The Leica M3 Camera
Early in March this year I received a breathless call from a friend who knew I had been looking for a rangefinder camera. He told me he had just been speaking to a retiring photographer from a nearby town who had a Leica M3 camera outfit for sale. He had seen and handled the gear and said that it all looked in pretty good condition for it’s age.
The price was great so, trusting my friends judgement, I took a leap of faith and told him to go ahead and get it and I would reimburse him later that day. I’m glad I did! It turned out that this outfit contained everything I could have wished for; a complete working system, ready to start shooting with.
The body is a 1957 ‘double stroke’ Leica M3 camera and shows some typical signs of having been used, but not abused. There are some scratches and bright marks on the top of the camera from the slip-on meter, one small dent, and a tiny peice of the vulcanite body covering missing. Overall it is in great condition and feels very solid.
I wanted to get it fully checked out before using it on any serious shoots so I shipped it off to Youxin Ye, a respected repairman, for a CLA (clean, lubricate and adjust). At the same time I also ordered a lens adapter so I could use the Summitar lens that I already owned on the M3. Turn around time for the service was a very quick ten days (including shipping both ways) and it came back feeling fantastic! The film wind is super smooth, the shutter extremely quiet and the rangefinder very bright and accurate.
Here is the camera with the 50mm Summitar attached. This is a great compact configuration.
The Summitar is excellent. This particular lens was made in 1946 and has a coated front element and the ten blade round iris configuration (later lenses switched to a six blade hex iris configuration). As mentioned above, I already owned this lens and have used it extensively on my Leica iiif screw-mount body. When shot wide open, it produces images with a lovely vintage character; low contrast and a little soft, but very attractive. Stopped down it also gets pretty sharp, especially in the center of the frame.
The biggest problem with the Summitar is that it is almost guaranteed to flare in bright conditions, reducing contrast even further, so the use of a lens hood is mandatory. Although not shown here, I have the Leica ‘barn door’ hood which provides the best solution to this problem, at the cost of looking absolutely ridiculous!
“So what else was in the outfit?”, I hear you cry!
Well, there were four lenses, and I’ll start with the widest, a Leitz Summaron 35mm F/3.5. Made in 1958, this version was designed specifically for the Leica M3. The M3 camera doesn’t have frame lines in the viewfinder for the 35mm focal length, so the solution was to attach a set of ‘eyes’ or ‘goggles’ over the viewfinder components so that the angle of view and magnification is correctly shown for accurate framing. Although they look a little odd, and are undeniably bulky, they work very well.
With a maximum aperture of F/3.5, this Summaron could never be considered a ‘fast’ lens (Leitz also made a F/2.8 version), but from what I’ve seen so far, it’s a great little performer when you have enough light. I’ve not tested it extensively yet, but the few frames I have shot show pretty good sharpness when closed down a few stops. Like a lot of lenses from this era, it’s a little low on contrast, but still very useable. On a more positive note, another trait it shares with lenses from this period is it’s incredible build quality; it really is a masterpiece of mechanical and optical engineering, and a delight to use!
Next up is the star of the show, a 1956 50mm F/2.0 Leitz Summicron. The Summicron was the successor to the Summitar mentioned earlier, and was initially offered in a collapsible version for the Leica screw mount. In fact, the first collapsible version looks almost exactly like the Summitar. This version, however, is the non-collapsible second type, using the M mount, and is often referred to as the ‘rigid’ Summicron.
This lens is in great condition optically. The barrel has a few cosmetic issues that come from fifty years of use, but that adds to the charm. It is a lower contrast lens than the modern equivalent and, again, prone to flare with a strong light source in the image. That said, I have been amazed at the quality of the negatives I’ve shot with the Summicron. The detail it resolves is astounding and, although I have used sharper modern lenses, it’s certainly no slouch in that department either. Destined to become one of my favourite lenses, I think!
The Leica M3 camera has three framelines available in the viewfinder; 50mm, 90mm and 135mm. The 50mm focal length is now taken care of, so we’ll move on to the next lens, the 90mm F/2.8 Elmarit. Made in 1960, this is a lovely lens for portraits, and looks great with the black vulcanite trim on the silver barrel! Again, it’s in very good condition, and snaps into focus in the viewfinder.
I just love this lens! I’m primarily a portrait photographer and the Elmarit is fantastic for people pictures. Sharp, without being too sharp (you can thank me later, ladies), and with a very smooth and pleasing rendition of out-of-focus areas. I made some 8×10 enlargements of negatives shot with this lens a few nights ago and they look incredible!
The final lens is a 1961 135mm F/4.0 Leitz Elmar. I’ve only shot a few frames with this lens so far so I’ll leave any comments on image quality for a later post, but the condition is great and it’s beautifully constucted. I have never used a lens longer than 90mm on a rangefinder camera before and I’m looking forward to see what this can do. It could be very nice for tight headshots…
So there it is; my new Leica M3 camera outfit! I also got the slip-on Leicameter MC seen in a few of the photos (although I’m not convinced it’s accurate anymore so I’ve been using a hand held meter) and various lens hoods and caps. It all fits nicely into a small Domke bag and I’ve been carrying it with me everywhere I go. I got really lucky finding such a complete kit locally for such a good price, and I can see this becoming my go-to kit for 35mm film shooting!
Stay tuned for reports on the individual lenses as I start using them on shoots over the next few weeks.
EDIT – First report, on the Summitar, is here.
EDIT – A shoot with the Summicron is here.