Leica M3. These words conjure up images of street photography, svelte image making and expense. When I first got my M3 I imagined myself wandering the streets, finding fascinating people left and right, all doing something interesting at that exact moment. The camera was going to align all the stars and the gravitational pull would cause decisive moments in abundance.
So, I loaded it with some Ilford HP5 Plus, and energetically bounced out the door. The sun was out, the shadows were dark, and everything looked very Summicron. I caught public transport to the central business district (downtown for my American friends) and started to wander the busy streets. And wander. And wander.
Ok, the camera does not automatically create photographic scenarios. Or control lighting. Or slow down time so that you can capture that exact moment. Luckily in reality I did know this was the case, but it was fun to be swept up for a moment. What I did find, even on that first day was that this is a wonderful camera. The build quality is something to really sing about, just try the film advance lever if you don’t believe me. Even better, look through that beautiful viewfinder.
As can be imagined, a lot of hype follows a camera like this. There are people on both sides of the argument, some swearing that the M3 is the be-all, end-all of photography and others shrugging it off as an expensive “dentist’s” toy.
Even within the Leica community there is some friction. As an example, in keeping period correctness, a part of the community believe the M2 is a better camera due to native wider viewfinder. Effectively this means that pretty much everyone with an interest in photography has an opinion on the Leica M3.
This camera is sometimes claimed to be the ultimate camera. Interestingly history and sales figures tell us differently. If it was the complete package which could not be bettered, everyone would be using Leica rangefinders and it would be the brand saturating the market. As we know, that is not how it played out since the early 1960s.
It is quite an interesting contradiction, a camera which elicits such passion is actually a niche product in 2020. But what a niche product! The detailed workmanship, the simple functionality and the beautiful design all put together sixty years ago, all might be considered luxuries but are just as relevant now.
It’s actually that simple, the camera gives you the basics needed to make photographs but engineered and built to the highest quality. This allows the photographer to concentrate on the composition without any complicated controls. The camera blends away and in my opinion that is actually its charm. It just gets out of the way and lets you compose and make photographs, while letting you fully control the exposure triangle.
No wonder Leica advertised in 1960 with the tag line: O Like the circle, the Leica M3 is a symbol of perfection and simplicity.
That is not to say it hasn’t got its drawbacks. The viewfinder, while being so bright and with a 0.91x factor, is squarely aimed at using 50mm lenses and requires an external finder for anything wider. Being a camera designed and built in the 1950s and 60s, it also does not have an exposure meter. You have to rely on either an external meter or sunny 16 and gut feel.
Some other 35mm rangefinders have been reviewed on Photo Thinking, so if you would like to compare, please check out Kodak Retina IIa, Kiev 4, Zorki 4, Agfa Karat 36, and the very unique Hasselblad XPan.
I am guessing that by this point you have worked out I have really connected with my Leica M3, so after a bit about the camera and its history I will describe to you how this came about through my experience with it.
By the early 1950s Leitz had been producing screw mount Leica cameras for over a couple of decades. We won’t go into a lot of details of the history, as there is whole books and websites dedicated to the history of Leitz/Leica. So we’ll cover only a few details of the different M3 versions.
In 1954 it was time to shake things up a little, and the original M3 was introduced to the world. To say this was successful would be an understatement. After years and years of competing against other rangefinders including a world full of clones, Leitz was ready to introduce something new and exciting and the M3 ticked all the boxes.
The M3 introduced a host of new features to the Leica line up, including a combined viewfinder/rangefinder. It was also the first move away from screw mount cameras into a bayonet mount, allowing much faster changes of lenses.
During a 14 year product cycle there was a number of versions of the M3. The early versions, like the one featured in this review, had a double stroke film advance. This was to ensure the advance mechanism didn’t create friction and wear out prematurely. The later versions came with a single stroke mechanism, considered more convenient when the engineers either overcame this issue or proved it incorrect. In fact, Leica offered a service where they would convert double stroke cameras to single stroke.
Early versions also had glass as a pressure plate, but later versions from 1957 had this replaced with metal. The glass plates were too fragile for some cold weather and also had an issue where under certain circumstances they would build up a static discharge. Metal pressure plates on later models corrected both these issues.
All but the very early versions had a frame line preview lever, likely introduced when the M2 was brought into the picture. 35mm frame lines were still not supported, but you could see what 90mm and 135mm lenses would frame without having to mount the actual lens.
One of the major changes was actually a very core functional change. The original version inherited the shutter speed selections from the older Leica rangefinders. From 1957 Leica adopted the more standard international speeds on the M3.
The M3 was produced until 1968 when Leitz replaced it with the M4.
The Leica M3 is a 35mm rangefinder camera manufactured in Germany from 1954 though to 1968. This particular copy is an early 1955 model, with a double stroke film advance. The lens mount is the Leica M bayonet mount.
The M3 has frame lines in the viewfinder for 50mm, 90mm and 135mm lenses, which are automatically shown when the lens is mounted. Other focal lengths are not available and require either an external viewfinder or goggles to adjust the view, as per the 35mm Summicron and Summaron lenses. The goggles above on the 5cm Summicron are used to allow the lens to focus closer than the native 1m but make no change to the frame line coverage.
The view finder magnification is 0.91x, which means it is one of the closest viewfinders to human 1:1 view. Considered one of the biggest and brightest viewfinders, it was aimed at making it easier for the photographer to compose the photograph.
The rangefinder base length of the M3 is 68.5mm, and has an effective base length of 62.33mm. For an explanation of the effective base length, have a look at the description on both 35mmc and Johnny Martyr. With such a long effective base length, it ensures it is one of the most accurate focusing rangefinder cameras available. Only the Contax and some of its clones like the Kiev 4 have a longer one.
Speaking of focusing, the rangefinder patch in the viewfinder is a yellow tinted large rectangle in the centre. With a well serviced M3 it is very easy to view the double image for focusing.
On the top of the camera is the shutter release button, which is surrounded by the film advance lever. With the M3, Leitz moved to a standard screw in thread for the remote release. As mentioned above, the advance requires two strokes to move to the next frame and cock the shutter. The lever is machined brass, with a knurled thumb position.
On the right of the shutter release is the frame counter, a crafted circle with a glass cover. On the left is the shutter speed selector. It uses the inherited older shutter speed progressions which are 1, ½, 1/5th, 1/10th, 1/25th, 1/50th, 1/100th, 1/250th, 1/500th, 1/1000thsecond and Bulb.
Further to the left is a cold shoe. This can be used for accessories like a light meter, as the M3 does not have a built-in meter. If used for a flash, it needs to be connected to the flash sync terminals on the back of the camera. Flash bulbs can sync 1/1000th second but electronic flash only to 1/50th second.
On the far left is the film rewind. To rewind the film, you pull out the knob after the rewind lever has been set on the front of the camera and rotate clockwise. It does require finger tips and can be something that some users dislike.
On the front of the camera apart from the lens mount and the rewind lever is the self-timer. The lens lock button is next to the lens. All of these are metal and polished.
On the back of the camera is the film reminder wheel, though it is less useful these days with much faster films usually being used.
Loading the camera with film is probably the most disliked part of the M3. Leitz kept with bottom loading from the Barnack Leica design. This does take a bit of effort, as firstly the bottom must be taken off by releasing it through a lock on the right side of the bottom. The take up spool is then taken out from the camera.
The film is then threaded via a slot in the spool. Then both are inserted through the bottom, but with the back panel raised. This allows for the film to be threaded and ensure it is taken up properly. The bottom is then locked back in place once everything is closed again, and the film can be advanced to the first frame. Note that there was a service Leica did offer to upgrade the M3 to the quick load mechanism that later M mount rangefinders enjoy.
Speaking of the back panel, it is worth mentioning that this being an early version, it has the glass film pressure plate.
One of the main features of a Leica M3 is its build. The major material used for the M3 is brass. This gives the camera a very solid feel, and somewhat heavy. But the top grade materials have been used right through with very exact engineering, allowing a very smooth experience with the camera. It is said that people get hooked with the M3 when they first pick it up.
I bought my Leica M3 a few years ago. It was always with a view of it being one of my main 35mm cameras, alongside my Nikon SLRs. At the same time, I ordered a Summicron 5cm f/2 Near Focusing Range lens, also known unofficially as the Dual Range (DR). This is now one of my top favourite lenses, even though it is not considered one of the sharpest. It has a special way it renders the photos.
I loved this camera from the get-go. Everything from the fine workmanship, the weighty brass, and through to the viewfinder. The first time I put the M3 to my eye I was hooked. I then tried the double stroke film advance and it is smooth like butter. I specifically wanted an early version with the double stroke, for no other reason than I like it. It only took roughly an hour before I had it loaded and I was travelling to use the camera.
That first trip out was very explorative, so that I could get used to the camera. It is also where I really started to understand the attraction of the M3 and Leica M mount rangefinders in general. The camera became intuitive very quickly. I felt like I had been using it for quite a while.
Since then I have also purchased some LTM lenses including the wonderful Canon 50mm f/1.8. This lens has also become one of my favourites. For something longer, I have the Leitz Elmar 90mm f/4. LTM lenses are very easy to adapt to the M mount, so a very good way to build up glass for the M mount cameras.
The lenses are where I also found the first limitation with the M3. For something wider I bought a Carl Zeiss Biogon 35mm f/2 in M mount, another remarkable lens. But to use this lens on the M3 I have to attach an external viewfinder, which is not a huge issue, but inconvenient. In the end though, because I do like using the 35mm focal length, I actually bought a companion M2. I effectively now have the 50mm lenses permanently on the M3 and the 35mm lens on the M2. The combination works extremely well together.
An example of where the combination works well is where I took them to New Zealand, in 2 Leicas, a Fuji and a Nikon in Auckland.
This may sound like the M3 is incomplete for use. That is not quite true, it has been designed to use with the 50mm focal length, and it does this extremely well. When I am in a 50mm mood I don’t hesitate to grab the M3 on my way out. It easily slips into a small bag and I tend to not take any other lenses, playing to its strengths.
Out on the street I find the M3 does not seem to attract as much attention as I thought it would. Maybe being a camera collector, I read too much into it and see red dots everywhere, even though the M3 does not actually have a red dot. I think its stealth has a lot to do with being able to operate the camera so easily and quickly. All the controls are in the right place, and if the lens has click stops for aperture, you can control everything quickly at eye level.
Another reason for its stealth is the quiet shutter. While I would not call it super quiet, it is one of the quieter cameras that I have used. In a normal environment with some ambient noise, it will not get noticed except by me.
With the Summicron attached, I also find that zone focusing works very well as the markings are nice and clear. This brings up a new world of shooting from the hip, though I don’t think I have mastered that properly. Shooting through a roll of film is enjoyable and can be fast, but then I hit the one of the tricky bits.
Loading the film is not as straight forward as other cameras. I especially found this when I was shooting with a friend. It almost needs three hands when you are not used to it, so initially I had to sit down when it was time to load it up. This meant my friend waiting for me and a break in the flow of shooting. It is also very easy to drop the take-up spool.
The actual rewinding of the film is a little tedious too, as the little rotating knob does require spinning with the tips of the fingers. I personally don’t mind it as much, as it is only a few seconds extra and I like the way it looks on the camera.
The loading has gotten easier the longer that I have used the camera. While I would not call it second nature, it is now a lot faster and can be done on the run.
The results from the M3 are obviously dependant on the lens attached which I’ll review separately. What the results show is how using the camera lets you get to the images you want to capture.
I find the keeper rate is actually quite good with the Leica. This is a combination of the camera itself, but also the ability to use it in difficult lighting conditions. For instance, I have no issue setting the shutter speed to 1/15th second in low light and feeling confident to get sharp photos.
On the other hand, I feel confident being fairly wide on a portrait, because the focusing is so precise. That focusing patch in the viewfinder is just divine. Big, yellow and very contrasty. It is such a pleasure to lock the overlapping images together and being really confident on the right focus.
Interestingly one thing I did not think about having to get used to is the shutter speeds on the older M3. Being different from the standard ones, I do every so often hit a mental pause when metering externally with my hand held meter. But this is such an inconsequential thing.
As you have probably worked out, I love the Leica M3. It is a camera I have connected with, but you have to keep in mind that I like using rangefinders. I enjoy the camera’s quirks and really enjoy holding something with such a level of engineering and workmanship.
Is it a camera for everyone? I am not sure about that. It depends what you want to use it for. It is not an all-round camera and can be an expensive niche tool.
If you decide to purchase one, please make sure you have enough in your budget for a service or make sure it has recently been serviced. As wonderful as the M3 is, it is only wonderful if it is working correctly. A service would probably give most people a good ten years before the next one is required, but you do have a camera for life.
The Leica M3 is a camera which has been written about extensively. You can find lots of information by searching, but these are some articles you may be interested in:
Peggy at Camera Go Camera was loaned a Leica M3 and she wrote about it in: The Leica M3
On 35mmc, Steven Bleistein wrote about the M3 in: The virtues of the Leica M3, which coincidentally Peggy mentioned to me was who lent her the M3!
Speaking of 35mmc, there is quite a lot of good content on there for the Leica M3, including: The Leica M3 DS – final thought on double stroke vs single stroke and The Leica M3 a review, and some thoughts about finding the right version for me.
Mick Eckman is well known for writing reviews with extensive history covered (unlike me), so have a look at: Leica M3 (1961)
At EMULSIVE, Linus Kafka wrote: Expectations and Anticipation: Shooting a Leica M3 for the first time