When I first saw the Leica IIIF, it was in a video someone posted on Instagram that demonstrated how to load film into the camera. I’d heard about these rangefinders being a real pain in the butt to load, but I thought, how hard could it be? I have a Leica M2. It can’t be too much harder than loading that. I’m a moron (just kidding). Blinded by the shine and beauty of it, as I often am when seeing a camera I like, I had to have one.
The Leica IIIF, made in the early 1950’s, first came with black lettering on the shutter speed dial. Then after the shutter was updated for better flash synchronization, red lettering was added, making what became known as the red dial version.
If you shoot film because you enjoy the “slower process”, as opposed to the mindless shooting of a digital camera, then boy is this camera for you. The Leica IIIF does everything to slow you down. There are two separate windows, one for focusing with the rangefinder and another next to it for framing your shot. If you shoot with a focal length other than 50mm, you’d have to mount an external viewfinder on the cold shoe adding a 3rd viewfinder. This can be an issue if, like me, you use that mount for an external meter.
Loading the film requires cutting your leader to be 4” long so that it catches properly. It’s also important to wind the film before setting your shutter speed so as not to damage the mechanism. All of these things will slow you down, but once you get into a proper flow, it is perfectly manageable and enjoyable.
My First Impressions
It took me a while, but I finally purchased a Leica IIIF red dial version from KEH.com after checking their website several times a week for months. I didn’t buy a lens because I already own a couple Canon LTM mount lenses for my Canon 7, and an Industar lens on my FED-2 rangefinder. I figured if I really love the camera, eventually I can save up for a Leica lens. Until then, I’ll make do with what I have.
When I got the camera, my first thoughts were on how light and compact it was. I decided to first pair it with my Canon LTM 50mm f1.4. Mounting the Leica IIIF with this lens was like handing a boulder to Wile E. Coyote. It tipped right over. It also took up a quarter of the viewfinder, which made it even more difficult to frame my shot without also having to remember to compensate for offset.
These difficulties aside, I was surprised that when I loaded my first roll, Kentmere Pan 400, that I didn’t need to cut the leader and it was fine on the first try. Beginner’s luck? I developed this test roll and scanned the shots. Right away I noticed some of the frames had what looked like little spots of light on the left side of the photo. It was only in a couple of frames, so I assumed it was maybe lens flare or something like that.
I went on to shoot a couple more rolls of film, but my luck loading the film ended quickly and seemed to get worse each consecutive time I loaded a new roll. Unlike the Leica M2, which I am used to, the back of the camera does not flip open. You load the film from the bottom, pretty much blind. Taking from what I learned from that video on Instagram, I took the lens off, marked the film with a marker and then advanced the film. If the mark disappeared, then I knew it was advancing and I could replace the lens. I even cut the leader, but it still wasn’t taking. It frustrated me to waste so many frames, but after a couple torn up leaders, I eventually got it.
This time shooting outdoors around my home and taking it with me to a doctor’s appointment, I started to feel really used to the camera. I was afraid that because it is completely manual that it would slow me down too much, but with my Voigtlander meter mounted on top, I went through the motion of taking each frame like I’d been doing it forever. It just felt natural.
The last lens I mounted was my Canon 35mm f/2.8 with an external viewfinder, which meant I had to use a handheld meter. This slowed me down a little more, but I look at it that it’s encouraging me to learn metering by eye.
After I developed the next three rolls, I found that the dots I saw on the first roll seemed to be worse or more pronounced now that I was shooting outside in the sun. I realized that it looked like there might be pin holes in the cloth shutter curtain. I looked at the shutter behind the lens using a flashlight, and there were cracks on the curtain. Luckily, I am still under warranty with KEH, and the camera has now been sent off to be repaired by them.
Despite the dabs of light on the left of every frame, I really like the photos I got. In the photo of my fiancé, it even looks kind of mystical.
In the end, the loading issue is the main complaint I have besides the light leak that will hopefully soon be fixed. However, I figure it’s something I will get used to. The Leica IIIF has provided a different experience for me than any of the cameras I have used, and I have shot with many different types, ages, and formats. The challenge seemed to be what made me keep reaching for it. When comparing it to say a Canon Rebel G, which is basically a digital camera that uses film, I would grab the IIIF every time because it is a tool that makes me appreciate shooting film for what it is. For me, shooting film is a nostalgic medium that transports me back to the greats, and to a time when we had to work to make our art significant. Anything worth doing isn’t easy, and to me the Leica IIIF has been worth the trouble, and I can’t wait to get it back.
If you’d like to follow more of my work and adventures with vintage cameras, check out my website at Aly’sVintageCameraAlley.com or follow me on instagram. You can also catch me on my YouTube channel.
Until next time, stay motivated and keep shooting.