The Leica M3 is a camera I have lustered over since the beginning of my photography career almost eleven years ago now. Obviously, it looks absolutely beautiful as far as mechanical design and engineering go, and although you hear a lot of people saying the camera you use doesn’t matter, I actually believe it does. I believe if you are using a camera that you are attracted to, you are more likely to go out and shoot with it, thusly making more images. The more images you make, the better you will become.

“So… how and where did you finally manage to get your grubby little mitts on this sexy little number?”, I hear you say. Well, let me tell you.

There is a small privately-owned camera store here in Okayama where I’m living now. The guy who owns it is an old Japanese guy, probably in his 80’s, whose hands shake vigorously all the time…and just happens to be a Leica fanatic. His store is filled with every kind of analogue Leica you can imagine. I would often stop by to say hello and have a look around his store. We would talk for ages and he would show me all kinds of treasures.

There was a Leica M3 in beautiful condition that has been CLA’d sat in the display cabinet with a very reasonable price tag on it. I checked the serial number and found out it was made in April, 1960 — it is twenty years older than me. Every time I would go and see him, I would tell him “that M3 will be mine one day!”. Eventually, I came into some money that I used to pay off my credit card debts and luckily, I had some money leftover. I went straight to see my friend the shaky hand man at the camera store, slammed the money down on the table, and said “give me that M3!”.

I have never held an M3 before. I used to have a Leica M5, so I thought I was ready and to know what to expect but I was wrong. The shop owner opened the display cabinet and with his shaky hands began to pass me the camera. “Don’t drop it with your shaky hands” I was thinking to myself as he was handing it to me.

The moment I held it I knew it was something special. I always hear the Leica fanboys saying how it’s the greatest Leica ever made and I would think… yeah whatever, but really, they are right. This thing feels amazing. The weight of the brass body, the sleek design, the precision of the mechanics, the M3 just screams “SHOOT ME!”

After getting over the initial shock and excitement the next thing I did was to fire the shutter and crank the film advance lever. You know you are in the presence of mechanical perfection when you first wind that lever. Smooth as butter… smoother than butter, and then click! Almost silence as I press the shutter. “Is it broken? Did it fire?” I thought to myself quickly while re-cocking it for another go. I have been so used to my Nikon cameras sounding like earthquakes going off that I thought the Leica was broken. “Quiet isn’t it?” said the owner of the store.

Speechless, I just nodded my head with a silly grin on my face.

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One of the main reasons I have always wanted the M3 over say and M4 or M6 is the viewfinder. I am a 50mm focal length guy, always have been and always will be — as the Carl Zeiss 50mm f/2 ZM above should demonstrate. I love that focal length the best. I have used it for so long now that I can see the frame lines without even a camera to my eye, I know what I’m going to get with the 50. No bull sh*t… straight to the point photography.

The first time I put the M3 to my eye I was blown away, firstly by how big the viewfinder is — almost 1:1 magnification — and secondly by how bright it is. It has bright blue tint that helps make it even brighter. In it is the biggest and brightest viewfinder of any Leica M camera and it doesn’t disappoint. The rangefinder patch is big too, very big, making focusing such a joy.

Loading film! Is it troublesome? I wouldn’t say it’s troublesome but it is slow. If you are used to loading SLR cameras with the back door that swings open, then it will take a little getting use to loading an M3. But even though it’s slow it’s not a problem at all. I threw in a roll of ILFORD HP5 PLUS and threw the camera around my neck then went about my day. By the way, I don’t go out shooting because I am shooting all the time. The camera is addictive, it makes you want to shoot everything. I burned through my first roll in a matter of hours. Since buying the M3 just last week it hasn’t left my side. I take it everywhere with me, and I mean everywhere. It has become a part of my body!

Ok… so onto the next thing. The light meter, or lack of one. I don’t even think is a “thing” but many photographers do. I believe a real photographer should know light. Too many people these days rely too much on their light meters. I learned light early on in my photographic journey, and can usually guess within one-stop what my shutter speed and aperture should be in all lighting situations.

At the time of writing this article, I have many rolls of film through the M3 since buying it and every single frame was pretty much a perfect exposure. One thing that really winds me up is when people say they want an M6 because it has a light meter in it. I think that having a built-in light meter should never be a primary factor when buying a camera… but that’s just me!

To sum up, as you can probably guess by now I love this thing. It’s everything I imagined it would be and then some. I think I will own this camera for the rest of my life. I truly believe I will keep it so I can hand it down to my son when he is old enough.

The M3 is everything I need and nothing more.

~ Kurt

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About the author

Kurt Gledhill

I’m just another human being struggling on through life with a film camera in my hand.

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21 Comments

 

  1. Good luck with your M3! I have two M5s, an M6 and two M2s (my favorites). When I sell off some gear (will keep the M2s) I might spring for a double-stroke M3. They look really nice! These old beasts are the best (if you keep them going)!

  2. Yesss, the 90mm lines of the view finder are the best. I use a Leica Tele-Elmarit thin 90mm/f2.8 because it is the most compact 90mm with 2.8 and others, it is very sharp and has great rendering. M3 is the only Leica M to use perfectly a 90mm.
    I use sometimes a 40mm summicron-C, or Voigtlander Nokton 40mm, we have just to see in all the finder (outside the line).
    And I use the Voigtlander 15mm M/4.5 V2, which is very compact with external finder, it is so sharp and has great rendering too.
    My favorite 50mm after many tests, is the Japanese Summilux, the Canon TLM 50mm/f1.4, an extraordinary lens for a veru good price, and I have had and have so many 50mm. A little heavy ;-), I can put all these lens in the pockets of a jacket, keep the 50mm on the M3. And walk light with the best 35mm camera.
    The viewfinder is the best.
    I have a black one from 1965 single stroke.

  3. Great review, great pictures.
    Like you : this is my favorite camera. The best with is best quality : quiet shutter and fantastic viewfinder for a rangefinder. Yes, good SLR like the Nikon FM3a are gorgeous, but such a big sound …
    This is the camera to enjoy film photography and return to the basics, never M7 or M6 have given to me the pleasure of the M3. And for wide angle, one external view finder is ok. My favorite kit is : 15mm, 50mm, 90mm.
    With this camera I have learnt to take photos without meter, and it works !!!
    Thank you so much.
    Great comments too

  4. After several years with (several) M3’s they feel like an extension of my eye. Stick with yours Kurt, avoid distractions and the finest 50mm camera will reward you again and again.

  5. Nice article! Always a big fan on the M3.

    Checkout the Makina 67 if you get a chance.

    6×7, 10 shots, rangefinder, sharp 80mm 2.8 (45mm eq)

  6. I enjoyed your posting. One of the reasons I switched to a Leica M2 30 years ago was to follow the ‘one lens’ mindset. I failed…I have 3 lenses and 2 additional bodies.

    However, in an otherwise well presented article and good photos illustrating your skill with the M3, I must say I am offended by your description of the elderly gentleman you purchased your camera from. Shaking hands in an older person can indicate an illness or physical injury. To use his disability as a descriptor of his appearance is cruel. I would assume you didn’t mean to single out his disability, but most people don’t. They just do it. It’s a form of micro-aggression and self-assumed privilege. You were worried about him dropping the Leica? Any though about what he endures everyday? He’s surrounded by beautiful cameras, and can’t hand-hold one without the camera shaking.

    I was in a bad accident. I have a elbow transplant and will endure nerve damage for the rest of my life. I have about 60% use of my right arm. I know what he goes through. None of us want pity, just show some understanding or compassion when you and others see people different from you.

  7. Ed, so many times I hear people say I chose the M6 because of a light meter, in my opinion that shouldn’t even be an issue. A photographer should know the light. Film is so forgiving too, if you have doubts about your exposure then just over expose a little just to be safe. The film will handle the highlights no problem!

  8. Hi George, It seems ok to be honest. I put a mark on the top of the lens where the M3’s closest focusing distance is so I don’t have to worry about it. If I use the lens at .7 the I just guess the distance to the subject. Sometimes I nail it sometimes I don’t.

  9. I used to love my M5, but sold it because I was having trouble with the finder jumping out of line every time I focused. I can’t see me ever selling my M3 though.

  10. I have never been a fan of the M6, and I can’t believe how much they have gone up in price recently. I have never owned one but I did try one once and you are right, the patch is tiny! I wouldn’t swap my M3 for one. I would love an M4, not the Canadian one, but the original German black paint M4… absolutely beautiful!! I haven’t tried the 90mm yet but I want to, I often use the frame line lever to see what the 90 would be like. It’s relatively cheap for a Leica lens too, it’s on the wishlist.

  11. I have had a few leica m cameras including the m4, m4-2, m2, m3, m9, m6ttl and by far my favorite one to use is the m3. The M2 was a close second but I sold it because the button rewind thing kept popping off. My m6ttl has the .85 finder. while I like the finder I still think the m3 is better because the M3 rangfinder patch is soo much bigger. as for the older film loading style I would like to say give me a break…. I have miss loaded my m4 and m6 many more times than my m3. Also the spool is easy to load. and the only down side to me is that you can loose the spool if you drop it or for some reason miss place it because its out of the camera. The m6 is soo popular now but back to build quality, the m6 is no where near the build quality of the m3 or m4. I love my m6ttl but I feel you are so right on being able to eye ball the exposure. I find my self looking at the meter of my m6 saying to my self “thats not right, what is tricking you light meter??”. I fear I might be selling the leica m6ttl and buying a lens. Hell for that matter I could save up for an m-a and see what that camera is all about.

    Some side notes: if you have never used a 90mm on your m3 do so! its the best camera to use it on. The m4 is really the happy medium camera between an m2 and m6. its a lovely camera that I have thought about getting another and selling my m6. Don’t give in to the hype of the m6. Its a great camera but the m4 is better in my opinion. My only real gripe with my m6 is that my copy only focuses down to 1 meter.

    Wonderful article thanks for sharing your experiences with your camera.

  12. I’ve had the M3, M4 and M5. I gave away the M3. I just found it too hard to load. A REAL PITA! I didn’t know you could have it modified at the time. Other than the loading it didn’t have 35mm frame lines. People just said use the entire finder as the frame lines but that wasn’t very accurate. Beyond that it was a well made camera. I find the M5 my favourite of the M’s I have used. But hey that’s why they make chocolate and vanilla 😉

    I’m glad you are having fun with yours. However no camera is magical, they are just tools. Some are just more fun to use.

  13. Has the 1 meter close focusing limit affected you? Since that 50mm Zeiss can focus to .7 meters but the rangefinder in the camera decouples before that.

  14. I’m not so strongly attracted by Leica aura, but when I first had a M3 to use I felt immediately in tuned. I can say that I own or tried a good numbers of very different models, covering more than one century of camera evolutions, but rarely I felt something that at first sight is telling you “I’m here to shoot, please use me!” like M3. A feeling that I normally have with my great loves, Canon FTb and Canonet 17. Yes, the camera matters.

  15. Proper exposure is a learned skill. You clearly possess that highly developed knack but most of us don’t. Hence the general predilection toward the M6. Mine is a 0.85x finder so I nearly have the M3 finder experience but not the haptics. One can always add a meter but not change the wonky film changing.