Leica Barnack Cameras – In praise of the early compact Leicas – By Frank Lehnen

I’ve owned my Leica IIIa for about 4 months now, and it has never stopped giving me pleasure in photography. As Hamish wrote in his post about owning a screw mount Leica, there are 7 reasons, but I think there are way more. And by the way, it’s about the cheapest possibility to get a taste of Leica gear. A nice screw-mount Leica is much cheaper than an M, even cheaper than the Leica CL (which is an amazing camera in itself!).

There are an infinite number of reasons to own one. Not the least one being that dry, reassuring shutter sound that says: “OK boss, I got it, took the picture, put it on your film. Sure you’re gonna have fun with it!”

160721 - Kodak Tri-X - Leica IIIa - 024

Then there is that wonderful solid feeling this contraption confers to you. You can basically feel the steampunky gears, the brass, the springs as they whirr away inside. Set it on longer exposure times and you’ll be amazed with the smooth, soft sound of the gears.

Everything about this camera tells you it will be there for a long time if only you give it a bit of care, say an overhaul every 20 years or so. Imagine 20 years! Imagine your fancy DSLR in 20 years….

Strange that you can fall for such a complicated, convoluted camera. There’s the thread mount.. a hassle when it comes to change lenses in the field. The solution: Don’t! When you leave home, screw on a lens for the day and don’t weigh up your pockets with other lenses. And don’t take a camera bag please! Be free, move easily, be ready with your camera in your hand!

Then there’s these two peepholes, one for focusing and one for framing… who the hell thought that up? But it works. Get used to it, or pre-focus your lens and live with it.

We’ll not linger on the teeny tiny finder here, I raved enough about that one and it’s alternatives on my blog (see below). Take a look if you like, but basically my findings are that you can ruin the good looks of the Leica OR have a nice viewfinder…. for you (and me) to decide!

As for the lenses, you have a huge choice of them – old and (nearly) new. From Russia with l…. no, flaws or from Germany or Japan. Nearly all lenses are decent, most are excellent and ALL have character, lots of it!

Any lens I screwed on was a new revelation, a new thing to explore and to like. Anytime I went out with the IIIa, firmly attached to my Gordy’s wrist strap, it has given me pleasure. Pleasure and very rewarding pictures. Here are my beauties:


From ‘biggest’ to best, here are my beautiful lenses (read my comparison on www.whyfilmcameras.com) – try to find SLR lenses this gorgeous!:


Eddy wrote about his experience with an Elmar 3.5 in his post about the finder he built. I have had a very nice surprise with an Industar 50 – the later, collapsible and coated version. Looks similar to the Elmar, just a tad bigger. It is, together with my Summitar, my favorite lens. Much sharper than the Jupiter 8 I bought with high expectations, but which disappointed me greatly. The Industar is tack sharp, renders very nicely with a great retro feeling. I love that lens!

Now I am very much tempted to rely solely on this camera and two lenses as I wrote here on my humble blog. The Summitar and the Industar (The Tar brothers). I feel that I will have to focus more in the future, to use a consistent set of camera and lens. Concentrate on the essential, photography.

I’ll not go as far as to swear to use one camera and one lens only for one year – I know myself! But I think I will go with this beauty while still retaining the Olympus XA2 that basically lives in my pocket, and a couple of Canon SLR’s that are dirt cheap and have great glass also. I’ll just have to spring for a CLA for the Barnack… It has it’s faults!

160721 - Kodak Tri-X - Leica IIIa - 016

There’s definitely a light leak in the shutter curtain guides as I get nasty light infiltrations when changing lenses in full sunshine, and well, I’d like to be sure the little guy is OK for the next 20 years! The rangefinder and viewfinder might benefit from a drop of Windex and perhaps some adjustment, though focus is quite OK.

Coming back to the finder, I hacked the viewfinder from the Canon AF7/8 as I recounted in a former post here, I bought an Altix finder with 35, 50 and 90mm ‘blinds’ and I scored a Voigtländer Kontur finder on eBay (cheap as it’s quite battered but nothing some spray paint can’t fix). I wrote a piece about those finders for my blog and you can view it here (desperately need some traffic there!!).
160721 - Kodak Tri-X - Leica IIIa - 022

All told, this Leica IIIa is the best thing that happened to me in a long time. As soon as I held it in my hand I knew we would get along nicely. Oskar understands what I want from him… OK, I called him Oskar, after his dad Oskar Barnack… and no, I’m not crazy! I call my cameras whatever I want! Anyways, we work well together, and I can only recommend to anyone to try his hand on one.

Enough words now, I’ll let Oskar express himself some more:

160806 - Fomapan 100 - Leica IIIa - 009
My brother in law, always serious!
160806 - Fomapan 100 - Leica IIIa - 011
160722 - Fomapan 400 - Leica IIIa - 029
Abstract garage ramp

Thanks for reading!

Contribute to 35mmc for an Ad-free Experience

There are two ways to experience 35mmc without the adverts:

Paid Subscription - £2.99 per month and you'll never see an advert again! (Free 3-day trial).
Subscribe here.

Content contributor - become a part of the world’s biggest film and alternative photography community blog. All our Contributors have an ad-free experience for life.
Sign up here.

About The Author

42 thoughts on “Leica Barnack Cameras – In praise of the early compact Leicas – By Frank Lehnen”

  1. I agree, I fell in love with the Barnack series last year with the iiic and since then I have bought a fantastic iiif off a lovely guy in Japan who only services these Leicas. They feel solid and I manage to shoot very quickly. I do marvel at how well they were built. It’s nice to shoot with a camera that just has the controls you need to make a great image and not use a battery.

  2. I bought my first Leica, a IIIa with 5cm Summar, this spring and it has delighted me again and again. I followed that with an M3 with 5cm Summicron, and as much as I love the M3 it’s the IIIa that is with me more often. It just seems to fit more easily into a pocket, and as compact as the M3 is compared to my Nikon D7000 (or even my FE) the IIIa just feels more discrete, more invisible.

    Thanks, Frank, and thanks, Hamish, I’ve enjoyed both of your articles (and both your sites) immensely.

  3. I love the top two photos! I considered buying a Leica iii, but in my camera store the nice ones are equally or more expensive than a decent M2, so I went for that (I also have a couple of M lenses). But they look incredibly cute.

    1. Thank you, Aukje!

      In fact… my Leica IIIa was free, a gift from a stranger as you can read on my blog, but you can find decent ones for around 200 to 250€ on eBay…. if you’re lucky. Most need some work though.

      Never used an M as yet (except the CL) but I’d really like to try an M3 or M2 one day.

  4. Thanks Frank for another excellent post. Just when I’d forgotten about the Barnacks, you’ve reawoken my interest.

    Great set of pictures too!

  5. I love my screw iif the same way! The screw mount, the steam punkiness, and the retro beauty. I gotta get mine CLAd too though. A bit over my head as far as the repair goes.

  6. Barnacks are the cameras that most closely adhere to the Leica philosophy and I’ve flirted with buying one a number of times. The fact they’re based almost exclusively around the 50mm focal length is a bit of an obstacle. No doubt I’ll weaken one of these days, and articles like this do nothing for my resolve!

      1. Do it while you can get one fairly cheap. I shoot with both 50 and 35mm , don’t have a problem plus you can get the glass pretty cheap.

          1. I do hope the word spreads from this post but I have a feeling that as time goes on people will rediscover these classics and it will be harder to get a good working one.

  7. Oh, it’s not the cheapest way to get a taste of Leica gear. I believe a quite different camera holds that title. I have two and am about to start shooting the pictures for a future review!

      1. It wouldn’t be eligible for this site if it was 😉

        There’s some debate over just how much of a Leica it really is, but it was certainly badged and sold by Leica.

    1. The Z2X? It has got to be the cheapest step onto the “Leica” ladder. My mint one cost £12 delivered and is a brilliant pocket camera, even if people scoff at its heritage ?

      1. You got it! Yes, my wife has a Z2X with a roll of half-shot film in that she’s refused to finish off for at least four years. Her uncle (who bought her that camera) has now donated his copy to me, so I’m going to try it out. From the shots I’ve seen, it looks really nice for the price.

  8. Hmm…. russian cameras? Sure cheaper and some are exceedingly good. Looking forward to your review!

    …..sorry, you said Leica Gear! So no russian stuff. Might be Leica SLR’s. Michael might be right

  9. I totally agree with you! Shooting with my iiif and summitar is pure fun. You described the shutter sound perfectly! 😀 Nicely done!

  10. Despite their obvious merits (compact size, mechanical smoothness, looks) screwmount Leicas and their soviet copies are painfully slow to use with the double viewfinder thing, unless you are willing to shoot them set to hyperfocal almost exclusively which in turn requires good lighting conditions or / and fast film all the time. I can live with that for the cost of a Zorki or a FED, but at the cost of original Leicas, it’s a no-go.

    1. Christos,

      The Barnack suits my shooting style, slow and deliberate and despite all the hassle it is quite fast to shoot. I like it because it makes me think twice about what I’m about to photograph… is it worth? could I try another angle?

      Of course, it’s not a camera for the speedshooter… I wonder how HCB catched that fabled decisive moment….

      1. All mechanical meterless vintage cameras are slow to shoot unless you’re willing to waste meters of film (which is what HCB did I guess), but the screwmount Leicas take that extra time to focus and compose, it’s just too frustrating for me, hence my plan to invest in a M-camera (once I have decided which one to get and gather the necessary funds, i.e probably never :-). Perhaps screwmount Leicas make more sense with a 35mm or even a 28mm lens attached with the extra finder, a sort of vintage Bessa-L. I had a CLA’d Zorki-1E once and I had more fun playing with its controls than actually shooting with it, a testament to the mechanical virtues of the design.

        1. You’re right, but there’s also the feel-good-factor which for me is the most important in photography. When you feel confident in your camera, in your metering, when the camera fits your hands perfectly, then it’s the camera to use. Whatever it’s other imperfections, get around them.

          If we think like that it’s like choosing a digital camera by specs you think you need, by film emulations you crave etc. No camera is perfect, and certainly not the Barnack. But if you feel comfortable with it it’s OK.

  11. I came across a 111, in a camera shop in York (GB) with Summar, case, 50mm viewfinder to plug into top plate and some Leica books, being sold by the shop as a commission sale. In a moment of madness, I bought: £300. Research showed my 111 had been made in 1935. I decided to use a 3.5cm f3.5 Summaron as its very compact. I use this kit for street photography. I use Ilford XP2 film at 400 iso and a shutter speed of 500 to freeze movement. I also use a Weston Master V meter. In use, I keep the camera wound, in my pocket and the lens set to the hyperfocal distance. My shots are taken between 10 and 25 feet.
    Walking along, I see my shot, camera comes out, up to the eye, button pressed and back in my pocket, all in one simple, fluid movement. I then move on. Never any problem with security, police, “concerned members of the public” suspicions that I’m a potential terrorist or a paedophile or any such nonsense.

  12. Love my IIIg. Has a beautiful bright viewfinder and framelines for 50 and 90, as well. I use the self timer occasionally and I can even shoot flash if I want.

  13. My first Leica was an M7, a gift from my brother in law. Although I appreciated the excellent finder and the silky smooth shutter, it still felt a little “hefty”. I got into a IIIc and that got me hooked. My last purchase was a beat up IIIa which I’ve been using a lot lately. It has the right feel in the hand and it is not difficult to focus at all even though I wear glasses. In fact I like the extra magnification to ease the focus. Too bad Leica cannot produce an updated version of the Barnack I suspect the cost of production would be prohibitive.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Scroll to Top