Leica grabbed the headlines this week with the launch of its new Leica M11, a camera that’s probably its best rangefinder yet – and also one of its most expensive. With a hefty body-only price tag of $8,995 / £7,500 / AU$13,500, it sparked the age-old debate – can Leica cameras ever justify their price tags, or are they now simply luxury status symbols?
Leica cameras are expensive by any standard, but they are also renowned for their exquisite design, exceptional build quality, superb image quality and unique shooting experience. Over the years I have used and reviewed many Leica M, SL and Q series cameras, and really enjoyed using them. But would I buy one? This is a difficult and surprisingly complex question to answer.
I love shooting with Leica cameras because they are beautiful in every way. But I don’t own one myself and, for the moment, I have no intention of buying one. I mainly shoot with Sony full-frame mirrorless cameras because of their versatility and the wide range of quality optics they offer. And all of this comes long before you even think about the high prices of Leica cameras and lenses.
But that doesn’t mean Leica cameras can never justify their prices to other photographers. After all, if that were the case, the company could never develop and launch cameras like the M11. Like most cameras in the Leica range, the M11 is a niche camera with a very distinct character – and it’s that, along with other factors like their longevity and price appreciation, that are factors important to discuss to determine whether the price of Leica is really excessive or not.
How much do Leica cameras cost? Given that its range suffered a small price hike in April 2021, it’s time to do a quick temperature check on the red dot tax…
Aside from the D-Lux range, made in collaboration with Panasonic, Leica’s cameras are certainly among the most expensive in their class.
At the lower end, they start with the Leica TL2 ($2,595 / £1,720 / AU$2,900), but quickly step up a gear with the compact Leica Q2 full-frame fixed lens ($5,700 / 4 £500 / AU$8,500). Then there’s the Leica SL2, which looks more like a standard full-frame mirrorless camera, but still costs $7,000 / £5,500 / AU$10,300.
A perhaps more telling comparison, however, is between the Leica M11 ($8,995 / £7,500 / AU$13,500) and the Sony A7R IV ($3,500 / £3,200 / AU$4,670), two cameras that most likely use the same 61MP sensor. They are very different perspectives in other respects, but the magnitude of the price difference shows the impact of this famous red dot. Even the Sony A1, which on paper blows the M11 out of the water, is cheaper than Leica’s new $6,500 / £6,500 / AU$9,000 camera.
With special-edition M-series cameras frequently pushing into five-figure territory, it’s clear there’s always a Leica premium. But can it be justified? It depends on a few different factors, starting with the design and build quality.
less is more
Leica cameras are handcrafted in Germany with top plates that are often made from a single piece of machined aluminum or brass, with a brass base plate. The craftsmanship and attention to detail are still unmatched, and they’re simply built like tanks.
M-series cameras are also so small, quiet and unobtrusive that they have been a favorite of professional street, reportage, fashion and portrait photographers for over 70 years. This is a group for which cost is not a deciding factor, but the shooting style and image quality on offer are still of the utmost importance.
The characteristic shooting experience of most Leica cameras focuses on the fundamentals of exposure – ISO, aperture and shutter speed. These are the three most important controls on every camera, and with the Leica M models you have direct access to these, with other settings neatly hidden in a brilliantly designed camera menu. That means there are just a few buttons on the back of the camera alongside a D-pad.
Not only is this simplicity of design amazing, but it also allows photographers to focus only on the settings that matter without anything else getting in the way. This overturns conventional camera wisdom, which generally states that the more complex the camera, the higher its price. But such minimalism requires smart camera and UI design. And like Bang & Olufsen speakers, that simplicity is something many are willing to pay for, especially when their camera pays their bills.
Do Leicas take better pictures?
Very few, if any, professional cameras these days are objectively “better” for taking pictures than their competition. Typically, professionals buy a camera for its features, size, weight, control layout and, to some extent, sensor size and resolution, all with the intention that the camera matches their photography style and shooting style.
Cameras like the Leica M11 offer a unique hands-on experience and discreet shooting in a small and lightweight body. Full-frame mirrorless cameras can be extremely small, and Leica has taken advantage of this by retaining its traditional Leica M design aesthetic, alongside tiny manual-focus lenses that deliver excellent image quality.
Autofocus is amazing these days, thanks to incredible speed and features like Eye AF, but if Leica M-series cameras offered autofocus and features like image stabilization, size and the weight of M bodies and lenses are expected to increase significantly. Not only would this completely undermine what Leica M-series cameras are, but it would also inevitably increase the cost.
The refined shooting experience offered by Leica M cameras is about as close to traditional shooting as you can get with a digital camera. But rather than being a step back, it’s more about maintaining a style of shooting that’s as beloved as it is unique. And while there’s no video shooting available with the M11, this is the ‘pure’ photographic experience – a true photographers camera.
Another factor in the “value” debate is what happens to the price of a camera after you buy it. There aren’t many cameras being made these days that can get more valuable over time. Like fine wines, Leica cameras are not made in large numbers like Canon, Fujifilm, Nikon, Olympus or Sony models, so there is an inherent rarity and exclusivity in each model.
And then there are the limited-edition models that aren’t just collectible, but can go up in value, making them as much an investment as they are a great photography tool. The limited-edition Leica M10-P Edition “Safari” camera, for example, was released in 2015 and limited to just 1,500 units.
You can buy second-hand versions of this seven-year-old camera on eBay today for a fraction more than the original price, which equates to a ‘free’ camera if you bought it at launch. and sold today in good condition. It will likely be a similar story with this year’s Leica Q2 007 edition. By contrast, it’s safe to say that your average camera would be worth around a third of its launch price after just three to five years.
But let’s also try to put the costs into perspective for the “standard” Leica M models. How often do you upgrade your camera? Every 2-4 years, or in some cases sooner? If you spend a few thousand dollars or pounds on each upgrade, it only takes a few upgrades before you exceed the cost of a Leica M.
Leica fans have been known to hang on to their cameras for much longer, sometimes a lifetime, rather than slavishly going through the upgrade cycle and buying each new model as they’re released. So when you split the initial cost over a longer period of years, the cost actually goes down and may end up being lower than more traditional brands – that’s certainly food for thought.
From my point of view, Leica cameras such as the M11 and their lenses are way too expensive. But it’s far from a simple conclusion and it leaves me with some inner turmoil, as I also understand why they’re expensive – and it’s a dichotomy we all have to come to terms with.
For one, Leicas are too expensive for the technology they offer. But on the other hand, it is a luxury camera brand where the cameras are handmade in Germany using high quality materials. If Leica were to mass-produce cameras like the M11 to cut costs, the quality of materials would also have to be reduced and the design would inevitably take a hit too. Would Leica then lose much of what makes its cameras so unique and special?
Leica cameras offer a unique set of features that directly cater to the needs of a niche group of professionals, as well as lucky amateurs who can afford them and are used to paying for premium brands. But there is still more to consider; Leicas hold their value much better than other cameras, and in some cases can increase in value due to their rarity and limited edition, and therefore can even be considered an investment.
An example of this is the limited edition “Drifter” M Monochrom with a snakeskin finish, produced with musician Lenny Kravitz. And in this situation of rarity and collectability, a Leica camera essentially pays for itself. So if you can afford the initial cost and need the style of shooting they offer, Leica cameras can be a fantastic option, for some. For the rest of us, we may just have to keep dreaming.