5 Frames with a Leica 111a

By Phil Harrison

A year ago I decided I had come to the end of my time as a film only photographer, it had been a wonderful time full of film discoveries, I must have tried out over 40 different stocks, some excellent, some not so. One problem was the prices of Kodak stocks which is now too high for me to want to use them, my favourite colour film Portra 400 being around £18 a roll plus processing! Ilford and others b/w film prices are fine. My processing has always had to be lab based, which was another problem, finding a consistently good lab. I’ve had films processed in exhausted dev (chemical fogging), films covered in dirt, processed for the wrong time, excessively contrasty. So I went digital. But of course…

…I missed film and wanted to be able to do occasional b/w film photography. I’ve recently found a nice 1938 Leica 111a to play with and a 1949 Summitar 50mm f2 with the 10 blade aperture. I’ve also downloaded an instruction book, essential with these elderly models and made a film cutting template for the 111a’s film. The film leader must be cut to the right shape otherwise dire happenings can occur when you wind on. The Leica 111 is a small camera with a tiny viewfinder, a bit of a struggle if you wear specs so I found a mint SBOOI 5cm external viewfinder. The SBOOI is so bright you hardly notice your looking through and the frame line is very obvious, in fact you can leave both eyes open when shooting.

The problem with Leica 111 cameras and lenses from the 1930’s onward is that most of the ones for sale are knackered, understandably, the bodies have hazy finders and dodgy shutter speeds and the lenses are hazy, internally dusty with sticky apertures/focus and fungus. I thought I would have to buy a knacker and have it serviced, but I got lucky. My 111a has had the official factory flash conversion in the 50’s and seems to have had a CLA fairly recently, the finders are bright and clear, speeds seem accurate also the vulcanite was renewed, altogether a lovely example. The Summitar lens optics are in clean clear condition with no haze, dirt or fungus, the focus was sticky as expected, but it was a simple job to clean off the old grease and replace with new. (There is a camera technician on eBay who sells small pots of the correct grease.)

The Seven Sisters blocks of flats in front of the town hall in Rochdale, 1/200 f11
St Chads church gate in Rochdale, contre jour, 1/500 f11
Christmas tree in Rochdale, dull lighting, 1/60 f8
Manchester Christmas market, poor lighting, 1/60sec f4
Manchester Christmas market, poor lighting, 1/60sec f4

I used my last roll of T-Max 400 shooting in a variety of lighting conditions from bright contrasty sun to dull overcast and poor lighting in a Christmas market to check out the camera body and lens. The film was lab processed in Ilfotec DD which has made the film contrastier and grainier than I would have liked, I’ve managed to pull the contrast back in post processing. Looking at the negatives the 111a’s shutter speeds seem accurate, nice exposures, The Summitar lens is very acceptably sharp from f2.8, the edges from f8 and nicely flare resistant. These lovely old cameras are pretty much the only way into cheapish Leica photography these days. Fortunately there are loads of technicians around to service the bodies and lenses.

All the best
Phil

 

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About The Author

By Phil Harrison
Phil spent 25 years as a professional photographer after leaving Photographic College in the mid 1970’s. In his early years, he worked as a medical photographer, based in a hospital in the north of the UK and later came upon a change of direction to industrial photography and film/TV production. In the late 90’s Phil gave up professional photography after taking redundancy then found work as a Train Guard, now retired. He doesn't specialise with his photography, enjoying photographing anything that appeals.
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Eric on 5 Frames with a Leica 111a

Comment posted: 28/01/2024

Phil,

Great article and images. Makes me want to get out there with a rangefinder today. Thank you for sharing.

Eric
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Phil Harrison replied:

Comment posted: 28/01/2024

Thanks Eric.

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Carlos on 5 Frames with a Leica 111a

Comment posted: 28/01/2024

Sounds like you‘re on the cheap side of life, nothing wrong with that, sometimes that‘s a choice, sometimes it is not.

The world doesn‘t need more of the 3000photos or more per holiday, of video spam of your holidays to the world on all channels.

Life gets more expensive everywhere.

Thus analog film even though it became more expensive than in the discount days of the past still makes sense. Once your photography is well catered and not a P&S experience (that your phone can do perfectly) it‘s worth sticking to it creating unique results, that no algorithm can, at best simulate, but simulations aren‘t the real thing. I run both and I do not even think about trying to make digital photography look like film photography, neither do I scan film. To me these are distinctively separate things and cannot replace each other, at all.
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Phil Harrison replied:

Comment posted: 28/01/2024

I agree with you, film photography is a unique experience (especially with the 111a) and one I now know I cannot be without, but it will be B/W only, I'll leave colour to the digital camera.

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Gary Smith on 5 Frames with a Leica 111a

Comment posted: 28/01/2024

Nice article Phil! Some time ago the "get-a-Leica" bug bit me but after buying a batch of books on the M-series I was able to resist. A local camera shop has two model 111 and one model 11. The model 11 is approx. 3x the cost of the 111's. My most recent "buy-it-now" experience didn't go that well (read about it here someday).
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Phil Harrison replied:

Comment posted: 28/01/2024

Thanks Gary

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Daniel Castelli on 5 Frames with a Leica 111a

Comment posted: 30/01/2024

Hi Phil,
In May of 2023, I stumbled across a gorgeous IIIG at an antique shop. Fitted with a 50mm Leica lens. Boy was I tempted. A ‘take no prisoners’ battle in my head was fought. In the end, I passed. 70+ year old eyes, continuing recovery from serious back surgery, etc. just seemed too much. I didn’t have the energy to learn the quirks of the SM Leica. Now I’m in much better shape, and I regret not buying it. They just look like so much fun to use. BTW, I’m really having a hard time reading about the high cost of color & b&w film stock. Here in the US a 36 exp. of HP-5 @ B&H Photo is now $10.00. I tooled up to bulk load HP-5. I’ve always home processed my film, so I’m hoping to save some money on film by going that route.
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Phil Harrison replied:

Comment posted: 30/01/2024

Luckily Ilford films, which are made not very far away from where I live are reasonably priced in the UK. It's Kodak films for us that are very expensive for us. Home processing with 400asa films is the only way to go. I have to use a UK lab for my processing and scanning and the developer that most now use is not condusive to get the best out of high speed films. I've found this out through experience. I'm using Ilford XP2 now because it is chromogenic and can be processed to highest standards in any lab with a well maintained C41 line. The 111a is my second 111, I had a 111c around 10 years ago which I'd had serviced but unfortunately it had to go. I missed it and now I'm happily back where I started. Thank for commenting Phil

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Geoff Chaplin replied:

Comment posted: 30/01/2024

One rule in life I have learned - a gorgeous iiig should never be passed up! They are wonderful cameras, pieces of art, and can repay your efforts with superb images if you use a clean lens.

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Phil Harrison replied:

Comment posted: 30/01/2024

Can't fault you there!

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Geoff Chaplin on 5 Frames with a Leica 111a

Comment posted: 30/01/2024

They are lovely compact cameras and the Summitar is a superb lens - I have the same design one as you and I was lucky to find it in virtually unmarked condition. Foma 100 is very cheap and I like the rendition (including the halation!). I'd strongly suggest stand dev in Rodinal 100:1, water stop, and fix. Easy, cheap and reliable.

Good post and images, thanks Phil!
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Phil Harrison replied:

Comment posted: 30/01/2024

Thanks Geoff, I agree about Foma 100.

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