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.

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

  1. apparently

    My first Leica was an M8, which is not anikon….

    Loved the look of my pictures, didn’t like the crop issue…

    Bought a series of non Leica cameras, then went for anikon… The M2 with 50mm DR Summicron, spent a year doing an OCOLOY (see Mike Johnston at The Online Photographer). I made so many blunders at first, that I was always ready to drop the experiment, but I persevered
    but there was not a great deal of improvement at the end of the year… Light judgement and British light are not easy bedfellows when one has been using built in light meters for a life time!

    Bought an M6, slight improvement on M2, 0.85 viewfinder which I liked… Traffic light system which I did not like…. During this time I bought an M-P 240, and I realise that I like the mod cons, I like aperture priority, and I like a light meter.

    Currently still have the M-P, but also have an M5, the match needle system, the decent light meter have proved to be very user friendly to my eye, and I love it… I also have a couple of old Olympus compact cameras…. The XA and the mjuII, which are fantastic little things.

    It is possible that I might sell the M-P, I have thoughts about the T camera to accompany my M5, which is going nowhere! This would give me a holiday camera with a handy top quality zoom lens, with the ability to use my M lenses as well, and a lot of cash for some more lenses.

    Many thanks for your continuing articles, which are some of the best and most whimsical out there!

  2. Colin Templeton

    Fantastic piece. I’m privileged to have an M2, M4, and an M5. I mostly shoot black and white, so it’s great to have a dedicated camera body for slow, medium, and fast film films. The M4 really does feel the most sorted camera. It’s quicker than the M2 to load and unload. But I do like the uncluttered viewfinder of the M2. And the M5 feels overbuilt (in a good way) and very capable. The light meter is extremely accurate.

    Ultimately I struggle to have a favourite camera between the three of them. Whichever one happens to be in my hand, I know that if I don’t get the shot, it’s my fault, not that of the camera. And any M is simply a pleasure to shoot with.

    Agree with the previous poster – your site is always interesting and thought provoking. Please keep up the great work!

  3. Malcolm Farrar

    I love these kind of reads! I entered the world of Leica film photography with a secondhand 1958 M2 in beautiful condition. It had probably sat on a shelf most of its life and so needed a service. It works well now and was accompanied by a Sekonic battery-free light meter. I couldn’t do without a 35mm lens which is why my pre-Leica-purchase-research led me to the M2.

    One thing I’m not too happy about, as a glasses wearer, is the metal eyepiece and so I bought the diopter to suit my prescription. Whilst this solves the glasses scratching aspect I keep forgetting to lift my glasses each time I raise the camera to my eye. I’ve since abandoned the diopter idea.

    Nevertheless, the M2 did its job of seducing me into the Leica experience and so was soon followed by a beautiful Leica M-A in black chrome finish. I still have the M2 and cannot bear to sell it but the one I love most is my M-A.

    Keep up the good work.

  4. Hank Beckmeyer

    Completely agree with you on the M4. It is the pinnacle of the M design. The viewfinder is great, better than my MP.

    The MP is, I think, what the M6 should have been. It’s a solid camera, and the meter in it is really great. It’s the camera I reach for most often.
    I also have a M7, which I try to love, but I just don’t get the Leica magic from it. Plus, the shutter speed dial turns the wrong way!

  5. Max Jenkins

    A couple of thoughts on the M3: if you prefer the 50mm or 90mm approach to most of your photography, as I do, then the M3 viewfinder is superior. It allows using both eyes, like the old SBOOI finder did with the IIIf – that’s really good for certain types of work, I find. Also, the M3 rangefinder is of different design than the later .72 finders, and somewhat more tenacious of adjustment (I have been told by repair guys and in my experience).

    That said, I have used and own an M4, M4-2, and an M5. All really fine cameras, and all also get a lot of work. Little to choose among them, except obviously for the meter and design differences of the M5, both of which are not in the least objectionable to me. As an aside, while the M4 (chrome) is in my opinion the most pleasing in appearance, hands down, the M4-2 is every bit as well built and enduring as its predecessor. I’ve owned and heavily used mine, around the world literally, since I bought it new in 1980. It had one CLA by Don Goldberg about 10 years ago, and continues to perform flawlessly (if only the operator did). I know the M3, M4, and M5 have brass gears and are just a bit smoother, but there has been no indication of wear with the steel drive gears of the M4-2 and the smoothness factor is, to me at least, insignificant.

    Fun article – thanks.

  6. Kodachromeguy

    The M3 is fabulous. I used one for 25 years. But mine once suffered from the viewfinder blackout caused by delaminating Canada balsam. It was repaired by PCS in New York (long closed). I have read that many M3s are subject to that issue, so beware if you buy an M3 with original finder. Look into it from the front and check for a crazed line pattern. I now use a 1962-vintage M2. And this is an odd one: it has the 35-50-90-135 finder frames.

  7. Tadeas

    I wanted a M2, bought a M2 and a shoot a M2… Almost got a M4-P as a second body, but the sticker on the back instead of “remember your ISO” dial was just too much for my eyes to look on… 😀

  8. Mark

    Well, I opted for the M7 for my entry in to the Leica system. I liked the larger shutter speed dial and the option to shoot in aperture-priority metering, which is useful when dealing with the hugely variable light in the old city here. At the time, my M7 was cheaper than almost any other option in comparable condition.

    My biggest issue is the lack of eye relief for glasses wearers, which makes it difficult for me to see the entire frame with a 35mm lens. Fortunately I am mainly a 50mm shooter.

    FWIW, after nearly three years the M7 remains my all-time favourite camera on any format. Now if only that would translate to better photography…

  9. tennjed

    It is a tough one. I have blathered on a bit about Leica M, film rangefinders. In fact I love all of them. I own, and use, M2, M3, M5 (2), M7. My M3 was the first Leica RF purchased. I bought it with a 50mm 1.5 Summarit for a price to good to pass. At the time of purchase the RF was misaligned vertically, but allowed accurate focus in horizontal. It taught me that I loved the RF concept enough to pursue it further and sent it off for repair. After a six month wait, with no sign it would be back any time soon, I found an M2 and began using it. When M3 finally reappeared, it went in the drawer….and stayed there for two years.

    Then, about two weeks ago, I purchased a 50 summicron DR complete with close-up ocular. I decided to put this lens on the M3. It has only been two weeks but I have since shot and developed three rolls of film. I am in love with the combination. I would say that, together, the lens and camera make me faster and more accurate than with any other Leica M/lens combination. I look through the viewfinders on M2 and M3 and comprehend the advantages, related to frame lines, of the M2; however, in consideration of just the rangefinder patch, the M3 seems superior in both size and contrast.

    They are all good. Having the two weeks I have had with the M3 and 50 DR, I would not hesitate to recommend the combination as the best way for a Leica newbie to introduce him/herself to the system.

  10. jamesthethickheaded

    I recently went for an M4-2 as my re-entry into film and re-entry into Leica. Didn’t click before, but with photography and I generally clicking again together as an engaging avocation for the first time in a long, long time, desire to shoot B&W film with contrast filters and all the trimmings drove me here.

    Greatest result of the M4-2’s pariah status is that it’s a easy way to give a Leica M a try. Add some Zeiss ZM glass or 1980’s Leica glass, and the damage isn’t close to the ridiculous rep often foisted on Leica as the rich man’s fob. Doesn’t have to be! And the great thing about the M4-2 is that its an all black, incognito, anti-snob snob device. Yes, it’s still a Leica, but hey, most people don’t know what that is any more as I’ve discovered, so my hang ups are… well… my hang ups. Thank you! Takes great pictures! and compared to digital, a walk with an all-manual Leica will seem like the first taste of freedom after a long stretch in digital Alcatraz.

    That happened in February. Since then, I’ve sent the camera off to Youxin for replacement windows and a flare-free kit, and have picked up an M6 TTL… for “when I’m in my red mood…” and actually want a meter. But I’d never have picked up either camera if there hadn’t been a less pricey, anti-snob way in for a snob like me. The M4-2’s status as “Black sheep of the Family” (and it really is black) turned it into just the right ticket.

    And FWIW’ the immense joy found in these little boxes has led me into the darkroom and all the magic that brings. Truth be told, digital’s now become a “Oh… I guess I’ll have to shoot the Sony for this…”. But we’ll see how much longer that runs… So if you’re open to it, let me suggest that If Leica and an M4-2 can soften even a hardened, anti-Leica man’s heart who thinks he’s “been there, done that”, there just might be more magic in that “ugly duckling” than you think.

    1. Leicaphila Post author

      Great stuff, James. I like your style! Be proud of your M4-2. I’m an M5 lover, so I can appreciate standing up for the black-sheep models. It’s all relative, of course: the most generically made Leica is still of better quality and possessing of that certain je ne sais quoi particular to Leicas than are 99% of the alternatives. And welcome to the world of film photography.

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