In Defense of the Screenless Digital Leica M-D

In Defense of the Screenless Digital Leica M-D

Where Leica goes, controversy is sure to follow. Last week, the M-D Typ 262 rangefinder camera was announced, and as usual, photographers were there to complain about it. While the constant eye-rolls in the direction of Leica are usually in regards to sky-high prices or other minor design decisions, this time, there's something truly worth talking about. The M-D is completely lacking an essential element of all digital cameras: the screen. It's bold, it's beautiful, and it was the perfect move for Leica.

The Leica M-D is simple. It's based heavily on the M Typ 262, but with an ISO dial in place of a screen. It has the same 24-megapixel CMOS sensor, the same Maestro image processor, the same basic M9-inspired body design, and the same coupled rangefinder system with manual focus and an optical viewfinder. Unlike the regular 262, the M-D has brass top and bottom plates and a magnesium body. In order to facilitate the lack of a screen (and thus a menu), some options are chosen by Leica and baked into the firmware. For example, the camera shoots DNG raw files, and there're no other choices. You couldn't shoot JPEGs if you wanted to. The function button on top combined with the OVF's display (where the meter goes) do allow critical system adjustments like date and time, so no worries there. Firmware can be updated via the SD card, which allows the camera to accept future coded lenses for automatic detection and correction.

Removing the screen from the Leica M is not as crazy and insane as one might initially think — at least not for Leica. And I'm not letting them off the hook just because they're Leica. I'm giving them the pass because of the rangefinder, because rangefinder cameras foster a different way of photographing the world and thus attract a kind of photographer that embraces those differences. Rangefinders have always been about "pure photography," with as little getting between the camera and the subject as possible. This is exemplified by the total lack of most electronic, motorized, and automatic features that SLR users have taken for granted for nearly the past half-century. In fact, only one company on the planet even makes digital rangefinders, and that company is Leica. They're even still making film versions to this day!

What really defines the rangefinder experience, though, is the viewfinder. With an SLR, what you see is what you get. Between the exacting frame coverage and real-time focus and depth of field previewing, single lens reflex cameras "suffer" from tunnel vision. Framing through an SLR's viewfinder really pushes you to focus on individual points and subjects in the frame as opposed to the scene as a whole. In contrast, rangefinders show you the world in deep focus. Not only do you see what's going to be captured by the camera via the framelines, you can see what's outside of it as well. Waiting for and timing the perfect scene to come into view is so much easier when you can see outside the frame, and this is why so many street photographers swear by the Leica M. The deep depth allows you to focus on the content of the composition without being distracted or burdened by focus and bokeh.

The first digital Leica M came in late 2006 with the M8 and became Leica's first digital rangefinder. The idea was simple: take the classic rangefinder camera and just throw in a digital sensor. The digital camera world was entering a period of maturity at the time (the Nikon D3 was released less than one year later), so it was pretty astonishing to see a digital camera that totally lacked autofocus, live view, video, or any features that were standard fare even during that period. But it still had that incredible technological marvel: the coupled rangefinder along with a screen. Without live view or video, the screen served two purposes only: image playback and menu settings. Fast-forward three years, and Leica followed up with the same concept in the now full-frame M9. Again, the only thing separating the M9 from a film camera is the sensor and the screen, and in fact, the screen is so absolutely dreadful on the M9, it's virtually unusable for image playback. After the M9, Leica changed their naming convention and dropped the numbers, keeping only the 'M,' while adding a "type" to differentiate styles. This is also where Leica began to have somewhat of an identity crisis with the M series, and it showed by them adding live view and video. Interestingly enough, the Leica fanbase overall was not fond of the addition of video and live view. It's easy enough to say "if you don't want to use it, just don't use it," but that does mean more buttons and a longer menu, things that go against the minimalist concept of "nothing between you and the subject."

The M Typ 240 caused a user base rift with the move from CCD to CMOS sensor technology as well as the addition of generally unwanted features. There's nothing wrong with video and bells and whistles, but that's just not part of the Leica M identity. Fortunately, Leica listened and began to release back-to-basics rangefinders, starting with the M Typ 262. The shaved off video, live view, weight, and a cool $1000. It was a huge hit with the purists. These are many of the same people who had actually been casually wishing for a screenless Leica ever since the first Leica that had one. In early 2015, Leica released the (very) limited M Edition 60 to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the M lineup, and yep, it didn't have a screen. As to be expected, the response from the Leica faithful was very positive, until they learned Leica would only make 600 of them, and the price would be nearly $20,000 (you can actually buy one now for closer to $16,000). The Edition 60 hasn't flown off shelves due to the price, but the response was overwhelmingly positive from Leica lovers. One year later, here we are with the M-D for a more palatable (but still very expensive) $5995.

I'm not going to pretend a screenless camera is for everyone, and fortunately, Leica is still committed to producing cameras with screens. I would probably not ever suggest any "normal" digital camera go without a screen. I'm also not going to pretend that rangefinders are for everyone; they're most certainly not. But a screenless rangefinder does actually make sense. Remember, these are already extremely stripped down cameras that have few features that necessitate a screen or even options. Remember that rangefinders, even digital ones, are still built on the same premise and ideals of film photography. They harken back to a more deliberate and focused style of shooting. And let's be honest, there is a joy in delayed gratification. Until I began shooting film again a few years ago, I had almost totally forgotten the feeling of sitting down and looking at my images well after shooting. It's not only exciting, but it puts you in a different sort of head space for the next time you go out to photograph the world.

Using a rangefinder is about connecting with the world using the path of least resistance. Leica M film cameras are still some of the most popular cameras among street photographers and journalists to this day, and part of the joy they still bring to so many thousands is the direct minimalism combined with world-class engineering. I am thrilled to see this same Spartan, purposed workflow that's completely free of all distractions come to the digital world. I know I'm not the only one.

Pre-order your Leica M-D from B&H.

An earlier version of this article had some factual errors that have since been corrected. Leica was not the first to introduce a digital rangefinder, Epson was in 2004 with their RD-1. Also, the Leica M-D does not have a brand new Maestro processing engine. It is the same as in the M Typ 262.

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Scott Mosley's picture

Why not make it only accepts 256Mb disposable SD cards and store photos in a format that only a lab can decipher? To be fair, when I'm shooting some of my own work, I have turned the playback off to not be distracted, but with a screen i can turn it back on and have a full featured camera again. this is madness leica. madness.

No improvement, less features, same high price.

Yeah, I don't understand it either.

Sean Molin's picture

"Improvement" is relative to an individual's needs and desires. To a street photographer who would much rather have on-the-fly ISO adjustment over a battery-sucking screen, losing it is an improvement.

I've seen the argument that "it should cost less because it has less parts" several times, but that is silly on closer inspection. The R&D for the design change and lower production volume probably easily offsets the ~$50 wholesale cost of the screen.

Not less parts, but less functionality.

Roman Kazmierczak's picture

Why consumer should care about how much does the design cost? The only reason this works for Leica is because it is brand for snobs. If there was no other subdivision they would cease to exist long time ago.

Hi Roman, you may be right. However I am a professional photographer and have been for over 30 years and I have stopped using my Canon for Leica for the last two years. The reason was not for snobbish reasons, but I prefer the shooting experience that I get with my Leicas. They are definitely not the best cameras out there on so many levels, but the user experience for me is wonderful. Plus I prefer the results I get to the results from my Canons. When I shot film I used to use a Hasselblad and in some ways using the Leica is the same. You have to slow down and think about the shot.

I do understand when people say the camera is not for them, in fact the M-D in the article is not for me. I need the screen to check my shoot and to show the client.

One last thing, I shoot a lot of events and to photograph people socially at the even the Leica is so much more discreet than any Canon or Nikon. I can walk into a group, take my photos and walk away without a pause in the groups conversation. With my Canons the conversations stops and people look at me and so the moment is lost.


Roman Kazmierczak's picture

For the same reasons I want to switch to a7rII. Much better performance for half the price ;)
I would still like to own film Leica if I have a budget for it, but in digital world I can't see value in this brand.

I'd say get the Sony. Much smaller and lighter and it will save your back on long shoots. And with Zeiss lenses...

Sean Molin's picture

The Sony A7s are certainly better bang for the buck and are pretty much bleeding edge tech, but they are a vastly different shooting experience from a Leica.

A modded Corvette ZR1 is certainly a "Ferrari killer", but a Ferrari has a totally different operating experience. There's also a heritage and culture you're paying for, too. Neither one is inherently better than the other, they're just different.

If you ask me, having used both, using a Sony is a more cold, calculated, and sterile process. I think the images tend to show that, as well.

Roman Kazmierczak's picture

If you want to pay for heritage, I am not stopping you, but I think it is more like paying for red logo than anything. If more expensive camera will make you better photographer, I guess that Ferrari would make you better driver...

Sean Molin's picture

I'm really not disagreeing with you. Heritage means something to some people, and doesn't to others. It's worth it to some, and not to others.

And plenty of Ferraris sit in garages and never move, no differently than Leicas that stay in glass cases. It's a shame, though. These are over-engineered machines that BEG to be used.

Ben Whitmore's picture

Are you being forced to use one? No. if you're a Leica shooter and want a screen, buy a 262. If you don't, buy an M-D. Stop whinging. Not all photographers are created equal, nor is the gear they prefer to shoot.

Juan Pedro Bretti Mandarano's picture

Not for me. There is magic on being able to check the focus and adjust the composition.

Thank you for your insights.

Sean Molin's picture

I would definitely not be opposed to an EVF-only camera like this.

Juan Pedro Bretti Mandarano's picture

Yes, that sounds like a good idea.
But still, after the shot, is nice to know if your photo will be a keeper or not because of focus or maybe a ray of light is bleaching the whole scene.

Hi Sean, it appears that you've got great taste in camera companies. Personally, I love Leica but this camera doesn't make sense to me. People with the confidence to go without a screen should probably be working with film instead of digital. The M-A might be a better choice for a person that wants to really connect with the subject and avoid the distractions of checking the screen. That's just my opinion. I don't really "get" this camera.

Sean Molin's picture

There are a few reasons why it's nice to shoot digital even with a more film-like experience. I had actually forgot to write the paragraph I had been thinking about comparing the long-term cost of a film M and a digital M. Essentially, after 15,000 shots the film camera is more expensive to operate.

And there's speed. It's nice to be able to go out shooting all day and have your images ready for review as soon as you get home. You sort of get the best of both worlds; the lack of shooting distraction but the ability to edit and present very quickly.

Roman Kazmierczak's picture

When I shoot, my preview is off. I will take a look when I setup for the shot, but then I don't look until new setup. It saves batteries a lot. And I can do it all for half the price ;)


That's a good point about the cost of digital vs film.

Lenn Long's picture

Hipsters gotta be hip....

I love the idea of a Leica film camera, and have actually looked into purchasing one on a number of occasions, but am always turned off by the price. I find that the Leica is more of a religion, and no matter what is said there will always be the followers that swear by it. It doesn't matter that what they do so often makes no sense. If you don't want to use the screen... turn it off... but I'd always like the option of having one when I have a paying customer who can't deal with, "Let's wait to see what it looks like when we get back to my computer." If the client didn't mine then by all means, as someone below mentioned, use film. I don't use my screen when I'm wandering around town grabbing quick shots, actually it is "off" all the time. I only preview when I have a stationary subject that I want to nail focus and get sharp in all the right places.
Can we stop deluding ourselves, it is not a "feature" to NOT have something, that is by definition the LACK of a feature. If you don't like auto focus, set your lens to manual focus. If you don't like auto exposure, set your camera to manual. If you don't like the screen, turn it off. But don't insult me by telling me something is worth more money because it lacks things. Want a cheap AWESOME rangefinder "like" camera, get a Fuji and set it to manual and turn off the screen. Spend the rest of the money on a few trips to fun places.
But I'm wasting my breath, the followers of Leica are either targeting me for elimination, or are preparing their best argument for why their cameras breath life into the images, show character that my puny brain will never understand, damned heathen. *sigh*

Tom Lew's picture

I own a Canon 5dmii as well as a number of film cameras including a Leica m6. Personally I think this is pretty much as silly as the monochrome digital Leica. It's a "designer" gimmick for those with an affinity for brands. Put a fuji or sony mirrorless in the hands of all 3 of these guys and they would take the same photo if not even better considering the dynamic range on the sony. Also this video was insanely boring. Also this was a long comment.

Anonymous's picture

I have no basis to compare the two but wouldn't the ability to make tonal adjustments in post with an RGB image equalize, if not outweigh, any improvements as a result of this sensor?

Anonymous's picture

After my initial query, I looked up the difference and their effect but it didn't really change my question. I understand your point about producing unnatural results but that's always possible in post production. Until I get more data, I've decided the difference probably only matters to folks who can distinguish between digital noise and film grain. ;-)
That was a joke and NOT intended to revisit that debate. :-)

Anonymous's picture

While I admire your dedication to logic, you appear to lack a sense of humor to soften its edges.
This is where you reply with something like, 'the existence or absence of a sense of humor is irrelevant to the....' ;-)

Anonymous's picture

I was referring to the edges of your dedication to logic, not logic itself.

Anonymous's picture

When you enter a debate, you have to ask yourself what you hope to achieve. If you want to change minds, it's far better to soften your delivery (not the message) so as not to alienate your opponent to the point they won't accept anything you say.
Any other goal is foolish and/or vain.

Tom Lew's picture

Sure, point taken. But the removal of an lcd screen is definitely below the monochrome initiative then.

Terry Hernlund's picture

I have my LCD turned off. If I need to see something for an adjustment (which certainly does happen) I can just hit the Play button. I like having the option, and it's better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it I think. Discipline in using it is the key.

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