LEICA M7 (made today) and 50mm f/2 (1970) (22.2 oz/631g without lens, $5,000 new or about $1,700 used if you know how to win at eBay. enlarge. I'd get mine at Adorama or at Amazon, or used at this link to it at eBay. It helps me keep adding to this site when you get yours through these links, thanks! Ken.
January 2009 Rangefinder vs. SLR cameras
Service Note, July 2009: My particular M7's flaky DX reading system was repaired by Leica, so I still need to edit my whining about that out of this review.
NEW: Rangefinder vs. SLR cameras 16 September 2009
LEICA M7 Compared to Zeiss Ikon and Minolta CLE 09 June 2009
The LEICA M7 is a manual-focus rangefinder, automatic electronic-shutter 35mm full-frame camera.
It has both manual and aperture-preferred auto exposure modes and works with all LEICA M lenses and accessories made since 1954.
"Rangefinder" means that you focus by lining-up a superimposed image in a separate viewfinder. That's the window on the top right.
Unlike SLRs, you are looking through a separate viewfinder, not through the lens. This lets rangefinder cameras weigh much less, have sharper optics, vibrate less and make less noise than SLRs which require additional prisms, mirrors and mechanics, but it also means that you can't compose anywhere near as accurately as you can with an SLR because you're never looking through the lens. This is why rangefinder cameras went obsolete overnight in the 1960s. Leica continues to make these for a minority of people who prefer small, quiet, simple cameras with superb optics over the convenience and precise composition of SLRs.
You won't appreciate this until you hold one, but the main reason to shoot one of these is because it, and its lenses, are tiny. My M7 and three lenses weigh less than three pounds, total! This light weight encourages me to hike farther and get into places I'd be too lazy to try with DSLRs.
I shoot my M7 digitally, full-frame, by sending my film to NCPS and having them make hi-resolution, low-cost automated scans of all frames at the same time they develop my film. My results match what I get from a 25MP DSLR, and are sharper than anything from a 13MP DSLR.
Unlike DSLRs, the M7 won't be worthless in 18 months. A LEICA M7 costs much less to own and shoot than a DSLR.
How it Feels top
The funniest thing about the LEICA M7 is how oddly familiar it feels.
It took a while for it to dawn on me, and then I realized it's because holding a LEICA M7 feels just like holding a gun.
By comparison, current Oriental cameras (Nikon, Canon, Casio, Sony, etc.) feel just like cell phones or video games.
The LEICA feels as simple, mechanical, solid, precise and directly to-the-point as a handgun. It even has the same black-metal finish, not paint, enamel or epoxy like other cameras.
Just like SIG-Sauer, the LEICA is made in Germany. A LEICA M7 is about as dense as a gun: it's tiny, but weighs more than you'd expect if you're used to Oriental SLRs. The simple design of this LEICA M7 is just like the simple black design of a gun, with just a few simple mechanical controls.
I'm serious. Exactly like a gun, the LEICA is completely devoid of any beepers, menus, rechargeable batteries, handling delays, booting-up, LCD displays or plastic. Just like a gun, the only plastic on a LEICA might be the grip. There are no buttons, beepers, blinking lights or displays, and rarely any batteries.
Just like a gun, Leicas mostly work fine without batteries. Any electronics in the M7 aren't obvious at all; the only thing that tips you off is the small red LED finder display, which is equivalent to a gun's red laser sight or reticule illuminator. The M7 does need a battery for most, but not all, its shutter speeds, and this battery lasts a year or so, while earlier Leicas work swell with no batteries at all.
Compare this to how digital cameras are just like cell phones, which are all mostly from the Orient. Video games, digital SLRs and cell phones all have rechargeable batteries that you hope last as long as a week between charges, and once the battery dies, the item is useless.
Games, DSLRs and phones all have lighted LCDs and endless menu systems that make little sense. Cell phones and DSLRs and games all make annoying beeps and tones, and all tend to have metal internal frames supporting their plastic innards with possibly some metal vanity covers.
Leicas and guns are just solid metal.
Cell phones, DSLRs and games make all sorts of crazy sounds when they go off. In fact, most cell-phone cameras play little recordings of the same infernal racket made by a DSLRs' winder!
Leicas make only the same simple click as a dry-fired gun, and they each make only the slightest ratcheting sounds when cocked.
Just like a gun, you can leave a loaded, cocked M7 sitting around for ages, and it's ready to go off the instant anyone pulls the trigger. This is dangerous in either case, but the worst that would happen with the LEICA is getting some prank photos on your film.
For both, the only limit of how long you can leave them sitting around is someone stealing it. You don't have to worry about charging batteries or boot-up and set-up times; either goes off the instant you pull its trigger, even years from now.
I never turn mine off; the M7's power switch is only a safety catch. (the red dot means the M7 is turned OFF.) I put my M7 away loaded with the safety off so it's ready to go at any instant. Like a gun, be sure when you put it away that nothing is likely to press its shutter accidentally. (Of course never put guns away loaded or unlocked, but that's not part of this story. No one gets hurt when a LEICA goes off accidentally due to an owner's stupidity.)
I have no idea what weenie said that a LEICA feels as precise as a watch. My watch is a lot more precise than any LEICA I've tried, and a lot smaller too.
A LEICA feels as precise, simple and solid as a gun, but not at all like a watch. Even though LEICA binoculars, rangefinders and scopes are used by sportsmen all around the world, it seems photographers don't hunt.
What the LEICA M7 Does Well top
The M7 excels as a small, quiet, solid and lightweight camera for serious photography.
The M7 excels for tripod work at night, with the ability to make automatic exposures as long as 38 seconds.
As I'll explain later, the M7 can meter exposures down into starlight, can clock-off manual bulb exposures out to 16 minutes, and can make bulb exposures of unlimited duration.
I make a lot of long exposures at night, so I particularly like the M7.
The M7's finder LEDs count-down long auto exposures, and they count up the elapsed time in Bulb mode. You easily can read them from a foot behind the M7 while it's on a tripod, so its as if the M7 is projecting your exposure times out on your subject for your convenience in reading them without touching the camera!
In Bulb, the finder display counts up to 999 seconds (16 minutes) and then turns off to save battery power. If you like long exposures, you're going to love the M7. Once the display turns off after 16 minutes, you can leave the M7's shutter open all year; it only needs battery power again to close the shutter at the end of your exposure.
The M7 is a camera best appreciated by shooting it. It looks crummy in reviews like this, and even worse when you start comparing features. Oriental cameras are all about long lists features, even if you don't need them and they get in the way, while the Leicas are all about working well and getting out of the way of great pictures.
The lever below the finder lets you select any viewfinder frame without having to change lenses first.
I have a lot of which I poke fun below, but never forget that the LEICA M7 is a magnificent camera for serious shooting where you want the smallest, lightest camera made today with the best lenses on the planet.
The only real competition to the M7 is the discontinued Contax G system. SLRs like Nikons don't have optics as good, and are too big and heavy.
What the LEICA M7 Does Poorly top
Like every rangefinder camera, the LEICA M7 usually begets sloppy framing. Its viewfinder is nowhere near as accurate as anything we take for granted with even the crummiest SLR.
The LEICA M7 is a poor choice if you demand precise framing and composition, which ought to be one of the most important factors by which you select a camera.
It takes experience to learn just what you will or will not get on film with your various lenses at various distances. No mater how well it might correct parallax (it doesn't really), it can't correct for different fields of view at different distances as does the Contax G System. The M7 manual apologizes for the 23% extra you'll get with a 135mm lens at infinity.
Even if the finder were perfect, which it certainly isn't, you're still looking from a point of view 2 inches (5cm) away from your lens. You never can see the effects of depth-of-field until you get your film developed. This is all why rangefinder cameras went obsolete in the 1960s.
The biggest faults particular to the M7 are the slightly defective rangefinder design and flaky DX-coding readout system of early samples.
The rangefinder has been improved in current production, and the original poorly designed electrical DX readout has been replaced with an optical infra-red LED DX readout. I'm told that these repairs to the original flawed designs are also available as retrofits for earlier cameras.
The reason to shoot an M7 is to carry a small, light, tough camera for serious 35mm photography with lenses that are unsurpassed. LEICA lenses are equaled in the Contax G system, which is far more advanced than anything from Leica, as the Contax G has a superior viewfinder system, autofocus and high-speed motorized advance and rewind. See Contax G versus LEICA M Systems.
The LEICA M7 is the fusion of 1950s mechanics, 1970s electronics and timeless optics.
The LEICA M7 has most of the features of a 1978 Nikon FE. The advantage of the LEICA M7 is its ability to use the tiny and excellent LEICA lenses.
The advantage of the Nikon FE of 1978 is a far more accurate SLR viewing and metering-area system, a wider range of lenses, better reliability, longer battery life, smaller and more common batteries, more intuitive analog metering, a wider range of manual and automatic shutter speeds, faster flash sync, a self-timer, multiple exposures, and reliable manual film speed settings. The LEICA M7 offers none of these. Both the Nikon FE and LEICA M7 offer two mechanical shutter speeds: 1/60 and 1/125 on the LEICA, and 1/90 and bulb on the Nikon FE.
Most importantly, along with the far more accurate SLR finder of the FE, the biggest advantage of the 1970s Nikon EM, EL, FE and FE2 is that they have far more precise and easy-to-read analog meter needles, while the M7 of today uses an LED digital shutter speed readout dug up from the 1970s.
The LEICA M7's digital readout requires quite a bit of in-your-head math to figure out the correct exposure for a scene where the highlights meter 1/250 and the darks read 1/45, while on the FE, all you do is look at the swing of the needle and aim for the center. Zone placements are obvious with an analog needle, but not with the M7's digital readout.
The M7 is new to Leica, but nothing new to photographers. The M7's basic operation is the same as the LEICA M3 of 1954, which is the basis of most modern 35mm cameras.
The M7's metering pattern was taken from Nikon SLRs of the 1960s.
The basic operation of the exposure system is a simplified version of the system of the Nikkormat EL of 1970.
The digital LED readout was copied from the Canon A-1 of 1978 (the Canon A-1 also includes the aperture, which the M7 doesn't).
The M7's shutter-speed dial was copied from the Pentax 645N of 1997.
All fun aside, the reason to love the M7 is to use the superb LEICA lenses, and its small size, low weight and very quiet operation. It wins when you realize its limited features include just what you really need, and the lack of everything else lets you concentrate on what is important: composition. The M7 doesn't even have a self-timer.
35mm rangefinder, bayonet mount lenses, electronic cloth focal-plane shutter camera.
Black chrome, which is much nicer and tougher than black enamel as used on Oriental cameras.
There is also a chrome version seen less often, and a bizarre LEICA custom-ordering program where you can order whatever you want.
LEICA M bayonet, unchanged since 1954. Doesn't care about 6-bit coding.
0.72x with frame lines for 28/90mm, 35/135mm and 50/75mm lenses.
It's messy, because you always get two sets of frame lines at once.
Optional versions of the M7 have either 0.58x or 0.85x magnification and lose either the 135mm or 28mm frame lines.
Finder Displays top
1970s-style 3-1/2 digit LED for auto shutter speed, with > o < arrows for manual metering and a bolt for flash.
The flash bolt stays on if the flash made a good auto exposure, otherwise, the meter and finder displays disappear immediately after taking a picture.
This is inferior to the analog needle of the Nikon EM, EL, FE and FE2.
TTL auto and manual metering off a 12mm central spot painted on a shutter curtain.
The meter only works when the shutter is cocked.
AE Lock top
Yes, with a half-pulled shutter.
Meter Range top
32 seconds - 1/1,000 second, regardless of set aperture. Really only rated as low as 4 seconds at ISO 100, but it reads and to 32 seconds while lighting an "out of range" arrow in protest.
ISO range top
DX: ISO 25 ~ 5,000.
Manual: ISO 6 ~ 6,400, and if you cheat and use the ±2 stops exposure compensation, ISO 1.5 ~ 25,600.
Film-Type Indicator top
There is no window, and no box-end holder.
You have to guess, or look in the finder and see the ISO show for two seconds every time you turn on the power. You'll see the DX-read ISO, but have no idea if its color, B&W, slides or negatives, 24 or 36 exposures.
Cable Release top
Standard $6 screw-in.
Self Timer top
None, so you always need to carry a cable release for time exposures.
Electronic, horizontal focal-plane.
38s - 1/1,000 steplessly in Auto mode. Leica only says 32s, but in reality, it runs up to 38s in Auto.
You can't cheat in auto for speeds above 1/1,000; 1/1,000 is the real top speed.
4s - 1/1,000 in full stops in manual mode, also 1/50 for flash sync.
In manual mode only, 1/60 and 1/125 work without batteries.
Bulb requires batteries to open and close the shutter.
Flash Sync top
A pitifully slow 1/50, due to the shutter curtains designed to be slow, and therefore quiet.
Flash Hot Shoe top
Uses the same pin locations as Nikon, so Nikon passive extension cords work. I have not tried swapping Nikon and Leica flashes, but the passive Nikon SC-17 cord does let me use the SF-24D off-camera with TTL control.
Flash Metering top
TTL off-the-film with SCA 3000 system, LEICA SF-20 or SF-24D flashes.
Two small 2L76 (DL1/3N, K58L, CR1/3N) lithium cells. I haven't tried it, but in a pinch, four common A76 cells might work.
Leica rates it for about 60 rolls. I've only shot 10 so far on a set; I'll let you know.
5.4 x 3.1 x 1.5" (138 x 79.5 x 34mm), WHD, specified.
22.265 oz. (631.2g), measured as deployed with batteries and film, but no strap, cap or lens.
Leica rates it as 21.5 oz. (610g) stripped without batteries.
Price, USA top
The LEICA M7 is easy to use and shoot. The M7 and its lenses are tiny, far smaller than SLR cameras and lenses.
This is where it excels. It does exactly what it needs to, without all the needless features of Oriental cameras that get in the way. Its lenses are superior to Nikon's and Canon's.
Except for the design flaws noted below, the M7 helps make great photos and doesn't get in the way. It's easy to love, so don't take my negative comments as strongly as they appear to be written. It's just that I'm not one for gushing over the good points, while I love detailing the bad. I can do this because I have to buy my own gear, not borrow it from a manufacturer I need to keep happy in the hope that he loans me more.
Metering and Exposure top
The primitive center-weighted-only metering and exposure system is superb, but only if you know exactly what you are doing.
If you know what you're doing, the LEICA M7's TTL meter allows far more consistent exposures over all conditions, free from the errors introduced by lenses that plague accuracy in the Nikon and Canon systems.
The big gotcha is that you stilt need to understand the Zone System with the Leica's simple meter. If you just point-and-shoot, you won't be as happy as you'll be with modern multi-segment meters.
Unlike Nikon's Matrix and Canon's evaluative meters, which actually measure the correct exposure, the LEICA only measures raw light in one spot. You have to interpret the Leica's simple but accurate readings and apply compensation as demanded by the brightness of the subject.
Except for a very few parts made of plastic, this is an all-metal camera.
The only plastic external parts are the battery cover, the end of the film wind lever, the film speed and compensation dials (but they have aluminum inserts with the numbers), the bright line diffusion window, the tip of the frame line preview lever and two bumpers on the top cover that prevent wear from the strap rings.
Everything else is metal, and all the engravings are deeply engraved.
The shutter speed knob is solid metal, and its markings are engraved.
The serial number is engraved into the top of the hot shoe.
The top cover is CNC brass, finished in black or silver chrome. The black finish is black chrome (metal), not paint.
The strap lugs are solid, without the stainless steel inserts of better Nikons. I have a sneaking suspicion that this may be because the Leica's strap lugs may be solid stainless steel!
LEICA M7 and 50mm f/2 (1970). enlarge.
Sound and Noise top
The slow rubberized cloth shutter curtains give a lousy sync speed, but a wonderfully quiet shutter.
The only other sound is the manual winding of the film, which has no ratcheting on advance, and only a little on rebound.
The shutter does not buzz as do mechanical shutters. At longer speeds, instead of one click, you'll hear two softer clicks, with silence in between.
The shutter is electronically controlled in Auto and manual, although manual speeds of 1/60 and 1/125 (only) are mechanically controlled. Oddly, these two manual speeds are slightly quieter than the other electronically controlled speeds.
The view through the finder is slightly polarized, meaning you might get results with slightly different tones than you see in the finder for highly polarized subjects. I've never found this to be a problem.
The finder is corny, as most Leicas have been since the M4-P of 1980.
There are frame lines for six lenses (28mm, 35mm, 50mm, 75mm, 90mm and 135mm), but two sets are always up at once. Your three pairs are 28mm and 90mm, 35mm and 135mm, or 50mm and 75mm.
Only the 28mm, 35mm, 50mm and 90mm frames are reasonably complete, although they are all missing their corners. The 75mm and 135mm frames are just four corners without their sides. The 50mm frame has no bottom, just lower left and right corners. The M3 is far superior here.
Wide lenses will always have their finder images partly obscured by the frame lines of the longer lens. Long lenses will always have the frames for a wider lens displayed, so be careful not to use the wider frame with the longer lens! The good news is that 90mm and 135mm lenses are long enough that they'll get in the way of the wider view, which ought to clue you in.
Beware using any 28mm lens other than the tiny current (2006-) 28mm f/2.8 ASPH. All earlier 28mm lenses are big enough to cut-off (block) some of the lower right corner of the finder at 28mm. The hood of even the newest 28mm f/2.8 ASPH blocks a little. The current, faster 28mm f/2 ASPH probably blocks a lot of the lower right of the finder.
The finder is too big at 28mm. I have to look left and right and up and down to see the entire finder, which means that I can't see my entire composition at once.
For wide lenses, the finder image is distorted (bulged-out with barrel distortion), yet the bright lines are straight. You have to guess what will be in your image.
The frame lines aren't always that visible. Sometimes some of them are dim, and I need to wiggle my eye around to see them. They are more visible at night than they sometimes are during the day!
The frame lines aren't very accurate, so good luck getting accurately framed images. Even though they compensate for parallax, no LEICA is smart enough to compensate for different angles of view at different focus distances, as does the Contax G system. Because of this, the M7's frame lines are most accurate at close-focus, and include too much at far distances. Per the M7's user manual, at infinity, 28mm lenses will include 9% extra, and 135mm lenses will include a whopping 23% extra on the film that was not shown in the finder. That's sloppy!
I get sloppy results with my 28mm lens at all distances. I usually get too much on top and too little on bottom. This is where SLRs shine, and one of the reasons that rangefinder cameras like these went obsolete in the 1960s.
The 1970s LEDs are located below the image for 50mm and longer lenses.
The LEDs are on the bottom of your finder image for 35mm lenses, and in the middle of the lower half of your finder image with 28mm lenses. LEICA conveniently illustrates their M7 promotional literature showing the 50/75mm finder display, which is the only one for which the LEDs aren't in the finder's picture area.
Digital LEDs are inferior to using a real analog needle to sweep across shutter speeds steplessly. If LEICA used a real needle, it would have been fast and easy to use the Zone System without taking my eye from the finder, or to have to do any math in my head. The digital displays suck by comparison, since you can't just eyeball it by how far the needle moves for different light and dark parts of your subject.
If LEICA can't afford to use a real analog needle like Nikon's EM, the least they could have done was to have used at least a "Christmas tree" display with an LED for each speed. If LEICA did this, we could see the LEDs move up and down the scale as the light levels varied. Even a $35 Pentax ME does this.
Trigger Pull (Shutter Release) top
The trigger pull of the M7 is inferior to earlier Leicas.
The M7 has a three-position feel as you press the shutter release.
The first part of the travel feels like other Leicas. This is good.
A little farther down, you'll feel increased resistance. This means you've locked the exposure, and a tiny LED dot on the bottom of the finder display lights to let you know it.
Towards the end of the travel, the resistance increases a second time, after which the shutter releases.
By comparison, the M3 and M4-P (and Nikon F2) have perfect trigger pulls, where the shutter release button moves smoothly and with constant resistance to where the shutter releases. With those cameras, it's a constant pressure as you press it further until the shutter just goes off.
With the M7, there are two kinks as the shutter button is pressed.
Even though I prefer the trigger pull of earlier cameras, the electronic shutter of the M7 is much quieter and has less vibration than the mechanical shutter of my M4-P.
In spite of the balky trigger pull, the lessened vibration probably lets me shoot straighter with the M7 than the M4-P.
Frame Counter top
The frame counter stops advancing at 38, even though it's marked to 40.
Film Economy top
I get 39 good exposures on every roll.
I load the film with the least amount of leader, wind past just one frame, and shoot the next frame: frame 0.
I shoot through frame 38, which gives me 39 perfect shots on each roll of Velvia 50.
If I get even more geeky than usual, I can shoot frame 00 if I load the M7 in my darkroom, giving me 40 perfect shots. If I shoot the first half-fogged frame 000, that gives me 40-1/2 frames!
Film Flatness top
THe first frame advanced after the camera has sat overnight may not be perfectly flat. In other words, when you advance the peice of film that has sat half on the supply spool and half in the gate to the gate itself, some of the curl may remain, so don;t shoot that frame at f/1.4 and expect it to be perfect.
My M7 seems to work great even with batteries which test as dead in other cameras.
After about 50 rolls in four months, it seems to want new batteries.
The manual never clearly states how you know if the batteries are low. It seems as if the shutter speed LEDs start to puslate at about 1 cps to let you know.
If the meter reads bc (battery check), you're already dead.
The manual appears to claim that the lower dot in the numeric finder LED may flash when the battery is getting low, but that's also the same dot that flashes whenever the DX coding is misread, which is often.
As best I've figured, when the lower dot flashes almost continuously and DX seems to be reading well, it's probably time to change the batteries. This is screwy, because it's always ambiguous if you've got a low battery (probably an almost continuous blink) or the constant DX error warning, which pops in and out all the time.
Worse, it seems that low batteries may not clearly indicate themselves, but that as batteries get low, I see occasional blank frames, even though the M7 appears to shoot normally. Its time for my M7 to go in for service; this can't possibly be right. Occasional blank frames? With a $4,300 camera body?
Open circuit voltages of batteries which seem to be too dead for reliable shooting (even though they seem to work OK as you are shooting) test at 20% on the ZTS MBT-1 tester, and measure 2.735V open-circuit. (New cells measure 100% on the ZTS and 3.13 ~ 3.20V, open circuit.)
It's easy to move the shutter dial with your trigger finger as you look through the finder. You never can read aperture or manual shutter speed in the finder, but different shutter settings have different indents so, with experience, you can select some of them by feel.
Stiffer clicks at the Auto setting are somewhat of a help finding them blind.
The lens release button is hard to press because it is hidden inside a shroud. The M4-P and M3 don't have this shroud, and are easier to use.
The lens release button is on the wrong side. I always have to reach over to hit it. Contax G, Nikon SLRs and Canon EOS cameras all have the button on the correct side.
I can't shoot the M7 with one-hand. It demands your left hand for focusing.
For anyone who really knows how to meter, the M7 meter's LED numbers are far less intuitive than an analog meter needle that covers all the shutter speeds. I'm serious: this is a huge inconvenience of the M7.
The 12mm central semi-spot meter would be great — on an SLR whose finder was accurate enough to let you know exactly where it is.
I would prefer looser metering, like in the Contax G, because the inaccurate Leica finder makes it a gamble to figure out where the meter is reading. The digital LED numeric meter display only makes this worse, because you can't feel it swing up and down as intuitively as you could a meter needle as you sweep the subject.
The 45º rewind crank is far easier to use than the straight ones on Oriental cameras. The 45º crank lets me rewind a roll in under 10 seconds, without banging my big American hands on finders, meters or other parts of the camera.
Film cartridges usually hang in their chamber when unloading. It's a pain to bang them out.
Use with Gloves top
The LEICA M7 isn't very good for use with gloves. It requires taking off your gloves to change film or lenses, and the shutter button can't always be pressed in far enough to release the shutter.
Forget changing film with gloves. You can't grab the indented catch to open the bottom.
You can press the rewind lever and rewind with the tip of the crank pressed against the palm of a glove, but you can't grab it with two fingers.
The power switch is OK for gloves, but you don't need to use it except if putting the M7 away in a tight bag.
Focusing is great with a lever.
Film winding is OK.
Shutter release is iffy with gloves: you may or may not be able to poke it in deep enough.
Aperture rings are usually easy to adjust with gloves.
Lens changes are iffy because it's unlikely you'll be able to press the recessed release button far enough to unlock the lens.
It's impossible to pull the finder preview lever away from the 28mm/90mm position.
It's easy to turn the shutter dial with gloves, but again, I'm usually shooting in Auto.
Cold Weather top
My M7 has worked perfectly down to 32ºF (0ºC), which is as cold as I've taken it for extended periods.
Design Flaws top
The M7 has a few design flaws I've seen personally. Current models have fixed flaws 1 and 3, however, they can't shoot infra-red film as can earlier M7s. The flaws are:
1.) Flaky mechanical DX film-speed readout (altered in current model with IR LEDs).
2.) Flawed ergonomic design of the film speed and exposure compensation setting dials, and
3.) a part missing out of some earlier rangefinders which sometimes make it difficult to focus (fixed in current models, or retrofitable to older models for about $260).
My biggest complaint is with the unreliable DX film speed sensor.
The M7 loads by poking a film canister up and into the bottom of the M7. You have to pull off and hold onto a removable bottom plate as you load every M LEICA. There is no hinged back door as on Oriental cameras.
The original M7 has a defective design where single metal prongs attempt to contact the film canister This didn't work because the M7 doesn't use a hinged back which could apply pressure to the contacts once the back is closed, as the DX system is designed. The M7 doesn't use gold contacts as do more reliable cameras, and the M7 doesn't use bifurcated (double) contacts as do properly designed cameras.
Therefore, I'm constantly getting error messages (a blinking LED dot) as my M7 misreads the DX codes from my film. My ISO 50 film not only can read ISO 100 as an error, sometimes it will read ISO 100 and not blink a "misread" warning! I have to be careful to pay attention to the indicated shutter speeds! Watch your exposure readings and know what's reasonable, so you can know when something's not right.
The M7 doesn't just read the DX ISO at power on; it reads (and screws up) continuously. If it did only read at power on, you'd be OK all day, but instead, watching for this is a constant creativity drain.
LEICA M7 and film-speed dial. enlarge.
The M7 would be a much better camera if it used a simple. locking manual film-speed knob like the Nikon FE.
Leica attempted to fix this problem not by eliminating DX coding as it should have, but instead by replacing the flaky electric contacts with IR LEDs. The newest M7s read DX well, but the IR LEDs make it impossible to shoot infra-red film. I believe older M7s can be updated to the IR-fogging DX design for about $600 and a three-month round trip to Germany.
You could just set your film speed manually, but sadly, the manual film-speed knob on the back plate of the M7 doesn't lock, so once set, it just might move by itself as you walk around.
Another a design flaw, even though the film-speed setting doesn't lock, the exposure compensation setting does lock, and it locks at every third stop! You have to pull the camera away from your eye and fiddle with it every time you want to set compensation because you can't expect it only to lock at zero, as would a proper design. Instead, use AE lock and move the lens aperture to get easy exposure compensation on the M7.
The exposure compensation control is backwards: you have to move it down to increase the exposure!
The film speed dial at least ought to have a deeper detent at the DX setting if it has no lock, but has none of these.
If designed properly, the M7 would lock the film speed setting, only lock compensation at 0, and reduced exposures would be set by rotating the compensation dial down, not up. Instead, it never locks the film speed setting, but locks the compensation at every third stop.
The first version of the M7 had a defective finder design. A lack of a proper baffle often would let the same light that comes through the fluted window to light the finder lines would also light (flare) the rangefinder spot. To focus under these conditions, I put my finger over the fluted bright line window, or move my eye slightly to the left.
As of January 2009, I'm told it costs about $260 in the USA to have older M7s updated to the newer finder design which doesn't have this problem. It's not that big a deal, certainly not compared to the DX fiasco, but for just $260, it probably is worth it if you can be without your camera for a week or two.
Compared to the M3 of 1954 top
The M7 has a lower magnification, wider finder that adds 28mm, 35mm and 75mm frame lines to the 50mm, 90mm and 135mm frame lines of the M3's higher magnification finder.
The M3's rangefinder only focused to 1 meter (3 feet), while the M7's and M4-P's rangefinders focus to 0.7m (2.3 feet), if your lens does.
The trigger pull (shutter feel) is worse on the M7, but the shutter is quieter and has less vibration than the earlier cameras. I feel a distinct recoil from shutter motion with my M4-P, but none with the M7.
FIlm drops right out of earlier cameras without the DX contacts of the M7.
I think the M7 is actually heaver than my M3 and my M4-P with its MR-4 clip on meter. I'll have to weigh the others.
If you see a red dot under the top switch, your camera is turned off. Rotate the switch to hide the red dot and you're ready to shoot.
The rangefinder spot on earlier models is often flared in cross light; cover the bright line (fluted) window or move your eye to the left to fix this.
AE lock can disengage of you're not careful. It's often better to use manual exposure if you need a hard exposure lock.
There is no shutter cocked indicator, like on the Pentax K1000. On the M7, you have to hit the shutter to see if the meter wakes up, or try to wind the film, or take off the lens and see if you see the big white dot on the shutter curtain.
The meter only works if the shutter is cocked.
Remember to attach each lens all the way! Even if not locked, it will seem to work just fine, until it falls off the camera. There are no electronic contacts to let you know the lens isn't locked-on.
Film Loading and Unloading top
Turn the camera upside-down.
Flip and rotate the lever, take off the bottom cover and put it someplace safe.
Flip open the back cover.
Pull out the film leader enough so that it will just reach the take-up prongs.
Poke the film canister into the bottom hole as you slide the film down through the gate.
Push the film canister and film strip down and into the gate, and use your pinky to poke the tip of the leader into the take-up prongs. Be sure the film is all the way into the gate so that the sprockets mesh with the gear teeth.
I live on the edge, so I now close it all up, set the shutter to 1/1,000 if I'm in dim light, and only wind past the first frame.
Look at the rewind crank to be sure it rotates as you think you're advancing your film.
I start shooting on frame 0.
When done, press the R (rewind) lever on the front with your trigger finger and rewind with the crank.
Pop off the back, and try to get the film out. It won't come, because the flaky DX contacts won't let it go. Bang the M7 in your palm for best results. It's not as easy to try to grab the end of the film spool and pull.
The R lever resets itself automatically as you wind the next roll of film.
The light meter responds instantly to any change in light.
This means that if you point it at something that flickers, even if the flicker is invisible to human eyes, that the meter can go bananas and display weird stuff as it flicks among several readings at once.
This is also a design flaw. The meter should average across at least a fraction of a second to avoid this, but it doesn't.
It's rare to see this defect in practice, but if you point an M7 at a CRT (tube) TV, you'll see what I mean.
Exposure Compensation top
The easiest way is to flip the aperture ring after you've pressed the shutter enough to lock the shutter speed. The AE Lock only locks the shutter speed, not the overall exposure, so if you tweak the aperture after AE Lock, you're tweaking the overall exposure.
Another way to add or subtract exposure is to rotate the ISO setting dial in the DX position Its not locked, and if you raise or lower the DX mark a few clicks, you also get exposure compensation. The inner DX setting dial is not locked, as the outer compensation dial is.
Of course you can set a different ISO, too.
You get TTL flash exposure in M mode, too.
If the bolt stays lit in the finder after the shot, the flash thinks the exposure was OK in either TTL or A mode.
I use a Nikon SC-17 cord to get TTL operation off-camera. I don't know if the Nikon and Leica flashes would talk with each other, but I do know the hot shoes, and therefore the wiring of the remote cords, are the same.
Actual Top Shutter Speed top
1/1,000 is the top speed, even in Auto.
You can't cheat as you can in many Oriental SLRs. The Nikon FE actually works at automatic speeds well above it's maximum marked 1/1,000, but if "1000" is blinking in the M7's finder, you really are going to overexpose.
You can use this to your advantage if you need to add exposure compensation. Every stop you open the aperture past the solid "1000" reading is adding exposure, since the shutter only goes to 1/1,000, even in Auto where it might want to go faster.
Long Night Exposures top
An advantage of the M7 over an SLR is that there is no backwash of light from the finder into the meter. You don't have to cover the finder eyepiece as you should with an SLR when making light readings at night.
The M7 has no self timer, so you always have to remember to bring a conventional cable release. If you've forgotten, you can cheat by locking exposure, covering the lens with your hand, releasing the shutter, and then taking your hand away fast.
The M7's meter is only rated to meter as long as 4 seconds at ISO 100, regardless of your lens.
I find mine meters to 32 seconds at up to ISO 200, and works just fine, even if the "under" arrow lights in protest.
For longer exposures stopped down, meter wide-open, calculate the necessary stopped-down exposure in your head, stop down the lens, and use Bulb to count it off.
For instance, if it's too dark to read exposure at f/8, meter wide open. If you have an f/2.8 lens and the M7 reads 16 seconds at f/2.8, then give three stops more time for f/8. That means instead of 16s, use 128 seconds, which the M7 will clock off for you in bulb mode.
If it's really dark, there are two more ways to cheat.
One way is to meter with no lens. This gives you the exposure time at f/0.7 (two stops faster than f/1.4). If you want the time for f/2.8, add four stops (16x) to the exposure as read with no lens.
Another way to cheat is to set a higher ISO, and then multiply the reading. For instance, I shoot ISO 50 film, so if I meter at ISO 500, I need to multiply the reading by 10. If the M7 reads 4 seconds at ISO 500, that means to use 40 seconds for ISO 50.
There is a reason the M7 doesn't read down to infinitely long times. The meter does have its limitations, and won't read below a certain light level due to its own internal noise and leakage currents.
At ISO 100, I would believe all the readings, even at 32 seconds. At higher ISOs, you need to pay attention at the longer speeds.
If 32" is lit, even with a LOW arrow showing, you're probably fine. If the 32" is blinking, then the correct time is greater than 38 seconds.
38 seconds? That's the longest Auto exposure time of the M7. Where did they come up with 38 seconds? Easy, if you're German: 38 seconds is exactly one-quarter stop more than 32 seconds. Remember, the shutter is stepless, but the meter reads in half stops. When it reads one time, the actual time may be one-quarter stop faster or slower. If it was more than a quarter stop off, the M7 would read a different half-stop.
Since the slowest auto shutter speed is 32s, it really goes to 38s. If it went to 39s, the M7 would want to read 45s for the next half-stop.
If any of you folks know how to reprogram the M7 to run to longer auto exposure times, I'm all ears.
Here is a table of how my M7 reads at room temperature at ISO 500. Your M7 may be different, and they may be different at different temperatures. You can derive your own figures by pointing your M7 at a wall and stopping the lens down by stops. The meter ought to follow in full stops, but if it doesn't and presuming your lens is well calibrated, you can compute what exposures to use for each reading.
Here is how my M7 works at room temperature:
These aren't including reciprocity errors of your film; you'll probably need more exposure.
Stop your lens down, and for most lenses, that's the same as a 12 hour exposure at minimum aperture. Meter with no lens (f/0.7 equivalent), and 12 minutes at f/0.7 is the same as 8.5 days at f/22.
I'll admit that I've been doing these calculations in my head ever since I was a kid. For most people, it's easier to use the calculator dial on a Gossen meter like the Digisix.
In other words, the M7 can meter in light levels far less than even I'd want to wait around for a time exposure to complete. For instance, my M7 reads 16 seconds at ISO 500 with no lens (f/0.7) when pointed at the starry sky from a dark-sky location like Death Valley.
A landscape in full moonlight reads 8 seconds with no lens at ISO 50. With a 50mm lens and 81A filter (1/3 stop factor), it reads 8s (varies between 4s-16s) at f/2 at ISO 400. This calculates out to 2 minutes at f/2 for ISO 50, which is correct.
Pointed at the full moon with no lens, the M7 reads 1/2 second at ISO 50. With a 50mm lens and 81A filter, it reads 1/6 (almost 1/8) at f/2.
Unfortunately the long exposure (32s) meter only reads in Auto mode. In Bulb mode, where you're likely to be, the meter doesn't work. If you're metering at one aperture but calculating and shooting at a smaller aperture, you need to meter in Auto, then remember, calculate and set the M7 to Bulb.
LEICA M7 and prophylactic plastic bottom cover. enlarge.
I've poked a lot of fun at the LEICA M7, but the truth rings clear: the M7 is unequalled for serious shooting when you need the most quality available in 35mm optics, need long exposures, need precise manual focusing and depth-of-field scales, or need a super-light and small system.
The M7 isn't about itself, it's all about being able to shoot the LEICA system of super-small, super-light and super-high performance lenses.
The M7 is all about being able to run far and fast, and shoot quietly and unseen. With the M7, you can get farther and get into places you can't get with an SLR, and when you do, the lenses are even better if you're counting your pixels.
I support my growing family through this website.
If you find this as helpful as a book you might have had to buy or a workshop you may have had to take, feel free to help me continue helping everyone.
The biggest help is to use these links to Adorama, Amazon, B&H, Calumet, Ritz, J&R and when you get your goodies. It costs you nothing and is a huge help to me. eBay is always a gamble, but all the other places have the best prices and service, which is why I've used them since before this website existed. I recommend them all personally.
Thanks for reading!