Last weekend I spent an hour or so discussing the Leica M7 in Red Dot Cameras’ new showroom in Goswell Road, City of London. The customer had his eye on a nice silver-finish M7 starter set — the one with the matching silver 50mm Summicron. It was a good boxed example with original receipt from 2004 and priced at an attractive £2,200. Here’s a link to the actual camera but bear in mind it will probably be broken when the set sells.
What struck me most about the encounter was that the potential buyer, a very experienced photographer, had never used a rangefinder. He fancied moving over after a lifetime with other systems, presumably mainly SLRs. How could I describe the rangefinder and how to use it?
Fact is, however often I tarry with the latest technology — be it the buxom Leica SL or a package of svelte micro four-thirds niftiness — I always return to the rangefinder with a keen sense of homecoming. Equally, I do feel a bit homesick when slumming it with autofocus. There’s a great satisfaction in adjusting the focus using that split central image. The concept of focus and then recompose is, to me, the quickest way of singling out a subject and making sure that the focus is accurately placed. That bright viewfinder, with space around the 35mm and longer lens framelines shows you what’s happening outside the frame. All these things may constitute a pretty antiquated concept but, nonetheless, they are inspiring.
For the spartan warriors among us: On the right, the latest purely mechanical confection from Leica Camera AG, the Leica M-A. On the left, its digital counterpart, the screenless, chimpless Leica M-D. Both share the the mechanical rangefinder, the joy of the M user
Manual focus comes part and parcel with rangefinder use. It is clearly an addiction. Call me old fashioned, but I just love this level of manual precision. Leica M lenses, for the most part, offer a quicker, more direct manual focus than you will find on any auto-focus lens that also offers a manual option. Most of these modern lenses are focus-by-wire and there is none of the involvement that you feel when twiddling a Summicron or Summilux.
It’s all just, well, so satisfying and involving. I suppose it’s a bit like coming back to a slick manual Porsche gearbox after a decade or two behind the wheel of an automatic car. You and only you are back in control.
So back to the M7. It’s Leica’s only semi-automatic film camera, offering the same aperture-priority operation as all the M digitals from the M8 up to the latest M10. It is, in fact, a film version of the M10 both in operation and in terms of size. The M10 feels like the M7 and vice versa.
Many analogue camera aficionados decry the M7 as being too complicated, too “electronic”. From the current film camera range they mainly set their sights on the MP — or, if in a particularly spartan mood, the M-A which is totally manual, not a battery in sight. No exposure meter either; it’s for real men and women who know a camera when they see one. If they are hankering after something a bit more “pre-owned” they’ll opt for an M3, M2, M4 or M6. A simpler tool from a simpler age. But all have one thing in common, that delicious and compelling rangefinder. Some say that the original M3 viewfinder has never been bettered, and who am I to disagree?
Yet the M7 has its undoubted talents and attractions (not to mention followers), particularly for anyone now used to a digital M. I like the M7; it’s the film camera to buy if you want exactly the same experience as you have with your digital M. I own a clean à la carte example called Neil (so called because its first owner rashly had his name engraved on the back, thus reducing the camera’s value considerably) to which I am inordinately attached. At the foot of this article I’ve linked to some of my adventures with Neil. When I get my hands on the new M10 I plan to take it out for a back to back with good old Neil, obliging chap that he is. Set both camera shutter speed dials to A and will I be able to tell the difference? The feel, I know already, will be identical.
I just love my rangefinders, despite the undoubted allure of the SL and all its smart-arsed bretheren. Give me simplicity any time.