Leica’s new camera puts skills back in focus

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Leica’s new M11 digital rangefinder camera might as well be from a completely different era. Do not get me wrong; the technology in it makes it feel very modern. The M11 has a high-resolution sensor (a 60-megapixel illuminated full-frame CMOS sensor to be exact), advanced metering tools, and even some of the common digital camera equipment of our time. But in many ways it works just like the movie cameras your parents owned. He sniffs at autofocus, doesn’t shoot video, and happily accepts lenses that are decades old.

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

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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 will ever 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 can’t afford and never will own a Leica M11, I think this is one device we need to notice and talk about. It deserves more discussion than a simple product review.

This is because the M11 shows that the engineers at Leica are trying to keep something alive, something that I think the rest of the camera world has forgotten: that the camera doesn’t matter, but the photos matter. The camera is only a tool and any tool is only as good as the person using it.

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A wrench is just a wrench. Some wrenches may be better than others, but if you want to do something useful with a wrench, you need someone with the skill to use a wrench. That ability can come in different shapes and forms. I know what I’m doing with a socket wrench in an internal combustion engine, but I’m not at all skilled in using a plumber’s wrench on the basement plumbing.

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 Put an outdated digital camera from the early 2000s in the hands of Maggie Steber and chances are you’ll get a great image.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

Leica lent me an M11 and I shot it for a week. The reason I say the Leica M11 feels more like a Leica film than a modern digital camera isn’t because it’s incapable, but because it’s designed to be used in conjunction with human skills. Especially your skills as a photographer.

Cameras are increasingly being designed to take away the human factor from taking a picture. With the addition over the decades of features such as autofocus, automatic white balance adjustment, and automatic metering, most camera manufacturers have made the technical effort to replace the individual photographer’s learned choices with algorithms. These algorithms turn producing a great image into something that is no longer a challenge to face or adapt to, but a series of options to choose from.

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