Rangefinders (Changeable Lens)

The Virtues of the Leica M3 – by Steven Bleistein

While the Leica M3 has a storied mythos associated with it, people tend to look at it more critically in comparison to other models when resolving to buy their first, and perhaps only, Leica M body. Buyers become discerning when it comes to parting with their own cash, and often eschew the M3 in favor of another model like the M6, M2, or M4, even when the alternative costs more.

I don’t fault people for having their own preferences. Every Leica M is wonderful in its own way. However, sometimes I believe people give the Leica M3 short shrift only later to regret it.

Let me be clear about my own biases. I have owned my share of Leica M’s, including two M3s, an M2, an early model M4, an M6J, and an M7. If I had to pick just one Leica M body to keep, it would be the M3.

I make no apologies for that. My bias toward the M3 is based on experience, not pretense. I tend to compare every Leica M against the Leica M3. Just after it came out, I tried the Leica M-A at the Leica flagship store in Ginza, Tokyo, hoping to be impressed by Leica’s latest homage to the M3. While a superlative camera, The M-A just did not have the same feel as the M3. The M3 feels like it has more heft. The M-A shutter release sounded and “felt” clunky by comparison to the M3. The M-A finder showed no improvements. I asked the sales person why Leica can’t produce a camera today to the same specs as the M3.

“Because if they did, they would have to sell it for ¥3 million!” That’s about $27,000.

So why do people forgo a camera despite such exacting build quality standards that can often be had for $800-$1000 plus a few hundred dollars for an overhaul? There is a pattern to the reasons I hear. I question their validity below in no particular order.

“I don’t like the film spool loading system!”

Is spool loading a bit fiddly? Yes. But frankly, the so-called “rapid loader” of other Leica M models is fiddly as well, just fiddly in a different way. Let’s face it. Neither film loading system is anywhere nearly as friendly as say that of a Nikon S2 or FE. Yet I can tell you from experience, owning and using Leica M cameras with both systems, that you become adept at both to the point where you no longer even think about it. Film loading does not matter.

Leica M3 SS with Silver MR-4 Leicameter, Type IV Summicron 50mm f/2, Henri leather strap produced by Eric Kim

“I don’t like the rewind knob!”

My first experience with rewind knob was that of the M2, which is the same as the M3 as well as the MP, the M-A, and some M6 models. Winding was traumatic. It seemed to take forever to get to the end of the roll, and I did not know you could suffer muscle bonk in your fingers!

However, like the spool film loading system, you get adept at rewinding over time to the point to which you never even think about it. The slanted crank winders are a bit faster to be sure, but we are talking about seconds here. Also, I always feel a bit nervous using the crank on my M6 and M7. It seems so delicate, and I worry that with my ham fists I might accidentally break it.

 Leica M3 SS, Summicron 35mm f/2, Kodak TMAX 100 Film

“I don’t like the 50mm frame finder!”

Yes, the M3’s finder goes no wider than 50mm. 50mm was the standard of the day. Here’s the thing though. When you shoot frequently using a 50mm frame, you get comfortable seeing the world and composing in 50mm. 50mm for a while became my focal length of choice. When I shot with a 35mm lens after shooting 50 for so long, the 35 seemed hopelessly wide. However, after persistent shooting, I got used to it too. I now feel comfortable shooting with any prime lens.

If you want to shoot 35 with a Leica M3 without having to resort to an external finder, you need to get one of the old 35mm lenses with mounted optics, or “goggles,” to convert the 50mm frame. There a few models of these that you can buy used, including the an f/2 Summicron, an f/1.4 Summilux, and both f/2.8 and f/3.5 Summaron lenses. All are excellent lenses, even by today’s standards.

 

 Leica M3 SS, Summilux 35mm f/1.4, Black MR-4 Leicameter

People complain about the goggles – that they add weight to the lens, and also that they create a distortion in the finder. Both Summicron and Summilux lenses with goggles weigh less respectively that their contemporary Leica progeny. The goggles do cause some finder distortion. However, I put up with it. I wear glasses. So even if I use a Leica with a 35mm frame, whether .72x or .85x, I cannot see the whole frame at the same time. In fact, I can fully view nothing wider than than a 50mm frame. So when I shoot with my Leica M6J, M7, or even my M240, all of which have 35mm frames, I use a made-for-the-M3 35mm with goggles. All the 35mm lenses with optics choose the 50mm frame on all Leica M models, and they work fine! The only exception might be the Leica M10, as added thickness of the lens mount bezel moves the mounted optics further away from the view finder windows, which I say based on a cursory test in a Leica shop.

I find that the Leica M3 finder gives me the best viewing experience of any Leica M, whether using a 35mm lens or not. The M3 finder is not prone to any of the flaring issues on the M2, M4, M6, and early M7s. I’m not sure about the M5, but I suspect it has the same issue with flaring. The M3 finder patch is larger and easier to see than on any other Leica model, making accurate focusing easier when shooting wide open. I have shot the f/0.95 Noctilux on my M3 with no problem nailing the focus. The M3 finder magnification is .91x, greater than any other Leica M. The .85x that you can get on some other Leica M models is a close second, but still does not compare.

Incidentally, the first Leica M body I bought was an M2, but I returned it a week later and bought an M3, even though the M3 cost more, just because the M3’s finder was so much better.

“I worry about the reliability of a camera that is over fifty-years-old!”

Build quality matters more than age. The M3s have extraordinary build quality that is unmatched by any subsequent M model. The M3s are eminently serviceable because of that quality, despite age.

Leica increasingly compromised build quality on every model after the M3 in a effort to cut cost, and it is apparent. Leica M6 top plates are prone to a bizarre bubbling over time. The M6 exposure counter stops functioning properly because of a plastic gear that wears out. I know this because the one on my M6J has. It is amazing how a part that costs less than one cent can end up requiring a repair service that costs hundreds of dollars to fix. I have also heard from people around Tokyo who repair Leicas that the electronic shutter speeds of the early M7s are beginning to fail, and those cameras are less than twenty years old! Despite build quality problems, both used M6s and M7s sell for much more than an M3, even an M3 in superb condition.

Count on having to have any M3 you buy overhauled. If you are not an expert on camera quality, I recommend you buy from somewhere reputable. I had Kanto Camera in Japan procure and overhaul my second M3 after a frustrating experience of buying and then returning ostensibly “overhauled” M3s at shops in Ginza. It cost a bit more to have a pro procure an M3 than buying off of eBay or from some random used shop, but it was worth it. Kanto’s  QC is exacting and they warrantied the camera for me. I recommend Kanto Camera in Japan, and they do sell internationally. If you are worried about communication, I recommend buying from Bellamy Hunt of Japan Camera Hunter.

There are reputable people and shops all over the world. Ask around, and find one convenient for you. It costs more, but I have found that when you buy an M3 without knowing what you are doing, you end up paying more after discovering later that it needs service and repair. And then there is the aggravation of having to send your camera out for repair.

 Clockwise from the left, Summicron DR f/2 with Detachable Macro Optics, Black Leicameter MR-4, Summicron 35mm f/2, Silver Leicameter MC, 1950s era Elmar 50mm f/2.8 Collapsible

“I don’t like not having a through-the-lens light meter!”

Lacking a TTL light meter is less of a big deal than you might imagine. I attach a Leicameter MR-4 or MC to my M3, and it works brilliantly. I even shoot slide film with the M3 measuring only with a Leicameter, and always get the exposure right.

Some people don’t like the aesthetics of a Leica meter on top of the M3. I think the Leicameters are beautiful exemplars of industrial design, as is the M3 itself. My M3 with the Leicameter attached often turns heads of people who ask about my camera thinking it is some kind of new digital camera. The Leica M3 design, even with the Leicameter attached, is still fresh today.

For street photography, there is something to be said for being able to measure the light without having to raise the camera to your eye. In any case, you don’t really need a light meter at all if you are shooting monochrome or color negative film. I often just remove the Leicameter.

Leica M3 SS, Summicron 35mm F/2.0, Fuji Velvia 50 Film

 Leica M3 SS, Summicron DR 50mm set to Macro, Kodak TMAX 100 Film

Conclusion

Don’t get me wrong. I am not writing this piece to spark a pointless debate about which M is the best camera. Who cares? To each his own. Instead, I want to provide a perspective so people can make a better decision for themselves, whatever that decision might be.

So reject the M3 if you must, but do so with eyes wide open. For those who would like to own a $27,000 camera, go buy an M3 for $800-$1000 and get it overhauled. Get one while you can. They are not making them anymore, and there will never be anything quite like the M3 again.

You can check out more of my work, including my Tokyo street photography, on Instagram at https://www.instagram.com/sbleistein/

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30 Comments

  • Avatar
    Reply
    Joe Schmoe
    September 30, 2018 at 9:25 pm

    How about those of us who don’t like Leica or their douchebag fanboy users? hahahaha

    • Avatar
      Reply
      Hamish Gill
      September 30, 2018 at 9:38 pm

      Irony. Posting a douchebag comment on a blog post calling someone a douchebag for having an opinion on something you aren’t interested in.

      • Avatar
        Reply
        Karl Valentin
        October 1, 2018 at 9:58 am

        Hamish you really made my day – had to laugh so hard that almost the coffee came out of my nose while reading it !

        Looking back at my own experience the M3 is still the best M for me because its incredible build and the 50mm viewfinder,
        on the other hand everyone can pick for his own need and so Leica offers a lot to pick from right ?
        After decades of using M and R´s I finally changed back to Nikon SLR (digital and film) and never regret it.
        My new love is the Pentax 67 system – I am still a sucker for this format – while another hater will still amuse about this
        argue that digital systems nowadays will easy outperform this clunky monster !

    • Avatar
      Reply
      Kodachromeguy
      October 30, 2018 at 7:02 pm

      Well that is cheesy. Look at a site like Dpreview to read mega douchbags go on an on about their favorite brand of computerized digital wonder machine and how it is so superior to anything that was ever used for photography ever before.

  • Avatar
    Reply
    Ashley Carr
    September 30, 2018 at 9:39 pm

    An excellent write up on a wonderful camera.

    When I looked at purchasing my first M it was a tough decision between the M2 and M3. The M2 won out in the end, the main reason being I wanted the 35mm framelines as I didn’t want to be tied to a goggled Leica lens, even though 50mm is my most used focal length.

    After a few years with the M2 I’m looking for to add an M3 purely for the ease of using a 90mm which I’ve started to use more and more.

    I’m not a huge fan of the bevels around the M3’s windows as it looks a touch too ornate for my liking, especially compared to the clean design of the M2.

    I’m a big fan of the removal spool as I know that when the film is inserted there’s never any doubt it’s been taken up. Also a fan of the rewind. I hear people gripe about this a lot and I’m at a total loss with what they plan to do with the extra 3 seconds they may gain from the later rewind?!?

    I better move quick though. 3 years ago I was seeing good condition M3’s for £400-500…not anymore!!

    • Avatar
      Reply
      stevenbleistein
      September 30, 2018 at 9:45 pm

      I prefer the bevels around the M3 windows both esthetically and practically. They keep my fingerprints off the windows, whereas somehow no matter how I try, my fingerprints end up on the windows of other models.

  • Avatar
    Reply
    Johnny Martyr
    September 30, 2018 at 11:37 pm

    A fine article Steven! It was nice to hear common points against the M3 addressed with reason. My M6 TTL .85 with MP finder has been suiting my needs beautifully for nearly a decade but my more recently acquired 1930 I/III has become a daily driver. I feel the same way about it that you seem to about the M3; much of what people criticize can be gotten over once one embraces the experience and The Bigger Picture, so to speak. Maybe my next M will be an M3! Thanks!

    • Avatar
      Reply
      stevenbleistein
      October 1, 2018 at 3:49 am

      I really enjoy your blog, Johnny. You got me shooting with TMAX 3200! I love my M6J with its unique .86x finder. I’ll never sell it.

      • Avatar
        Reply
        Johnny Martyr
        October 1, 2018 at 5:01 pm

        That’s great to hear on the P3200, I’ll be on the lookout for those shots!

  • Avatar
    Reply
    Kodachromeguy
    September 30, 2018 at 11:48 pm

    I love the M3. My first one was a beatt-up example that I saw in a camera shop in Buenos Aires in 1981. Argentina was going through one of its periodic bouts of inflation/currency collapse, so a hundred dollar bill secured the camera and two lenses. The M3 was a dual-stroke model but it had the modern sequence of shutter speeds. I had it cleaned and overhauled and converted to single stroke. I used it all over the world and finally sold it only 6 or 7 years ago. A much less worn M2 serves me now. A few pictures of my old M3 are here:

    https://worldofdecay.blogspot.com/2014/08/photographing-decay-with-leica-camera.html

    • Avatar
      Reply
      stevenbleistein
      October 1, 2018 at 3:42 am

      Excellent article you wrote. I love the photos. Thanks for sharing that.

  • Daniel Castelli
    Reply
    Daniel Castelli
    September 30, 2018 at 11:54 pm

    Very nice article…I liked how you addressed each talking point. I could make the same points for my M2.
    I use the Voigtlander VC ll on my m2, and this trick for the take-up spool: buy a spare spool and pre load a roll of film. It’s fast to reload.

    • Avatar
      Reply
      stevenbleistein
      October 1, 2018 at 3:37 am

      A second spool is an excellent idea. I sometimes use a VC II as well. It’s a great little meter, and so flat and thin.

  • Avatar
    Reply
    Dominique Pierre-Nina
    October 1, 2018 at 12:03 am

    Well said, the M3 is it. I own the M3,M5 andM6 and the M3 is the one.

    Thanks,

    Dominique.

    • Avatar
      Reply
      stevenbleistein
      October 1, 2018 at 3:59 am

      I often find myself considering the M5, just because its design is so distinct.

  • Avatar
    Reply
    Daniel Fjäll
    October 1, 2018 at 6:10 am

    I just picked up an M3 for my 50mm Summicron Rigid. I dint think anything could be smoother in operation than my well used M4-P, but I was wrong. I also thought I’d like the old film advance lever better but that wasn’t the case. Any Leica shooter should have an M3 in their arsenal.

    • Avatar
      Reply
      stevenbleistein
      October 1, 2018 at 6:25 am

      I would not go so far as to say that every Leica shooter should have an M3, only that every Leica shooter should consider one. There are no wrong choices with Leica for the well-informed. Just make sure you are.

    • Avatar
      Reply
      Karl Valentin
      October 1, 2018 at 10:02 am

      Well Steve you open another can of worms………a lot of Leica fanboys hated the M5
      because of its design – like the amazing R8/9 for example !

      Just a matter of taste right ?

      Still think the R8/9 were the best (useful) Leica ever……(duck & run) !

      • Avatar
        Reply
        stevenbleistein
        October 1, 2018 at 11:09 am

        The R8 and R9 also intrigue me because of how distinct they are. I have met people in Japan who swear by them. The film/digital option is also unique.

        • Avatar
          Reply
          Karl Valenrin
          October 1, 2018 at 7:22 pm

          Dear Steven if Leica had offered me a camera like Nikon did with their Nikon Df
          I wouldn’t changed System in a hounded years …… what a pity the abandoned
          their R system and all this great manual focus Glass was lost……

        • Avatar
          Reply
          Karl Valenrin
          October 1, 2018 at 7:23 pm

          Dear Steven if Leica had offered me a camera like Nikon did with their Nikon Df
          I wouldn’t changed System in a hounded years …… what a pity the abandoned
          their R system and all this great manual focus Glass was lost……

          • Avatar
            stevenbleistein
            October 2, 2018 at 8:20 pm

            What can you say? SLR/DSLR is just not Leica’s thing. I was intrigued by the Nikon Df when it came out, but disappointed. I was hoping the controls would have been more like an FE or FM3a. I think Nikon passed up an opportunity to make a really distinct camera.

  • Avatar
    Reply
    Misha Kulyk
    October 1, 2018 at 2:38 pm

    I like the way you had described the camera and also pictures are great!

  • Avatar
    Reply
    Rod Andrewartha
    October 5, 2018 at 1:06 am

    Thoroughly enjoyed this article. I first met Steve when we were independently wandering around the Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo, each with an M3 hanging from our necks. As these two strangers approached each other, it was the cameras that made first contact. We didn’t say “G’day” or “Howdy”; it was more like: “That’s a classy camera”, of “I see a man of style.”

    Mates since.

    Have learnt a lot about the M3 from Steve since. He knows his stuff when it comes to this camera and the article is a great summary of why M3 owners love their cameras.

  • Avatar
    Reply
    Robert
    October 6, 2018 at 7:55 pm

    The Leica m3 truly does have one of the best viewfinders in the 35mm film world. I think if we are talking best viewfinders I have used, mine would go #1 Leica m3, #2 Nikon f2, #3 Nikon F3. There is a reason they made the Nikon f3 for 20 some years. If the F3 had a match needle meter system it would be my favorite camera of all time. I am also one of the few that likes the spool loading style of the m3 and m2. I Have never miss loaded mine and I always get a few extra frames too. Now my m4 2 I have miss loaded several times and its the worst feeling to wast a roll of good film. I have had a double stroke m3 with modern speeds and I actually liked it better than my current m3 single stroke. it was 100% smoother in operation. I do wish the M3 had some how incorporated 35mm frame lines. I do have a summaron 35mm 2.8 with goggles but I like the size and weight of my little Voigtländer color skopar 35. I like the goggles but its hard to see focus in challenging light for me. and they negate the use of the most epic viewfinder!

  • Avatar
    Reply
    Flavio Colker
    November 28, 2018 at 6:58 pm

    The spool looks to be more precise/ secure loading than the take up sprockets.. Like eveything else, practice makes you fast. I have yet to shoot on my recently CLAed Leica but looking thru the finder is a sure joy.
    Too bad film was phased out by digital. The wet lab is so soothing. Immersing a few hours doing big prints from good negatives is so rewarding.

    • Avatar
      Reply
      stevenbleistein
      November 28, 2018 at 8:36 pm

      Film is not being phased out. Its market is simply changing, and changing dramatically. Some manufacturers have chosen to withdraw. Others have chosen to enter. FujiFilm makes more money off of its Instax business than its entire digital camera business. Think about what that means.

  • Avatar
    Reply
    David Murray
    March 1, 2019 at 6:37 pm

    A legacy in 2007 led me to consider which Leica M to invest in. After research I decided on an M3 as with the ‘spectacles’ 35mm lens, I had the option of 4 lenses instead of the 50/90/135mm. A double-stroke 1955 model arrived and I began using it with the 35mm f2.8 Summaron. After purchase of a 50/2.8, 90/2.8 & 135/4.5, I purchased a second body, a 1960 M3 single stroke. This body is now my main camera with the earlier body kept as a spare so that I don’t find myself with 4 lenses and no body to use them on. Sometimes I use the Leicameter MC or a Weston Master V. The M3 viewfinder is the clearest by a long way, compared to SLR cameras and TLR cameras such as my Rolleicord IV. I have a Mulberry Rockley leather bag that I’ve constructed a custom-made insert for. It is several layers of picture framing card, strips of wood glued in place to form the compartments, covered with upholstery fabric left over from the sofa renovation. The central section holds the M3 with spectacles 35 attached, other compartments hold the 50/2.8, 90/2.8, films, filters, MC meter and the two end pockets hold the Weston Master and the Sekonic Studio Deluxe incident meter. It does not look anything like a camera bag. The great advantage of Leica cameras is that in use, it’s easy to conceal it by holding it at ones side, raising it to take the shot, often when walking and to continue walking and thus make it more difficult for anyone to intervene or start asking questions. Always ignore such people and walk smartly away.

    • Avatar
      Reply
      Steven Bleistein
      March 1, 2019 at 8:26 pm

      David, it sounds like you have a brilliant set-up. I shoot street photography with my M3 in exactly the same way, keeping the camera at my side and raising it only to take the shot. I shoot almost exclusively with my M3. I do have other cameras, as well as other M cameras. Most are more advanced than than the M3, and I use them for variety. Yet after using one of my other cameras, whether film or digital, when I return to the M3 I always wonder why I am messing around with anything else. It’s astounding that a camera designed for 1954 still exercises that kind of hold.

  • Avatar
    Reply
    David Murray
    March 2, 2019 at 12:30 pm

    Thank you for your reply. I got tempted with a Leicaflex SL with non-working meter a couple of years ago for £65 from Peter Loy in London.
    Extensive experience of using the M3 cameras with handheld meters came in very useful with this old reflex. I got the Schneider Kreuznach P A Curtagon 35mm f4 ‘shift’ lens for it. As my inbuilt meter does not work, the ‘cams’ issue does not affect me. It is interesting to see the immense build quality of the M3/2/1 (and later MD) carried over to an SLR. I suffer from G.A.S and now have 3 SL bodies (1 black) and a Leica R-E for the luxury of ae. I have also bought 35/2.8, 50/2, 90/2.8, 135/2.8, 180/2.8, 250/4. My God! The build quality of these lenses. The last two weigh a ton and have tripod mounts on them. The 250 could kill a mugger with one well-aimed blow! So why have I “splashed the cash”? Once I saw what they were like, and realised that people were snapping them up to use with Chinese-made adapters on digital cameras, I hastened to buy before prices rocketed. I greatly enjoy all my gear.

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