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

I had a Yashica rangefinder years ago after using a Mamiya Press camera (rangefinder) for while in restaurant photography business. For me the split screen viewfinder was the best to focus with in low light. When even that was challenging I would just ask a diner to hold up a knife blade close their face. Manual focus was quick and accurate. I knew what I had in the camera because I used a Weston Euromaster lightmeter on incident light. Loved it all. Mostly I ran 6x6 but for 35mm no Pentax SLR just the Yashica. Surely it would work better to drop the price and sell 20000 units than expect 500 people to hand over a house deposit.

Owain Shaw's picture

It's something I've been thinking about for the past couple of weeks anyway but the video has really convinced me to buy ... tickets to Porto.

minh insixiangmy's picture

Many cameras for many different markets. It's niche camera targeted at a certain user base. I agree with Leica producing what their user base wants. If none of this camera's shooting dynamics or style appeal to you, thats ok.. it's not targeted at you. I would rather be in a world with many choices, than just one "logical" choice.

I will buy this MD. I am use to Leica, and love the basic and the quality of there camera. ( not the price)
I love the M7 but cost of developing + time push me into the M8,m9, m240.
I always dream about a digital M with No Option ( no color choice, no Menu, no delete button, no Live view, no play button, no info button, no Set button, and no screen ) to concentrate on my subject, with 5 levers only ( distance, aperture, speed, Iso, Ev correction).
it's far enough.

of course I can put tapes on my 240 screen, to emulate a digital M7 but it's far better to have it Raw.

Just put film in a M6/M7 and you will understand the freedom of not reviewing your shoot...and in street photography, there is only one decisive moment... checking and redo it is useless, the scene is gone.....

Mark Bealer's picture

This is a great step in the right direction; in fact I hope to see the M-D camera go fully toward a manual shutter release and get rid of everything it needs a battery for, except the watch battery it has with the M6 film camera meter. It could incorporate a "film advance or shutter cocking" lever that automatically creates a charge of electricity it needs to send the latent RAW info from the sensor to the SD card. (kinda like a wind-up radio) This would truly be a godsend answer for the photojournalists and travel photographers stuck without possibly charging batteries (and not able to take a suitcase full of batteries) for weeks at a time!
And, hell! It would get the advance lever back on a digital camera!