Leica rather missed the boat when digital came along so of course I’m talking about the best film Leica. And no, its not another “the M3 is the best camera ever made” review. But to begin, a bit of background.
My first ‘camera’ was a 4×5 I made with my father’s help, and a loaned lens from my uncle who worked at Taylor Hobson in Leicester, UK. The wooden box camera used glass plate negatives – remember those? Focusing was hit and miss, manually sliding the fat projector lens in and out until infinity seemed as good as it could get – then stopping down with a cardboard cut-out sleeve over the lens. I was a teenager and was making the camera for a single purpose – to photograph a comet which was easily visible stretching across the sky. I maintained an interest in astronomical photography and recently was using specialist cooled sensor digital B&W cameras and RGB filters to photograph the stars and deep sky objects. The cameras were mounted on telescopes from 10cm to 43cm diameter at high altitude in New Mexico, USA, and Siding Springs, Australia.
I have used most formats between 35mm film and digital to ultra large format (12×20) cameras from most of the main manufacturers at various times. I remember when I first went to university, and without much money, I would look in the window of camera shops and was lusting over early Leicas (screw mount) but my father said “old fashioned, out of date” and put me off, but a lingering lust remained. When I was regularly using a (modern) 4×5 camera a friend suggested I look at the Leica M6, saying “most large format photographers seem to use Leica Ms as their 35mm tool”. And then when I had tried the M6 I was hooked. For over 15 years I regularly used M6s and took my best friend’s wedding photos in Greece, after which he bought the M6 and 35mm Summicron that I had used.
After the (several) M6s I tried the M2, a new MP which became my workhorse for a decade, and then, somewhat reluctantly, the M3. “I’m a 35mm lens guy, 50’s are just too ordinary” I thought. But, looking at my images, I realised I generally tended to be further away than a better image from a tighter crop would give. So after a while I became a ‘50mm lens guy’. Even in large format I tend to get as close to 50mm equivalent as I can.
Then a few years ago I was comparing side-by-side the M3 and 50 cron against the iiig and Summitar, with a roll of FP4+ in each. One photo was of a sunny field, I focussed and took the shot with the iiig, then I raised the M3 to my eye. “Oh! The sun’s gone in”. But no! Lowering the M3 I could see the light hadn’t changed. The iiig viewfinder is at least twice as bright as the M3’s – related to the incorporation of the rangefinder in the viewfinder screen of the M3.
As the years went by my ability to focus close and far dropped for some reason and I found the M3’s rangefinder was not sharp except with one particular pair of old spectacles. The iiig has a focus slider around the rewind knob which allows me to focus the rangefinder image using anything from my close focus reading glasses to my distant vision glasses or no glasses. The iiif is the same as the iiig apart from the smaller viewfinder which, after using iiifs and some earlier screw Leicas, I found it harder to orient horizontals or verticals accurately. Nevertheless I have come to completely understand Oskar Barnack’s motivation for making the Leica camera in the first place. About 15 years ago I took my 8×10 to Venice. I carried the camera, my wife carried the lenses and film holders, and the mother-in-law carried the (very heavy) tripod – she’s still complaining about it. I don’t carry anything larger than 35mm nowadays except over short distances from the car to the scene.
Recently I have taken several trips to Tokyo and Nagasaki – I like walking and I wanted to take something small, compact, light and unobtrusive. So I decided to take the iiig. The question was which lens – 50mm Elmar f3.5 (coated version) or the Summitar f2? Both lenses are clean and clear, the Summitar optically virtually mint, while the Elmar has very minor scratches. On one trip I took one, and changed the lens for the next trip in order to make comparisons. I took night shots in the street using colour film. The Elmar is super compact, almost disappearing into the body, the Summitar even though collapsible still protrudes a lot. To my surprise I much preferred the Elmar images. Perhaps I was more relaxed with that lens so concentrating on the image more. The Elmar rendered colours and composition as I felt them to be, remarkable for an early 1950s lens on modern colour film. The images were less clinical and had a natural feeling to them. Lack of wide aperture was not a problem since I needed at least modest depth of field.
So what is my answer looking at the iiig and earlier screw bodies, the M3 or the other Ms (best for 35mm lens)? The MP and re-released M6 have advantages over earlier Ms not just because of the meter but because they are new. But the iiig has a brighter viewfinder than the Ms with the ability to adjust rangefinder focus, and a bigger viewfinder than earlier screw Leicas, far more compact and lighter than M cameras, and with the Elmar a lens that renders images sympathetically rather than clinically. So for me, and you may have perfectly good reasons for preferring something different, the iiig and the Elmar lens is the best Leica… … or is it my A7Riii?
In the image at the top: Right, M3 wearing Zeiss Sonnar; left, MP wearing a 50 cron; centre, iiif wearing a Summitar; back left, iiig wearing a 50 Elmar 3.5 and dressed for dinner.
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