This is only the first of many articles on the Leica M3 and shooting with rangefinder cameras. I guess I should justify why I this is the definitive Leica M3 review.
Leica M3 Review – Contents
Leica M3 Review – Prelude
Leica M3 Review – Introduction
The epitome of vintage style, the Leica M3′s modern incarnations are still held as pinnacles of camera design and lusted by photographer all over the world.
Leica M3 Review – Technical Information
- Carl Zeiss
- All scales and controls can be read and set while viewing the camera from the top.
- A single viewfinder/rangefinder window. This meant that for the first time, Leica users could focus and frame their shot by looking through the same window! We will talk more about this amazing viewfinder a little later.
- A coupled rangefinder of longer base for greater focusing accuracy.
- Both split-image and coincident type rangefinder.
- Automatic Paralax compensation (the frame-lines move to keep the framing more accurate when focusing at different distances)
- All shutter speeds are on one dial which can be set before or after winding to the next frame. Intermediate speeds may also be set.
- Built-in automatic universal finder.
- Interlocking shutter release.
- Automatic resetting exposure counter.
- Rapid lens interchange (no more screwing a lens on and off).
- Parallel focusing mounts with click stops and uniform flange diameters.
- Built-in self-timer variable from 5 to 10 seconds.
- Cold weather operation while wearing heavy mittens.
- Full compensating synchronization for flash/electronic units.
- Automatic resetting rewind level.
- Hinged back for foolproof loading.
- Glass pressure plate of larger size and longer precision-ground film tracks (Leica later stopped using glass pressure plates on later Leica M3s).
- Coupled exposure meter with wide sensitivity range (using the Leicameter).
While this may all sound pretty standard now that’s just because the Leica M3 made it the standard. It was such a huge leap forward that it took competitors quite a few years before they caught up. This allowed Leica to charge a 50% premium on previous Leica models and they still sold two hundred thousand M3s. Can you imagine the outrage if Leica priced their new Leica M Type 240 at roughly £7500 (over $11,000 or €8,500)!
Leica M3 Review – Build Quality
The Leica M3 is perhaps the finest tool I have ever held. Like playing on a Steinway, you can feel that it’s very, very special.
Let me give you an example:
The guy who tunes my grand-piano owns a shop which sells Steinways. He also has a workshop for repairing the mechanics (but not the body) of Steinway grand-pianos. Recently he had visited a Steinway factory abroad and had come back with a small piece of wood that is part of the hammer mechanism. They had given it to him because it had not been up to their tight Steinway standards and so it couldn’t used.
For fun, we decided to compare it to a part in one of the Steinways inside the workshop. The faulty part was perhaps half a millimeter too short. Then, we replaced it inside a working piano and guess what, the hammer whose mechanism had been changed would not strike the strings inside the piano! We are talking about a single small part weighing a hundred grams which is part of a piano which is made up of thousands of parts and weighs hundreds of kilograms.
The Leica M3 is was built to a similar standard. Each part has to be just right. The tolerances in production were very tight because they had to be. It’s such an incredible piece of engineering that if they had allowed themselves to be sloppy on the production line they would have been flooded with faulty returns.
Let think about what it takes just to be able to focus properly with a Leica M3.
- As it’s a rangefinder, the flange-to-film distance has to be exactly right.
- Then, the infinity settings on the rangefinder also has to spot on as well as the rate of change in the focus of the rangefinder.
- The lens needs to be collimated correctly
- You also have to taken into account that the focal length of the lens actually changes while you focus.
Every single one of these factors [and others] has to be spot on, otherwise you will find that you can’t focus correctly. At Leica they don’t mess around.
My Leica M3 is almost 60 years old, it’s been used it’s entire life and it still looks brand new. iPhones rarely make it past the two year mark without falling apart.
Leica still service the M3 and parts are still being made. I think that’s speaks volumes about the quality and longevity of the Leica M3.
It’s the camera that you will be able to pass on to your [grand]children.
I don’t find it a problem having the M3 slung around my shoulder all day long and it’s still only half the weight of a full-frame digital SLR system. The digital Leica Ms are roughly the same weight as the Leica M3.
Of course, if weight is really so much of an issue then I would recommend using something very portable like the lovely Olympus Pen EES-2, or just buy a new iPhone ever two years.
Leica M3 Review – Top Plate
Leica M3 Shutter Speed Dial
You will find it very difficult, if not impossible, to change the shutter speed by accident. It’s also quite small as it was originally designed to be used with a LeicaMeter. Of course, we don’t need to use such primitive tools anymore, we just learn the basics of photography inside out and then learn to read the light with our eyes! It’s far quicker and in the long term it will make you a much better photographer.
Leica M3 Shutter Release Button
button so it’s one smooth motion.Fortunately, the shutter release button is threaded for standard cable releases so you can pick up any “el-cheapo” cable and it will work. This is great because Leica accessories are normally several times more expensive than market prices, but they also generally have a lovely embossed “L” on them so I guess for some people that’s worth every penny.
Did I mention how quiet it is? Often when I’ve taken portraits of people they didn’t even realise the shot had already been taken! It’s orders of magnitude quieter than any (D)SLR camera ever. When I spoke to the staff at the Leica Shop in Vienna they told me that the at one time in Austria it was the only camera allowed in court. I don’t know if that’s the truth but it wouldn’t be surprising if it was!
Leica M3 Flash Shoe
The flash shoe is not there for flash. It’s really there for external viewfinders if you happen to be shooting really wide lenses or if you buy yourself one of those lovely Voigtlander light meters because you aren’t man enough to guess exposure. You could also put a Leicameter on it if you really wanted to, but we will be covering that in a post in the near future.
Just promise you won’t use it for flash. Promise.
Some actual information:
Leica was about 50 years quicker than Apple at realising that if you use your own proprietary system you can make a fair bit of money selling all the related systems…
The rear flash sync terminals on the Leica M3 are unique. Unlike with Apple, this was soundly rejected worldwide and so now you are left with two choices:
- Use an adapter. As this sticks out a couple of centimeters from the camera it will cut a small gash into your forehead every time you look through the viewfinder. This is the preferred solution for die-hard Leica fanatics as they are quite comparable to the Opus Dei sect of the Catholic Church, minus the wip.
- You could pay an expert Leica repairman to fit a standard connector. Be careful, the previously mentioned Leica fanatics may kill on sight if they spot this.
Also, if your flash doesn’t have a PC cable connector then you need yet another adaptor for that…
Electronic flash only syncs up to 1/50s which is not that useful, but you shouldn’t be using it anyway. Flashbulbs have fully automatic synchronisation all way up to the maximum shutter speed of 1/1000s. Both connections may be used simultaneously.
The real reason I say that you shouldn’t use flash on the Leica M3 (with the exception that Erik Kim uses flash on a Leica) is that it’s an absolutely pain in the ass to deal with all the adapters.
PS: Of course, you can use flash! You shouldn’t let anyone, especially me, tell you what you can and cannot do!
Leica M3 Frame Counter
Leica M3 Top Plate Script
It really doesn’t make much difference.
Serial numbers start at 700,000 and the ones over 1.1 million are sought after by collectors and so tend to be more valuable. This is because there is a myth that those M3s are better built because the workers were more experienced. That’s a load of bollocks but if you find one at a good price it’s probably worth getting as it has all the improvements that were made over those 12 years.
Again, I wouldn’t worry too much about it…
Leica M3 Film Advance Lever
As mention above, earlier M3s have a dual stroke mechanism while later M3s have a single stroke. Both types are finely ratcheted so you can use a single stroke M3 as a dual stroke if you so wish, or even a 3 or 4 stroke…
A quick note, if your dual stroke M3 has problems with the film advance and you send it off to Leica they will not repair it but convert it to single stroke.
Leica M3 Film Rewind Knob
Leica M3 Review – Bottom Plate
Why doesn’t it open like other cameras?
Loading the Leica M3
Let there be no question about it. At first, loading the M3 really is a pain in the ass but it get’s easier with experience. It’s not particularly quick and it’s best done at a table. While most people see this as a problem I generally tend to go to a bar and order a coffee while I switch rolls. I admit it’s a tad fiddly but it’s a small price to pay for using such a superb camera.
If you are really a speed demon then you have two choices:
- Buy a second bit [find name] to stick the film in and pre do it on your next roll
- Get your M3 converted to the quick loading mechanism. Like blah blah, this will also put you in the crosshairs of diehard Leica fanatics.
- Leica M3s designed for the American market use a 1/8″ tripod screw.
- Leica M3s designed for the European market use a 3/8″ tripod screw.
- Obviously, there wasn’t much of an Asian market back in the ’50s as they don’t get their unique tripod size.
- There are adaptors that allow you to downsize the larger tripod screw on a European M3 to the smaller American M3 tripod screw.
- A European M3 will fit into a case made for an American M3 but not the other way round.
Note: all the Leica M3s were made in Germany with the exception of a small batch made in Canada.
Leica M3 Review – The Viewfinder
The Leica M3′s viewfinder is really where the magic is. It’s by far the best and brightest viewfinder I have ever looked through. There are no distractions; no LED light, no numbers, only one set of clear frame-lines for you to frame your subject with.
If you think about it carefully, the most important part of photography is your vision and so the most important part of the camera must be the viewfinder. You will spend a long time looking through the viewfinder in your camera so you might as well have the best one available.
The Leica M3 is the best Leica M just beycase it gives give you all the features you need and none of the ones you don’t but because the viewfinder is so much better and brighter than any other Leica M camera, including the Leica M9 and the Leica M Type 240. It’s also the only viewfinder that’s not prone to flare.
No other Leica M gives you such a beautiful distraction-free composing space. You have everything you need and nothing more:
The Leica M3′s viewfinder is much better than any other Leica M because it has a higher magnification, it doesn’t flare and it’s much more accurate for focusing, especially with fast lenses wide open. If you have the money, Leica offer the 50mm Noctilux-m which has a maximum aperture of f/0.95! Of course, at $11,000 , it’s not exactly cheap.
The Leica M3′s framelines are always uncluttered and there is nothing in them except the rangefinder spot. Shooting the Leica M3 is a breath of fresh air after using other cameras.
The Leica M3 has a viewfinder magnification of 0.91X which is unmatched in any other Leica M camera. It’s so fantastically large and bright that you can keep both eyes open when looking through it and look at the world as you normally would. The frame-lines will just float in your vision. It’s absolutely superb if you are shooting sports or action. That’s Leica magic.
Leica M3 Review – Conclusion
Make sure to subscribe to AndBeThere.com as there is plenty more coming about the Leica M3 and photography in general, including a “Leica M3 Tips and Tricks” article. (Just like the one for the Pentax K1000)
- All articles tagged “Leica M3″ on Stevehuffphoto.com
- Ken Rockwell’s Leica M3 Review (just a quick word of warning. Ken often talks utter crap on his website. He openly admits that he does so take this with a pinch of salt)
- Facebook Leica M3 Group
- Flickr Leica M3 Group