Review: The Leica M7
This is an incredibly late review for the Leica M7, which was released in 2002. Mine is an early version bought second-hand, and I have used it extensively for the last two years over which time I have shoot an average of about one film per week and traveled with it in Europe and the Americas.
I became interested in the Leica M series primarily because of wanting something substantially smaller and lighter than our traditional Canon DSLR equipment. A second-hand film camera is possibly the cheapest and most authentic means to the try the system, and I opted for a early model Leica M7 mainly because of the built-in light metering. At the time, I was curious to understand what a “rangefinder” was, how the diminutive M-mount lenses might compare to their bulky DSLR alternatives, and whether or not film was still a viable medium.
Because M-series cameras do not use a mirror, the distance between the back of the lens and the film is very short. This makes it easier to design simpler and smaller wide-angle and normal lenses that perform extremely well, with edge-to-edge sharpness that is usually better than their larger DSLR counterparts. Even relatively old designs often perform excellently, and there is an astonishing range of old and new lenses than can provide everything from “classic” rendering to modern sharpness.
Unlike most film system cameras, both the M7 and lenses remain in production today and it is relatively easy to obtain spare parts and 3rd party servicing. M-series lenses can be used with current Leica film and digital cameras, and can also be adapted to modern digital mirrorless bodies from Sony, Fuji, Olympus and others.
An issue with Leica is their move to rebrand their cameras and lenses as exclusive luxury items, with the result that new Leica products are relatively poor value (more on this later). However, if you are happy with used equipment and are comfortable shooting film, a basic system can be set up for less than the price of most high-end consumer digital cameras. You can also find new 3rd party lenses from Zeiss or Voigtländer, which are a fraction of the cost of comparable Leica lenses yet which offer similar optical quality.
An Overview of the M7
The M7 is very much a throwback to an earlier age of film cameras. It has a feature set that would have been competitive thirty years ago, but which was already dated when it was launched. It was the first Leica model to offer an aperture-priority “auto” mode, but otherwise it unmistakably and deliberately looks, sounds and feels very pretty much like any Leica made in the last 50 years.
Functionally, the M7 is very basic:
- rangefinder-based focusing and framing system
- shutter speeds up to 1/1000th second
- built-in light-meter
- aperture-priority auto-exposure mode (set the aperture on the lens, while the camera selects the shutter speed)
There are no fancy face-tracking modes, exposure bracketing, HDR stacking or whatever. All you have are the basics necessary to frame and expose a single film image.
The Rangefinder and Focusing
The Leica M-series are effectively defined by their rangefinder mechanism: all of their inherent strengths and weaknesses derive from it.
Rangefinders have been used for many years, and were historically used to provide a targeting system for munitions. The rangefinders used by Leica exploit optical parallax and were originally clunky add-on gizmos, where the user would first measure the distance using the rangefinder before then adjusting the camera’s photographic lens to match the measurement. While this seems crude today, when first released the original Leica cameras were extremely innovative for their size and ability to get acceptable image quality from what was at that time an extremely small format – 35mm film.
Over time, the design was refined and the rangefinder mechanism integrated in to the body and coupled directly to the focusing ring on the lens. The resulting camera – the 1954 M3 – was very successful, and remains one of the best regarded cameras of all time. Today, all of Leica’s current M-series cameras are immediately recognisable as cousins to the M3. The M7 is essentially little more than an M3 with a tweaked viewfinder, built-in light metering and electronic shutter control.
Looking at the front of the M7, you can see three optical windows – the main viewfinder, a white window that illuminates the framelines, and a smaller window under the shutter-speed dial for the rangefinder. You have to be careful not to block any of these with your fingers while holding the camera.
The viewfinder shows a fixed field of view of equivalent to a lens of about 24-28mm. To understand what will end up in the photograph a set of focal-length dependent “framelines” are projected in to the view, together with an LED display for the exposure. The framelines are displayed in pairs, which for the most common 0.72 magnification finders show as 28/90mm, 35/135mm and 50/75mm respectively.
This is what you see with a 50mm lens attached:
The 50/75mm framelines are automatically selected by attaching the lens, which you can clearly see in the lower right. The black ring that is visible is the lens hood, which has holes cut out to minimise its impact on the view. Such viewfinder blockage is a shock coming from an SLR or mirrorless camera, but in practise with most lenses it is a non-issue.
Another quirk is that there is a parallax offset between the viewfinder and the lens. If you are very close to a subject, lining the subject in the centre of the viewfinder means that the subject will be off-center in the image. To compensate for this, the framelines move within the viewfinder, as can be seen by comparing the two images above. While helpful, the correction is not perfect and it is a good idea not to try to frame subjects too tightly. This and also difficulties in dealing with extreme ray angles means in the rangefinder means that the M7 can not focus closer than 70cm.
Focus accuracy is determined by the mechanical tolerances in the rangefinder and lens coupling, the distance between the two optical windows, and the eyesight of the photographer. This precision is independent of the lens that is mounted and is just about good enough to accurately focus a 50mm f1.4 lens. Unlike an SLR, the focus accuracy is not proportional to the focal length, and reliable focus of very fast or longer focal lengths is challenging. Leica recommends the use of a screw-in magnifier on the viewfinder in such cases, but even so the fastest practical long lens is typically 135mm f3.5.
With very wide-angle lenses, the focus accuracy typically performs better than an SLR. However, to uses lenses wider than 28mm you need to attach an auxilliary optical finder to the flash hot shoe, using the built-in finder to focus and the add-on finder to frame.
One last observation about the viewfinder is that it is problematic if you wear glasses. Although the view is large, clear and very bright, the eye relief is much too small, making it difficult to get your eye close enough to see the entire scene. This means that while my M7 has frame-lines for a 28mm lens, the widest lines that I can see sensibly are for a 35mm lens. There are the usual Heath Robinson work-arounds for this, such as using a screw-in diopter or replacing the optics for a rangfinder with a lower magnification, but neither are really satisfactory.
The practical upshot of all of the above is that the M7 works best with 35mm and 50mm lenses, and forget anything like macro or close-focus.
It is, of course, possible to completely ignore the rangefinder mechanism and simply use scale-focus – ie you guess the distance to your subject and set the focus directly on the lens. This technique is very common in street photography, and most Leica mount lenses include a small nub on the focus ring that makes it possible to tell what distance the lens is focussed at, simply by feel. Working this way takes a lot of practise, but it is much faster than other focusing methods. Almost all of the street photography that I take – both Leica and non-Leica – is made this way.
Using Filters on the M7
Filters are important with black-and-white film to change contrast, or to allow longer exposure times.
The M7 works brilliantly here. I can attach a 10-stop ND filter or an 091 Dark Red filter to the lens, and yet the viewfinder and focusing mechanism are unobscured and still work exactly as before. This and the fact that there is no black-out of the viewfinder when the shutter is open makes for some interesting creative possibilities, such as long-exposure images taken while panning the camera.
The flip-side of this is that it is also very difficult to use filters that rely on being able to view the scene through the filter. Adjustable graduated filters are almost impossible to use, and polarising filters are challenging. I typically use the M7’s light-meter to judge when the polariser is correctly oriented, but there also are some Heath Robinson contraptions that allow a filter to be adjusted while in front of the viewfinder, before being rotated in to place in front of the lens.
Exposure Control, Metering and the Shutter
One of the best features of the M7 is the through-the-lens metering system. Light coming from the lens is reflected off a painted white spot on the shutter curtain, and the brightness measured by a pair of photodiodes mounted at the edge of the opening.
Despite its simplicity, this works exceptionally well. It provides quite literally spot metering that accounts automatically for the lens, aperture and any filters that are attached. I find it easier to use than many “intelligent metering” schemes in modern cameras simply because it behaves predictably.
The meter works both in its “auto” mode, where the viewfinder shows the metered shutter speed, and also in manual mode, where it shows M6-style LEDs to indicate possible under or over-exposure.
Frequently you will see Leica purists rejecting the idea having an “auto” mode, let alone built-in metering. But I think that this is one of best reasons to choose an M7 over the more manual cameras. I almost always leave the camera set to automatic exposure mode, and switch to manual only if I want to take several shots rapidly in difficult lighting. What makes this work is that a half-press on the shutter button locks the exposure reading, making it easy to choose which part of the image to expose for.
Film speed and exposure compensation can be set on a crude plastic dial mounted on the back of the camera. There is also a largely pointless DX-code reader to automatically determine the film speed, but I always enter the film speed manually as the reader is not reliable in my camera.
Exposure compensation can be set by a ring outside of the ISO dial. A locking button in combination with the clunky and difficult-to-turn settings dial means that you can forget about changing this quickly. Invariably, I leave this set at zero and ignore it.
The shutter is worth commenting on. Unlike almost any modern camera, the shutter is made from fabric – seemingly some kind of rubberised cotton. As a result, the shutter curtains are very light weight and make very little noise and vibration when triggered. Unfortunately, the curtains are also highly flammable, and if you accidentally point the camera in to the sun with a lens set to full aperture you will inevitably burn a hole in it. It is surprising that in the 50 years since the design on the M3, Leica has never managed to find a better curtain material…
That quiet, vibration-free shutter definitely helps when shooting on the street. There is literally no comparison to older film SLRs, many of which sound as if you quite literally did shoot your subject. However, many modern digital cameras are just as quiet and often even quieter (notably the Ricoh GR and Fuji X100 series, which use leaf-shutters).
To be blunt, film loading is a pain with the M7. Every other 35mm film camera that I have used has a hinged back-plate. Swing it open, insert the film, wind, and you are done. Leica claims that this would not result in a sufficiently flat film plane (notwithstanding literally hundreds of other cameras that do not seem to have a problem with this…), and so they use an awkward system where the bottom plate of the camera must be completely detached and a flap on the back opened.
So you have to juggle two pieces of camera in your hand in addition to the film that you are trying to load…
Aside from the awkwardness, it is easy to mis-load the film so that it does not move when wound-on. Part of the problem here is that the film-loading diagram suggests that all you need to do is pull the film through and put one end in the three-pronged take-up spool. In fact, the film is actually pulled by the toothed sprocket wheels – so it is essential that you make sure that the film is pushed down sufficiently so that the teeth in the upper sprocket wheel can engage with the holes in the film.
One last observation is that nothing stops you from opening the bottom of the camera while the film is loaded. Having carelessly managed to do this once, I now carefully rewind the film as soon as it is finished…
Ergonomics and Handling
The ergonomics of the M7 when shooting are generally excellent.
The camera body is roughly the same size and weight as a typical modern mirrorless camera such as the Sony A7II. Like most older cameras, the body shape was essentially dictated by the need to hold and wind film rather than specific ergonomic considerations. There is an optional grip that can be used, but with most lenses the camera is light enough that this is unnecessary.
There are very few controls on the body. The shutter, the speed dial and an on/off switch are all are located together on the top plate and easily accessed without looking. ISO and exposure compensation are set using an awkward dial on the back of the body, but are usually set only when changing film. Aperture is set directly on the lens.
There are two minor issues that detract from the otherwise excellent handling. The first is the placement of the rangefinder window, which is very easy to accidentally cover with a finger – it would have been good to have a slight raised edge around the window to avoid smudging the glass. The second issue is the offset placement of the tripod socket – not a serious problem given the typical uses for this camera.
Ultimately, the simplicity and well-placed and logical controls make shooting with the M7 a much more pleasant experience than shooting most modern cameras.
Image Quality and shooting Film
The image quality with the M7 is as good as it gets with 35mm film. The shutter is sufficiently smooth that vibration is seldom a problem, and the focus accurate and easy to use: the image quality is defined by the combination of the lens and emulsion.
One question I had when trying the M7 was whether or not resolution could be competitive against digital 35mm cameras. It is difficult to concisely describe the resolution of film, as the MTF curve falls off slowly with feature size, rather remaining flat until (almost) the Nyquist limit. Realistically, most digital cameras with more than 12 megapixels are going to deliver punchier and sharper images than most good films.
The following gallery shows some basic image comparisons between a digital Leica (typ 262) and the M7 using Ilford Delta 100. Delta 100 is a modern film, with excellent sharpness and a fine tabular grain. The images were shot with the same lens stopped down to f8 and without any filter fitted (to avoid degrading the image – usually I would use a filter to help increase contrast). The digital images were shot in colour and converted to black-and-white using a weak virtual-blue filter to approximate the colour response of the film. The film was scanned via a macro lens with a high-resolution DSLR:
The film gets surprisingly close to the digital image (24 megapixels) for sharpness, although the finest details are obscured by grain. Faster films are a lot grainier and much less sharp, but generally if you shoot 35mm film it is to exploit its character rather than to get the sharpest, cleanest possible images.
Film is generally very easy to shoot and process. There is usually a lot of exposure latitude, and errors that would leave burned-out highlights on digital are seldom a problem.
That Legendary Leica Build Quality?
A lot of users rave about “legendary” Leica build quality, and it is true that Leica was providing state-of-the-art mechanical engineering back in the 1950’s. However, in a modern context it is difficult to see the M7 as a particularly well engineered camera.
I suspect that a lot of people confuse the heavy metal build for quality. Large chunks of metal make a camera dense and heavy, giving the illusion of quality. They do not automatically make it robust or reliable. Where I think the build quality fails is:
- unsealed rangefinder (my viewfinder and rangefinder windows are full of dust, reducing contrast)
- mechanically weak baseplate and tripod mount
- those flammable shutter curtains…
- the poorly designed and implemented plastic ISO and exposure compensation wheel on the back of the camera
- the lack of any means for user-calibration of the rangefinder
- flimsy and easily lost plastic covers for the battery compartment and flash sync port
The lack of sealing on the body is quite frustrating. Dust seemingly enters the rangefinder mechanism via the shutter-speed dial, reducing contrast and clarity when focusing. Why is the rangefinder even open to dust from here? I have no idea. Periodically, I use a vacuum cleaner to suck the dust out – something that I have never needed to do with any other camera.
Another example is the plate on the bottom of the camera that is removed to load film. This relies on a single riveted lug to stay in place, and although externally this looks well machined and polished, from the inside the rivet looks very unsubstantial. I usually carry much larger DSLRs using a shoulder strap that screws in to the tripod socket, but I would not risk this with the M7.
Current digital M cameras appear to address most of these issues. It is ironic that the M typ 262 feels much less “solid” in the hand, yet it lacks those problematic plastic port covers, has a robust centrally mounted tripod socket, and has a less combustible shutter. Undoubtably Leica could build a better M7, but I expect that there is simply not enough demand to justify the tooling and design costs.
The Tao of Leica
What was cutting edge half a century ago now seems crude and fragile compared to current cameras. In particular, the arrival of small, high quality Nikon SLRs in the 1970’s started to expose the limitations of the rangfinder design and Leica was almost driven to bankrupcy.
When the M7 was released in 2002, it suffered both from too much and too little technological innovation. Many remaining Leica users at that time resented the reliance on a battery to drive the shutter, while potential new users dismissed it immediately as a quaint throwback in a world of autofocus and emerging digital technology. Most of the world ignored it.
Today, Leica openly embraces the seeming techo-luddism of its traditional user base. It has restructured itself as a company based around luxury and nostalgia. They still make the M7 as well as cameras with no electronics whatsoever. They also make digital M cameras that are essentially little more than an M7 fitted with a digital sensor.
Financially, this strategy has worked very well, pulling in sales from deep-pocketed retirees and rich kids alike. Unfortunately, Leica’s luxury pricing is not reflected in the quality and support of the product on sale and increasingly it seems if cameras are made to be displayed or collected rather than to be used.
Advertisements show white cotton-gloved camera fondlers afraid of leaving fingerprints behind, while the internet forums are awash with reports of cracked and corroding sensors and six month repair delays. Leica’s response to this is at best lethargic, and in stark contrast to the rapid professional services offered by Canon and Nikon. Instead of building better, more reliable cameras Leica opts to release “Lenny Kravitz” special editions that have more in common with a pair of pre-worn jeans than a photographic tool, and cameras unspoiled by those oh-so-unaesthetic strap-lugs. Leica prefers customers willing to pay a premium for a camera they will seldom use.
So why, as a serious photographer, would you shoot a Leica camera today?
Firstly, there is little doubt that using a Leica rangefinder of pretty much any vintage is pleasurable. It is an engaging process that requires you to think carefully about the aspects of the picture that matter – lighting, focus, framing. It gives a minimalist zen-like process that few modern digital cameras can approach (I would argue that a notable exception is the Ricoh GR). The act of taking an image is slower and more deliberate, and it changes what and how you photograph. If art is what results from the collision between the artists imagination and the limitations of their equipment and medium, then Leica sure gives you a running start. Above all else, it is just plain different.
Unfortunately, for most professional uses today, the high costs and poor service from Leica mean that professional use of the cameras is problematic. A new camera and lens can cost in excess of $7000, and given the reliability and repair times you would need several. I have also shot in many areas where carrying such expensive kit would be very unwise, and many former Leica shooters are moving to other systems.
I think that this is a great shame.
Leica trades on its history, with a legacy of famous names like Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Doisneau, Helen Levit, Sebastian Salgado, Garry Winogrand – even the Queen. Unfortunately, the failure to provide a true modern successor to those older film cameras – robust, reliable and cost effective – means that increasingly fewer photographers use the marque, and no new history is being laid down. Instead, Leica’s legacy is slowly being buried under a mountain of rich-kid-selfies and internet discussions obsessing over which paint job is best to make it look as if their camera has been heavily used.
Cynicism aside, there is fortunately a thriving enthusiast movement, largely driven by interest in the older cameras and lenses, and in film. Today, this is probably where the authentic spirit of Leica resides.
- the rangefinder (unique viewfinder & focusing)
- small, excellent lenses from Leica, Zeiss and Voigtlander
- small and lightweight for a full-frame camera
- quiet and unobtrusive in use (compared to an SLR)
- excellent built-in metering
- it’s a Leica (zen-like ergonomics; seductive haptics)
- the rangefinder (no close-focus; telephoto limitations; focus accuracy; etc)
- poor build quality compared to modern cameras (dust; flammable shutter curtains; etc)
- it’s a Leica (cost; service and support)
- scanning negatives with a DSLR, when you could just have taken the picture with the DLSR in the first place…
It is often said that shooting with a film rangefinder is one of the best ways to improve your photography. I do not entirely agree, as the cost of pressing that shutter button is high enough to inhibit creative experimentation, which is surely what photography should be about. However, it is an antidote to perfection, and an incentive to concentrate on content rather than presentation – a differentiator for photography that can not be matched simply by buying ever more advanced cameras.
The M7 is simultaneously the best and the worst camera that I have ever used, and all the better for it.