used both Sony and Nikon cameras that came with far higher megapixel counts than the 24MP offered by the M10, I saw an opportunity when the M11, with its 60.3MP sensor on board, was announced. Leica has also provided two smaller 36MP and 18MP modes so that it’s simple for me to make large, medium and small DNG RAW files from the same sensor, giving me far more flexibility in terms of the way I can work. It’s also possible with these lower resolution modes to either employ the full sensor area or to incorporate a 1.3x or 1.8x digital zoom, something Leica refers to as ‘Triple Resolution Technology.’

One of the beauties of the M11 is its ability to record a wide range of tones, and Michael was able to recover highlight and shadow detail here.

What’s more, the full-frame BSI (BackSide-Illuminated) CMOS sensor, developed especially for the M11, offers not just a 50% increase on the resolution offered by last year’s 40MP M10-R model, but it’s in tandem with the latest Maestro III image processor, which allows the M11 to output 14-bit RAW files with a claimed dynamic range of up to 15 stops.

Also new is an extensive ISO range of 64-50,000, and it’s also possible to shoot 60MP images at up to 4.5fps. The M11 also features a special IR + UV cut filter in front of the sensor, which corrects even the most oblique rays of incident light, while a new colour filter array offers more natural colour reproduction than previous M-system cameras, so a lot of changes are on board.

I’m not a traditionalist, so was not concerned that the baseplate on the M11 is now built into the camera. In fact, I actually quite like the battery door arrangement that Leica has used here. It’s a feature I never thought I would use and, to my surprise, in the few months that I’ve worked with the camera I’ve used the built-in USB port far more than I thought I would. For example, I can connect the M11 to my smartphone to share and show images with people I photograph while out on the streets. Normally I would ask them to email me so that I can send them an image, but now I just pull my phone out, connect to the app either wirelessly or viacable, and show the images I’ve just made.

The top plate of the Leica M11 is delightfully simple and clean and with a classic style that Leica users the world over appreciate.

Leica Handling

As a regular user, what can I say about the Leica M camera? If you’ve ever worked with an M10 or most film Leicas then the new M11 feels exactly the same. A few things have changed, with buttons and menus getting a refresh. I brought the Silver version – black is also available – since the last one I had was black and I fancied the classic look. Interestingly this weighs in at 640g (with battery) whereas the new Black one is slightly lighter at 530g. The reason for this is simply that the top plate on the black version is made out of aluminium as opposed to brass. By comparison the M10 weighs slightly more still at 660g.

The touch screen and menu system is easy to use. When I first got the camera, it took me about ten minutes to set up and start using it. Leica’s interface is straightforward to use and set. I regularly use the memory banks to switch camera settings based on experience and needs so, if necessary, I can change things around quickly when on a job.

Leica photographers often mention the sound of the shutter and, for me, the one utilised on the M11 is the quietest yet. The metering on the new model has also changed. You can still use classic metering if you prefer, but now you can also employ more modern and, I’m finding, more accurate multi-field and spot metering in all modes, including rangefinder mode, as the camera now uses the image sensor for metering rather than the shutter curtain. Meanwhile a recent update has added a light metering function. The highlight weighted metering mode – which considers the entire image field and performs automatic adjustment to very bright subject elements – is particularly useful if you’re a photographer who uses aperture priority a lot, and who worries about blowing highlights.

While on the subject of exposure control, currently the M11 only displays an averaged histogram, and one thing that Leica still needs to do, hopefully in a future firmware upgrade, is to re-introduce the feature where the histogram could display the different colour channels in the way that the previous M (Typ. 240) did.

Another detail is that, instead of having two card slots, the M11 now features just the one, along with 64GB of internal memory. This is quite useful, and can be configured in a number of ways. I’ve already inadvertently left home without any memory cards, only to be saved by this feature. I tend to set my camera to load RAW (DNG) files onto one memory card, and have a second memory card to store JPEG files. With the M11 I save the JPEGs to the internal memory, a feature recently added via a firmware update.

The ability to do this really helps, especially when shooting black and white, as the camera will let you preview a B&W image on the rear screen and then save that B&W JPEG to the internal memory along with a colour DNG to the memory card.

Battery Life

Battery life on the new Leica M11 is great. I now tend to only use one battery a day, whereas with previous M digital cameras I would often go through two batteries or more. Speaking of batteries, when I unpacked the camera, I was genuinely shocked by how small Leica has managed to make the charger, and you can even, if needs be, carry out recharging via a USB cable while the battery is in the camera.

However, the reason why I’m so excited by the M11 is that it really does deliver on image quality. I like that I’m now able to recover highlight detail better than ever, that I can dig into the shadows even further and I love the rendering of the colours that this camera is providing.

However, right now my workflow has been broken, as I use Photo Mechanic for importing and sorting images. This works very well with the DNG files, but, unfortunately, DXO’s Photolab5, which I have used for the past year for my RAW conversions, is yet to support the M11. Consequently, I’ve been experimenting with both Lightroom and Capture One Pro, and to date I’m preferring the output that I’m getting out of the latter.

As mentioned, the base ISO on the M11 is now 64, as opposed to 100 on the M10, and it gives really great results with a good dynamic range. However, a Leica camera is used to capture life, and life is not lived in bright sunshine all the time so, for me, a Leica M camera needs to be able to work well in the 400 to 6400 ISO range. Having used the camera for a while I’m pleased to say that I would personally be happy to work with the M11 up to ISO 3200 if necessary, which is important for me since I often want to use faster shutter speeds in low light to freeze motion. It’s a personal thing, of course, but the noninclusion of in-camera stabilisation on the M11 is not a big deal for me.

More information: ❚ uk.leica-camera.com

VERDICT

SO, WHO IS THE LEICA M11 aimed at and who will make that £7500 investment? I brought the camera because I believed Leica would keep the essence of the M experience and improve on it and, after using it since late January, I would say that they’ve done exactly that.

The high resolution of the sensor is a big plus point for me, while file handling now feels like it has a split personality. When set to ISO 64 and at full size 60MP DNG the camera gives a great dynamic range and very high-quality colour rendering, yet at medium resolution 36MP DNG the high ISO performance is excellent, giving me very usable files in low light conditions. These would work perfectly well for me, even at my largest print sizes.

It’s fair to say that this is a not a camera for everyone and it’s worth pointing out that, for the cost, you could have your choice of high-end mirrorless marvels such as the Nikon Z 9 plus some glass. If you’re into your Leica M rangefinder cameras, however, then the M11 really is a serious step up and it’s a model that you owe it to yourself to check out.

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