Leica IIIf RD
Rangefinders (Changeable Lens)

The Leica IIIF RD – My First Impressions – By Alyssa Chiarello

September 21, 2021

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 Camera

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.

Leica IIIF Red Dial

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.

woman in mirror

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.

shadow of Aly's leg

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.

cat laying next to a chair

Notice the lights dappling in on the left

Potato plant

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.

chair and lamp with bookshelves

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.

shadow of a plant

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.

Chair and lamp

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.

woman in the sun

Final Thoughts

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.

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24 Comments

  • Reply
    Duncan G.
    September 21, 2021 at 10:31 am

    Interesting review, as I am a fellow iiif (RD) owner. Personally, I’ve never tried loading the film without first trimming the leader. I’ve read plenty of other people’s experiences that has kept me ‘doing it properly’, which isn’t hard. I still have the occasional loading fail but it is immediately obvious if you know what to look for. When loaded correctly, the rewind knob (and I think the shutter release button too) rotates as you wind on. If not, it doesn’t. Once you know this, there really is no issue. So forget about taking lenses off or marking film…
    Your issue with the hot shoe is easily solved with a 2-shoe adapter – put the viewfinder above the hotshot and the meter in the offset slot. I got one with a recent purchase of a Lime One meter, which works fine, but they’re available from eBay, often 3-D printed.
    Once you have a viewfinder fitted (I have a collection of about 4, I think) you still only have 2 windows to look through, as the viewfinder on the camera becomes redundant. Also, if you use a wide angle lens, you can quickly dispense with another window as it’s so easy just to set distance on the lens without ‘focussing’.
    Also on the subject of meters, while I have one, and a handheld, I often only take a couple of readings and then work off my judgement. And sunny-16 rarely lets you down outdoors!
    Finally, your big 50mm lens covering the view can also be easily fixed with another external viewfinder.
    As you might be able to tell, I adore my iiif. I have a variety of Leitz and Voigtlander lenses and they’re all a joy to use. Keep going and I’m sure all the initial niggles will soon be forgotten. There really is something wonderful about the simplicity and pure mechanical nature of these beautiful little machines…

    • Reply
      Alyssa Chiarello
      September 21, 2021 at 2:54 pm

      Cool I will definitely look for the hot shoe adapter. That would be great. Thanks.

  • Reply
    Martin
    September 21, 2021 at 10:52 am

    I come from film photography, love shooting film, have too many film cameras but with progressing age I also enjoy the benefits of a good digital camera and the conveniance it offers. I’m very much opposed to the assumptions that shooting digital is just mindlessly clicking away.
    Very fine article of the begiining of your voyage with the IIIf! Thanks for sharing

    • Reply
      Martin
      September 21, 2021 at 10:54 am

      Sorry for typos

    • Reply
      Alyssa Chiarello
      September 21, 2021 at 2:52 pm

      Fair point. Thank you for reading.

  • Reply
    Tobias Eriksson
    September 21, 2021 at 10:55 am

    Thanks for sharing your impressions!
    I too got to try a IIIf for half a roll. And yes, my first and lasting impression is that it was so light. I’m using a Zorki I – which is a Leica II copy – and it is in comparison much heavier.
    Speaking of holes in the curtain. Here is a post with my impressions of that issue: http://tobbetecknare.blogspot.com/2020/09/firefly-girl-magic-happens-with-fed-3.html

    • Reply
      Alyssa Chiarello
      September 21, 2021 at 2:51 pm

      Oh wow I see your holes were right in the middle of the curtain/photos. I have a Fed-2 as well that I love.

  • Reply
    Neal A Wellons
    September 21, 2021 at 11:23 am

    Thanks for a great story on a great camera. I fell in love with Barnack designed cameras with a Zorki 1, then bought a Canon IV and finally took the Leica plunge with a Leica IIIf. I have a lot of Russian lenses which are the ones I use the most. I went Barnack crazy and eventually bought a Leica I and Leica II. I’m a collector and shooter and love to shoot all of them. I’ve learned to buy all my Barnacks with CLA including replacing the shutter curtains when needed. That way it is like having new cameras. My source is reasonable and great for sales/repairs.

    About loading. I watched a video and learned not to worry about templates and just hand trim the leader to size. I messed up a bit on my first two or three and now they are quite easy if you are methodical, like you have to be when shooting the fiddly cameras. But that’s the way I like to shoot. They are not great for all styles of photography but for what I shoot, they all are perfect.

    • Reply
      Alyssa Chiarello
      September 21, 2021 at 2:48 pm

      Thank you. Yes that’s exactly how I got into it. A friend gave me a Fed-2 and that was like my gateway into the Leica iiif.

  • Reply
    Chris
    September 21, 2021 at 1:49 pm

    Great Story! Thanks for sharing.
    I recently found the same ind of camera at a yard sale. The shutter curtains were wrinkled so i sent it off for repair and am eagerly awaiting its return. In the meantime, I am using the lens (Elmar 5cm, F3.5) successfully on my mFT camera with an adapter.

    I have often seen such cameras advertised but have wondered if any of them work properly without repair. Good luck and keep us posted.

    Chris DC (CDC)

    • Reply
      Alyssa Chiarello
      September 21, 2021 at 2:46 pm

      Thank you! I will definitely be posting more about this camera on my website now that I’ve gotten it back 🙂

  • Reply
    Chris
    September 21, 2021 at 2:59 pm

    Alyssa:

    Did KEH charge you for the repair? When they advertise such camera bodies on their website they don’t really make it clear whether they fully check film cameras for proper function nor whether they will do a full repair of just swap it for another body. In any case, I am happy you seem to have prevailed.

    CDC

    • Reply
      Alyssa Chiarello
      September 21, 2021 at 3:20 pm

      Their warranty on the camera covered it. The camera was listed as excellent and obviously it was not excellent lol so they covered it. I think they cover all cameras accept ones rated in Ugly condition.

  • Reply
    Dan Castelli
    September 22, 2021 at 1:51 am

    Darn you! I just succeeded in talking myself OUT of buying a 3F or 3G and along comes your excellent article! Just kidding! I’m still thinking about sourcing one and your post was informative and fun to read. I also have a M2 & the Canon 50mm f/1.4 (with adapter.) Around the time that dinosaurs roamed the earth, I found a Leica film template designed to trim bulk loaded 35mm film for ltm Leica’s. I still use it because I bulk load my HP-5. Used properly, it does yield a 4” leader. You solved the mystery of the long leader!
    Best of luck with the camera!
    Dan

    • Reply
      Alyssa Chiarello
      September 22, 2021 at 2:17 am

      Hahaha I’m so sorry!
      Yes I hope I can get the hang of the film loading. I’m not really sure yet what I’m doing wrong but I know I’ll get it down the more I use it.

  • Reply
    Tom Aspin
    September 22, 2021 at 3:49 pm

    With some care and practice, the film loading issue can be overcome. The trick is to not be in too much of a hurry, and i generally find it easier to do it sat at a table
    My first Leica was a 3f which I got about 25 years ago, and I’ve managed to avoind the film slipping so far, I’ve also managed to avoid shutter pin holes – i tend to leave the lens cap on in between shots in bright weather – maybe that helps. My oldest Barnack leica is a 2 from about 1933/4, and so far thats holding up well. To my knowledge, neither has been serviced recently ( ever?), and both function well, so maybe a CLA before purchase is not always necessary.
    Last time I checked a service was about £150 ( less parts), good value for such capable cameras, and you’ll probably only ever need to do it once!

    I have always struggled with the closely spaced viewfinder and rangefinder windows on the later bodies, and get on much better with the two separate windows on the earlier cameras.

    The main attraction of these camaeras for me are still the small size, and the nice quiet shutter, which even now, takes some beating.

    • Reply
      Alyssa Chiarello
      September 22, 2021 at 5:57 pm

      I agree with everything you’ve said. These mechanical cameras really are wonders. They last forever if you take good care of them which it sounds like you’ve proven to be true.

  • Reply
    Marco Andrés
    September 22, 2021 at 4:50 pm

    Consider « 3d printing » a Leica Film Template [ablon]. Search for « Leica ABLON » on thingivers.com. Download the files [stl], « send » them for printing, get a quote [mine was less than 30$us] and get it printed.
    FYI: thingiverse has stl files for the Lime 1 [Hedeco] light meter (shoe adapters and case).

  • Reply
    Dan Castelli
    September 22, 2021 at 9:22 pm

    Hi again,
    I didn’t know my Leica film trimmer was called an ABLON; nor did I know it’s worth a few $$$! It’s NFS.
    A story is told about Alfred Eisenstaedt (sp?) of LIFE Magazine fame. It seems that a young reporter was assigned to AE. It seems that Eisenstaedt rarely got the names of the people he photographed. The reporter’s job was to get the names. In 1945, AE was in Time Square taking pictures of a young sailor kissing every girl in sight. He reported that AE was running after the sailor, rewinding and changing film in his Leica ltm. I’ve never been able to find out if this is a true story or folklore. But, if it was true…

    • Reply
      Alyssa Chiarello
      September 22, 2021 at 11:40 pm

      That’s really cool. If that’s true I need to know his secret lol imagine running and reloading quickly?!

    • Reply
      Huss
      September 24, 2021 at 9:20 pm

      @Dan… it’s true, there were a lot of girls in Time Square that day so AE had plenty of time.

      😉

  • Reply
    RJ
    September 23, 2021 at 6:51 pm

    I really love how these images came out! Just curious what did you use to develop these?

    • Reply
      Alyssa Chiarello
      September 24, 2021 at 4:42 am

      Thank you! I developed the film in Kodak D76 stock solution

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