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A Guide to Buying a classic Leica M Film Camera:  Part 1 ‘The Leica M3’

In recent times, I have enjoyed sharing information as to where to find good places in Thailand for the procurement of film cameras, lenses, films and service etc. Amazingly for something written by myself, it appears that this information has actually been of genuine use to people and I feel more than happy to have helped. Off the back of this minor success however, has another series of enquires arrived at my door. Specifically, ‘Which Leica M should I buy?’ This question is not always the easiest to answer. I have made several attempts at giving people the shorthand answer based around my (purely subjective) real world user recommendations yet this invariably leads to another fifteen questions. Having duly answered these questions many times for many different people, I have slowly been compiling a list of points made in all such correspondence for inclusion in my version of a Leica M film body buyer’s guide. I say ‘my version’ as this is hardly an impossible thing to find elsewhere on the internet. Lots of people have covered the subject in different ways, I don’t always agree with some things that I’ve seen around the place however and so I simply wish to provide my take on it. This assumes that you have at least heard of some of the Leica M film body models and are debating adding one to a shortlist or similar such situation. There are several exhaustive true anorak encyclopedia type books out there and they are quite well known. You can look them up on Amazon books and go from there if you need that level of detail. If you are serious about the marque, any such volume makes for a nice reference to have at home anyway. I shall try to not steal the images of others here and actually show pictures of Leica M’s that I either own or have owned in the past for the purposes of this guide. It will also have to be written in serial form as a ‘one-shot’ post would be a weighty tome and possibly become convoluted. Also, I am not aiming to produce highly technical and heavily spec centered writing on the subject, rather share my feelings on the different models by combining actual personal experience with a nod to noteworthy features and provenance.

 Leica M3

 And on the sixth day, God made the Leica M3.   In ’53, the Leica M3 was introduced and it soon took the photographic world by storm.  It wasn’t just a new camera, it brought along a whole standard for all 35mm film cameras that elevated the already very high benchmark that Leica had established to a ridiculous new level.  To borrow from the parlance of the modern corporate world (and as much as I hate this trite chunk of language), it really was ‘a game changer’. It went on to be the most popular (getting on for a quarter of a million were made and easily sold) of all the Leica M classic range.  It introduced the quick change M bayonet mount which superseded the LTM mount (whilst still allowing the older lenses to be used without too much hassle on the new ‘M’ 3), showcased three new bright line frames (50,90 and 135mm, hence the number in the name M ’3’) into an equally new and incredibly clear finder and facilitated more accurate focusing than ever before by virtue of a longer effective base length. It is still arguably the best Leica M finder to date with which to fine tune focusing using a 50mm or 90mm lens.

Speaking of the finder, when you peeked into it you couldn’t help but notice that it also came resplendent with other party tricks such as automatically changing frame lines for the first time. The camera ‘knew’ what lens the user was mounting to it and would respond in kind with the appropriate silver squares of gratitude magicallyappearing in the viewfinder waiting for your viewing pleasure. These frame lines also featured a reasonable degree of accurate parallax correction which required less guesstimation on the part of the photographer than earlier cameras. But perhaps the real magnum opus of the M3 was how focusing inside this new window on the world was to be achieved. It was done for the first time by Leica through the overlapping of two images, sometimes referred to as ‘coincidental’ images. When the two overlapped in the finder to make a single sharp image, focus was then considered optimal and an image could be taken.    

Film was advanced by a single lever, in earlier M3 models it required two strokes of said lever to advance one frame of film onwards and cock the shutter. These earlier M’s are known as ‘DS’ on account of this double-stroking operation. Internet folklore has it that the original designers and engineers feared that a single long stroke might exert too great a degree of torque onto the film itself, risking tears. Whether this is true or not is not clear to me however it sounds appropriately Germanic, logical and in keeping with Leica manufacturing brilliance of the epoch so I choose to not go any further down this rabbit hole. What is not in debate however is that Leica chose to change the design later on during the M3’s production life to be a newer, one pull affair nowadays known as a Leica M3 single stroke or ‘SS’ (not the kind to kick down your door wearing jackboots and brandishing a Luger).  I’ll return to early vs. late model differences in due course.

The single film advance lever wasn’t the only all-in-one control input on this camera either. For the first time, Leica had now managed to have all shutter speeds(from B to 1/1000th of a second) on a single, solitary dial atop the M3’s magnificent brass rampart. A huge step up from the earlier Leica cameras and their multiple shutter speed dials.

Film loading in most of the older classic M’s follows the M3 original design of using a Leica take up spool or cartridge. The first couple of times you use one, it doesn’t seem all that intuitive and you might need to refer to the excellent diagram included on the base of the camera (with the bottom removed), but with regular use you can soon see how very efficient and dependable a design it is. There are some natty little touches such as the inclusion of an arrow holed pattern that shows you exactly how far in you have locked your film leader in place. It also allowed Leica to introduce the opening back door/flap which made loading film an easier affair than with any of the screw mount Barnack Leica cameras up until the came along. Even today, this often seems structurally better than a large open swinging open rear door such as later became typical in the design of film SLR’s in the decades that were to follow. The Leica rear door still tucked back into the bottom plate when it was firmly reattached to the camera and the structural integrity remained. It all closed back up to be one solid feeling Germanic brick of photographic goodness in its owner’s hands.

Speaking of the film spool cartridge, when it was removed from the M3, a brilliantly designed film counter which was embedded nicely into the solid brass top plate to the right of the film advance lever pivot point, automatically pinged its way back to minus two frames. Once you reloaded a film and wound on the first two blanks, it was right there for you at zero and ready to tag along for another ride. The counter was placed under a bubbled, lens-like window which aided magnification in much the same way as a ‘Cyclops’ date window does on a Rolex datejust. Sheer brilliance.

The M3 also had a mechanical self-timer lever and so, although people under 25 today might find it hard to fathom, people were happily taking selfies with their carry everywhere daily cameras just fine back in ’53, imagine that? Next to this timer lever (and a well thought out safety measure it was indeed) was a guarded lens release button, like a little metal semi-circular fence that protected the lens dismount button with aplomb. It was later omitted in further M’s but is an easy way to identify an M3.

The serial numbering system for Leica is, as one would expect if one has read this far, very logical and efficient. The M3 started its earliest runs down in the low 700k range and went on to just over the 1 million mark. Collectors like the one million plus serial numbers so they are not always good value buys for actually taking photographs with. The logic behind this seems to stem from the idea that after they had been produced for that long, the production team would have been even more experienced and able to churn them out to a higher standard. I personally find this to be a likely example of an old wives’ tale and I know a few old hand camera repair people who seem to support this. Some say the early shutters were not as good, I have no real empirical research data to disprove this, but I have not seen much other than subjective opinion (yes I know, just like mine) to support it either. One could just as easily put forth an argument that the housewives of Wetzlar in 1959 (employed in the factory) might have been so sick to death of assembling M3’s by this point that they were just slapping them together willy-nilly as they discussed what would have happened if they’d won the war. No more ridiculous a notion.  However, the serial numbers do offer some advantages in terms of what you get as standard with your M3. Generally speaking, around the mid 50’s and the late 700k range, the now famous frame line preview selector lens lever (AKA the ‘what would this look like through a 90mm lens that I haven’t even got with me right now’ lever) was added. At the 900k plus mark, or thereabouts, the old double stroke design gave way to the later single stroke model. Be advised however, that lots of older double stroke cameras were retrofitted to be singles by Leica (and third party repair people) so serial numbers and film advance repetitions don’t always jive together as you might think, different strokes for different folks. Also around this time, two little cutout tabs appeared on top and under the main RF patch image in the centre of the finder window. These were carried over to the M2. They could be used for ascertaining depth of field when using a nifty fifty when the lens was approximately half open or stopped right down. The very early M3’s had shutter speeds expressed in a different (some might say more logical) way from commonly seen now, these fractions of speed might be puzzling at first. These are sometimes referred to as ‘scientific shutter speed’ dials and can be good or bad depending on how cool you might think they are. In practice, using 1 /50th when I was actually looking for the 1/60th mark on the dial has never really caused me any problems but some people don’t like it.

Nearly all M3’s ever produced are in the silver chrome looking scheme. A rare smaller quantity were in black but frankly, Leica black paint of the time was actually (and very unusually for such a gang of perfectionists) a bit crap. It soon wore off and the brass colour of the top and bottom plates showed through on high wear spots and edges, cue Cyndi Lauper. These are the so called ‘brassed’ bodies and like lots of other things in life that make no sense, these imperfect and soon discontinued bodies are now the ones worth big bucks. So big in fact that the fakers have long since moved in (sometimes with surprisingly accurate looking unofficially repainted Leicas) and this means that buying a ‘genuine’ black paint classic Leica M from the 50’s through to the early 70’s takes a large bank balance and significant testicular fortitude, especially off Ebay from a seller with single digit feedback who is happy to contact you by email and suggest that you ‘save on PayPal fees’. It’s like the anti-Henry Ford “Any Colour you like, as long as it’s not black”. That’s kind of why lots of people then want one of course, hence repainting to use rather than to defraud. In fact, it must be stated that repaints are not all bad, bad, bad (indeed…a cynic might have already passed comment on the colour of the M3 camera in this post!). A good modern repaint of an old brass Leica can actually be a truly wonderful thing as long as the workmanship is first class (there aren’t that many people or companies famous for doing it to a high standard and many of the ones that do have long waiting lists and might be in faraway lands) and nobody is trying to pass it off as Leica factory original to anyone else. The rare colour stakes were elevated to an even more insane level with the military green M3’s, usually known as ‘olive paint’ bodies. The black ones can be sold to buy you a nice used (but late model)  premium luxury car, the green ones can be used as a significant chunk of a condo! In watch terms, the green M3 is to rangefinder cameras what a 5517 British Royal Marines ‘Milsub’ is to Rolex. You’ve either got one in the attic or your late father’s dresser, or you haven’t. We can but dream. Or as they used to say on Antiques Roadshow, ‘Well, really we were just after some information about the history of the piece, how much you say?! Oh really…mmm….but we could never sell it….’ Yeah, right.

So, why the M3 over the others? Many simply say that it was the first; the best and that subsequent models have never managed to significantly improve upon it. It represents a true zenith of design and engineering from a time and place that was already setting the bar as high as could be in such a field. It’s a true cult classic and a gift that keeps on giving. It might actually outlive you which also means that you might never need to replace it (CLA and repair yes, replace? Probably not).

 A word to the wise though, it is not necessarily a perfect fit for everyone. In the era in which it was designed, 50mm was very much the standard lens and this was reflected (or rather it wasn’t) in the lack of internal 35mm frame lines. Hence if you were a wide shooter, you were almost SOL. Luckily, those clever people in Wetzlar soon sought to address this Achilles heel and many wider lenses were produced with a special optical external accessory, most often referred to nowadays as ‘goggles’ attachment lenses. The correct term is perhaps more likely to be ‘M3 version lens’ for the sake of accuracy. These lenses have a slightly bulkier (and a tad heavier) construction and the use clever optics and mechanics to allow the 35mm frame lines the ability to ‘magically’ appear in a reduced width, which just fits snugly inside the standard 50mm frame line set. This is handy as the M3 then became a 35mm lens camera just as many photojournalists slowly changed towards using‘thirty-fives as the new normal’, if you’ll excuse the snowclone butchery. This also allowed one to see more outside of the frame (and more easily) than with a normal 35mm frame line set in later M’s. This jived well with the 'see it take place outside the frame before you catch it within rangefinder' advantage that people still pay lip service to today. It also meant that those shooters who wore glasses could now use a 35mm inside a Leica viewfinder more easily, although doing so introduced them to the slight drawback that any classic early brass M metal diopter circle would ‘do a number’ on their right side glasses lens, with more scratches than Afrika Bambataa on a hot Bronx night. Despite what you might think, the goggled lenses are not a dead-end street should you commit to purchasing them for a Leica M3 and later wish to use them on other M bodies. They work just as well on other M’s (even modern digital ones!) and offer the same aforementioned advantages in such cases as well. They add a little size and weight (but really, I find it a moot point) and the difference cosmetically is a real opinion splitter. Probably the majority of people hate them on an M, I personally waiver between ambivalence and adoration, depending on the exact combo in question. As such, the best news for people wanting and using  these lenses nowadays is that despite costing more than the non-goggled (read: non M3) versions when new, they are now typically cheaper, depending on your exact locale and market forces there. Colour me happy (even though I’m really a black and white guy). The flash is also a weird one, they are unusual in having their own non-standard kind of flash connection terminal, and it won’t connect to the normal PC cord without third party adapters. I have never been concerned by this as I see the M as an available light body anyway, especially considering the fact that most of Leica’s lenses work very well wide open, at least compared to many other brands. That’s not to say that people haven’t used flash to great effect with M’s, they have but I'mjust not one of them.

Still, despite the quirks of the M3, if you are even remotely ‘bi-image curious’ :-J, you owe it to yourself to at least try one for a while. If you like rangefinders, you’ll probably fall in love. If you discover that you are just not an RF kind of shooter (and there’s honestly nothing wrong with that at all) then even the cream of the crop isn’t going to do that much for you anyway. Plus, it’s truly one of those rare things that you can usually buy and sell for the same, slightly less or slightly more than you paid for it. People say that about lots of things but so often, it just isn’t the case. With a Leica, they are always wanted and patient sellers of decent M3’s have nothing to fear.

Leica virgin, a touch for the very first time…