There is no such thing as the "best" camera, any more than there's a "best" car. There are, however, certain cameras universally recognized as definitive examples of the camera maker's complex art. Of these, none is more admired than the Leica 35-millimeter rangefinder. The kind of person who spends $2,500 for the Leica M7, the latest in an elegant line of cameras, is the same kind of person who will pay $86,000 for a Mercedes SL500: Each represents a direct evolution from a legendary precursor—in the case of the SL500, the 300SL of the fifties, and in the case of the M7, the M3 introduced in 1954. To hold the new M7 in your hand, its design free of clutter and trendy gimmicks, and to listen to the silky snik of its famously quiet shutter, is to understand the particular element of the sublime that a great machine can convey.
With its extraordinary Leica lenses—arguably the best optics of any camera in the world—the M7 can create incredibly sharp images. But another undeniable aspect of the camera's appeal to collectors and photographers is its heritage. The original Leica—known to cognoscenti as the "Ur-Leica"—and its M-series successors had the singular effect of re-inventing photography. Think, for instance, of a certain famous image from 1932 by the great French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson. In the moody light of a rainy Paris day, we see a man leaping over a puddle with a nimble grace that is wonderful and comical to behold, suspended forever in perfect equipoise. Both actually and metaphorically, the photograph represents a leap forward into the world where "decisive moments," as Bresson christened them, could be captured, literally, on the fly. What made this masterpiece possible was a camera that combined small size, a sharp lens, and a whisper-quiet shutter that let once-intrusive photographers become anonymous passersby. In the M7, the body and spirit of those first cameras live on.
The Leica was not the first handheld camera; the hugely popular Brownie was introduced by Eastman Kodak in 1900. But of the new generation of "mini" cameras to come along after World War I, the Leica, first introduced by Ernst Leitz in 1925, had the most dramatic impact. The original M3 quickly became the choice of photojournalists such as Robert Capa and Robert Frank who wanted to be discreet and light on their feet.
Today, Leica produces several types of cameras, from pocket-size automatics to sophisticated reflex models, but the M7, with its panache and pedigree, remains the connoisseur's pick. It exhibits one of the classic virtues of modernism: an appearance of simplicity masking precision and complexity. Despite the uncluttered appearance—a few knobs, a compact lens, and a rangefinder—and lack of elaborate electronics, the M7 has about 1,300 separate parts (even the first M3 had as many as 860). This compares to 1,140 parts in the top-of-the-line Canon professional camera, the EOS 1V.
The Leica's unprepossessing look can be an advantage. Ed Kashi, a veteran photographer for National Geographic and Newsweek who has used Leica Ms for 17 years, points out that when he carries one people often take him for an amateur and relax. "The Leica rangefinder is a different experience for a subject," he says. "There is a lot less gear in the way. The camera is simply less menacing."
For all its apparent simplicity, the M7 is not particularly easy to use. Although the camera now has an automatic exposure mode (an almost grudging acceptance of modern convenience), it still demands far more expertise than most of its SLR competitors. You don't look through the lens, for instance, as you do with an SLR. Instead you focus and compose the photo through a viewfinder that shows the margins around the picture. Rangefinders generally allow you to see more clearly in low-light situations; they also vibrate less than SLRs do at slow shutter speeds, meaning you can shoot at even 1/30th of a second or slower without a tripod.
The Leica rangefinder is not a camera for everyone, and that's the way its devotees like it. The utter ease of other modern cameras gives the M7 a particular appeal for people who want to feel personally connected to their tools. Kashi says that he sometimes wonders why he makes it harder on himself by using a rangefinder. "But there's something about the aesthetics of the Leica, a kind of humbleness to it, that puts me in a certain mental state," he says. "When I use the rangefinder, I work more instinctually; it gives me the chance to make exciting discoveries. It's like playing the violin: There are no frets to tell you where the notes are, so getting it right is really satisfying. In a way, the Leica retains the magic of photography that hooked us all in the first place."
The M7 is still mostly handmade, like a fine mechanical wristwatch. As a result, each one has its own personality. The body is heavy, but feels comfortingly sturdy and rugged. "As a machine it is incomparable," says Russell Hart, executive editor of American Photo magazine. "All you have to do is hold it in your hands, and you really want to use it." In an age of stolidly impersonal technology, that kind of magic is hard to find.
An M7 is $2,500; www.leica-camera.com.
Four Others That Click
In addition to the Leica, don't forget these classics:
SPEED GRAPHIC When you see period films in which jostling newsmen, their press passes tucked into the bands of their fedoras, pop flashbulbs at arrested gangsters, they're usually using a Speed Graphic. A bulky but extremely versatile Pacemaker Speed Graphic from the 1950s costs about $300-$600; www.graflex.org.
ROLLEIFLEX In the Sixties, Richard Avedon, Bert Stern, Hiro, and other star Vogue and Harper's Bazaar photographers all used Rolleis. Held at waist height, they made tall beauties seem taller. A 1969 Rolleiflex 2.8F costs up to $2,000.
NIKON SLR A favorite of sports photographers and combat photojournalists who wanted to frame pictures through the lens and needed to change lenses quickly. The 2002 Nikon N80 SLR with a 28-80mm Nikkor zoom lens is $545; www.nikon.com.
POLAROID SX-70 With its elegant folding mechanism and funny whirring sound as it produced a picture, the SX-70 seemed like magic. It elevated instant photography to fine art in the hands of Andy Warhol, Lucas Samaras, and others. A 2002 Polaroid Spectra 1200si Instant Camera costs around $100; www.polaroid.com.