The new Leica M11 digital rangefinder camera could also come from a completely different era. Do not get me wrong; The technology inside makes it feel very modern. The M11 features a high-resolution sensor (a 60-megapixel, back-illuminated, full-frame CMOS sensor, to be precise), sophisticated measurement tools, and even some of the more common digital accoutrements found on cameras today. But in many ways it works like the film cameras your parents owned. It sniffs its nose at autofocus, doesn’t record video and happily accepts lenses that are decades old.
But the Leica M11 can do more than that feels like, well, an old Leica. The new M11 is very faithful to the legacy of the M-series camera, which debuted in the 1950s and went digital in 2006. It’s compact and unobtrusive, a box that you attach a lens to.
The M11 also stays true to its heritage when it comes to price. The retail price of $8,995 is more than most of us will ever pay for a camera. And this price is for the camera body only; Leica lenses, which range from $2,500 to $12,000, are sold separately. But even for those of us who can’t afford and never will own a Leica M11, I think this is a device worth noting and talking about. It deserves more discussion than a simple product review.
Because the M11 shows that the engineers at Leica are trying to keep alive something I think the rest of the camera world has forgotten: that it’s not the camera that counts, but the photographs Subject. The camera is just a tool, and any tool is only as good as the person using it.
A wrench is just a wrench. Some wrenches might be better than others, but if you’re going to do anything useful with a wrench, you need someone with the skill of using a wrench. This ability can come in a variety of shapes and forms. I know what I’m doing with a socket wrench in an internal combustion engine, but I have absolutely no skills working with a plumber on the pipes in the basement.
In the same way, a camera comes to life when picked up by someone who has the skills to operate it. Hand Maggie Steber an outdated digital camera from the early 2000s and chances are you’ll end up with a great picture. Use the brand new Leica M11 my Hands and the chances of getting a great picture are less favourable.
Leica lent me an M11 and I shot with it for a week. The reason I say the Leica M11 feels more like a film Leica than a modern digital camera is not because it isn’t capable, but because it was engineered to be used in conjunction with human skill can be. Especially your skills as a photographer.
Cameras are increasingly designed to take the human factor out of the act of taking a picture. With the addition of features like autofocus, auto white balance and auto exposure metering over the last few decades, most camera manufacturers have replaced the learned decisions of the individual photographer with algorithms. These algorithms turn producing a great image into something that is no longer a challenge to face or adapt to, but a set of options to choose from.