Is the cost of a Leica camera justified?

This week, Leica made headlines with the announcement of the Leica M11, the company’s most advanced rangefinder yet — and also one of its most costly. With a body-only price of $8,995 / £7,500 / AU$13,500, it’s reignited the age-old debate: can Leica cameras ever justify their high prices, or are they now merely status symbols?

By any standard, Leica cameras are pricey, but they’re also known for their elegant design, remarkable build quality, superb image quality, and one-of-a-kind shooting experience. I’ve used and reviewed numerous Leica cameras from the M, SL, and Q series throughout the years, and I’ve greatly loved doing so. Would I, however, purchase one? That’s a difficult issue to answer, and one that’s quite complex.

Leica Cameras

I enjoy using Leica cameras since they are stunning in every way. However, I do not possess one and have no plans to get one in the near future. Because of their adaptability and a vast selection of high-quality optics, I mostly shoot with Sony full-frame mirrorless cameras. That’s all before you consider the astronomically exorbitant costs Leica cameras and lenses command.

However, this does not rule out the possibility of Leica cameras being able to justify their high prices to other photographers. If such were the case, the firm would never be able to produce and market cameras like the M11. The M11, like the rest of Leica’s portfolio, is a specialty camera with a particular personality – and it’s this, as well as other aspects like longevity and price appreciation, that should be considered when determining whether or not Leica’s pricing is actually expensive.

But how much do Leica cameras cost? It’s time for a brief temperature check on the red dot tax, considering that its range was granted a tiny price boost back in April 2021.

How much?

Aside from the D-Lux cameras, which are produced in partnership with Panasonic, Leica’s cameras are among the most expensive on the market.

The Leica TL2 ($2,595 / £1,720 / AU$2,900) is at the low end, but the full-frame, fixed-lens Leica Q2 compact ($5,700 / £4,500 /AU$8,500) is swiftly moving up the savings ladder. The Leica SL2, which looks more like a typical full-frame mirrorless camera but costs $7,000 / £5,500 / AU$10,300, is another option.

The comparison 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 may share the same 61MP sensor, is maybe more telling. In other aspects, they’re quite different prospects, but the magnitude of the price difference demonstrates the influence of that iconic red dot. Even the Sony A1, which on paper outperforms the M11, costs $6,500 / £6,500 / AU$9,000 less than Leica’s latest camera.

It’s evident that there’s still a Leica premium, with special-edition M-series cameras often going into the five-figure range. Is it, however, justified? That is dependent on a number of things, the first of which is the design and construction quality.

Less is more

Leica cameras are created entirely by hand in Germany, with top plates consisting of a single piece of machined aluminum or brass and a brass baseplate. The attention to detail and craftsmanship is still unsurpassed, and they’re constructed like tanks.

For more than 70 years, professional street, reportage, fashion, and portrait photographers have used M-series cameras because they are tiny, quiet, and inconspicuous. Although cost isn’t a decisive issue for this group, the shooting style and image quality on offer are.

Most Leica cameras’ unique shooting experience concentrates on the fundamentals of exposure — ISO, aperture, and shutter speed. These are the three most critical controls on any camera, and you have immediate access to them with Leica M models, with additional options securely stored away in a superbly designed camera menu. This implies that the camera’s rear panel has only a few buttons and a D-pad.

This design simplicity not only looks great, but it also helps photographers to concentrate solely on the settings that matter, with nothing else interfering. This contradicts common camera thinking, which holds that the more complicated the camera, the higher the price tag. However, simplicity like this necessitates intelligent camera and user interface design. And, like Bang & Olufsen’s speakers, many people are ready to pay for simplicity, especially when their camera pays their bills.

Do Leicas take better photos?

Few, if any, professional cameras are objectively ‘better’ at shooting images than their competitors these days. Professionals often purchase cameras for their features, size, weight, control arrangement, and, to a lesser extent, sensor size and resolution – all with the goal of the camera fitting their style of photography and shooting.

In a tiny and lightweight size, cameras like the Leica M11 provide a unique hands-on experience and inconspicuous shooting. Full-frame mirrorless cameras may be quite compact, and Leica has taken advantage of this by keeping the original Leica M design style, as well as small manual focus lenses with superb picture quality.

Autofocus is fantastic these days, due to tremendous speed and features like Eye AF, but if Leica M series cameras featured autofocus and image stabilization, the size and weight of M bodies and lenses would have to be dramatically increased. Not only would this entirely distract from the point of the Leica M series cameras, but it would also surely raise the price.

Leica M cameras provide a polished shooting experience that comes as near to classic film photography as a digital camera can go. Rather than being a step backward, it’s about preserving a shooting style that’s as popular as it is distinct. And, despite the M11’s lack of video capabilities, it’s all about the ‘pure’ photography experience — a genuine photographers’ camera.

Appreciation society

Another consideration in the ‘value’ issue is what happens to the price of a camera after you’ve purchased it. There aren’t many cameras on the market now that can appreciate in value over time. Leica cameras, like fine wines, aren’t mass-produced in the same way that Canon, Fujifilm, Nikon, Olympus, or Sony models are, therefore each model has an inherent scarcity and exclusivity.

Then there are the limited edition versions, which are not only collectible but also have the potential to appreciate in value, making them an investment as well as a useful photography tool. For example, the Leica M10-P Edition ‘Safari’ camera was introduced in 2015 and was restricted to only 1,500 pieces.

On eBay now, you can buy used copies of this seven-year-old camera for a fraction of the original price, equating to a ‘free’ camera if you bought it at launch and sold it in good condition today. With this year’s Leica Q2 ‘007 edition,’ it’ll most likely be the same tale. In comparison, after three to five years, your ordinary camera is likely to be worth around a third of its original price.

But let’s put the cost of standard Leica M models into context as well. When was the last time you upgraded your camera? Every 2-4 years, or even sooner in some cases? It just takes a handful of upgrades to surpass the cost of a Leica M if you spend a few thousand dollars or pounds every time you upgrade.

Instead of slavishly following the upgrade cycle and buying every new model as it is released, Leica devotees are known to keep their cameras for far longer, often a lifetime. So, if you divide the initial purchase over a longer period of time, the cost-effectively comes down and can eventually be lower than the more mainstream brands — food for thought.

Price

Leica cameras and lenses, such as the M11, are too costly. But this isn’t an easy conclusion, and it causes me some internal conflict because I understand why they’re so costly – and that’s a duality we all have to deal with.

On the one hand, Leicas are pricey in comparison to the technology they provide. On the other side, it’s a high-end camera brand, with cameras handcrafted in Germany using high-quality materials. In order for Leica to mass-produce cameras like the M11 at a lower cost, the quality of the materials would have to be sacrificed, and the design would ultimately suffer. So, would Leica lose a lot of what makes its cameras so remarkable and unique?

Leica cameras have a distinct set of features that appeal to a select group of working professionals, as well as lucky amateurs who can afford them and are accustomed to paying high prices. But there’s more to consider: Leicas keep their worth considerably better than other cameras, and in some circumstances, because of their rarity and limited edition, they may even rise in value, making them an investment.

One example is the limited-edition ‘Drifter’ M Monochrom with a snakeskin finish, which was created in collaboration with artist Lenny Kravitz. A Leica camera effectively pays for itself in this condition of scarcity and collectability. For some, Leica cameras might be a terrific alternative if they can stomach the initial expense and they require the shooting style that they provide. We’ll simply have to keep dreaming for the rest of us.

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