My Daily Driver: The Leica M3

It only makes sense to start this blog off by writing about the camera which I use the most.

The Leica M3 was first produced in 1954 — production continued until 1966. This is, of course, unheard of in today’s world — digital cameras have at most a production lifespan of a few years.

The M3 went through a lot of changes over the years — early models required two strokes of the film advance to cock the shutter and advance the frame. Mine is a later example — produced in 1962 — which is a single stroke model and boasts such amenities as a self-timer and frameline preview selector.

The M3 is a rangefinder camera. Rather than looking through the lens via a mirror — like the SLRs that most folks are familiar with — you look through a fixed optical viewfinder. Depending on which lens is attached, different lines appear in the viewfinder to show you where the borders of your image will be. There is a bright rectangle inside the viewfinder which is used for focusing. It actually displays a double image — the one from the finder and a second superimposed image that is captured by the small window that is far to the left of the finder on the front face of the camera.

Adjusting the focus on the lens moves moves the second part of the double image that is captured by the small rangefinder window. When the two images line up, your image is in focus. It may take a little bit of practice, but once you understand the concept and spend some time with the camera, it becomes a very fast way to focus on an image.

In case you’re wondering, the larger window between the finder and the rangefinder window allows light to come in and illuminate the brightlines that show you where the borders of your photo will be — the M3 has built-in framelines for 50mm, 90mm, and 135mm lenses.

The M3’s finder is a higher magnification than the 0.72x finder that is found in later M film cameras — 0.92x to be exact. This is why the widest brightlines in the finder are for 50mm lenses. The higher magnification translates into more precision when focusing. This makes the camera especially well-suited for use with faster lenses and longer lenses. You can accurately focus a 90mm f/2 or even a 50mm f/0.95 lens, wide open, with more ease when compared to using a camera with a lower magnification finder. The trade-off is that it’s clumsier to use the camera with lenses wider than 50mm.

Leica made special 35mm lenses with goggles that gave the finder a wider field of view back in the day, but those are a bit harder to find than lenses without them. When I use a 35mm lens with the camera I use an external finder — the aforementioned clumsy method. Although if framing isn’t critical, I just use the entire field of view of the finder (there is room outside the 50mm brightlines) and assume that I’ll have a bit more information on the sides of the photo — you can always crop!

With the Dual Range Summicron and close focus goggles attached

If you want to use something really wide, like a 21mm or 28mm, with the camera, you should definitely use an external finder. Speaking of goggles, there are other speciality lenses that use them for close focusing — the classic 50mm Summicron Dual Range and the more modern 90mm Macro-Elmar — but, in the words of Alton Brown, “that’s another show.”

As a rangefinder, the M3 is able to eschew the mirror box that is present in SLR cameras. This helps to keep it lighter and also allows its lenses to be smaller than comparable lenses for SLRs that use 35mm film. The rear elements of lenses can sit practically up against the shutter — SLR lenses have to allow room for the mirror to clear. This is a great advantage for wide-angle designs, as they don’t have to employ retrofocus designs to produce a wider field of view.

Lenses can also employ collapsible designs. When not in use, the lens barrel can actually collapse into the body for storage. One of the classic lenses in my arsenal, a Leica 50mm f/3.5 Elmar lens — is is practically flush with the camera body when collapsed.

The M3 is a completely mechanical camera — there are no batteries, no electronics, and it does not have a built-in light meter. It uses a cloth shutter which is really, really quiet. Its speed tops out at 1/1000 second, and goes down to 1 second — there’s also a bulb setting, which keeps the shutter open for as long as you press the button.

It features a “button rewind” mechanism, but a crank can be added to speed things up a bit. To load the film, you remove the bottom plate, connect the film to a removable take-up spool, and open the back door of the camera to thread it through the advance gears. Mastering the loading process is probably a bit trickier than learning to focus!

Alright — I need to talk about the blue leather a bit, obviously it’s not original to the camera. My M3 is the second that I’ve owned — the first was a dual stroke model that I had purchased along with a couple of lenses. I got a good deal on the bundle, and the lenses have stayed with me, but the body needed more work than it was worth. I ended up reselling it and waiting for an M3 in better shape to hit the market.

A few months later, I purchased this one. Cosmetically it has a few flaws, including some chips in the vulcanite covering. I knew the camera needed a CLA (Clean, Lube, Adjust) to bring it up to tip-top shape, so I decided to get a new leather covering from the good folks at Camera Leather and have it replaced while the M3 was in the shop. Bright blue might be an ostentatious choice, but it suits me. My camera repair person told me “It’s like buying a new dress for your lady.” So I guess I’m a fan of blue dresses.