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Leica’s M11 risks rendering the rangefinder obsolete

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How do you design a camera when its performance as a camera is arguably incidental to its appeal? And how do you manage your relationship with the latest technology when one of your products’ selling points is history and a shooting experience untouched by time?

The Leica M11 is a fascinating attempt to resolve these tensions, but one that I believe ends up drawing attention to them.

It’s not exactly a searing insight to point out that the M cameras are luxury goods, perhaps even Veblen goods, where the very price and exclusivity is part of what makes them desirable. To a degree this means their performance as cameras isn’t as critical to their appeal as might otherwise be the case. This doesn’t mean they’re not good cameras, but it takes pressure off the need to make each model overwhelmingly more capable than the one that precedes it.

It would perhaps even be unhelpful to be a dramatic a departure from its predecessor. If Leica were to constantly introduce cameras that made existing users feel they had to upgrade, it would undermine the idea that an M is a long-term purchase. Not only would the older model be devalued, but the very idea of paying so much for an M would be damaged if they were frequently, overtly rendered obsolete.

But Leica appears to recognize that the best way of maintaining its brands’ status is to commit to the photographic capabilities of its cameras.

A platform for M lenses

The M11’s BSI sensor and thin IR/UV filter promise to make it the best digital platform for M-mount glass both new and old.

With the M11, Leica appears to have spent a lot of time trying to address the M’s greatest photographic requirement: to create the best possible platform for its other brand-defining products: the M-mount lens range.

Right back to the earliest digital M, Leica has adopted offset microlenses, to ensure that the pixels near the edge of the sensor can cope with light rays approaching the sensor at a very shallow angle. This is a particular challenge for lenses that mount very close to the sensor, especially when some of these optics were designed with film in mind.

The M11 makes two significant steps further in this regard. The first is the adoption of a BSI CMOS sensor for the first time in the M range. This puts the light-sensitive part of each pixel closer to the front of the sensor, improving the angles from which the sensor can accept incoming light, which takes some pressure off the microlenses, as the light doesn’t need to be channeled down into the sensor to the same degree.

On top of this, Leica’s super-thin cemented two-layer filter promises to provide precise UV/IR filtering, even with low-angle light rays. The thinness of the filter again reduces the risk of shallow-angle light rays being reflected or refracted too far as they pass through.

In terms of what’s promised, the M11 should be the best digital camera that M lenses can be mounted on.

Growing importance of live view

The M11’s shutter sits open most of the time, allowing more sophisticated light metering, straight off the sensor. It also means there’s no real delay to just jumping into live view to shoot.

And yet, while Leica has done a lot to make the M11 a great platform for M lenses, the other work its done may have chipped away at another leg on which the M legend stands: the classic rangefinder shooting experience.

Part of what’s pushing this is the move to 60MP. Higher resolution doesn’t demand greater focusing precision, per se, but it makes you much more aware of any imprecision. And, especially with fast glass and shallow depth-of-field and the fact that the rangefinder overlay only covers the center of the scene, the range of circumstances in which the rangefinder can deliver maximum detail becomes narrower.

At the same time, the M11 gains digitally stabilized live view and automatically magnifies that view as you turn the focus ring, along with a focus scale that can cope with closer distances than the rangefinder mechanism allows.

The M series has thrived in part because it continues to offer a shooting experience much like that of the original M3

These changes encourage the more frequent use of live view on the M11 than before. Every member of our team to use the camera so far has expressed disappointment that the Visoflex 2 wasn’t available, to allow through-the-viewfinder live view shooting.

And this risks sidelining the thing that makes the M series so special: the experience of shooting through a rangefinder. The M series has thrived in part because it continues to offer a shooting experience much like that of the original M3, decades after the rest of the market moved to single lens reflex designs and then on to live-view-driven mirrorless.

We’ve always resisted retroactively redefining rangefinders as mirrorless cameras because the shooting experience and mode of operating is so different. But this distinction becomes blurry once you turn away from the rangefinder mechanism that makes them distinctive and use live view: you risk effectively turning the M11 into a mirrorless camera with really rather disappointing autofocus.

The accidental radical

The M11 still offers the classic rangefinder shooting experience and should make the most of the M mount lenses, but the increasingly refined live view experience raises some interesting questions about the M line’s future.

The M11 doesn’t look like a radical camera. Beyond a few physical and firmware tweaks, it could almost be seen as an M10-R with a new sensor. And to an extent, that’s what all M series are destined to be. But, each small step that makes live view more central to the shooting experience muddies the waters.

For me, it brings to mind Fujifilm’s X-Pro cameras (perhaps ironically, given the degree to which those camera look like Leicas but, critically, can’t deliver a true rangefinder experience). The X-Pro3 is a lovely camera, but one that only really makes sense if you fit short prime lenses and commit yourself to using the optical mode of the hybrid viewfinder, fall back on live view too much and you’re essentially using a more expensive, rather more clumsy X-T4.

I’ll acknowledge this isn’t an easy puzzle to solve. Perhaps enough phase-detection elements near the middle of the sensor to provide a secondary focus confirmation, or something like Pentax’s ‘Catch-in-focus’ that fires the shutter when focus is achieved: something that encourages the use of the rangefinder but with greater focus confidence.

As it stands, though, while the M11 promises to have bolstered the M’s role as a platform for M-mount lenses, it’s also begun to sow doubts about how critical the rangefinder mechanism is to that role.


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