Leica users are a very conservative breed. New M series Leica bodies only come along about once a generation, and when they do there is usually much gnashing of teeth and beating of breasts. "Oh no," they cry. "This isn't what I'm used to. This can't be as good as what has come before. What have they done!"
To which my response is, "Get over it!".
In the spring of 2002 Leica came out with the M7, an enhanced version of the venerable M6. No, not a replacement. An enhanced and complimentary version, since the M6 TTL continues in the product lineup for the foreseeable future.
If you are not yet a Leica aficionado a good place to start is my Leica M6 TTL review. It explains the camera and the mystique, and has links to other Leica articles and portfolios on this site as well as elsewhere. If you're already an existing or prospective Leica user, jump right in, because the rest of this article assumes that you know what an M6 is all about and want to know what the M7 has to offer that's new, different and worthwhile.
What's New and Different?
Photographed with a Leica M3 and 50mm f/2 Summicron lens
The only new shooting function is aperture priority autoexposure. I say only, but for a M series Leica this is a major advancement. I know, I know, there are those for whom this is as repugnant as placing an automatic transmission in a Ferrari. But, have you driven a Ferrari lately? For that matter, have you looked at the transmission of a Formula 1 racing cars lately? I rest my case.
Oh yes. The M7 now has DX film speed sensing. Yes, I know, every other camera on the planet including $49 point and shoots has had this for about 20 years. But hey — Leica is a conservative company and wanted to be sure that the technology worked well.
Seriously though, when a friend first told me of the features of the M7 prior to its official release, and then again when I subsequently read the press announcement, I was not terribly excited. Did I really want or need autoexposure? But when I started using the camera I realized, "Of course I do." I regularly use autoexposure on virtually every other camera that I work with, so why not with the Leica? Especially with a Leica, given the type of shooting that it is best at. More on this later.
Once autoexposure is added there's the need to inform the user of what shutter speed has been chosen, and this Leica has done through the use of an LED display in the viewfinder. The LED's are bright and clear and can be read in virtually any light. Exposure compensation is handled through the use of a dial on the back of the body.
Two 1N type batteries are used instead of just one, because the shutter is now electronically controlled. It's still the same cloth focal plane shutter that Leica has used since the early Paleozoic (this is a good thing), but instead of mechanical speed control it's now electronic. This allows for the camera's aperture-preferred autoexposure capability, and automatically controlled speeds down to 30 seconds and manually set speeds to 4 seconds are available.
Leica claims about 65 rolls of film to a set of these lithium batteries. In the event that you lose power there are two mechanical, non-battery dependant shutter speeds available; 1/60 sec and 1/125 sec. Since lithium batteries have extremely long shelf life, and these two batteries are so tiny, taking a couple of spares along on any trip is no hardship.
The viewfinder has apparently been given a new antireflection coating. I haven't yet seen much of a difference between it and the previous M6 TTL. What I do see though is a marked improvement in the brightness of the frame lines, especially in moderate light conditions. Well done.
Using the Metz 54 MZ3 flash unit the M7 is capable of sync speeds up to 1/1000 second, but not with auto-TTL. This may appeal to some, but I rarely use flash with an M Leica.
All current Leica accessories, including the Motor M winder work as with the M6.
Ah yes. Cosmetics. Possibly more than other camera owners Leica aficionados care about the little things. For example — the M7 now has an OFF switch and an exposure compensation dial. The shutter speed dial now rotates through a full 360 degrees. Also, the name Leica no longer appears on the front of the camera, just the M7 designation. But the red Leica dot is still there! Thank goodness.
OK, now that I've taken a few jibes at the silliness of some Leica fanatics (including me) and their concerns, let's have a look at how the M7 handles, because that's really what any camera is all about — how well it fulfills its role as a picture taking machine.
In terms of film loading, and almost every other aspect of normal handling the M7 is virtually identical to the M6. This means that it really is quite similar to even an M3, and that takes us back about a half century. (I did say that Leica was conservative). As an ardent M series Leica user I have to admit that this pleases me, as I'm sure it will most others. The fact that the M7's new capabilities have all been squeezed into the same body that we've come to be so comfortable with, was I'm sure, quite a feat of engineering, since it's well understood that the M body has little extra space within it.
Of course it's the new electronically controlled shutter that permits the camera to provide autoexposure. Fear not though. It's only the speed control mechanism that's electronic. The cloth focal plane shutter mechanism itself remains essentially unchanged. Since this shutter has a reputation of being extremely reliable, even in the most adverse conditions, we lose nothing. But, we do gain greater accuracy, as electronic timing is much more accurate than mechanical springs and gears.
One of the things that one notices right off is that while the shutter sounds essentially the same at high speeds, at slows speeds there is none of the whirring that one is used to. It opens and then some time later it closes, with silence in-between. The joys of living electrically.
There has been some early online discussion about the shutter lag being somewhat longer with the M7 than with the M6. I don't feel it. What I do feel is that the initial resistance is somewhat lighter, but that when it comes, it comes more decisively. No issue as far as I'm concerned, and possibly even an improvement.
Photographed with a Leica M6 TTL and 35mm f/1.4 Summilux ASPH on Ilford XP2
After just a single day's use I because a firm convert. Autoexposure indeed makes perfect sense for an M Leica, and those that have been gnashing their teeth over this should either try it themselves, or take a pill. Here's why.
Leicas are at their best as street shooting machines. Because of their numerous merits — small size, simplicity of operation, near-silent shutter, rangefinder viewing, etc, they excel in helping photographers work quickly and unobtrusively in shooting situations where larger, nosier and more complicated cameras would get in the way of getting the image.
But, what are the two things that a photographer must do when composing a shot? Focus and set exposure. Since an M series Leica is a manual-focus camera — and most would agree that it should stay that way — that leaves setting exposure. If you still have and use a Leica that doesn't have a built-in TTL meter, then good for you, but you're missing out. I spent a day last year working with another Leica shooter who worked this way, and he was often whipping a Gossen meter out his pocket as the light changed and as we moved from sun to shade. It didn't seem to slow him down much, but personally I'm glad to have left those days behind me back in the '60s.
So, this means that in addition to composing the frame and focusing, one needs to turn the aperture ring so that the arrows illuminate evenly, or the center green light glows. Time consuming and distracting, when the essence of what one is doing is trying to capture a fleeting moment.
Let the machine do it. It's faster and more accurate. If the situation warrants or the mood strikes, simply go back to matching diodes manually. But it won't take more than a roll or two to convince any Leica street shooter that autoexposure is a tool that we've been aching for, even if we didn't know it till now.
From an operational point of view, Leica provides for exposure locking by one pressing the shutter half way. To the company's credit they have made this action so smooth that no one is going to find any significant change in the Leica's traditional shutter release feel or action.
Note though that exposure lock only is in effect for one frame. If you use a motor winder, for example, all frames after the first will not have lock in effect. The way to handle this situation is therefore through the use of manual exposure settings.
Passing By — Toronto, 2002
Photographed with a Leica M7 and Tri-Elmar lens @ 28mm on Provia 100F
Shutter Speeds in the Viewfinder
I'm a long time user of the Hasselblad XPan. I bought one shortly after the camera became available, and have been using it regularly ever since, mostly for landscape work. It's a great camera, with superb (if slow) lenses.
But, it has a fatal flaw. It features autoexposure, but the shutter speed that the camera is setting is only visible on an LCD display on the back of the body, not in the viewfinder. It's only the fact that I use the XPan on a tripod 90% of the time that prevents me from chucking it over a cliff. Not having a viewfinder display of the shutter speed dramatically reduces the utility of this camera, and it is something that almost every reviewer has commented unfavorably on.
Leica, fortunately, has had the wisdom to do what was needed to place a bright and eminently readable illuminated shutter-speed display in the viewfinder. No small feat, I'm sure, given the space available — but imperative.
The first day that I started using the M7 I was struck by how knowing what speed the camera was setting was such an integral part of the feedback one needs when shooting. I won't belabor the point, but the M7 would have been doomed without this, so I'm very pleased that the gnomes at Leica pulled it off as well as they did.
One of the strengths of a Leica, especially over digital and some other highly electronic cameras, is that they respond with instant reflexes. Shutter release is precise and there's virtually no lag. Eye, shutter finger and release act as one. But, Leica blew it on the M7 when the camera is set to Auto mode and the locking switch is first turned on. Here's what this is about.
The last version of the M6, the current M6 TTL, has an OFF position on the shutter speed dial. This prevents the shutter release from accidentally depleting the meter battery, (such as when its pressed against whilst in a camera bag) . The M7 instead has an actual off switch located just to the front of the shutter release. This locks the shutter release as well as turning off all circuits.
The problem is that when the camera is turned on with this switch, and the camera is set to the Auto position, there is a 2 second delay after turn-on during which the film ISO is displayed in the viewfinder and the shutter release is locked. What is this about?
The only solution if you anticipate needing to quickly go from switch turn-on to shooting, it to leave the camera in non-auto mode. A stupid design flaw.
A more minor flaw is that the ISO speed / DX setting dial doesn't have firm enough detents. It needs to have either a locking switch (as does the exposure compensation dial), or much firmer detents. I haven't yet knocked the settings off accidentally, but it certainly looks possible.
Taken with a Leica M6 and 90mm Elmarit f/2.8 lens
Price & Availability
As this is being written in mid-March, 2002 — just weeks after the M7 started to ship, demand for the Leica M7 worldwide is far outpacing supply. The largest U.S. dealer reportedly has received only two cameras so far. Based on its serial number I believe my camera to be only the 146th made.
But, they are available if you're keen on getting one. I bought mine from online dealer HarrysProShop. I got a black .72 viewfinder body — just what I wanted. But, that's also all that's currently available. Eventually the M7 will be available in both chrome and black, and in all viewfinder magnifications, but as of early Spring 2002 choices are limited.
The price you'll pay is $3,799 Canadian. Depending on any given day's exchange rate that's about U.S. $2,390. This includes a 1 Year Leica warranty available through the dealer. A 3 year extended warranty for U.S. customers is available for an additional $99.
This is a reputable dealer whom I've known for years. You can buy from them with confidence. (I have no commercial relationship with HarrysProShop. Just a good dealer with good prices, that I can recommend from personal experience).
After publication of this article I received an email from a manager at one of Leica's national distributors. While commenting favourably on my review he pointed out that Leica cameras and lenses bought from an authorized distributor carry the Leica Passport Warranty. This provides complete 3 year coverage against all failure and damage (with the exception of fire and theft) to M and R series bodies and lenses.
Whether the savings derived buying from an online gray market dealer are worthwhile compared to the support and warranty from a local authorized retailer is a decision that you'll have to make for yourself.
If you have never held or used an M series Leica you are probably shaking your head and wondering what on earth I'm blathering on about. But, if you're a Leica user (as apposed to a collector), I believe that you'll find the M7 to be a logical and worthwhile evolution of the genre. I've been an M Leica user for more than 30 years, from M2 and M3 to M6, and now M7. In my opinion the M7 is a winner, and the best Leica yet.
Here are some M7 related web resources...