Leica M11 review: Hands-on First Look
January 13, 2022
Price as Reviewed:£7,500.00 (body only)
Andy Westlake takes a first look at Leica’s redesigned rangefinder, with its 60MP sensor
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Leica M11 at a glance:
- 60MP full-frame BSI-CMOS sensor
- DNG raw at 60MP, 36MP or 18MP
- ISO 64-50,000
- 4.5 fps continuous shooting
- Optical viewfinder, 0.73x magnification
- Manual focus via rangefinder spot in viewfinder
- 2.3m-dot, 3in fixed touchscreen
Leica’s M-series rangefinders are among the most revered of all cameras, being indelibly associated with a vast array of iconic photographers and images. So whenever a new-generation model appears, it’s something of an event. While the 60MP Leica M11 arrives just seven months after the 40MP M10-R, it marks the first major redesign since the original M10 appeared, five years ago.
If the M11 looks like it should be an old film camera, that’s because it can trace an unbroken lineage back to the Leica M3 of 1955. The firm has added a little automation since then, but this is still a stripped-back tool that’s likely to appeal most to purist photographers. Focusing is manual-only, via a coincident image rangefinder, and the aperture has to be set manually on the lens too, so only aperture-priority and fully manual exposure are available.
Like its predecessor, this is also one of a handful of cameras that only shoots still images, not video. But it’s not entirely stuck in the past, as it boasts a touchscreen, live view shooting, and built-in Wi-Fi for connection to a smartphone.
Leica M11 – Features
While the M11 may look much like every other M model that came before it, the innards have been substantially revised. Most obviously, it’s built around a 60MP full-frame sensor, which represents a 20% increase in linear resolution over the M10-R and employs a back-side illuminated architecture for the most efficient light gathering. It offers a base ISO of 64, extending to ISO 50,000 maximum, and outputs 14-bit raw files with a claimed dynamic range of up to 15 stops.
With near-identical pixel dimensions to the Sigma fp L and Sony Alpha 7R IV, it’s probably a very similar sensor, which should promise great things for image quality. But it’s also been fine-tuned for the specific demands of accommodating film-era M-mount lenses, including a dual-layer UV/IR cut-off filter in front of the sensor and a new colour filter array for an improved, more natural response.
Leica has, however, decided that having a 60MP sensor doesn’t mean you should have to put up with the associated processing and storage overheads all the time. So if you prefer, the camera can output DNG raw files at 36MP or 18MP instead.
What’s more, it can do so either by using the full sensor area and downsampling, or by cropping into the image using 1.3x or 1.8x ‘digital zoom’. Engaging the latter automatically activates live view, with framelines superimposed onto the full-frame preview image.
One significant operational change comes with regard to light metering when you’re shooting with the viewfinder. Where previous M models used a very basic centre-weighted metering system that measured light reflected off the shutter curtain, the M11 now employs the image sensor instead. This allows it to offer multi-zone and spot metering options, promising greater reliability across a wider range of lighting conditions.
Leica has also added an electronic shutter option with speeds as fast as 1/16,000 sec, which facilitates shooting with large-aperture lenses in bright light. The shutter speed dial only covers settings from 8-1/4000 sec, but setting it to the B position allows the full range to be selected.
Using the mechanical shutter, it’s also possible to set timed speeds as long as an hour, which is great for landscape photographers who use deep ND filters.
While the mechanical shutter is very quiet and discreet, the electronic shutter is completely silent. Unfortunately it suffers from significant rolling shutter distortion, so will require careful use.
Another clever update comes when you engage live view magnification for critical focusing, which can be done either by simply turning the focusing ring of a rangefinder-coupled lens, or by clicking the rear dial inwards. With no stabilisation in either the camera or lenses, previously this could be shaky and difficult to use, especially with longer lenses. But Leica has now added electronic stabilisation to the magnified view, which is a considerable improvement.
Leica M11: Key features
- Metering The image sensor is used for light metering all the time, which promises more reliable exposure when using the viewfinder
- Power The new BP-SCL7 battery provides 64% higher capacity for 700 shots per charge, slots directly into the baseplate, and can be charged via USB-C. A neat external charger is also supplied.
- Storage 64GB of storage is built-in and can be used alongside the UHS-II SD slot in sequential, backup, or segregated modes
- Touchscreen This is now better integrated into the control system, providing quick access to secondary settings
Leica M11 – Design and Handling
Leica is very conscious of its rich heritage, and never likes to tinker too much with the M design. As a result, not much has changed compared to the M10 in terms of control layout. About the only visible change is that the function button that was previously on the front has now moved on top beside the shutter button. The result is a cleaner, sharper look, which is echoed by a subtly revised back plate. By default the function button is used for digital zoom, but it can be reassigned to any of 28 different settings by holding it down for a second.
Overall, the M11 adheres to Leica’s usual bare-bones design philosophy. It sports the bare minimum of controls needed to get the job done, with analogue dials on the top plate for shutter speed and ISO sensitivity. On the back there’s just a d-pad for navigating menus and changing settings, along with three square buttons below the viewfinder for engaging playback or live view and accessing the menu. An electronic dial on the camera’s shoulder is used to set exposure compensation.
While this may sound just the same as the M10, Leica has tweaked the M11 to match its Q2 and SL2 series cameras more closely. The Play and Live View buttons have swapped places, with the latter now labelled Fn. The onscreen interface has also been updated, and it’s now possible to select and change more secondary settings by touch, a small change that has a surprisingly positive impact on the camera’s usability.
Unusually, another major change is found underneath. Gone is the M-series’ signature removable base plate, with the new BP-SCL7 battery instead plugging directly into the underside of the camera, in a similar fashion to Leica’s other cameras. Removing the battery also gives access to the SD card slot. Leica has added a USB-C port alongside, which can be used both for charging the battery and connecting the camera directly either to a computer or an iPhone.
Connecting the camera to your iPhone will automatically activate the Leica Fotos app, giving all the same functionality as when using Wi-Fi. But both remote control of the camera and copying images across to your phone should be quicker and more stable, which is likely to be of particular benefit if you’d like to transfer raw files for processing in Lightroom Mobile.
It’ll also be possible to update the camera’s firmware via the app, rather than having to use a computer. The camera also has Bluetooth built-in, which will be activated with a later firmware update.
As usual, the M11 is designed to work perfectly happily with M-mount lenses of any vintage. It can recognise recent lenses via dots painted onto their mount, and if you use older optics, they can be selected manually from a list in the menu. This allows the camera to deliver the best image quality from each lens, and to use the focal length data for setting the shutter speed when using Auto ISO.
In terms of construction, the M11 boasts the same ultra-robust feel as its predecessors. It’s essentially identical in size to the M10, at 139 x 38.5 x 80mm, and will be available in two very traditional colour schemes, silver-chrome or black. The latter uses an aluminium top-plate, instead of brass, which allows it to be 20% lighter at 530g.
Visoflex 2 electronic viewfinder
One disadvantage of the M11’s rangefinder design is that the direct-vision optical viewfinder doesn’t support a particularly wide range of lenses. It can’t zoom to match the attached lens, so instead indicates the field of view via superimposed framelines. But many users are likely to struggle to see the 28mm framelines properly, and wider lenses aren’t accommodated at all. At the other end of the scale, the 90mm framelines are very small.
For those working with wideangle or telephoto lenses, Leica is therefore offering a new Visoflex 2 electronic viewfinder. It’s neatly styled, with a square all-metal casing that nicely matches the camera, and it boasts a higher-resolution 3.69m-dot panel compared to the M10’s 2.4m-dot version.
An eye sensor allows automatic switching between the EVF and the rear LCD, while dioptre correction is available across a broad -4 to +3 range. It’s also capable of tilting upwards, with click-stops at the 45° and 90° positions. But unlike the existing Visoflex, there’s no built-in GPS, with geotagging of images set to be added to the M11 via Bluetooth smartphone connectivity. The Leica Visoflex 2 costs £600.
Other Leica M11 Accessories
Leica has also introduced a range of other accessories to match the M11. First is a handgrip which attaches to the tripod socket, with a cut-out giving access to the battery, SD card and USB-C port.
The grip also employs an Arca Swiss-type dovetail profile, allowing the camera to be attached directly to many tripods. It’ll cost £325.
Other accessories include a thumb grip in either silver or black for £230, and a leather half-case and strap combo in a choice of black, tan or olive green (£250).
Leica M11 36MP and 18MP DNGs – how do they work?
One unique feature of the Leica M11 is its ability to record DNG raw files at reduced resolution. Along with the native 60MP, 9528×6328 pixel files, it can also output 7416×4928 (36MP) or 5272×3498 (18MP) raw. This brings useful savings in file size, from around 100MB to 70MB or 38MB respectively. Below are comparison images shot at each size, then converted using Adobe Camera Raw. All images were shot using a pre-production camera, so may not fully represent final image quality.
This isn’t the first time we’ve seen ‘small RAW’ files – Canon introduced the concept way back in 2008 with the EOS 5D Mark II, while Nikon has dabbled in something similar. But it seems like Leica is doing something technically very different. Where these other sRAW formats involve demosaicing the raw sensor data and downsampling the resultant full-colour file, examining the M11’s DNGs using RawDigger reveals that Leica is simply outputting lower-resolution, un-demosaiced files. This can be seen from the screenshots below, which visualise the image data stored at each pixel location in the DNG file in terms of colour and brightness.
This looks like such an obvious approach that you’d be forgiven for wondering why other cameras don’t all do it already. The likely reason is that, theoretically, interpolating and downsampling the individual colour channels like this could be open to producing imaging artefacts with finely-repeating, low-contrast detail. However, there’s no obvious problems with our landscape comparison above. This is something we’ll look into in more detail in our full review.
Leica M11 – First Impressions
From a couple of days with the M11 prior to its official launch, it looks like a fine revision of Leica’s rangefinder design. All of the tweaks and updates make perfect sense, and the new 60MP sensor promises sensational image quality. As a result, it looks like a considerable upgrade for existing Leica M-series users, and an extremely desirable camera in general.
Of course, like its predecessors, it’s very much a niche tool, due to the rangefinder design and the high price. Technologically, it can’t compete with the current breed of full-frame mirrorless all-rounders, with their high-speed shooting and near-magical autofocus systems. Instead, its attraction lies in its simplicity, and the way it immerses you in the process of making pictures. It’s a camera that I’m looking forward to getting my hands on more than most for our upcoming full review – watch this space!
Leica M11 – pre-production sample images
We didn’t have a huge amount of time with the Leica M11 before its official launch to put it through its paces, and most of that time it was typical English winter, grey and wet. But below are a few sample images shot using the Summilux-M 50mm F1.4, to give an initial idea of the image quality available from the new 60MP sensor. All images were shot using a pre-production camera, so may not fully represent final image quality.
Leica M11 – Full Specifications
- Sensor: 60MP BSI CMOS
- Output size: 9528x6328 (60MP); 7416x4928 (36MP); 5272x3498 (18MP)
- Focal length mag: 1x
- Lens mount: Leica M
- Shutter speeds (mechanical): 60min - 1/4000s
- Shutter speeds (electronic): 60s - 1/16000s
- Sensitivity: ISO 64-50,000
- Exposure modes: A, M
- Metering: Multi, centre-weighted, spot
- Exposure comp: +/-3 EV in 0.3 EV steps
- Continuous shooting: 4.5 fps
- Screen: 2.3m-dot, 3in touchscreen
- Viewfinder: Optical rangefinder, 0.73x magnification
- AF points : n/a
- Video: n/a
- External mic: n/a
- Memory card: SD, SDHC, SDXC (UHS-II); 64GB internal
- Power: BP-SCL7 Li-ion, 7.4V 1800mAh, 13.3Wh
- Battery life: 700 shots
- Dimensions: 139 x 38.5 x 80mm
- Weight: 530g (black), 640g (silver)