So now I have it. I waited before making a decision until last Thursday when it became clear exactly what the new Leica M11 has to offer. On Friday, I studied Jono Slack’s and Sean Reid’s reviews and gave the green light to my trusted Leica store.
The camera was with me on Saturday morning, in chrome. Why in chrome? Why not? The black version is lighter now, but does 110g bother me? Not remotely.
So what really made the difference? Up to now, I have pre-ordered every new M model (about every four years, give or take a month or two) before it was the specification was not even remotely clear. I just assumed Leica would do things right. And so far everything has been fine.
Yet this time I did have some doubts. The “leaked” 60 megapixels of the sensor scared me and it was not clear just how Leica would solve the problem of handling a possible limitation of this number of pixels.
Apparently, Leica understood that not all users wanted such an extremely high resolution. But the solution they found to the dilemma isn’t a poor compromise (like using only parts of the sensor to reduce resolution), it’s just plain genius. Triple Resolution. And, behind what sounds like an empty marketing buzzword lies a technology that combines multiple pixels when needed while still using the full sensor area. The pixel binning allows for reduced resolutions of 36 or 18 megapixels in DNG format. It was a solution that certainly addressed my immediate concerns.
What follows is by no means a full review. Unfortunately, I can’t yet offer a flood of images at all exposure situations. Heaven knows I’ve only had the camera for three days! The weather was sh… uh, shuboptimal and, after all, I still had to work. There will certainly be a lot more to come in the coming months.
Any sensor is only as good as the camera that’s built around it (and the optics in front of it, for that matter). For example, the specifications of Sony sensors very often exceeded anything that Leica had to offer. But firstly, the differences were often marginal for real photography anyway, and secondly, Leica has unexpectedly caught up in the sector during the past 16 years. The sensor in the original M10 was already extremely good (much better than the one in the 240; the one in the M9 is a separate chapter). The M10-R and especially the M10 Monochrom sensors took things a step further.
And now – the new BSI sensor. “BSI” stands for “backside-illuminated”. These are not LED lights in a toilet bowl, but a special construction that places the light-sensitive pixel wells particularly far forward. The wiring and printed circuits, which take up a significant portion of the surface area exposed to the light in conventional chips, lie just below.
In addition to the fact that the many pixels do not have to share the space on the limited area with transistors, and thus collect photons more optimally, the wells are also very flat. This has an extremely positive effect, especially with light rays that are incredibly slanted in the edge area. With the new filter technology, only IR cut and UV filters are mentioned on the Leica fluff page.
One wonders whether the “microlenses” in front of the pixels that were often mentioned in the past are perhaps no longer necessary. Of course, they will probably be present in person with the obligatory Bayer filter, the presence of which is so self-evident that it is neither discussed nor can it be identified at all in the “exploded view” of the camera. Nobody talks about the absence of moiré filters anymore, that’s old hat.
In several reviews (for example, David Farkas or DPReview) I found the indication that the sensor has “DG architecture” or “DG technology”. Oddly enough, I couldn’t discover anything about it on the official Leica pages, but the reviewers must have got it from somewhere.
In any case, “DG” stands for “dual gain” and is a method of reading each pixel with two different gain levels and then combining them into one image. This optimises the dynamic range and explains the gain in this respect (we are talking about 15 f-stops).
In this context, I have already examined another property of the new sensor. It behaves with “invariance” (as did that of the M10). On the Leica website, Nick Rains shows some (backlit) photos from the M11, in which he was able to lighten the shadows extremely without capturing excessive noise. This is an indication of invariant or “iso-less” behaviour.
In an improvised test setup at my home, I took a photo at ISO 64 and then successively underexposed up to 6 stops. Then I pulled up the underexposed photos in LR back to the neutral value. Of course, the noise increases, but it shows the high flexibility that the DNG files from the sensor offer when in post-processing. The “original” M10 was also able to do this, but the new sensor seems to me to be a gain of roughly one to one and a half f-stops.
ISO and colours
ISO 64 is supposed to be the real native ISO value of the sensor. After the M10 and M10 monochrome sensor stories, Sean Reid was suspicious enough to follow up with Leica and was reassured that this was so. A relatively low ISO value suits Leica photographers who prefer to open the aperture wider than to close it. From now on, when the sun is out, I can safely leave all ND filters at home (not to mention the electronic shutter, more about that later).
I cannot yet say to what extent the dynamics (slightly) improve when the resolution is reduced or the luminance noise is reduced, but I’ll wait patiently for Sean Reid, who will certainly check this very carefully.
It goes without saying that the camera goes one better at high ISO. If I used ISO 12500 with the M10 more as an emergency measure, I can now confidently leave this value in the auto ISO range. How much more is still acceptable remains to be seen.
The M11’s colours are consistent with what we have been used to with other current digital models (M10-P, M10-R, Q, Q2 or SL, even the D-Lux 7) and I find them very appealing. There is already a colour profile for the Leica M11 in Lightroom (or is that embedded in the DNG, I’ll have to check?), but it is too saturated for my taste. I prefer Adobe Standard.
The next change I felt right away was the fact that the shutter opens with an audible click as soon as you turn the camera on. The noise is familiar, you can recognise it from activating Live View on the previous M models.
The M11 works permanently in live view mode. I admit that this made me feel uneasy at first. The sensor is always exposed! Upon further reflection, I realised that this is the normal way all mirrorless cameras work. The M11 even has the advantage that, in rangefinder mode, it does not have to supply a monitor or EVF with power. And exposure metering via the sensor apparently consumes extremely little energy.
There is no longer any measurement of the reflective areas of the shutter blades, that analogue-era relic that many scoffed at. For me personally, the measuring method was always ok if you consider the peculiarities of the centre-weighted measurement. Depending on the subject, this could create other focal points. With strong highlights, for example, you measure them first, save the exposure, recompose and shoot.
And to be honest, the fact that you have to think for yourself in certain, difficult lighting conditions is not relieved by a matrix measurement (which we have had in Live View since the M240). If I had always taken the determined values without reflection, I would be sitting on a pile of quite suboptimal exposures. Above all, you should consult the histogram…
… This brings me to a complaint from Sean Reid: He’s a little annoyed that there’s no histogram showing the RGB channels. That was the case with the M240, but with all successor models there was only the summary. However, precisely because the red channel likes to burn out excessively, relevant information would be very helpful. The question is whether this could be supplemented with a firmware update.
Since the shutter is always open on the M11, it must first close again before the shot can be taken. In the previous models, this produced a noticeable shutter-release delay (“shutter lag”) in live-view mode. In contrast, with “rangefinder mode”, there was no perceptible time lag between pressing the shutter release and taking the picture. This is also the case with the M11, although it is practically always in “live view”. Sean Reid tried to measure the difference between the M10-R and M11 and found the M10-R had a shutter lag of 0.047 seconds compared to 0.064 seconds for the M11. The difference is negligible as far as I’m concerned.
Something else about the noise: Barney Britton from DPreview states that the noise level is back to that of the original M10, that is, noticeably louder. I don’t know what’s going on with his ears, but that’s wrong. It’s not louder, it’s different – and a little longer because the shutter closes, takes the picture and opens again.
For the rest, the M11 offers the option of complete silence, namely when using the electronic shutter. I have always set this to “hybrid” with the Leica Q, which means that if the shortest normal shutter speed (1/4000s) is not sufficient, the camera automatically switches to up to 1/16000s. If absolute silence is required, you select the electronic shutter in the menu and from then on you have to make sure that you have taken a picture because it’s easy to miss.
But always keep in mind the important keyword, “rolling shutter”. No very fast-moving subject parts (for example, a helicopter rotor) or oscillating light sources with this shutter type. The images are read out line-by-line, which takes longer than the actually super-short exposure time. However, with the modern sensor, this will certainly happen very quickly. Even with the Leica Q, I was able to photograph skiers whizzing by at 1/16000s without any rolling shutter problems.
In an interview about the M11, Leica’s Stefan Daniel quoted the American proverb in relation to the rangefinder: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. In my opinion, the rangefinder of the M10 is the best of those in all M camera versions. And that’s how they see it at Leica, too. An indication that we have the same model in front of us is provided by the display, which can indicate the exposure time only in four digits. Since there are now also five-digit times, a workaround is used to display this.
An article was published by DPReview that questions whether Leica is perhaps taking the risk with the M11 of rendering the rangefinder superfluous. Everyone on the team (at DPReview) would perhaps have regretted that the new Visoflex didn’t come with the camera… hmmm… Maybe they just can’t do anything with a rangefinder. If I pass my flute around and say, “Make music with it,” most people will probably ask, “How do I connect this thing to Spotify?”
DPReview is harmless. They just don’t check carefully enough. Otherwise, you can read so much rubbish about the camera on the Internet that it makes you dizzy. As soon as a new model is out, the trolls crawl out of their holes.
I’m saying it for the hundredth time: In certain situations, the rangefinder is superior to focusing in Live View. It is clear that it reaches its physical limits with a wafer-thin depth of field. If it were ever to be replaced by a built-in EVF, that thing would have to be coupled to the lenses somehow. Otherwise, I’d happily forgo it. Focus peaking is nice, but I’m faster with the metering field of the viewfinder.
Battery and bottom plate
The battery? A real monster. We’re back to capacities like that of the M240, the battery of which was probably designed as a starter accumulator for a Leopard II tank. That’s why I didn’t order a second battery at the outset. I expect that the one will be completely sufficient for my purposes. Incidentally, at a pinch, you can also recharge the camera when out and about using a USB-C cable and power bank.
In contrast to the M10-R or M10-Monochrom, the heat development of the camera is apparently marginal during intensive use, which is a plus point, especially for work in warm environments.
The bottom plate is gone! Good riddance! I’m not so sentimental that I miss it. On the contrary, it annoyed me more with the digital models. This separate part was particularly frustrating if you wanted to change the battery or memory card in the middle of a shoot. It stays with me on all film models, so I won’t be getting withdrawal symptoms anytime soon.
Changes to the user interface
If you’re not a Leica nerd, you won’t be able to tell the M11 apart from the M10. Leica didn’t fiddle with this style icon because they know that changes would result in a lynch mob descending on Wetzlar. It’s ok for me, I already said in my last laudatory comment about the M10 that I think the clear lines are beautiful and I don’t need any recessed grips or other folderols.
The focus button has migrated from the front to the top plate, where it is clearly easier to reach. It can also be assigned to other functions. The thumbwheel can also be assigned in different ways, and you can now “click” it. The “Play” button has moved up to the pillar of buttons to the left of the monitor.
The LV button is now called “Fn” (it can also be freely assigned) but will call up Live View by default. Right now I keep hitting the wrong one of the top two. Five years of motor memory isn’t that easy to erase.
The button in the middle of the four-way panel no longer calls up an information screen. Instead, pressing “Menu” brings up an overview á la Q2, which I find very good. You can reach important menu items immediately by touch. For example, the “triple resolution” can be changed in a flash if you wish to do so from picture to picture.
Otherwise: If you know the M10 (or any M at all) you can take pictures with the M11 immediately without exploring the deeper realms of the menu. It has always been like this. Try that with a Sony. It won’t end well.
Up to and including the M10 (and its variants), establishing a wifi connection to the Leica Photos app was so annoying that I seldom bothered with it. With the Leica M11, however, connectivity is now effortless. And, in the past, connecting to Fotos caused the battery to gurgle empty in no time. That is no longer the case.
Since the camera also has Bluetooth, this should be implemented more strongly in the announced firmware update, including geotagging. Whoever needs that? OK, well, no harm.
The USB-C connection and the Apple compatibility of the Leica M11 suit me as a Mac and iPad user. You can connect the camera directly and charge it anywhere, or transfer data. The fact that there is no cover on the socket scares me a bit, but the camera is nominally “weather sealed”, which Jono Slack has apparently already thoroughly tested (for hours in the rain).
The cable, power pack and charging cradle for the battery are well thought out and can be combined as desired. You also get an Apple-compliant USB-C-to-Lightning cable.
I called this hands-on “Primus inter pares” because I wanted to underline the fact that despite the Leica M11 representing the continuation of the rangefinder camera into the next generation of technology, it does not make the M10 family obsolete. Among its “peers” (the word “pares” has survived in English), the camera now has some outstanding qualities (more resolution, more dynamic range), but that doesn’t mean that an M10-P or M10-R doesn’t have many years ahead of it as a wonderful platform for M lenses.
So far I have taken almost all photos at the highest resolution. The lack of image stabilisation isn’t a problem if you keep shutter speed in mind (I set the auto exposure to the reciprocal of four times the focal length of the lens). However, I may stick with 36 MP for many subjects and occasions, which is more practical. Storage space is a secondary argument, but the file sizes of 70-120MB for the high-resolution images (according to Leica) are steep. However, I’ve noticed that they tend to be smaller (around 60-75MB for me) than Leica’s conservative estimate.
I particularly enjoyed Jono Slack’s article. But he had seven months to do it. And there’s one thing I think is worth mentioning in the review: it cites an article by Roger Cicala which states that a high-resolution camera doesn’t have a problem with older glass just because it doesn’t call itself “APO-Summicron”. Rather, he comes to the same conclusion as do I (in relation to the M10 Monochrom), namely that 1) vintage lenses often show surprisingly high resolutions and 2) the high-resolution sensor also gets more out of the optics and still conveys the respective “character“ of the older lenses.
Moral of the story: You can safely use any of your favourite M lenses (Leica or not) on the M11.
While I have been ‘running’ the M11 for the past three days, there was nothing on the camera that sort of slowed down my usual way of working. It feels, responds, works as well as any M I’ve had before. So far I haven’t discovered anything that is a “no go” for me.
Finally: Everyone knows that there are no advertisements on my website. But I have to thank my Leica store for getting the new models for me in the shortest possible time over many years. It’s a small, almost inconspicuous shop on Fasanenstrasse in Berlin, just around the corner from Kurfürstendamm.
Translated from the German by Mike Evans (who is, therefore, responsible for any errors…)