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Leica M3 -- a personal history of the road more traveled


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Leica M3

a personal history of the road more traveled




Leica was not only a pioneer in 35mm cameras, but had achieved an enviable status as the best of the high-quality cameras of this type. The cameras, as I understand it, were essentially a "bench" or "job" production item, made by craftsmen. Parts may have been standardized, but assembly was not really "mass" production. Even before the loss of World War II and the subsequent release of German patents, etc., by the Allied Control Commission as reparations, Many 'look-alike' and even 'clone' copies of the early Leicas were made. This was especially true in countries where observation of patents and copyrights were lax.


For example, the FED commune in the Soviet Union made Leica copies for local use. After the War, these and similar wartime copies/substitutes of Leica became 'legal'. and, literally millions of Leica copies like the FED and Zorki cameras were mass-produced. While the quality control of these was somewhat lax, it is also true the Soviet system was able to take a 'craft' product and mass produce it in something like working order.


On their part, American, British, French, and other Allied wartime copies were too costly to build and rarely achieved any kind of real reliability. The companies making them gave up or died. However, the Japanese made their now-legal copies very well, and early examples were sold to American occupation troops in American PXs. During the Korean war, international photographers passing through Japan discovered the high quality of Japanese lenses, first, and then the camera bodies themselves. Canon and Nikon, particularly, set out to surpass the quality of the German originals.


Leica, I think it's fair to assume, began to realize that they needed new improved and "legally protected" designs in order to maintain their leadership, even existence. The result was the Leica M3 with a new mount and other substantial improvements. In the Japanese on-line histories formerly it was indicated that the M3 was instrumental in pushing the Japanese manufacturers toward SLR designs. Those sources today no longer admit the bruising of egos by the M3, but clearly they saw the hand writing on the wall.


So here it is - 1954. Lots was happening of moment ( 1954 - Wikipedia ). The new Leica was definitely a success, first in a "double stroke" advance version. The Korean truce ended fighting in Korea, but the the Viet Nam conflict was seeing its first glimmerings.


By 1963, I directed my first autonomous field survey project in a reservoir in northern Kansas. I had bought a Heiland Pentax H2 in 1960, but I was assigned a Leica III, probably a IIIf, from the equipment locker for the project.


After the Pentax, I found the Leica III fairly awkward to load and use, but all turned out. I came to have neither affection nor dislike for the camera (unlike the Kodak Signet 35 I was assigned a couple of years later; but that is another story, both famous and infamous.

Here is a shot of me, the Leica (not visible except for the strap of the case), and our field vehicle.



North Central Kansas 1963

Years pass...


More quickly than I could have imagined, I was retired and in 2004 went digital. However, one of my older Nikon lenses was fungused, and I went on eBay to replace it. At first it was just one little lens, and then....


After a long and fruitful acquisition period, I pretty much had all of the East German cameras and early autofocus cameras I could cram into my office. However, I had a Ricoh Hi-Color ( Ricoh HI-COLOR 35 ) given to me and it aroused an interest in the very late rangefinder cameras. As I accumulated a sample of these, I was amazed at their over-all quality, probably at least partly due the the popularity of Kodachrome slide film


More time passes. I finally buy a "Leica" -- a gold and rosewood "Swedish" army one. More to the point, I end up getting some of the Post WWII Soviet copies that were not 'converted'.


I found the FED cameras much to my taste, more especially since the film-loading was improved over the old Leica III. Finally, I realized that my buying limit (no more than the cost of a couple of pizzas) was no longer adequate to investigate the end-generations of RF cameras.


Leica Thread-mounts

Edited by JDMvW
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In this period, I ended up getting a real Contax IIa and a Nikon S2. I bought a lot of Soviet lenses in Contax, LTM, and M42 mounts too, many of which were astoundingly good (e.g., the Helios 103). Finally "invested" in some real Zeiss, Nikon RF, and Canon RF lenses.


I mean, it all started out when I got the replacement for the fungus-infected Nikon F lens and the next thing I knew....


Those late RF cameras were astonishing to a boy raised on SLRs. All of them had a 'feel' that simply exuded "quality". The quality, unlike the lead-weighted plastic give-aways, was real.


Based on my FED and early Leica experiences, I had always been little skeptical of the cult of Leica, but these competitive cameras were so good. What then, was Leica like?


After diddling around for a long time, one of our fellows here on P.net offered me a good and fair price on a late model (single-stroke) Leica M3 and Summicron 50mm f/2 lens. When it came, I was very pleased at its 'feel'. Definitely at the very least in the ranks with the Canon LTM RFs and the Nikon S2.



After actually getting a Leica M3, the scales dropped off my eyes. All my cavils about Leica fanboys and such were simply jealousy. Now I was able to take the pictures I had always wanted to take in the gorgeous sharpness and perfection of the Summicron.


The Altar of Leica at Wetzlar

You think?

Well maybe not so much, although I grudgingly have to admit the the M3 has a superb "feel" .




I also have a backlog of lesser and even odder cameras (Arguses, early digital, and so on). But, after all this, here is my personal addition to the thousands of discussions of this camera:


Leica M3 single stroke specs:


Serial # 9920xx (this item, 1960).


Lens mount:

The bayonet mount used since it was introduced on the 1954 original version of the Leica M3.



ca 580-600 g



The M3 viewfinder magnification factor of 0.92× for the M3 still makes it the der Größte Sucher aller Zeiten for many Leica enthusiasts. While not so impressive to me as some later SLR viewfinders (the Olympus OM-1, for example), it is a one-window viewfinder and rangefinder with excellent frame lines for 90mm and 135mm, as well as the default 50mm. It's close enough at 50mm to the view of the human eye that both eyes can be open when using it. There are various solutions for wide angle lenses from a separate finder to "glasses" or "specs".



Film loading:

Although the bottom loading of the early Leicas was kept, it was made easier to use by the addition of a back door. It's much less of a PITA than the totally bottom-loading on the Leica III I used in 1963. However, it still is not as convenient on the FED-2 Leica copy on which the back and bottom came off for loading. Film advance on my model is a nice single-stoke lever since the engineers took a little while to get comfortable with the ability of the camera to advance the film so without problems. The rewind knob has an internal rotating marker to confirm that film is passing through the camera. The rewind knob is small and rewinding the film is slightly tedious for people used to more modern cameras.



Focal plane with speeds from B to 1000.



The lens I purchased with the M3 body, is the equally legendary Summicron 50mm f/2. (HypnoKen has a nice chart of the variants of this lens at https://kenrockwell.com/leica/50mm-summicron-comparison-table.htm). Mine is the "rigid" model without near-focusing range in production from 1956 to 1968. It, like so many lenses of the era, is a Double Gauss design, very similar to the earlier Zeiss Biotar (also known as the "finest lenses ever made" by some).


I used Kodak Ektar 100 (my favorite among modern color films).


So I go out and shoot with it, I do admit I am another who is


"standing around looking for the 'where's the leaves? testing-testing-testing' sort of image." (FogBlog: Leica Fanboy)


Neither my state of health nor the ambient climate make this much of a essay in fine photography, but it is simply my effort to assess the M3 as a machine.


When the film returned from Dwayne's (I no longer have local processing available), I ran into additional computer problems with my high-quality film scanner, so the images that follow are simply low-resolution scans on my CanoScan 9000F. I think these are adequate for the level of image display here, and I didn't feel up to crawling around under the desk to re-animate my old computer setup.


Brace yourself, here it comes:

I am repeatedly told (and I realize my chain is being yanked). that no post by me would be welcomed without a view of the famous (really) Carbondale Polyspheroid Water Tower (Polyspheroid Water Tank : MIT Libraries) :



Da Wadder Tower

Edited by JDMvW
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I grudgingly admit that those Leica enthusiasts have a point. The M3 is simply a superb camera and the Summicron 50mm f/2 is right up there with the best of the Double Gauss lenses made elsewhere (Biotar, Planar, Helios).


I am very pleased with this camera, and it's a real struggle to choose among my late-rangefinder era cameras as to which I prefer.


Nothing more to see here, keep moving folks....

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Those late RF cameras were astonishing to a boy raised on SLRs. All of them had a 'feel' that simply exuded "quality". The quality, unlike the lead-weighted plastic give-aways, was real.

That perfectly describes my recent experience with the new Nikon S3 2K.

I have been so wrapped up in it the last week that the Wife has now taken possession of my old seldom used Canon Elan AF kit as her first serious camera.

She had me order her 4 rolls of B&W film.

She said she wanted to try it having seen me enjoy a couple of Sunday morning rides around the county as much as I have.

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Coming Attractions


Well, I am back and now well enough to continue my long series of posts here.


In my "autofocus" series, I have a Pentax ME-F to shoot.

In my "why did they not succeed?" series, I have an Argus C-4 and C-44 to do.

And I also have two very early professional digital cameras from Kodak (DCS Pro and DCS 560)

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I think many of us here can relate to your journey through your collection in one way or another. I really enjoyed your post. I’d be interested to know which, out of your ‘pizza’ cameras you consider would be the Best Buy now, and what pizza lens you’d put with it. I could probably stretch to a Pepperoni.
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As for lenses, the greatest bargain of all time has to be my Helios-103 (Contax RF mount). I paid something like $15 for it from the Ukraine and its image quality is up there with the Summicron (some people say it's a copy) and the Biotars.


As for cameras, there are too many favorites to choose just one. Of the East German cameras, it's hard to beat the plain-Jane Praktica L.

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Oh darn.

Now you have back at looking a Leica M's..... and I already tried battling this with a Leica R (which I do like a lot though) and a couple of other rangefinders. And it just keeps coming back to wanting a Leica M of some sorts. Grrrr....


Agree on the Helios-103; I got one for my Kiev-2 and it's surprisingly good. My sample was maybe a bit more expensive, though. A whopping 25 euros (shipping included) from Ukrain :-)

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I have been wanting a 'modern' Leica for so long, and the prices really haven't been that bad. I finally decided that if I were going to do it, I'd better do it before something else happens. After much investigation, searching, and contemplation, I finally decided that the later M3 was what I wanted and coveted.


I got lots of 'clone' accessories (lens hoods, LTM lens adapters, etc.) and I have a large accumulation of German, Soviet. and Japanese Leica Thread-mount lenses got for my other RFs (Canon, Soviet). So, if not a promise, I will threaten to have lots more posts using this camera.


Here is a 100% clip of the Helios-103 on my Contax IIa (Kodak Ektar film)


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In many ways, the Leica M’s were the first “modern” cameras with a user interface that still prevails today in the Leica M10. There were some weird things like the film loading but in general they worked just the way later cameras worked. The M design was a masterpiece even against the eventual strong contenders for better screwmount cameras from Canon and Nikon. Canon particularly had some pretty great screwmount cameras (like the P and the 7) but they just couldn’t compete against the M.
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