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You have just arrived at the ultimate Leica M3 technical review. It’s roughly sixty years overdue but better late than never…I had wanted to review the Leica M3 for quite a while but I first decided to review the Pentax K1000 and the Olympus Pen EES-2.This is only the first of many articles on the Leica M3 and shooting with rangefinder cameras. I guess I should justify why I this is the definitive Leica M3 review. Firstly, I’ve read virtually everything there is to read on the Leica M3 and I don’t think any of the reviews online do the Leica M3 justice.
Secondly, it’s a wonderful tool but it’s not cheap so it’s quite right that a prospective buyer does plenty of research before deciding to purchase. This review was written to help prospective buyers make the right decision for them. At the end of this post you can find various links to resources about the M3.Finally, I am passionate about photography and the Leica M3 and I want to share that passion. I don’t think it’s that important what tool you use but it’s a nice feeling to use the best.
If you are looking to purchase a Leica M3 then you owe it to yourself to read this. It may save you thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours.
LEICA M3 REVIEW – PRELUDE
Before I start this Leica M3 review, I would like to say one thing. If you are thinking about getting a Leica M3 I highly recommend you go the Nike way and “Just Do It”. As long as you buy it from a reputable dealer, it’s a risk-free investment.
Once you have a Leica M3 you will never have to buy another camera again. Not only will you not have to buy another camera again, you will never want to. The Leica M3 is the ultimate GAS (Gear Aquisition Syndrome) Buster.
Well, that’s a slight lie… you will have so much fun using this camera that you will be burning through 35mm film like there’s no tomorrow. In case you are wondering, there is a tomorrow for film because it’s not going away any time soon.
What I find truly amazing about the Leica M3 is how cheap it is! If you shop around you can usually find one in great condition with a 50mm f\2 lens for a fraction of the price of only the camera body of today’s digital Leica M cameras such as the Leica M9, Leica Monochrom and the new Leica M Type 240. In 5 or 10 years time you will still be enjoying the Leica M3 while the digital Leicas will already be very expensive paperweights.
The Leica M3 is also cheaper than many cameras from inferior camera manufactures such as Canon, Nikon & Sony. Heck, it’s even cheaper than it’s artless digital counterfeit, the Fuji X100 and X100s. What’s not to like?
While reading this Leica M3 review please keep in mind that it’s still just a tool and than the limiting factor is actually what you point at it. No camera is going to make you a better photographer just by owning it. By actually using it, on the other hand, you might find yourself inspired by using such a high quality tool and you might also note that your style slowly changes as you adapt to the M3 and you learn to calculate exposure in your head and pre-visualise a scene before the decisive moment happens.
LEICA M3 REVIEW – INTRODUCTION
The Leica M3 is perhaps the one camera that does not actually require an introduction. Voted by STUFF Magazine and Ebay as the “Top Gadget of All Time”
The epitome of vintage style, the Leica M3’s modern incarnations are still held as pinnacles of camera design and lusted by photographer all over the world.
Just the fact that since the Leica M3’s introduction 1954, the basic design of Leica M cameras has not really changed is a testament to how well conceived the Leica M3 is. In fact, one could argue that Leica built such a great camera that they haven’t really done much else since. The Leica MP, introduced in 2003, nearly 50 years after the Leica M3, is just an inferior, and far more expensive, modern copy.The Leica M3 is Leica’s greatest achievement and also a stark reminder of it’s glorious past.
The Leica M3 was in production for 13 years. Do you know how many M cameras Leica has released in the last 13 years? Eight! That’s roughly one camera every 18 months. You have the Leica M7, MP, M8, M8.2, M9, M9P, M-E and the Leica M Type 240. Leica have become just like every other camera manufacturer in the digital world, pumping out a new camera every 18 months to two years. That’s not even counting their partnership with Panasonic!
LEICA M3 REVIEW – TECHNICAL INFORMATION
Although it’s called the Leica M3 it’s actually the first Leica M camera. This is because the 3 was symbolised the fact that the Leica M3 had three focal length frames in the viewfinder. These were 50mm, 90 & 135mm. What I don’t understand is why Leica ever bothered making any other M cameras since…
Unsurprisingly, the Leica M3 was, and still is, the best-selling Leica M camera ever with just over 220,000 cameras sold from 1954 until 1966.
The Leica M3 uses the M mount which was developed by Leica in the ’50s. The Leica M3 can accept ALL the Leica M lenses ever made and also all the older screwmount (M39) Leica lenses made since 1933 (via an adapter). That’s pretty damn cool.
Plenty of other manufactures have built M mount lenses. These include:
- Carl Zeiss
Want a hot investment tip? Buy Leica lenses. They only go up in value and you can use them while enjoying capital appreciation! You are virtually actually being paid to use the world’s finest optics!
The Leica M introduced many “firsts” for an accessorised Leica camera including:
- All scales and controls can be read and set while viewing the camera from the top.
- A single viewfinder/rangefinder window. This meant that for the first time, Leica users could focus and frame their shot by looking through the same window! We will talk more about this amazing viewfinder a little later.
- A coupled rangefinder of longer base for greater focusing accuracy.
- Both split-image and coincident type rangefinder.
- Automatic Paralax compensation (the frame-lines move to keep the framing more accurate when focusing at different distances)
- All shutter speeds are on one dial which can be set before or after winding to the next frame. Intermediate speeds may also be set.
- Built-in automatic universal finder.
- Interlocking shutter release.
- Automatic resetting exposure counter.
- Rapid lens interchange (no more screwing a lens on and off).
- Parallel focusing mounts with click stops and uniform flange diameters.
- Built-in self-timer variable from 5 to 10 seconds.
- Cold weather operation while wearing heavy mittens.
- Full compensating synchronization for flash/electronic units.
- Automatic resetting rewind level.
- Hinged back for foolproof loading.
- Glass pressure plate of larger size and longer precision-ground film tracks (Leica later stopped using glass pressure plates on later Leica M3s).
- Coupled exposure meter with wide sensitivity range (using the Leicameter).
While this may all sound pretty standard now that’s just because the Leica M3 made it the standard. It was such a huge leap forward that it took competitors quite a few years before they caught up. This allowed Leica to charge a 50% premium on previous Leica models and they still sold two hundred thousand M3s. Can you imagine the outrage if Leica priced their new Leica M Type 240 at roughly £7500 (over $11,000 or €8,500)!
LEICA M3 REVIEW – BUILD QUALITY
Build quality is a tough one to pin down. Everybody talks about it, Leica is famous for it but most people could not give you a clear concise definition. Build quality is the overall quality of the construction, design and execution of a product. This can include factors such as finish, reliability, the use of premium materials and feel. The last factor in particular is very subjective but I can tell you that the Leica M3 does “feel” special. When you hold it in your hand it screams quality. It’s a REAL™ camera.
Unsurprisingly, REAL™ cameras are made from metal. REAL™ cameras are not light and they can take a beating, as well as give one. REAL™ cameras have interchangeable lenses and full manual controls. No hand holding here. REAL™ cameras don’t need a light-meter because real cameras are shot by real photographers who can use their eyes to guess know the exposure. Occasionally, REAL™ cameras do have a light-meter but the real photographers take the battery out and donate it to charity. An example of such a REAL™ camera is the Pentax K1000. The Leica M3 is a REAL™ camera. It’s made out of metal, weighs a fair bit and is fully manual. If attach a Leica 50mm Summicron lens you have, in my opinion, the finest photographic kit available to mankind. You will be using it for the rest of your life.
The Leica M3 is perhaps the finest tool I have ever held. Like playing on a Steinway, you can feel that it’s very, very special.
Let me give you an example:
The guy who tunes my grand-piano owns a shop which sells Steinways. He also has a workshop for repairing the mechanics (but not the body) of Steinway grand-pianos. Recently he had visited a Steinway factory abroad and had come back with a small piece of wood that is part of the hammer mechanism. They had given it to him because it had not been up to their tight Steinway standards and so it couldn’t used.
For fun, we decided to compare it to a part in one of the Steinways inside the workshop. The faulty part was perhaps half a millimeter too short. Then, we replaced it inside a working piano and guess what, the hammer whose mechanism had been changed would not strike the strings inside the piano! We are talking about a single small part weighing a hundred grams which is part of a piano which is made up of thousands of parts and weighs hundreds of kilograms.
The Leica M3 is was built to a similar standard. Each part has to be just right. The tolerances in production were very tight because they had to be. It’s such an incredible piece of engineering that if they had allowed themselves to be sloppy on the production line they would have been flooded with faulty returns.
Let think about what it takes just to be able to focus properly with a Leica M3.
- As it’s a rangefinder, the flange-to-film distance has to be exactly right.
- Then, the infinity settings on the rangefinder also has to spot on as well as the rate of change in the focus of the rangefinder.
- The lens needs to be collimated correctly
- You also have to taken into account that the focal length of the lens actually changes while you focus.
- Every single one of these factors, and others, has to be spot on, otherwise you will find that you can’t focus correctly.
At Leica they don’t mess around.
Today, the average person’s contact with something “well made” is with the latest incarnation of the iPhone. They really have no idea.The Leica M3 is on an entirely new level.My Leica M3 is almost 60 years old, it’s been used it’s entire life and it still looks brand new. iPhones rarely make it past the two year mark without falling apart.
Leica still service the M3 and parts are still being made. I think that’s speaks volumes about the quality and longevity of the Leica M3.
It’s the camera that you will be able to pass on to your (grand)children.
When I let someone hold my Leica M3 – a very rare occasion – the first thing notice is the weight. It’s much heavier than it looks. The Leica M3 is solid, it’s dense. If you shake it you won’t hear anything moving inside. When I say the Leica M3 is heavier than it looks I don’t mean that is heavy per se – with a 50mm f/2 lens it’s roughly 1kg.I don’t find it a problem having the M3 slung around my shoulder all day long and it’s still only half the weight of a full-frame digital SLR system. The digital Leica Ms are roughly the same weight as the Leica M3.
Of course, if weight is really so much of an issue then I would recommend using something very portable like the lovely Olympus Pen EES-2, or just buy a new iPhone ever two years.
LEICA M3 REVIEW – TOP PLATE
LEICA M3 SHUTTER SPEED DIAL
The shutter speed dial on the M3 is rock solid. The shutter speeds are very well engraved, you won’t have any problems reading them decades from now. The Leica M3 supports shutter speeds from 1/1000s all the way to 1s and it also has a B (bulb) mode for longer exposures. A tripod and cable release are required for this. It also has flash sync up to 1/50sIt has firm clicks on each speed and does not move a millimeter otherwise. Interestingly, you can set intermediate shutter speeds which is pretty cool. I often end up using this feature as exposure compensation!You will find it very difficult, if not impossible, to change the shutter speed by accident. It’s also quite small as it was originally designed to be used with a LeicaMeter. Of course, we don’t need to use such primitive tools anymore, we just learn the basics of photography inside out and then learn to read the light with our eyes! It’s far quicker and in the long term it will make you a much better photographer.
LEICA M3 SHUTTER RELEASE BUTTON
Before we talk about the shutter release button let’s talk about the shutter itself. It’s a horizontal cloth focal-plane shutter with a maximum speed of 1/1000s and a maximum flash sink of 1/50. Real photographers don’t use flash because it’s horrible so it’s actually irrelevant anyway.The only type of shutter quieter is the leaf shutter but then you generally need a leaf shutter in every lens which drives up the price. It’s pretty damn quiet anyway. A word of warning: Do not point the Leica M3 directly at the sun with a lens wide open or you will burn a hole in the shutter curtain.
A lot has been said online about the famous silky-smooth Leica M3 shutter release button but something happened the other day which made me realise just how sensitive and smooth it really is. We had a family gathering and I gave the Leica M3 to my sister’s fiance so he could take a picture of my sister and I. He looked down at the camera and placed his finger on the shutter release button and just in the motion of raising the camera to his eye he tripped the shutter. This happened twice. It’s incredibly sensitive and because there are no electronic systems, such as auto focus or auto exposure, linked to the shutter release button so it’s one smooth motion.Fortunately, the shutter release button is threaded for standard cable releases so you can pick up any “el-cheapo” cable and it will work.
This is great because Leica accessories are normally several times more expensive than market prices, but they also generally have a lovely embossed “L” on them so I guess for some people that’s worth every penny.Did I mention how quiet it is? Often when I’ve taken portraits of people they didn’t even realise the shot had already been taken! It’s orders of magnitude quieter than any (D)SLR camera ever. When I spoke to the staff at the Leica Shop in Vienna they told me that the at one time in Austria it was the only camera allowed in court. I don’t know if that’s the truth but it wouldn’t be surprising if it was!
LEICA M3 FLASH SHOE
Don’t use flash. Just don’t. You could, but don’t. Natural light portraits are just so much nicer.Erik Kim uses flash on a Leica. That alone is enough reason not to use flash on the M3.The flash shoe is not there for flash. It’s really there for external viewfinders if you happen to be shooting really wide lenses or if you buy yourself one of those lovely Voigtlander light meters because you aren’t man enough to guess exposure. You could also put a Leicameter on it if you really wanted to, but we will be covering that in a post in the near future.
Just promise you won’t use it for flash. Promise.
Some actual information:
Leica was about 50 years quicker than Apple at realising that if you use your own proprietary system you can make a fair bit of money selling all the related systems…
The rear flash sync terminals on the Leica M3 are unique. Unlike with Apple, this was soundly rejected worldwide and so now you are left with two choices:
- Use an adapter. As this sticks out a couple of centimeters from the camera it will cut a small gash into your forehead every time you look through the viewfinder. This is the preferred solution for die-hard Leica fanatics as they are quite comparable to the Opus Dei sect of the Catholic Church, minus the wip.
- You could pay an expert Leica repairman to fit a standard connector. Be careful, the previously mentioned Leica fanatics may kill on sight if they spot this.
Also, if your flash doesn’t have a PC cable connector then you need yet another adaptor for that…
Electronic flash only syncs up to 1/50s which is not that useful, but you shouldn’t be using it anyway. Flashbulbs have fully automatic synchronisation all way up to the maximum shutter speed of 1/1000s. Both connections may be used simultaneously.
The real reason I say that you shouldn’t use flash on the Leica M3 (with the exception that Erik Kim uses flash on a Leica) is that it’s an absolutely pain in the ass to deal with all the adapters.
PS: Of course, you can use flash! You shouldn’t let anyone, especially me, tell you what you can and cannot do!
LEICA M3 FRAME COUNTER
It self resets when you unload your finished film (or when the take-up spool is removed, to be more exact). That was a pretty cool feature in 1954 but even my Pentax K1000 can do this. Funnily enough, the Leica M2 cannot!
The frame counter on the Leica M3 can count up to 40 frames and has hash marks that go up to frame 44. I don’t quite understand the reason for this because even if you load your film onto Leica M3 in the dark you will still only be able to shoot 38 or 39 frames. Perhaps freaky people (perverts or communists) who bulk load their own 35mm film can put 44 frames inside one 35mm film canister.
One area of improvement could be to add a shutter ready indicator like on the Pentax K1000.
LEICA M3 TOP PLATE SCRIPT
Not a huge amount to say about this. It’s engraved nicely and looks pretty cool.
You’ve got the Leica logo engraved and then “M3 – xxx xxx” The xxx xxx is the serial number of your M3.I guess this is as good a time as any to talk about the different Leica M3 models. There were quite a few changes made to the M3 in the 12 years in was in production. We will go over them in a separate article but the main difference is that on the earlier models you have to use two strokes to advance the film while the later models only required one stroke. Check back soon for a post on all the various M3 models over the years.It really doesn’t make much difference.
Serial numbers start at 700,000 and the ones over 1.1 million are sought after by collectors and so tend to be more valuable. This is because there is a myth that those M3s are better built because the workers were more experienced. That’s a load of bollocks but if you find one at a good price it’s probably worth getting as it has all the improvements that were made over those 12 years.
Again, I wouldn’t worry too much about it…
LEICA M3 FILM ADVANCE LEVER
It’s nice that the M3’s film advance lever is made completely of metal instead of the plastic tipped ones found in later Leica M cameras. A word that is often used when describing the feel is “buttery-smooth” and I also think that this sums it up pretty damn well.
As mentioned above, earlier M3s have a dual stroke mechanism while later M3s have a single stroke. Both types are finely ratcheted so you can use a single stroke M3 as a dual stroke if you so wish, or even a 3 or 4 stroke…
A quick note, if your dual stroke M3 has problems with the film advance and you send it off to Leica they will not repair it but convert it to single stroke.
LEICA M3 FILM REWIND KNOB
It’s pretty much the slowest possible method to rewind your film. Most models have two red dots that turn when you wind to the next frame so you know the film is advancing. There is the possibly of buying a crank to speed up the winding process, but it’s hideously expensive.
LEICA M3 REVIEW – BOTTOM PLATE
WHY DOESN’T IT OPEN LIKE OTHER CAMERAS?
Perhaps the first thing you notice about the bottom of the Leica M3 is that it can be detached. Leica claim that by using this system for accessing the inside of the camera the camera body is structurally more stable. Considering that there are tons of really tough SLRs which had a swing back door I don’t really buy this…
LOADING THE LEICA M3
Let there be no question about it. At first, loading the M3 really is a pain in the ass but it get’s easier with experience. It’s not particularly quick and it’s best done at a table. While most people see this as a problem I generally tend to go to a bar and order a coffee while I switch rolls. I admit it’s a tad fiddly but it’s a small price to pay for using such a superb camera.
If you are really a speed demon then you have a choice:
Get your M3 converted to the quick loading mechanism. Like blah blah, this will also put you in the crosshairs of diehard Leica fanatics.
Or, you could just have a coffee…
Another pain in the ass. It’s not centred and also different market versions use different sized tripod screws and it gets very confusing from there…
- Leica M3s designed for the American market use a 1/8″ tripod screw.
- Leica M3s designed for the European market use a 3/8″ tripod screw.
- Obviously, there wasn’t much of an Asian market back in the ’50s as they don’t get their unique tripod size.
- There are adaptors that allow you to downsize the larger tripod screw on a European M3 to the smaller American M3 tripod screw.
- A European M3 will fit into a case made for an American M3 but not the other way round.
Note: all the Leica M3s were made in Germany with the exception of a small batch made in Canada.
LEICA M3 REVIEW – THE VIEWFINDER
The Leica M3’s viewfinder is really where the magic is. It’s by far the best and brightest viewfinder I have ever looked through. There are no distractions; no LED light, no numbers, only one set of clear frame-lines for you to frame your subject with.
If you think about it carefully, the most important part of photography is your vision and so the most important part of the camera must be the viewfinder. You will spend a long time looking through the viewfinder in your camera so you might as well have the best one available.
The Leica M3 is the best Leica M just beycase it gives give you all the features you need and none of the ones you don’t but because the viewfinder is so much better and brighter than any other Leica M camera, including the Leica M9 and the Leica M Type 240. It’s also the only viewfinder that’s not prone to flare.
No other Leica M gives you such a beautiful distraction-free composing space. You have everything you need and nothing more:
The Leica M3’s viewfinder is much better than any other Leica M because it has a higher magnification, it doesn’t flare and it’s much more accurate for focusing, especially with fast lenses wide open. If you have the money, Leica offer the 50mm Noctilux-m which has a maximum aperture of f/0.95! Of course, at $11,000 , it’s not exactly cheap.
The Leica M3’s framelines are always uncluttered and there is nothing in them except the rangefinder spot. Shooting the Leica M3 is a breath of fresh air after using other cameras.
The Leica M3 has a viewfinder magnification of 0.91X which is unmatched in any other Leica M camera. It’s so fantastically large and bright that you can keep both eyes open when looking through it and look at the world as you normally would. The frame-lines will just float in your vision. It’s absolutely superb if you are shooting sports or action. That’s Leica magic.
LEICA M3 REVIEW – CONCLUSION
And there you go. That’s it. You’ve been given all the technical information you need about the Leica M3.
It’s a superb camera and it could well be the only one you will ever need.
I would like to end with a reminder that your equipment doesn’t really matter. A Leica doesn’t take good pictures, good photographers do.
While it can be nice to own great stuff it also has its downsides. For example, if you own expensive equipment you are more mindful of it when you are out and about and you may worry about it instead of enjoying your day.