The arrival of the Leica M11 feels like the most mature version of the M series yet, a camera where everything has come together so nicely that it's hard to imagine what could be improved.
- The camera feels great in the hand. The black version is just the right weight, light enough to carry for long periods of time, but weighty enough to impart a hefty sense of quality when you pick it up. Paired with a lighter lens like the 28mm Elmarit, the camera becomes light; on the other hand, if you use a heavier lens like the 50mm Noctilux, then the camera becomes slightly heavy but still lighter than cameras from Canon, Nikon, etc. I'm using it mostly with the 35mm Summilux, and it feels just right.
- The paint finish is simply perfect – not 'rough,' but with just the right amount of resistance to one's skin. Probably my favorite paint finish for a camera (I never thought I'd write those words), and certainly far nicer, in my opinion, than the glossy, rather slippery paint finish of the Leica Q2.
- The sensor is phenomenal. 60 megapixels seems to be as much as you'd want in a camera. My Sony A7RIII has 42 megapixels, which has never left me wanting for resolution, but 60 seems like the sweet spot. It's enormously satisfying being able to zoom into an image and see heaps and heaps of detail, knowing that you can crop as you like. And the dynamic range, at 15 stops, is about as much as you can use. I was particularly impressed by the highlight recovery. And the ability to shoot at three different sizes makes the high megapixel count much more usable in all kinds of scenarios – bravo on this!
- The color science is beautiful, subtle, less punchy and saturated than the Q2, more film-like. I wasn't blown away by it in the beginning, but it's grown on me. The grain structure is also good – again, kind of film-like.
- The battery is a highlight for this camera, as it was for the Q2 – you just pop it out and pop it back in easily, and it lasts a long time. You can usually shoot for an entire day without needing a second battery, depending on how much you use the LCD.
- The internal memory is fantastic! It eliminates the need for another memory card, although you're limited to 64GB.
- Simple, minimal menu system.
- Crystal-clear, responsive LCD/touchscreen.
- Focus stabilization (when using the LCD to focus) – wonderful!
- Great implementation of mechanical and electronic shutter. You can set the camera to use the mechanical shutter until you encounter bright enough situations (for instance, if you aim the camera at the sun), and then it automatically switches to electronic shutter, allowing you to keep shooting without missing a beat.
- No video – great! The M11 isn't supposed to be a do-it-all Swiss Army Knife camera, so I think it was the right decision to remove the video capability entirely.
Could Be Improved
- Initially, I experienced many of the infamous bugs, but the latest firmware update seems to have gotten rid of those (knock on wood).
- The packaging is shamefully boring and unimaginative. The Q3 comes in a gorgeous box with multiple drawers, each of which you pull out to find a 'treat' inside. The M11, despite being more expensive, comes in a box about as dull as you could humanly design. Not 'minimal' or 'understated' – just utterly boring. Leica should be ashamed of themselves for selling such an expensive camera and not bothering to package it nicely. They should take a page from Apple, whose packaging is often 'cheap' in terms of materials (just paper, plastic and cardboard, basically), but is designed in such a thoughtful and imaginative way, like origami, that you instantly feel glad you bought the product.
- Lack of weather sealing. It would be so nice to be able (as with the Leica SL2) to take this camera out in the rain, snow and sleet, environments that often yield great photo opportunities. As it is, I'm always terrified of getting even a few drops of water on my M11.
- Many little details cry out for improvement. Why is the charging port on the bottom of the camera? Why do you have to pop out the battery in order to access the memory card? Why isn't the ISO dial programmable? Why is 'Delete all' dangerously close to 'Delete single' in the Play menu? None of these things significantly detract from the overall experience, but hopefully Leica addresses them in their next camera.
Could Be Improved
- An expansion of internal memory to 124GB (as in the M11 Monochrom) would truly eliminate the need for a second memory card. Still, 64GB is sufficient for many uses.
- Start-up time is still rather slow. I've had many instances where I saw the shot I wanted to take, but failed to take it since the camera took several seconds to start up and be ready for shooting.
- The sensor is difficult to clean. I haven't seen this discussed anywhere else, but...it's not nice. A few months after buying the camera, I wanted to clean the sensor with one of my swabs, the same way I've done with my Sony A7RIII many times, but when I tried, I was confronted with ugly streaks all over the sensor. It took a few more tries and some inventive wiping to finally get rid of (most of) the streaks. I'm assuming the reason why the sensor is difficult to clean is because of the special glass that Leica puts on top of the sensor.
- The battery charger works great, but...could Leica not have designed a better looking charger? Something you could stick on the wall and feel kind of pleased by? For instance, this Panasonic battery charger is minimal and not exactly exciting, but it looks OK considering what it is.
Versus the Leica Q2 or Q3
I'd been using the Q2 for about two years by the time I bought the M11. They are very, very different experiences, despite looking superficially similar.
The Q, I believe, is basically a point-and-shoot camera. This is not an insult – sometimes pointing and shooting is what you want to do, and this camera is the greatest point-and-shoot camera of all time. Your only alternative is the Fuji X100V, which is simply not in the same league in terms of image quality, or perhaps the Sony RX1RII, which has great image quality but horrible haptics (and I say this as a dedicated Sony user), and also seems to have been sadly abandoned by Sony. So, if you're looking for a camera with which you can aim, fire, and achieve a nice photo, then look no further than the Q. For me personally, I find that the Q makes photo-taking too easy. There isn't that stimulating sense of resistance and engagement that you get from an M camera – the need to stop, think, frame, focus, and snap.
Excellent as the overall sense of quality is on the Q, I believe the M11 looks and feels even better – like it was carved carefully out of a big hunk of metal, as opposed to the lighter, more 'mass produced' feel of the Q.
Probably the biggest and most obvious difference is that with the Q, you're stuck with one lens – 28mm. You'd better really, really like that focal length. As good as digital zoom is, in my experience it's no comparison with an actual 35mm lens on the M11 (in my case, the Summilux 35mm). The Q's 28mm is superb, but be aware that despite the Summilux designation, it's more similar in the overall feeling of the image quality to a Summicron. I'm not referring to bokeh specifically, but just the 'feeling.' Images with the Q's 28mm are extremely sharp, contrasty and precise. They don't have the dreamlike quality you get from many Leica lenses, and I would wager that Leica's 28mm Summilux M lens, while possibly not as optically strong as the Q's 28mm, is probably more dreamy and has more character. Probably a closer cousin of the Q's 28mm is the APO-Summicron-SL 28mm f/2 ASPH.
The big advantages you gain with the Q: one lens (you don't need to worry about lugging around multiple lenses), autofocus (especially excellent in the new Q3, which employs phase detect instead of contrast detect), a superb EVF (with great focus peaking for manual focusing), and overall better weather sealing.
The big advantages you gain with the M: you can obviously use as many lenses as you please, not only Leica ones but Zeiss, Voigtlander and other brands; the manual focusing is fun and engaging (until you miss a great shot, in which case it's suddenly frustrating!); the rangefinder experience is unique, and for me, refreshing after using cameras like the Sony A7RV; and you have a strong sense, when using the camera, of being connected to Leica's history and DNA.
With the Visoflex II
I bought the Visoflex II and have no regrets. In terms of the EVF quality, it's not highly impressive – nothing like the Leica SL2 or Sony A7RV. But it's still...good. I find myself using it for portrait shoots where I want to shoot quickly, and thus need to constantly reframe and refocus on the subject's eyes. Since this isn't the strong suit of the rangefinder system, the Visoflex II is extremely helpful for these situations. Be careful though, the Visoflex II has an Achilles Heel – dust can get into the viewfinder through the diopter dial. So be sure to cover the dial with some tape.
Conclusion: Is the Leica M11 Worth It?
From the viewpoint of 'value,' I'd have to say a 'flat no.' But as photographer Sam Hurd wrote, “Is the Leica M10 worth the cost? Nope. But Leica stuff almost never is. Am I selling mine? Nope.” I think he summed it up: you may hate the price, but once you've used the camera for a while, you don't want to give it up. The simple reality is, nobody else is making cameras like this. Some people will debate the topic and say 'But I can get a Sony a6400 for a fraction of the price, and have autofocus, cheaper lenses, etc.' But this is missing the point. The whole idea of a Leica M camera is 1) a minimal, less-is-more camera design that potentially brings you back to a meditative and engaged state of mind when taking photos; 2) feeling connected to the company's lineage and history, and 3) having the opportunity to use Leica's excellent, and extremely compact lenses. For people who value these things, the cost won't be pleasant, but it'll feel justified. Coming from the world of Japanese cameras like Canon and Sony, where you certainly 'get more for the money,' I'd say that Leica justifies its value too, but in a different way. For me personally, it's almost hard to imagine my life without the Leica M11. It's one of the 'things' in my life that brings me the most joy, and transcends its 'thing' status in terms of the fun, joy and sense of purpose it gives me.