I'm a fan of Leica rangefinders. I have been since I bought my M4 back on the last day of 2007 as a gift to myself for completing 365 Portraits. At the time, I bought the M4 because it was the last of the really handcrafted German Leicas that was all manual (and not the slighted M5). That, plus the fact that it was as much as I could afford with good conscience. I wanted it to be slow, and deliberate, and mechanized.
In hindsight, I really should have bought an M6 -- that way I'd at least get a built-in meter so I wouldn't have to carry one around wherever I went as well. But regrets should be left in the past and I'm very happy with my M4. It's not just a great camera (and I spent 30 minutes clicking and re-cocking the shutters of several before I decided on mine); it's also an instrument to measure specific amounts of light.
Fast forward to this past weekend when I was visiting some family out in New Jersey and was offered the host's M7 to borrow. I was a little apprehensive about borrowing such a lovely and valuable piece of kit, but I'm certainly able to take care of nice things and wanted to try out the last evolution of a film Leica.
Direct comparisons of the photographic results are both impossible and meaningless. The older camera has an early collapsible Summicron mounted on it, which is I'm sure inferior to the brand new model. I will say that the pictures I took on the M7 came out technically as great as they should for a tool at this level. Instead, most of what I'm going to talk about is handling and the differences in feature set that are interesting.
What does the M7 do that the M4 does not? Well, a couple things that matter to me. It has a meter (which requires batteries that I needed to replace) and an aperture priority automatic exposure mode -- GASP! That's right -- it took until 2002 for them to add any sort of automatic exposure modes to the M. Basically, you put the shutter speed wheel to AUTO and it'll take care of the rest based upon the aperture you set on the lens barrel. Because of the Av mode, they also added the ability for the camera to read the film speed using the DX standard. As an aside, I didn't notice that you need to set the wheel on the back of the camera to DX to get that to happen. I was shooting 400 speed film the other day, but accidentally had it set to 200 for most of the afternoon. Therefore, my film was about a stop overexposed, but that's OK because b/w film, even the C41 variety does that pretty gracefully. You can also use this wheel to dial in an exposure compensation for the Av mode. Finally, there is now a power switch/lock around the shutter button that you have to remember or else you'll chew through the battery.
See? You add one little AUTO mode and the number of things you've got to worry about goes from 2 to 9, and this is where my slight frustration with the M7 lies. Sure, I could use it in all-manual mode and carry a handheld meter, but at that point I might as well use the M4. Also, shutter speeds other than 1/60th and 1/125th are unavailable if your batteries die because the shutter is now electronically controlled. More accurate than gears, I'm sure, but kind of missing the point of a classically mechanical camera. Ultimately, the purpose of the M7 is to be able to use the electronics, so I'm going to comment on it from that perspective. There was also a strange thing where every once in a while the shutter wouldn't operate when it was in Av mode even though the viewfinder was popping up with a nominal shutter speed like 400th. It was probably operator error. Oh yeah, there's also now a display in the viewfinder.
"Bill, stop complaining!" you might say, and I will. Certainly if someone brought me both of these cameras and said I could have only one, I'd choose the M7 due to its overall versatility. It's a lovely photographic device, for sure, but for all its visual and evolutionary similarities, in some ways it's a very different machine than the older models like my M4. I have a sentimental attachment to mine, of course, so maybe that's it. But there's something about the batteries that places the M7 closer in my mind to my 5D than my 4x5. It's a decidedly modern camera in a way that even the M6 is not. Not sure what to make of that.
As a final addendum, while at the Leica store for replacement batteries, I got to spend a few minutes with the latest digital M. One word: "Yum." $8000 of yum? No, not for me unless I win the lottery, but very nice nonetheless. I just really wish they'd kept the level for cocking the shutter instead of replacing it with a motor. Where am I supposed to put my thumb while holding it?