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A Leica for the 21st Century

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

Some old traditions die hard.

Take Wrigley Field, home of the Chicago Cubs. Opening in 1914, before anyone had ever heard of a "World War" and when horsepower more frequently described something that consumed American-made oats, not foreign-produced oil, Wrigley became over the years the last bastion of daytime baseball. Then in 1988 the venerable field's newly-installed lights shone on its Cubbies playing the visiting Philadelphia Phillies in a first-ever night game.

[The gods of baseball apparently were not amused by this modern presumption; the game was rained out after 3 1/2 innings.]

You get my point. Good things that have withstood the test of time-like glorious daytime baseball in a jewel of a ballpark–should be changed carefully, if at all, lest they fall victim to the vagaries and shallow tastes of the moment.

In photography this is not to say that all the sudden changes we have seen in the technology of film and digital shooting have been bad. Only that certain camera makers have taken longer to change than others.

Like Leica.

Make that: Like Leica, thank heaven.

To understand the gulf that exists between the products of what once was called Leitz Camera Works and those of everybody else, consider this:

Last week in this space, I rhapsodized about a new dual-platform film/digital marvel from Mamiya: its great medium format 645AFd. By any measure, this camera is the Next New Thing and even someone like me can appreciate its quality and value to the professional shooter. Chock full of gizmos, this camera, and its attendant post-production software, feature such goodies as auto-bracketing, TTL metering, data imprinting on the film edge (when using film, that is), the best moiré-pattern zapping on the planet (when going digital), etc. etc.

This week, however, I am going to use the same space to cheer about a revolutionary new rangefinder camera from Leica-the new M7-whose hotsy-totsy new features include ..... you ready for this?....aperture priority.

In fact, I am fudging when I say the new features "include" aperture priority.

These new features are pretty much limited to aperture priority.

But that's a little unfair. The new M7 does have some significant additional bells and whistles, but only if you think of them in terms of its predecessor, the all-manual Leica M6. After all, who would think of automatic DX-coding, or flash sync at something better than an anemic 1/50th of a second, as anything to make a fuss over?

In fact, what manufacturer would even mention this stuff; much less tout it in its ads?

But that is the point-and why Leica's ads for the M7 will soon be sprouting up all over the photo press with the headline: "Totally New. Yet Much the Same."

In an era when automation rules, Leica remains the photographer's camera. Or more precisely, the photojournalist's camera: even those photojournalists who feel themselves more and more tethered to an electronic master.

That's because, to quote Leica, the M-series rangefinders "embody ultimate mechanical and optical precision and put the skills of the photographer-not the features of the camera-in the foreground."

I am reminded of a recent lunch I had with two of the best known news shooters in Washington. Both complained about the pressure that digital technology has placed on them (see my previous column, Film: Premature Obituary), but what didn't strike me until recently-until I had this wonderful new Leica M7 in my retrograde hands–was what my friend Paul had said near the end of the meal.

I have to spend more time worrying about my damn batteries than about making pictures, Paul said. "Batteries for my camera, batteries for my laptop, batteries for my cell phone, batteries for my pager."

To be sure, the new Leica M7 does take batteries-hell, even the old M6 took one-but in this case the juice goes largely to power the M7's ingenious electronic shutter. What really is intriguing about this "new" camera is how much it looks and, more important, handles, like the old one. Otto Domes, manager of M7 development for Leica, is proud of the fact that "Leica M cameras are the products of years of gradual development and are made intricately by hand"-one reason M-series bodies list for more than $2,000; the M7, in fact, lists for $2,995, but can be had on the street for $2350.

Domes concedes that aperture priority "is certainly not a technical innovation-but to incorporate it into the Leica M without destroying the camera's soul was a great challenge."

Now, when was the last time you heard anyone talk about a camera's soul?

For me, the love affair with Leica was late-blooming, a re-acquaintance with the M-series rangefinder (in my case an M6) after decades of happily using Nikons and later Hasselblads, as well as the rangefinder medium format Mamiya 6, and every so often a 4x5 view camera. It probably helped that I got my M6 (to review for this column) after I had spent years as a professional commercial shooter who was used to carrying lots of gear and lights to do his job. I also had embarked with my wife on a new book project-on Venice-in which I longed to jettison most of my gear and shoot largely by available light.

Working by available light-the classic way to use a Leica M-series camera-especially in a jewel of a city like Venice was one of the most liberating experiences I ever had as a photographer. The fact that I was doing this while handling what to me was the most beautifully made camera in the world simply sealed the deal.

I bought the M6 and never have regretted it.

So now, will I switch to an M7?

In a word, no. But I am sure others will, with good reason.

As I indicated, I use my Leica for specialized shooting. If I were to use it frequently for flash work, I likely would upgrade to the 7, with flash sync available up to 1/1000th of a second (versus a measly 1/50th with the M6). But I don't, so I won't.

Aperture priority would be an attraction, especially if I shot a lot of slide film, which requires much more precise metering than negative film. Aperture priority would free me from having to change settings with each new lighting situation, especially if I were shooting on the fly. But...I don't shoot much transparency film with this camera, and, after 40 years of taking pictures (hey, I started very young), I am used to rapidly changing my settings myself. Truth to tell, I even like it that way.

More important: aperture priority on the M7 comes at a price. Because the shutter on the camera is now electronically controlled, that means it largely is at the mercy of its two lithium batteries. Happily, though, where other automatic cameras can become expensive paperweights when the batteries fail, Leica engineers have built the M7 so that two shutter speeds-1/60th of a second and 1/125th of a second-still are available if there is no battery power. For me, however, that's just not enough. Remove the single battery from my M6 and, though my in-camera meter may not work, every one of my shutter speeds will.

Despite these individual differences and preferences, what is clear with the M7 is that Leica has continued the proud tradition it began in 1914 when it unveiled the first "miniature" camera, the Ur-Leica, and revolutionized photography.

Nineteen fourteen. They same year they opened Wrigley Field.

What the M7 lacks in gizmos, it makes up for in gravitas.

This is a serious camera, for a serious photographer.

Frank Van Riper is a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. His latest book is Talking Photography (Allworth Press), a collection of his Washington Post columns and other photography writing over the past decade. He can be reached at fvanriper@aol.com.

Revising a Classic: The Leica M7. Pricey, gorgeous and built like a tank, the newest heir to the proud Leica rangefinder legacy features aperture priority, automatic DX coding and flash sync up to 1/1000th of a second.

Frank Van Riper at Bethesda Literary Festival

On Saturday, the 27th, as part of the Bethesda Literary Festival, Photography columnist Frank Van Riper will sign his latest book, Talking Photography, and also discuss his career as a location portraitist and documentary photographer, at the Barnes and Noble in Bethesda, Md. (4801 Bethesda Avenue) from 7-10pm.


Talking PhotographyAlready acclaimed as the photographer's bedside companion, Talking Photography (Allworth Press, $19.95) is award-winning Post photography columnist Frank Van Riper's ten-year collection of his favorite photography columns and essays. This lavishly illustrated paperback already has garnered rave reviews from all walks of photography for its breezy, informative style and unbounded enthusiasm for making pictures.

To order directly, go to: Allworth Press

 Van Riper on Van Riper

Frank Van Riper Archive:

Mamiya's Drop-Dead Digital

Travels with Chernush

A Vase of Flowers

Film: Premature Obituary

The Happy Marriage Of Old and New Technologies

Building Pictures of Buildings