Leica M11 – what came before?
The Leica M11 is the successor to the Leica M10, indeed to the uninitiated it looks practically identical. This is just as well as the Leica M10 was in effect a refinement of the Leica M (Typ 240), particularly with the larger, more durable rangefinder, more logical button layout, and improved menu operation. However, while there were some slight gains in noise and DR the M10 sensor’s similar pixel count likely hindered sales.
Still, it wasn’t until the introduction of the M10-R some 18 months or so ago that we saw the real successor to the Leica M (Typ 240) models. As good as the Leica M10-R was, it wasn’t perfect (though to be fair it wasn’t far off). The smaller battery over the Leica M (Typ 240) was a bit of an issue and the sharper handling of the recently updated Leica Q2 meant more could be done to the M.
And, that’s more or less what have with the Leica M11.
What’s new in the Leica M11?
There’s a new 60MP sensor of course but there’s the same large and more rugged rangefinder of the M10 and the same body dimensions, that echo the later film-based cameras, and there are several small but highly effective refinements.
First, the removable brass bottom plate has been replaced with a fixed aluminium plate and the quick-release mechanism of Leica Q and SL type battery. However, unlike those two models, this new design isn’t compatible with those models. Once removed it reveals the SD card slot. There’s only room for one slot but the inclusion of 64GB of internal memory is very welcome. While most options for saving files between the two are available, the choice to save RAW to internal only while JPEGs are written to the external media is an odd choice – let’s hope the option to reverse this is offered in a future f/w update. Also odd is the decision not to offer in-camera JPEGs in Adobe RGB. Few photographers want sRGB, if ever.
The black model I had for review, thanks to Leica UK, is said to feature a highly durable matte finish, similar to that of the ‘Reporter’ models. The switch from brass to aluminium (the chrome has a brass top plate) is a non-issue for me but may make the decision harder for some. As matte finishes go it is very attractive and even adds to the overall stealthy nature of the camera.
Leica M11 controls and layout
The control layout was improved with the M10 and this is taken further in the M11. The front slightly difficult to operate ‘focus’ button has gone and replaced now by a small customisable function button close to the shutter release towards the front. As a Q2 user though I would have preferred this to have been in the same position, sitting slightly more rearward. Even so, this and the realigning of the M11’s operation, menus, and info screens with the SL2 and Q2 is most welcome.
Other manufacturers should take note of Leica’s approach to the custom button operation. On the M11, a quick press enables or disables the chosen function a long press gives direct access to a list of some 20 plus functions that would otherwise be accessed from the main menu. This is an improvement over the Q2’s eight directly accessible items, though you can select more but it’s a case of turning some off to add new ones. While it can be achieved from the same menu it’s still better than most other makers’ customisable offerings, however, the M11’s is the best I’ve seen and I hope that Leica might update the Q2’s operation to match. What’s more, the FN button on the rear of the M11 mirrors the operation of the top plate button, so it’s far easier on muscle memory.
The Q2’s arrangement is similar but as the FN button on that camera stores only eight from a long list it’s somehow more difficult to keep track, especially if you constantly switch features on the fly depending on your needs during the day, which is what I tend to do.
I’ve been praising the Q2’s operation but the M11’s is even better. That said it’s likely not as often changed on the M11, even when using the new Visoflex. After all the M11 is manual focus and if you set the camera up using manual exposure mode and using one of the custom buttons to select ISO (so you can switch from Auto ISO between the ISO 64 native base and in effect the ‘second’ base at ISO 200 – when max DR is needed) then you can more or less forget about changing settings and concentrate on the subject.
I also set the rear wheel to exposure compensation – the new ‘evaluative’ exposure system is better than previous M’s but it’s still not foolproof and besides, I’m a proponent of ETTR!
Leica Visoflex 2
So let’s revert to the new Visoflex, which Leica UK pulled out all of the stops to get me one for this review. As previously mentioned it tilts and is held firmly in place in the hot-shoe. There’s no locking mechanism for either; just several detents for the tilting feature and a tight fit for the hot-shoe. Diopter control is also a little fiddly to adjust as the dial barely protrudes from the casing, however on the plus side it doesn’t get moved inadvertently.
In use, the display is very different from the Leica Q2’s despite being a similar resolution. I suspect the magnification is higher but it could just be larger font. Either way, the exposure info is much larger to see. The rear 4-way controller is used to position a focus frame and it’s quite quick to position. There’s an option to automatically enlarge the portion within the frame as you turn the focus ring (you can also assign that feature to any of the customisable function buttons, which is a nice touch). Checking focus is pretty effective, even off-center, but it was still a bit tricky to focus the 50mm Summilux wide open, at least for me. I succeeded in focusing the 50mm Summilux wide open with the Leica M-P and the original Visoflex without too much trouble.
There are a few things you can do to improve that which help slightly and, let’s not forget that more modern lens designs may be easier to focus. The new 35mm APO would likely be a contender here. I had one to review with the Leica M-10 Monochrome and M10-R but no EVF, so I can’t say for certain. Although it will have more DOF wide open and so appear sharper, it has superb contrast and resolution from the initial aperture. In the end, I used the focus peaking option to help speed-up focusing and didn’t rely on the magnifier. Still, it’s nice to have when you need it.
That said, I’m still in two minds about the Visoflex: on the one hand, it’s essential for critical focus but it’s still not quite as effective as I thought it would be. Bear in mind I only tested it with the one lens though and if I was going to buy the M11 the Visoflex would be the first accessory I would have.
Final thoughts on the Leica M11
Leica has achieved a lot more with the Leica M11 than I thought was possible. Not only is it very discrete, but it also remains one of the simplest cameras to use. To me, simplicity is one of the most important reasons for buying a Leica M rangefinder. Sure AF has its benefits but modern cameras rely on your ability to set it up correctly in the first place. More challenging though is that you have to be able to amend the AF settings when presented with different scenarios. That’s not needed here with manual focus and when you get to grips with zone focusing there’s nothing like the simplicity of a Leica rangefinder.
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From the master of storytelling, this version of Larry Sultan’s seminal Pictures from Home is a reprint by MACK books. Expect to see a review soon.