Leica’s new camera puts skill back into focus

Leica’s new M11 digital rangefinder camera may as well come from an entirely different era. Don’t get me wrong; the technology inside of it makes it feel plenty modern. The M11 has a high-resolution sensor (a 60-megapixel backside-illuminated full-frame CMOS sensor to be precise), sophisticated metering tools, and even some of the usual digital accoutrements of cameras in our age. But in many ways, it works like the film cameras your parents owned. It thumbs its nose at autofocus, it doesn’t capture video, and it’s perfectly happy to accept lenses that are decades old.

More than that, though, the Leica M11 just feels like, well, an old Leica. The new M11 is very much true to the heritage of the M series camera, which launched in the 1950s and went digital in 2006. It’s compact and understated, a box to which you attach a lens.

The M11 is also true to its legacy when it comes to price, which is high. The retail price of $8,995 is more than most of us are ever going to spend on a camera. And that price is just for the camera body; Leica lenses, which range from $2,500 to $12,000, are sold separately. But even for those of us who cannot afford and will never own a Leica M11, I think this is a device we should notice and talk about. It deserves more discussion than a simple product review.

The M11 is also true to its legacy when it comes to price, which is high. The retail price of $8,995 is more than most of us are ever going to spend on a camera. And that price is just for the camera body; Leica lenses, which range from $2,500 to $12,000, are sold separately. But even for those of us who cannot afford and will never own a Leica M11, I think this is a device we should notice and talk about. It deserves more discussion than a simple product review.

A wrench is just a wrench. Some wrenches may be better than others, but if you want to do anything useful with a wrench, you need a person with the skill to use a wrench. That skill might come in different forms and guises. I know what I’m doing with a socket wrench in an internal combustion engine, but I have no skill at all when using a plumbing wrench on the pipes in the basement.

In much the same way, a camera comes to life when it’s picked up by a person with the skill to use it. Put an outdated digital camera from the early 2000s in Maggie Steber’s hands and odds are you’ll end up with a great image. Put the brand-new Leica M11 in my hands and the odds of getting a great image are less favorable.

Leica loaned me an M11 and I shot with it for one week. The reason I say the Leica M11 feels more like a film Leica than a modern digital camera isn’t because it isn’t capable but because it has been engineered to be used in conjunction with human skill. Specifically, your skills as a photographer.

Cameras are increasingly designed to remove the human factor from the act of taking a picture. With the addition over the last several decades of features like autofocus, auto white-balance adjustment, and auto light metering, the engineering effort of most camera manufacturers has gone into replacing the learned choices of the individual photographer with algorithms. These algorithms turn the act of producing a great image into something that’s no longer a challenge you must rise to or adapt to but a series of options you can choose between.\

This is the path many technological advancements have taken in our consumerist society, where hard-earned human skills are abstracted into a set of features that claim to remove the need for skill. And yet, some photographs are better than others. Which is to say, human skill and human experience are still necessary to make great photographs. This is true on both sides of the equation. Some photographs tell a story so well that technical perfection isn’t necessary. No one looks at the drama in an image of two eagles in flight, locked together by their talons and thinks, hey, the white balance is a little off there. On the flip side, no amount of autofocus speed is going to make your image tell a story if you have no story to tell.

The Leica comes from a time before picture-taking had morphed into a means for social approval, a time when photography was about narrative, drama, and tension. It told stories the world needed to hear, stories the world would not have been able to hear any other way.

The work of photographers like Sebastião Salgado brought the world into my sheltered high school photography class in a way unlike anything else I’d ever seen. I would sit for hours leafing through his book, An Uncertain Grace, staring at the same photographs day after day until I knew every corner of them. Same with Susan Meiselas, whose sometimes shockingly brutal images brought home the conflicts in Central America in a way that the circus of Oliver North on TV (which happened around the same time) never could and never would. TV was sanitized. Meiselas’ photography collection seared raw emotion onto the page in a way that no viewer could fail to understand. These were the things that made me want to be a photographer.

I don’t want to give the impression that no one is doing the kind of work Salgado and Meiselas did. There are plenty of truly great photographers working today. In fact, the winner of the Leica Oscar Barnack Newcomer Award for 2021, Emile Ducke, is a great example. Watch this video interview with him. You will notice that no one asks him which camera he uses. You know what no one asked Salgado back in his day? No one asked him which camera he used. No one asked Meiselas what lenses she preferred, because it didn’t matter. The images are all that matter, and we all know that just owning a Leica M series camera—which it turns out both Salgado and Meiselas used, at least some of the time—isn’t going to get you those images. Practice, experience, tutelage, reflection, and more practice, always more practice, is how you get those images.

That’s why I don’t know if you should buy the Leica M11. It’s an opinionated camera. It won’t do everything for you. You’re going to have to bring heaps of skill to the table. You’re going to have to study your surroundings, twist the dials, then spin the focus ring. It’s a camera from a different time, when what mattered was the image. The highest praise I can give any tool is the praise I’ll give the M11: It did what I asked it to do. It never failed. I failed plenty, but the tool kept on being the tool, waiting for me to rise to the occasion.

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