Our resident rangefinder expert analyzes three leading models and explains
why clicking these shutters is good for the soul.
Let's start with the Leica M7 because to a great extent, the concepts of the other two, the Zeiss Ikon and Voigtlander Bessa 2A, are derivatives of the M series Leica. Leica designed the M lens mount and the rangefinder viewfinder with multiple parallax correcting frames for the 1954 M3. Its advanced features created a sensation and were the primary cause of the Contax IIA and IIIA's demise. Little has changed in the M body styling or the Leica range-viewfinder since. A glance through the eyepieces of all three cameras will show you how very much alike the finder optics are.
The Leica M7 is an elegant looking, beautifully designed piece of equipment. Its cloth focal plane shutter provides manually set shutter speeds from 4 sec to 1/1000 sec while the aperture priority auto exposure mode increases the slow speed capability down to 32 seconds. The top flash sync speed is 1/50 sec. Both existing light and flash exposure are read through the lens. An exposure sensor located at the top right of the lens mount interior reads a 12mm diameter central white spot on the front shutter curtain. Film speed can be automatically or manually set via a wheel on the back of the camera which also sets exposure compensation.
A central superimposed viewfinder rectangle image can be clearly seen and precisely brought together with the main image for accurate focus. Depending on what focal length lens is mounted on the camera, you will see bright frames for 50+75mm, 35+135mm or 28+90mm lenses. A three-position lever on the front of the camera allows you to preview these settings so you can choose the focal length lens you want to use. However the frames are not marked as to which focal length they are covering so you have to remember which frame is which. The outer edges of the 28mm framelines are difficult to see all at once.
The bright red, articulated four digit, seven segment informational diodes at the bottom center of the picture area are very visible and helpful. At camera turn on, the ISO speed set appears momentarily. In aperture priority mode, you then see the shutter speed set all the way down to 32 seconds. The numerals blink when you're out of exposure range. There are red exposure lock, compensation and flash indicators. When you set the camera for manual exposure, red triangles show over or under exposure and a red dot between them indicates correct exposure.
Loading film in the M7 is an acquired art and cannot be rushed. You remove the base plate, flip the rear panel open and carefully thread the film leader through the bottom slit in the camera. Why Leicas don't simply have a hinged back is a mystery. The tripod socket is on the far right end of the bottom cover, not the best place to maneuver the camera precisely on a tripod. Shutter release is ultra quiet and all controls operate with the smooth precision of a finely made optical instrument, which the M7 is. The fitting of all parts is exquisite. The effective rangefinder base, found by multiplying the finder magnification, .72X, by the total rangefinder base length of 68.5mm, is 49.32mm, sufficient to provide accurate focusing of lenses as long as 135mm.
The construction of the M7 is massive and satisfying. The camera is powered by two D 1/3 N lithium batteries, more often found in hardware stores than camera stores. A battery driven motor providing speeds up to 3 frames per second is available as an accessory.
Leica Summicron 50mm f/2 lens rating: Excellent