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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Previous comments
Chris K.'s picture

Love Leica's optics-use them a lot, but sometimes their cameras make no sense.

Igor Butskhrikidze's picture

meh... in the world where ppl trying to erase a borders to get more freedom Leica tries to create them... nice move!

Anonymous's picture

I would buy this in a heartbeat if I had the funds available. Actually I might be more tempted for the X-U so I can take photos of surfers, wakeboarders and all sorts of other water activities. But if they made a sealed version of this, oooh would I be saving up for it.

I love everything about this camera.

I would love it as well if i had the funds. Simple and classic. I see it as buying a new car with carburetor and v8, no modern digital entertainment connectivity or drivers assist. Its not for everyone.

Roman Kazmierczak's picture

Leica is a joke. There was a reason for every type of camera invented. If there was legitimate reason for making mirrorless digital camera with no screen, that reason would be price. Give me that Leica for $1000 and I will take it. Leica is just a camera for snobs.

paulo Sousa's picture

LOve that the documentary is made in my country, in beautifull Porto, from Portugal.
Love the camera, and the concept behind, but as all leicas the price is way out of my range

"If you build it, they will come."

Sean Molin's picture

That'd be like building a car without a place to see out of. Why on earth do you think that would ever happen?

Tim Shoebridge's picture

Sorry but IMHO a rangefinder without an LCD makes less sense than a DSLR or a mirrorless. You are more likely to need to check one or more of exposure / DOF / focus after shooting with a rangefinder than you are with those other types of camera. The ONLY advantage I can see of intentionally handicapping a camera this way is to force the photographer to shoot far more carefully than we generally end up doing when we have a digital camera in our hands. ie. Make every shot count. It is possibly Leica's attempt to retain that disciplined approach that film photographers always needed to have. But let's face it, the main reason Leica have produced this camera is to generate debate and interest in their brand, to be seen as non-technical innovators in a world where technological innovation is increasingly the future.

Sean Molin's picture

"You are more likely to need to check one or more of exposure / DOF / focus after shooting with a rangefinder than you are with those other types of camera."

I'm not buying it. Why do you say that? Also, let's not pretend the M-D doesn't have a meter.

The point was made in the article that the rangefinder would allow quick and accurate focussing on your terms. No need to second guess that. Just need a dof scale on the lenses again and a nice Sekonic 308 for incident light metering. Heaven.

Tim Shoebridge's picture

Ah yes of course, a point was made in an article so it must be the gospel truth. A rangefinder always will give perfect pin-point accurate focus in all situations and there is never a need to check focus afterwards. Silly me. And let's not forget depth of focus or exposure. I think you and Leica were truly made for each other... A marriage indeed made in heaven!!

Tim Shoebridge's picture

I'm not buying it either. Total waste of money. Glad we agree about something!

Fritz Asuro's picture

For many years, Camera companies have tried their best to innovate and apply better technology to their cameras and help users achieve the best output of their photography.
But nowadays, having to step backwards seems to be a "feature" now. There's a lot to name, but to stick on the topic, removing the LCD screen is completely defeating the purpose of the advantage of digital photography.

Next they will sell you an empty box and say that the purest photography of them all is remembering... and you will buy it.

Removing the screen should make it cheaper still, no?

Sean Molin's picture

Why, though? The screen probably costs $50 wholesale, and that's more than offset by the R&D required to develop the new model. Plus I can only imagine this is a much lower volume unit, which also increases costs. I'm actually shocked it doesn't cost more than the M262!

Just look at the automotive world. Stripped-down minimalist cars like the Porsche GT3 RS are far more expensive than their "loaded" 911 counterpart.

Jason Lorette's picture

Honestly...not that I'd ever afford a Leica anyway, but to me this is not something that would appeal to me in any way. It's like cameras that have no viewfinder and only a screen, those drive me insane. This has '0' draw to me at all.

Jason Lorette's picture

Maybe not...but to me one makes about as much sense as the other.

The world's first digital rangefinder camera was the Epson R-D1 in 2004, not the Leica M8 in 2006.

Sean Molin's picture

Someone else mentioned this elsewhere and the article has since been corrected. Thank you!

Seeing that a fairly large number of people like the concept of this camera, I have an idea for a new business- for $1,500-$2,000, depending on the camera, you can send me your camera, and I will very neatly cover your screen with duct tape and/or electrical tape so that it doesn't bother you anymore. I will offer a choice of black, silver, gray or, for those who really want to make a statement, RED tape!

Mr Hogwallop's picture

No other company except Leica would get a pass for leaving out such a feature. Let Sony, Nikon or Canon try this...At least its not a tarted up Sony NEX camera (yes Hasselblad, I'm talking about you)
I am not sure if its the "Emperors clothes" or a "fool and his money are soon parted" fits this product.

Sean Molin's picture

The entire argument of this piece was that Leica gets a pass simply because it's a rangefinder. No one in their right mind would want a DSLR or regular mirrorless with no screen or EVF.

Let's not also forget that people asked for it. Leica should be getting more than a pass just for giving people "such a ridiculous feature" that they want.

You're right! I hadn't thought about that! With no LCD screen, there are no menu screens to go through for setup. The ISO, aperture, and shutter speed, all have to be physical controls.

Rangefinders and SLRs function differently. I may buy a used film rangefinder; but that would be after I buy lenses for my DSLR and medium format film systems.

When I got my 5D III in 2013, it was neat to see the images appear immediately after the photo; but the novelty wore off. I continue to shoot film with my Canon A-1 (36 years old) and F-1N (bought used), so I turned off image review on my 5D. I may review images before downloading to my PC. But photography is not my vocation, so I don't have the need to immediately review my photo.

If you are dumping the screen (which can essentially be shut off in most cameras) why not dump the meter as well.

And while we're at it the screw mount worked super well before those fancy bayonet mounts. NiCads might provide a more purist battery experience. Perhaps they could find a way to make the shutter fully mechanical again. Probably best to forgo the weight of a memory card and used fixed volatile memory that would only hold 36 shots and dump the images if the camera lost power (or just one super high resolution shot).

I would also consider rolling back to Windows 3.1 if there is an old version of Photoshop that will run with it. Or better yet a Tandy computer that runs off a cassette tape.

Hell, I'm just going to chuck the optics thing and use mashed up berries to draw on cave walls. That's when photography was really photography.

When it wasn't.

So, I may be missing something or misread the article, but how is the Fuji X100T not a rangefinder camera? Is there an optical coupling to the focus mechanism that defines rangefinder? Because, otherwise the X100T's got it - a > 100% viewfinder, manual focusing (albeit via EVF), manual aperture / shutter / ISO controls. I'm sure the Leica wins in haptic feedback measures (WANT), but I'm confused why the X100 series somehow isn't a "real" rangefinder.

Sean Molin's picture

Not a stupid question!

A rangefinder specifically has a rangefinder focusing system. A modern coupled rangefinder uses a focusing patch to super-impose an image on top of your subject to determine focus. You could technically have similar digital equivalent of the focus patch (I believe the X100 series does now, actually), but you lose the benefits an OVF including the lack of power consumption, being able to see outside the frame, and infinitely deep focus.

An X100 is a rangefinder-styled camera, but is definitely not a rangefinder. They are two remarkably and vastly different tools.

I think its typically weirdo Leica, but I love the idea... So over people 'chimping' rather than having confidence in what you are doing... You're going to focus on shooting with this camera... like film days...

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