Tag Archives: Leica M3

Why Do “New” Leica Film Camera Owners Always Seem to Want the M3?

A Leica M3. A Beautiful Camera, No Doubt

It’s a question I’m increasingly asking myself. It seems rather predictable these days: prospective first time Leica film camera owners fixate upon the M3 as their entree into Leica film camera ownership. Granted, find one in decent condition and it’s a wonderful camera, exemplifying all the characteristics associated with the hand-built fully mechanical M’s. And, of course, it’s iconic, the original Leica M, with a quarter million production run between its introduction in 1954 and its replacement with the M4 in 1966. But, if you’re considering buying an iconic mechanical M film camera, and assuming you’re going to want to use it to produce photographs as opposed to propping it up on a shelf somewhere, is it really the best choice?

If you want an “iconic” all mechanical film Leica M, you have 3 choices: the M3, the M2, or the M4. (I’m not going to even debate the relative merits of the LTM Leica IIIg, introduced by Leitz in 1957 as the culmination of the venerable Barnack screw-mount line. That’s a discussion for another day.) Starting with the M5, Leica incorporated metering into the M line, necessitating a battery but, more importantly, setting in motion the incremental increases in ergonomic complexity that led to the anti-iconic electronic M7. The M5 and M6, both metered, both excellent cameras, in my mind don’t qualify as “iconic” – just try to picture Henri Cartier-Bresson using an M5 or M6 to take the picture of that guy jumping over the puddle behind the Gare du Nord.  Enough said.

As for the M4-2 and M4-P, both non-metered all mechanical M’s, purists argue they ‘really’ weren’t legitimate M’s but rather stop-gap cost-cutting throwbacks used by Leitz to buy time while they figured out what to do about the M line post-M5 debacle. At the very least, it’s a truism that neither camera was aimed at, or appealed to, the working photographer. If your goal is to own the camera that best embodies the M’s evolution from professional working tool to sentimental throwback, then the M4-2 is the camera for you. Plus, both it and the M4-P just look cheap, the M4-2 with a tacky “Leitz” logo stamped onto the top-plate; the M4-P with the same stamped logo and also a hideous red dot on the front vulcanite. Yuck. And they both continued the unfortunate trend, started with the M5 and brought down through the M lineage to this day, of stamping the “Leica” and the M designation on the front of the faceplate, an unnecessary cluttering up of the camera’s simple lines, with the result being the start of the now well-established practice of showing your hard-core Leicaphile cred by taping these over with black tape. Finally, there’s the recent all mechanical MP, an admirable attempt by Leica to maintain the iconic M profile in the digital age, but alas, too expensive and without any vintage cred.

Neither of these are “iconic” Leica Film Cameras

So, we’re left with the M2 and M4 as alternatives to the M3. The M2, prospective owners might think, would have come before the M3, but they’d be wrong. The M2 was first offered for sale in 1958, four years after the introduction of the M3, intended to be a simpler and less expensive alternative to the M3. There were some cost-cutting features vis a vis the M3: the exposure counter was an exposed dial you reset by hand as opposed to the M3’s auto-reset windowed counter, and Leitz found a way to cut production costs of its viewfinder in relation to the costs of the M3 viewfinder; but, the M2 viewfinder is main reason many working photographers opted for the M2 over the M3, and I would argue it’s also the reason the M2 remains the preferable alternative if you’re a first time Leica Film camera owner.

This One Certainly Is

The results of long experience with M’s by serious photographers seems to have confirmed the belief that the true “native” focal length for the 35mm rangefinder camera is a 35mm lens, itself a perfect combination of focal width with “normal” perspective. The 50mm focal length, especially when used on a rangefinder, seems just a bit too narrow, a bit too restricted in venues like enclosed low-light spaces where M’s have traditionally been most effective. The downside of the M3 is its .91 viewfinder magnification, a life-size magnification perfect for using a 50mm Noctilux, Summicron or Elmar and longer 90 and 135mm lenses but too narrow to use with a 35mm focal length without auxiliary finder. Hence the M2 with .72 magnification viewfinder allowing native framelines for 35/50/90 focal lengths – offered by Leitz a few years after the introduction of the M3 – as much a response to the limitations of the M3 as it was a “reduced-cost” alternative.  It’s no coincidence that the M2 became the M of choice for working photographers using Leicas in the 1960s. It was, and remains, the more practical alternative if your interest is using the camera.

Which brings us to the M4, produced by Leitz from 1967 to 1970 (marginal production as well from 71-75 when the M5 was also being offered as the first metered M). It retains the native .72 magnification viewfinder of the M2 with a bunch of incremental improvements: a 135mm brightline frame in addition to the 35/50/90 M2 trio, a really cool-looking angled cranked film rewind in place of the M2/M3’s fiddly lift-up knob that took forever to rewind a film roll, a faster 3 prong “rapid loading” (!) take up spool, and it was offered in black chrome, a much more durable finish than the black paint M2’s and M3’s that looked like crap after a few months of intense use.

Now THIS is a Real M4: Not bunged up with tacky logos or Red Dots, and not dumbed down to a price point

What I really love about the M4 is its solidity and refinement. To me it feels even more solid yet refined than does the M3. It’s a non-metered M with all the kinks worked out. It is the last iconic M (The M5 being ignored for the moment because of its unique form factor) that truly embodies all the virtues of the Leitz hand-assembled bodies. It is to the non-metered M line what the IIIg is to the Barnack line – the model line’s most refined and sophisticated representation. Were I to choose one Leica M body that most closely met the criteria of a useable iconic M, it would be the M4. Give me mine in black chrome please.

It’s Good To Be King (or Queen For That Matter)

queen

I’ve shaken hands with Royalty, and it was no big deal. The woman I was with at the time – an Anglophile who had been married in Westminster – informed me I should feel special. I didn’t, even though Prince Charles had sought me out to shake my hand, and not vice versa. [Editor: absolutely true story.]  What, I wondered, should I feel special about? He certainly seemed nice enough, no doubt, maybe a bit peculiar looking the way old money can be, but, had I not known who he was, that knowledge freighting the encounter with a myriad of social, class and political assumptions, he would have been just another middle aged guy exchanging social pleasantries. He spoke to me briefly, idle chat about the Shakespearean production we’d just seen, and then he was whisked away in his Aston Martin. Must be Nice, I thought.

As a good American, I’ve never understood the public fascination with Royalty. It’s a great gig if you can get it, I guess: live in a castle on the government’s dime, your solemn face on the local currency. Have parades in your honor, squat at the Ritz in Paris, meet with important and influential people, all of them deferring to you. Snap your fingers and people instantly appear and cater to your every whim. And you don’t have to work, even though hardworking British taxpayers will subsidize your family to the tune of $50 million pounds a year.  When you strip away the pageantry, it seems little more than a monumentally obscene public-assistance program to one family of inbred layabouts. Makes me wonder about the Brits.

Not that we’re any better. America is a nation of rapaciously selfish, vacuous, violent and ignorant people who think they, as Americans, can do as they want because, when you get down to it, the reality is that God wants it that way. Go to any Donald Trump rally and you will be gobstruck by the complete lunacy of a large portion of our citizenry. Even so, we Americans possess the dignity of free idiots, beholden to no one but our capitalist overlords, able to indulge our endless stupidities without the need to subsidize a Royal Family to legitimate it all. We are above such nonsense.

In their defense, the current generation of Royals – Princes William and Harry – seem stand-up guys, both having served their time on the front with the British military, which is more than I can say of the plutocrats who send American kids off to war for a variety of crazy reasons. With the exception of a few principled Democrats, their kids stay home while average American kids go to be maimed and die doing the country’s dirty work.

But I digress.

*************

queen 1

That’s the Queen, above, Prince Charles’ “Mum,” with a beautiful Leica M3 and Summicron. She is, apparently, an avid photographer. For all the useless photographs we have of her, it’s interesting to see the Queen on the other side of a lens – in this instance a 50mm f2 rigid Summicron fastened to her beloved Leica M3. Leitz Wetzlar gave her this particular model, specially engraved, in 1958.

In 1986, when asked to choose a stamp image to commemorate her 60th birthday, she chose a picture of her with her Leica M3, which is sort of weird, if you think about it, unless, of course, the Queen is a hard-core Leicaphile. If so, I’d be interested in knowing why, way back then, she preferred the M3 to an M2 or even a IIIg. Does she still have her M3? Was she ever tempted to trade it in for a newfangled M5 in those crazy 70’s? Still shoot film? And what, pray tell, does she think of this whole new digital thing? Now that, and not some idle chitchat about the latest stuffy production of some long dead playwright, would be an interesting topic of conversation, one I’d be happy to engage in were she to approach me. In any event, I’m not sure what she’s shooting now, but whatever it is, she probably didn’t pay for it.

queen stamp

Honoring Evan: Welcoming a Leica M3 Into My Home

By Chuck Miller, reprinted from the Albany Times Union

Five years ago, blogger and good friend Teri Conroy gifted me a camera that was in her family’s possession – it was a vintage Rolleiflex Automat MX.  I’ve used it for many photographic excursions, and I still use it off and on today.

And last Friday… someone else gifted me a camera that had been in their family for generations.  They hoped that I would find a new use for the camera, that I would appreciate it as much as they did.

I met the family – Polly and Pat and their daughter Claire – at the Gateway Diner in Albany.  We shared a meal, and then Polly showed me the Quantaray camera bag.  And inside – along with two speedlights and an ever-ready camera case… was this:

TU6

My heart nearly stopped.  This is a Leica M3 rangefinder 35mm camera.  It’s one of the early models; the serial number identified it as manufactured in 1955.

Whether you shoot with a Nikon, a Kodak, or even a Canon, there’s one camera brand that simply exudes class and precision and delight.  To hold this camera is to hold a precision instrument.  This camera will make you fall in love with photography.  And that camera is a Leica M3.

You know how people will look for a modern digital camera like the Fuji X100 and say, “That’s the next Leica M3″?

Well, there’s a reason for that.  To own a Leica is to own a true piece of art.

The family and I talked for a while.  I wanted to find out more about the camera’s previous owner – Polly’s father.  His name was Evan Leighton Richards, and he was a reporter and columnist (and photographer) with the Times Union‘s sister afternoon publication, the Albany Knickerbocker News, during the 1950′s and 1960′s.  He later worked in public and private service, and passed away last January at the age of 86.

“He was always using that camera,” Polly told me, with a smile on her face.  “He went everywhere with it.”

And there it was, in my hands.  A sixty-year-old camera with all the gleam and wear of sixty years of photos taken – everything from news stories to family get-togethers.  This is cool.  Way cool.

When I got back to my place, I examined the camera again.  Then I called my friend Catherine, who’s been my trusted friend and confidante for many, many years.  When I told her that I received a Leica M3, her first words were, “My father had a Leica M3, it was the most amazing camera and he took the greatest pictures with it.”

Why do I get this feeling that this little camera is going to change my life – and, for that matter, for the better? :)

And now it’s my turn.  My turn to work with this stunning camera.  My turn to discover if using a Leica M3 is everything everyone says it can be.

First test roll – a pack of Kodak BW400CN, a black-and-white film that can be developed in contemporary C-41 chemicals (i.e., drop it off at Walgreens).  And on what was essentially the first truly warm day of the season… I took a short trip through the Adirondacks.  First stop – Stillwater.

TU 2

Then I cut across Route 9P to Saratoga Lake.  Found this beachfront scene at Dock Brown’s Restaurant.

TU3

And although the Malta Drive-In hasn’t opened for business yet, at least the sign has let people know that there will be an upcoming movie season…

TU4

And just for the heck of it… a new (for me) angle of the Hadley Bow Bridge.

TU5

Let’s start out with the positives.  Look at the freakin’ detail in these shots.  I’ve only used one other rangefinder in my arsenal (my Kodak Medalist II), but this little beauty is just ten levels of impressive.  The mechanics on this camera are amazing, the shutter is whisper-quiet, this camera is just totally cool and awesome and stellar, all at the same time.

Okay, the negatives.  Give me a second.

Hmm…

Honestly?

There are no drawbacks.  This camera is swank.

My utmost thanks to Polly and her family for allowing me to bring new life to Evan’s camera, and to give it a new run through the world.  If I can get shots like with a pack of Kodak B&W drugstore-developable film in this chassis … imagine what I could get if I packed a roll of efke in here.  Or a roll of Fuji Velvia.  Or maybe even some Kodak Ektar.  Or some Revolog boutique film.

Yeah, Chuck is going to have fun with this camera.

Lots and lots of fun.

Educating The Digital Generation

 
tumblr_mut3vsO3Fb1sk843go1_1280

Young photographer: “I had the pleasure to use a Leica M3 once. That’s a cool old camera. I can see why people still use them, the “retro” thing and all.”

Older Photographer: “It is a beautiful thing, isn’t it? Weren’t you surprised at its mass? Heavy as a brick, isn’t it? Built to last a few lifetimes. They certainly don’t make em like that anymore.”

 Young photographer: “Yeah, a friend had recently bought it after reading about it on the net. He’s really into film these days. Sold all his digital gear and now looks down his nose at digital photography. Says its for “chimps.” Pretty condescending, but he’s a decent guy, and he did let me use it to take a few photos, even though he seemed reluctant to let me handle it.”

Older Photographer: “A true friend.  I would only ever lend mine to a person who understands the value of the instrument.  Sounds like your friend knew you would appreciate it.”

Young photographer: “Yeah, its build felt so solid. You can tell immediately that its a precision instrument.”

Older Photographer: “Like a microscope or other lab instrument from the house of Leitz or Zeiss.  That culture inspired the high quality instruments of the 50’s and 60’s, cameras that could be used for life and inherited … before plastic and silicon.  Think about this:  The plastic, automatic, battery-driven camera has been around since 1980 or there abouts… 35 years.  How many plastic cameras from that time are collectible and working today?”

Young photographer: “Good point. Although my friend’s Leica camera seemed hopelessly simple. It confused me. I mean, in this day and age of computers and smart technology, it just seemed so low tech. Like driving a 1956 Cadillac across country when you could be driving the latest Lexus. It sounds romantic and all until the car overheats and leaves you on the side of the road in some god-forsaken hell-hole in Arkansas. For example, I put the camera to my eye and tried to half click the shutter to lock focus and exposure……”

Older Photographer: “Half?!  There’s nothing half about a Leica M.”

Young photographer: “….and then I realized that there was no half click option and I had already released the shutter and taken a picture!”

Older Photographer: “Yeah, but did you feel how buttery smooth the shutter release was and how quiet it was? Beautiful, huh? It just feels so right, and it’s also very functional for slow shutter speed use in low light because its very easy to release the shutter without shaking the camera.”

Young photographer: “Then, of course, I reflexively turned to the back of the camera where the LCD should have been and realized there was no screen to view the image, only a blank piece of plastic. Duh! It’s a film camera!”

M3 6

Older Photographer: “That blank looking door on the back only looks like plastic.  That’s a little frame that flips out to help with film loading.  Next time you see your friend, check and see if he’s gotten into the digital Leicas yet.  If so, it’ll have an LCD on the back but it will feel in a lot of ways like the older M film cameras. That’s why a lot of us older guys buy the digital versions; not because they’re intrinsically better (only rich dentists or dilettantes you find obsessively posting on gearhead websites think that) but because they feel comfortable, like an old shoe. It’s what we know.”

Young photographer: “Yeah, I get that, but man, I understand the Leica glass is amazing. Corner to corner sharpness. Great bokeh. Apparently they make it with some rare glass that costs a ton of money. Anyway, so after I realize I can’t see my exposure on an LCD, my friend came over and asked me what exposure and aperture combination I had chosen. I assumed it had been on Auto so I told him I really didn’t know. Apparently, there is no Auto setting on the camera. Honest mistake. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a camera before that didn’t have an Auto setting. Teutonic simplicity is what my friend says. He seems to think you’re “not really a photographer” if you use Auto modes. He even mentioned the Leica M7 somewhat dismissively. I think this whole business, what he calls “purity of vision,” is pretty pretentious. But the cameras do look and feel cool; there really is a beauty about them as instruments.”

Older Photographer: “Speaking of automation, there actually are a number of automatic features on the Leica M, but not the ones that come to mind in the present era. For example,
1. When one removes the bottom to change film, the film counter automatically resets to zero.
2. When one advances the film the camera automatically charges the shutter and automatically increments the frame counter.
3. When the yellow image in the viewfinder is superimposed on the main image, the lens is automatically set to perfect focus an any light.
4. When one then looks at the scale on the lens, it automatically displays the depth of field for that focus setting.
5. When one changes from one lens to another, it automatically displays the correct frame lines for that lens.
6. When one sets shutter speed, aperture, or focus, the camera automatically and faithfully does exactly whatever it was commanded, no more and no less, and no guessing on its part.
7. When one overexposes or underexposes a record of the fact is automatically recorded on a piece of film for further evaluation. Learning happens, automatically.
8. When one uses this (or any) camera for an extended period of time, required actions become second nature.  This is a kind of automation too, like riding a bike, swimming, or shifting gears.
9. The M7, M8, and M9 do have aperture priority AE. This was a major departure from all-manual by Leica. Purists like your friend call this “Dentist Mode.”
Incidentally, one will see “AUTO” engraved on a lot of old SLR primes, confusing new image makers. The lenses automatically open wide for focusing, then automatically stop down to the selected taking aperture for exposure, then automatically re-open again for bright viewing.”

Young photographer: “Yeah, my friend explained to me that I had to manually set the shutter speed and aperture. When I asked him what the proper settings were, he said I’d need to learn to accurately judge various lighting conditions because the M3 had no exposure meter. I was like, WTF?”

M3 5

Older Photographer: “Well, it certainly can be confusing if you’ve grown up with a digital camera, that’s for sure. Most of us old guys use hand meters, and there are also clip-on meters that slot into the hotshoe on the top of the camera that you can use, but your friend was right; back in the day we used our best estimate of exposure. You’d be surprised how good you can get with a little practice. It becomes second nature.  Some people, sounds like your friend too, argue that you really don’t understand the craft of photography until you truly comprehend exposure; you know, aperture, shutter speeds, how and when to vary them to achieve the effect you want, what exposure values to use in different lighting conditions and at different ASA – I mean ISO – ratings, things like that. But now that everything is automated, you probably don’t need to know that stuff anymore. Your camera does it for you. I wouldn’t worry about it, unless, of course, you catch the film camera bug like your friend.”

Young photographer: “Yeah, and its not just exposure, its focus as well. My friend asked me if my focus was good, which also confused me. The camera sets focus, right? So I was like, yes,  it certainly looked like everything was in focus in the viewfinder. …. He asked “Did you align the two images ?” And, embarrassingly enough, I was like “align what?” Not my best moment I agree.”

M3 9

Older Photographer: “Well, the rangefinder camera certainly is a different beast, and its not your fault you didn’t realize the camera had no autofocus. Speaking of which, its fascinating how the rangefinder came about; it had its beginning with artillery.  Some of the early ones for cameras were accessories, miniature hand-held versions of what goes on ships to direct cannon fire.  It was a pretty clever thing to put a cam on the lens of a camera to operate a rangefinder device.  The one on the M3 is an amazing feat of mechanical engineering, although for my money the rangefinder in the Contax II is probably the best one ever put into a 35mm camera. Old Contax don’t have the hipster cache apparently, though.

Young Photographer: “Well that was my first and unfortunately last experience with a Leica camera. He never did offer it to me again and I suspect its because he’s become really picky about that camera, like its too valuable to use. I go over to his house and he sits in his chair and practices using the camera without any film in it. Says he’s “exercising the shutter” to keep the low speeds from sticking.

But, you know, in spite of all that there’s just something really cool about an old Leica. It’s exclusive. It projects an image of refinement. And from everything I’ve heard, the glass is so good you can pick out Leica photos pretty easy. I’ve got half a mind to buy one to use shooting weddings. Black and white film wedding photography; expanding market for that retro look. I was thinking an M4 with a good zoom, maybe a Sigma until I can find the money for a Noctilux or Summicron; I’ve heard the M4 has the best viewfinder of all the M’s. How cool would that be, doing a wedding with something like that!?!??”

Older Photographer: “Well, best of luck with your new business.  Work hard, learn your craft and most importantly, pick the right tools for the job and know how to use them. And if you ever travel my way, let’s meet up.  You can use one of my Leicas for the day, get to know it a little better before you jump in feet first. I’ll even thaw some film for the occasion.  And, if you let me use your 5D, I’ll be happy to take your picture holding my Leica. You can use it on you website.”