Give me less, I’ll pay more

The Leica M-D 262 — A digital camera with no settings, no screen

I’m a sucker for controversial trade-offs. Companies that dare say “this one thing is more important than this entire set of other things people usually consider must-haves” take a shortcut to my wallet.

Apple is the oft-heralded example. When the first MacBook Air came out, it garnered a hilarious amount of scorn and disbelief from the technorati. How could anyone live without an optical drive?! With just one USB port?! A processor slower than the fastest one on the market?! All toward the mere pursuit of slimness? PSH!

Turns out lots of people could. Most people even. I certainly could. Jason Fried as well. We both adopted the MacBook Air right from its release and used it as our primary machines. (The same disbelief/acceptance cycle is now playing out with the latest USB-C MacBook).

But this isn’t really the interesting example of extreme trade-offs, just one of the more publicized. A far more interesting example is the recently released Leica M-D 262 camera. It’s a digital camera without any settings and without a screen on the back! You can’t even format an SD card in-camera. Oh the humanity!

Most of the camera world is up in arms about the sheer arrogance of Leica to release something with so much less that even costs more. Yes, that’s right. The version of the 262 without the screen on the back is about 10% more expensive than the one with the screen. I love it.

I love it for the same reason that I love driving manual transmission cars. It’s inefficient, it’s more work, it’s less accessible, and it’s completely wonderful in the right setting. Leica is trading off technological progress to allow a small niche of purists to have more fun and a stronger connection to their camera, just like Porsche is bringing back the manual transmission to their top-tier 911, the R.

It reminds me of the Ruby programming language. Do things that are worse for the machine, that make programs run slower, but widen the smile on a programmer’s face. Make things objectively worse to make them subjectively better.

Of course, it’s this conflict that’s at the source of all the controversy. It’s easy for everyone to cheer when the computer is upgraded from 2GHz to 3GHz. That’s progress everyone can easily get behind. But the progress that says “to make something 10mm slimmer and 300grams lighter, we’re going to cut out these things that some people really like” — now that’s courage.

Deciding to cut out useful, table-stake features from a camera, like the back screen, to tickle the emotions of a small niche of photographers? That’s German balls of steel.

Vorsprung Durch Emotionen!