I love vintage analogue cameras and admit to a fascination with gathering models considered master works from renowned manufacturers. Examples in my collection are the Nikon F3, Minolta XD 11, Spotmatic F, Hasselblad 503cx, Pentax 67 and the Contax G2. I have two other Leicas, an M6 and an M240, each of which are workhorse wonders. The Leica M3 single stroke is the masterpiece of them all. I will describe the camera and my user experience with it. This is written for folks considering the purchase of an M3. Comparisons made to the M6 are not criticisms, they are different beasts. The M6 is a classic in its own right and I love it too. These points come to mind as I write and hold the camera, not from order of importance. My descriptions may overlook some features, and ferocious dedicates will have other or different opinions. Here goes nonetheless.
Balance in the Hand, Shooting Experience. This is what the M3 is all about. The M3 balances perfectly in the hand and from the strap with assuring weight. Its dimensions coddle in the hand perfectly, with each finger naturally slotting into place for exactitude. The shutter speed dial, aperture ring and focusing mechanism are well at hand for synchronized purpose without moving one’s eye from the finder. The oft-used cliche, “It gets out of the way” is prescient with the M3. The subtle ping of the shutter button is musical. The advance lever is smooth and sure. The camera is blissful, plain and simple.
Leather Sleeve. The M3 is built to last, but I decided to fit a leather cover for additional protection and grip enhancement. I fitted the camera with a Mr. Zhou leather case, purchased from Ebay. For my M240 I have Luigi case and it is beautiful with supreme quality. The Mr. Zhou case is much less expensive than a Luigi case and while of lesser (less robust stitching, lesser quality leather and internal felt) quality it is durable and equally good in practice. The case has a helpful cutout for the ISO indicator wheel on the back of the camera. I tried the well-made Artisan and Artist case for the M3. Build quality is the same as the Mr. Zhou case. Its best feature is the two raised points (thumb on rear and front right) for better grip (lacking on the Zhou case) but it lacks a cut-out for the ISO indicator wheel and for me the Zhou’s having this was more important, allowing me to recall loaded film after setting the M3 aside for a time.
Build Quality. My camera is serial number 854 475 dating it to 1957. We were both born in the same year! This was an Ebay purchase from a reputable dealer in New York City and was CLA’d before purchase. But for minor scratches it remains in excellent physical and mechanical condition. The original leather covering is perfectly intact. Shutter speeds are spot on. This preservation attests to the M3’s quality and to deserved respect given to it over time. The entire camera is made of brass as opposed to the M6 that uses different or thinner gauge metals. The M3’s bottom plate and advance lever are much more hefty than those on the M6 but both are durable.
Lenses. I have three lenses for my M3. All use the classic Leica M mount.
My pristine, stealthy and light 50mm retractable Summicron is glued to the camera. It reportedly was made with softer glass and is prone to cleaning marks. My Summicron 50 is pristine and treated with care. The M3 occupies little space in the bag with the retracted 50. Displayed pictures of the camera show the Summicron retracted and extended. It has a useful focusing tab with infinity lock. Some complain about this feature, but releasing it is a simple nudge and with practice becomes second nature. As an aside, from reading it is not recommended to use the retractable Summicron on the M240 for fear of damaging the camera. Some do so without issues, but I won’t chance it.
I have a 90mm F2.8 Elmarit (older version without retractable lens hood) and a 135mm F 4 Tele Elmar (not shown in images), each of which are used sparingly. The 90 mm lens is shown for sizing purposes.
All three lenses have precise aperture rings and are built to the highest standards. The 50 and 90 balance well on the camera, but the 135 is ungainly from its length but still manageable handheld. The 135 has a dedicated tripod screw mount on the lens barrel.
All three lenses are Leica sharp (a unique rendering) with wonderful contrast producing images with classic Leica depth and character.
The M3 does not have frame lines for focal lengths other than 50/90/135. A “goggled” 35mm lens is available for the M3, but (not from personal experience) it seems awkwardly large defeating the purpose of the M3’s minimalism.
ISO Indicator. On the back of the camera is a wheel to set a reminder of the type and ISO rating for spooled film. Red settings indicate color film, black for BW. ASA and DIN indicators exist. To set, simply depress the center of the wheel to turn. This feature is helpful as a recall if one sets the camera aside mid-roll.
The Viewfinder. The M3 is a rangefinder, not an SLR. This means you are not seeing the composed image through the lens, rather it is seen from the independent viewfinder only. This impacts use of polarizing filters (see polarizer talk below). The viewfinder and rangefinder are “coupled”, meaning composition and focus are achieved in unison. Some older Leica finders were not coupled, meaning composition and focus occurred in two steps. Focusing is achieved by rotating the lens barrel until mirror-images in the finder are brought to unison.
The viewfinder is the best on any of my 35mm cameras. My M6 magnification is .72. The M3 is .92! The rangefinder patch and framelines on the 50 are bright and permit precise focus in mid-day sun and low light. The 50mm frameline is permanently shown. Framelines for the 90 and 135mm lenses pair with the 50 frameline automatically from mounting these lenses.
The M3 finder is for me much better than the .72 finder on my M6TTL. At times I struggle to find focus in bright lighting with the M6 from losing the rangefinder patch.
Focusing with the 90 and especially the 135 can be difficult from the smaller framelines. For this I use a Match Technical 1.25X magnifier that screws easily into the eyepiece. This magnifier permits optical correction allowing me to shoot without eyeglasses. Once set the corrective lens stays firmly in place. The Match Technical is much cheaper than the Leica version, and works perfectly for me. It is shown mounted on an M3 in an image above.
If like me you are an eyeglass wearer then the M3’s raised metal eyepiece will scratch your glasses. I installed a third-party plastic cover on the eyepiece to preserve my glasses and it works well. I purchased it on-line from DAG Camera. The Match Technical magnifier installs with the protective plastic cover in place.
Some photographers shoot 35mm lenses on the M3 and compose using the entire viewfinder frame with success from trial and error. There is the option of using a dedicated cold-shoe-mounted finder matched to an alternate focal length, adding another step to focusing from composing through the the mounted finder, then focusing through the M3’s viewfinder. I have not tried this. For a 35mm lens good quality and condition Leica finders (e.g Leica 35 brightline) remain very expensive today. The Cosina/Voigtlander 35 finder is well regarded.
Using Filters. My three lenses have a universal 39mm thread mount for filter attachment. Since one is not viewing “through the lens” use of a screw-on polarizing filter is a challenge. I started with the cumbersome process of setting the unmounted adjustable polarizer through the eye, noting the filter position, and then remounted it to the lens in the same position using a self-made indicator dot. I solved this problem by purchasing the dedicated polarizer system shown in an image above.
It is equipped with 39mm and 46mm mounting rings To employ, the polarizer is swung out and rotated by eye to the desired position, then it swivels back to the same position over the lens. Very clever and easy, but expensive!
Loading Film. The “primitive” loading system on the M3 is a common complaint from users. I find loading film into the M3 simple and easier than the M6. I have not owned the M6 for very long though, and perhaps with practice that view will change. To date I have more difficulty seating the film properly in the M6. Here is a good video showing the loading process.
The Shutter. The shutter is smoothly engaged with no lag and its sound is imperceptible, allowing perfect stealth. Here is neat video comparing the shutter sound from varied M Mount cameras including the M3.
There is no shutter lock and the shutter button is easily triggered, so it is best to bag the M3 with the shutter uncocked to avoid photos of the inside of the bag. Many recommend against use of soft release buttons on Leica M’s, the fear being the shutter button mechanism can be damaged. I have used one without incident. I don’t see the need for one on the M3 since the shutter button is prominent and follow-thru-to-fire is smooth. The shutter button has a receptor for common remote shutter release cables. Shutter speeds range from B to 1/1000th of a second.
Film Advance Lever. The lever is made of brass with a gnurled thumb relief. The advance is ultra smooth and frames are always evenly spaced.
Frame Counter. When the take up spool is removed from the camera the film counter automatically resets. I usually get 37 or 38 images from a roll, depending on how much I advance the film at inception.
Self Timer. Unlike the M6 the M3 has a self-timer. It is located to the left of the lens, below the rewind lever. To activate it, move the lever from vertical to 9’oclock. Then press the small metal button exposed from turning the lever. The shutter will enact in about 5 seconds. There is no need to press the shutter button.
Rewinding. The film rewind knob retracts surely from the body and has a gnurled etching that works perfectly, if more slowly than the M6’s levered knob. This is another niggle some complain of. Yes the process is slow, but it works perfectly. To rewind the film, the top-front lever on the M3 is moved from vertical to 3 o’clock, releasing the take up spool for retrieval. The rewind knob on the top left is pulled up and turned steadily clockwise. At the end of the roll there will be resistance as the leader is pulled from its slotted place in the take-up spool. Don’t force the film at this point since it might tear, especially if using delicate film stock. Continue a slow steady rewind and the film leader will pull from the take-up spool. The film can either be retracted into the cannister or left with an extruded leader, and this choice is employed easily with practice.
If rewinding speed is a niggle for you, clever third party levers can be purchased from several manufacturers. An example is shown in the photos above.
Metering. Of course the M3 does not have a light meter. I use a Voigtlander VC II shoe mounted meter when not shooting Sunny 16 or by instinct. It is shown in my photos of the camera. I like this meter, it is accurate and unobtrusive. It is powered from two common LR 44 batteries. The controls are readily accessible. Readings are easily visible even in bright sunlight. One must remember to transfer the metered readings to the M3. I have forgotten to do so on absent-minded occasions from reverting to coupled SLR shooting technique. Slow down and think, that’s what a Leica makes one do.
Tripod Mount. The tripod mount is on the lower right side of the camera. My version had a non-standard thread, so I fixed a 1/4-20 adapter thread compatible with my tripod plates. I use off-brand small tripod plates that work fine, but result in off-center mounting. Dedicated plates can be purchased from Ebay. Really Right Stuff made a discontinued M specific plate, the B30 (1/4-20 thread thus an adapter screw is needed) that can be found on Ebay. The RRS plate spans most of the camera bottom, allowing the camera to be center-mounted on the tripod.
Flash. I have never used a flash on my M3 so I can’t offer much here. The sync connection is centrally on the rear of the camera just below the cold shoe. With a sync cable installed, inconvenience may occur with framing from the protruding cable. Leica’s sync connector was a proprietary system, but adapters to common sync cables can be readily purchased on Ebay for installation. Sync speed is 1/50th of a second.
Imagery. Here are some images taken with the 50mm retractable Summicron. I enjoyed writing this article, and immensely enjoy this treasured piece of history.