by Jim McGee
The Leica M6 is something of a contemporary classic having been part of Leica's M series for the past 18 years. Fans of the M series cameras and the M6 in particular are both devoted and opinionated about what they want in their Leicas - a combination that makes updating this particular classic a daunting task. Any time you contemplate changing something your customers care so deeply about, you're playing with fire. After spending a day with the M7 I've come to the conclusion that Leica has produced a worthy next generation for the M line of cameras that should keep purists happy while improving the breed and satisfying the requests of those who want just a little more automation out of their M.
Shoot with the M7 and initially you'll be hard pressed to tell the difference between it and the M6. At PMA the folks from Leica handed me a new M7 fitted with a 35mm f1.4 aspherical lens to take out for testing. Strolling around the outside of the convention center using the camera in manual mode, it was virtually impossible to distinguish between the two. All the controls are in the same place, the feel and weight of the body are the same, and though Leica claims the shutter on the M7 is quieter than on the M6, you'll be hard pressed to hear the difference in what is already one of the quietest shutters in the business.
Take your eye away from the finder though and you'll notice there are a couple of significant changes. The M7 has a DX film setting. No more lost rolls because you forgot to set the proper ISO for your next roll of film. This mistake has happened to every M6 owner at one time or another - whether they want to admit it or not.
Built into that DX dial is the ability to dial in exposure compensation in 1/3rd stop increments. This makes life much easier for slide shooters as you can easily dial in compensation for a whole roll of film or for just a few shots. I did notice that it was easy to bump the exposure compensation dial while handling the camera. A slightly stiffer dial would prevent an accidental setting.
A feature that will be loved by many Leica shooters is the new aperture priority mode built into the M7. Choose your desired aperture, set the camera to automatic, and let it choose the shutter speed (1/1,000th to 32 seconds). Shutter speed is displayed in the finder using red LED numbers. In the bright morning Florida sun I found those numbers could be a bit hard to read, but for most shooting situations they shouldn't present a problem and they were readily visible in low light shooting.
seven is slightly heavier than the six (all of 10 grams) as it now uses
two DL 1/3N lithium cells instead of one. Should those batteries fail the
M7 has two mechanical shutter speeds available at 1/60th and 1/125th
second to guarantee you'll still get the shot.
TTL HSS flash (high-speed synchronization) up to 1/1,000th second is available with the Metz 54 MZ3 flash. TTL flash (carried over from the M6 TTL) is also welcome for photographers wanting to use fill flash or rear curtain flash (with the Metz 54 MZ3 only).
In operation the M7 was buttery smooth and competent, which is what we've come to expect from a Leica. Anything less would be a disappointment. Film loading is still done through the baseplate, requiring you to thread the film manually. The finder remains bright and the 35mm lens focused smoothly, providing the tack sharp images that we've come to expect from a Leica lens.
All in all the M7 is a fine successor to the M6. It adds functionality in two areas that are key for many photographers by offering aperture priority mode and the ability to read DX film coding. Meanwhile, none of the things that M-series fans love so much about these cameras has been compromised. The pride of ownership and the wonderful feeling of using a precision instrument are undiminished. In short, if your wallet allows it, and you're inclined to own this kind of camera, you'll love your M7 and it will give you many years of fine service.
Leica tells us the M7 will be available in March of 2002 in four different versions: three black models with viewfinder magnifications 0.72x, 0.58x and 0.85x and a silver-chromed version with 0.72x viewfinder magnification. Street prices weren't available as we went to press but you can expect M7 prices to be comparable to current M6 prices.