The Leica M3 doesn’t do anything that another camera can’t. In fact, by today’s standards, it is severely lacking in features that are normally considered standard. No light meter. No hot shoe. No autofocus. No automatic exposure. Limited frame line selection (50/90/135). 1/50 max flash sync speed…
On paper then, one might ask why anyone would choose a camera that costs roughly $1,500 — used without a lens — especially when there are options like the Canon EOS 3 or Nikon F100 going for around $150 used and a 50mm f/1.4 for each will run you another $99?
This article will hopefully provide and answer to that question. You see, to me, the Leica M3 is the greatest camera ever made.
I’m not the first to say it, I certainly won’t be the last, and my claims below as to the why aren’t new. Still, In the words of Ordell Robbie (portrayed by Samuel L. Jackson in Jackie Brown), “When you absolutely, positively, have to [shoot] every m-therf–ker in the room, accept no substitutes.”
What follows below are five, experience-led reasons to back up my unoriginal claim. I’ve provided context, backed up by examples and a bit of my personal history as a photographer, and in all honestly, the first one wraps it up pretty well.
It’s your call if you want to read further than that…
Answer #1: You take more pictures with it
First and most importantly, you take more pictures with it. The latter half of this article will be more technically driven, but the fact of the matter is the best camera is the one in your hand, taking the picture. If you’re not taking pictures, your camera is useless. All the features in the world don’t do you any good if you don’t use the camera.
I’ve owned (and subsequently sold) and used between my studio, streets, and travel: Pentax K1000, Canon EOS 1n, Canon EOS A2E, Canon EOS Rebel, Nikon FM2n, Nikon F4, Nikon FM10, Olympus OM-1, Leica R6, Contax T2, Mamiya RB67, Mamiya Universal Press, Hasselblad 500C/M, Toyo View 4×5 Monorail, Graflex Crown Graphic 4×5, Polaroid 190, Polaroid SX70, Polaroid Big Shot. I have never taken as many pictures with any of these cameras as I have with the Leica.
I used to have a studio in Los Angeles before moving to New York in 2017. I was at that studio when I got my first Hasselblad. I shot as much with it as I could in the studio and started taking it out on the street to document the surrounding neighborhood. I began shooting as much outside as I did in the studio. When I got to New York, I used the time in between running errands or taking meetings to shoot out on the street.
After a while, I found I started carrying my Hasselblad around with me less and less. It would get knocked around on the subway, I would have to slow my gait to look down through the viewfinder and compose an image, I would have to carry multiple rolls of film on me a day, or be incredibly discerning with the film in the magazine.
These are not complaints with the Hasselblad 500 CM — I would put it at the top of the list right behind the Leica — they are simply observations I made in my shooting practice. I later sold my Hasselblad to fund the purchase of my M3 and a collapsible 5cm f/3.5 Elmar LTM.
When collapsed, the lens is almost flush with the camera, making it fit in a coat pocket. I never leave the house without my Leica, even simply to go to the grocery store. Instead of making a case to myself as to why I should bring my camera, I now have to come up with a reason I shouldn’t bring it. It’s so light and compact it’s barely there and it’s got 36 frames per roll, plenty for casual shooting while going about the rest of my day.
Answer #2: Features don’t matter
The camera industry innovates for the working professional, not for the artist. If you’re reading this article, there’s a good chance you don’t need 1/8000 of a second shutter speed with eye-controlled autofocus and auto exposure. If you truly need those things, you know why, and you already have them.
Features like flash sync speed are also deceiving. Your camera may only have a sync speed of 1/60 of a second, but your flash fires at upwards of 1/600 of a second, illuminating your subject in 1/10 of the time. As a result, your aperture setting is going to have significantly more impact on your image when shooting with flash than your camera’s sync speed.
When shooting in the studio, I’ve found the most useful feature any camera has offered is a built-in motorized winder (which almost any newer SLR has, including the $35 Canon EOS Rebel), allowing me to continue shooting without moving the camera.
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The fact of the matter is the foundational elements of photography are incredibly simple — subject, composition, exposure. Even exposure is broken into only three components — shutter speed, aperture, and film sensitivity. The factors that will impact your image making are largely up to you, not up to your camera.
Answer #3: Limitations are a good thing
Creating limitations for your practice is an essential part of any artist’s constant development. By having limitations, you are forced to reckon with what you can and cannot accomplish, how you can creatively work around what those problems are, and if they are even worth pursuing in the first place.
If 1/1000 of a second is too slow to capture your moving subjects, you can move your camera with them, creating a moment conveying the speed which was your original limitation in the first place. A faster shutter speed would only “freeze” them in space, creating a still image out of a moving object.
Leicas don’t have zoom lenses (kind of). The M3 doesn’t even have a frameline offering for anything wider than a 50mm focal length unless you use a 35mm lens with “goggles” or a wider lens with an external viewfinder. Zoom lenses are a useful tool in clutch situations, but they are not a solution for creative problems. As many have pointed out, a 50mm lens can be a wide or a telephoto lens — take a few steps back and it opens your composition, take a few steps forward and your image compresses.
In limiting your practice to a single lens you are forced to be as observant of yourself as you are of your subjects. Is this how I see? Am I adjusting how I see to compensate for my frame? If this isn’t working, would something wider help? A long lens isn’t a “portrait” lens, it’s simply preferred by studio portrait photographers for a number of technical reasons. A significant number of the best and most compelling portraits I have seen (and you have seen for that matter) have been taken with wide lenses, capturing the context and the essence of the person being photographed, and not simply their likeness.
All of this is to say — don’t think of the limited frame lines and mostly prime lens options as a detriment, think of them as refined tools. To use them properly, you have to become a better photographer, not get better gear.
Limitations allow you to better understand your practice and your gear. Most importantly however, they free up your mental space to focus on what matters, and that’s what’s in front of the camera, and not what’s inside it.
Answer #4: Leica glass
Leica’s lenses are the standard by which the rest of the industry has been trying to keep up with since the development of the 50mm f/2 Summicron. One can procure a used Summicron for less than the price of a Canon or Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8 and, as mentioned above, the 50mm Summicron will likely be a more useful tool. My Canon 24-70mm f/2.8L only saw use on commercial jobs where I was a set photographer, shooting scenes, portraits, and BTS all at once. I did not have the luxury of changing cameras or lenses and had to be shooting constantly.
However, on my own sets, it was rarely taken out of the bag, and it never made an appearance out on the street or when I travelled. It’s big, it’s clunky, and most importantly, it’s optically inferior to its prime lens counterparts. Again, the photography industry innovates for working professionals, not for artists.
Vintage Leica glass is sought after by black and white photographers (myself included) because that’s what it was designed to photograph, and it was designed to be the best at it. Some of my favorite work has been created with my 5cm f/1.5 Summarit, circa 1954. In recent years, fantastic lenses have been made by third parties for the M-mount at a fraction of the cost of Leica’s options. I personally love my Carl Zeiss 28mm f/2.8 Biogon.
An additional note is that since rangefinders do not have a mirror, their optical formulas can be more compact, and there is no mirror shake with each frame. That means smaller, faster, lenses that you can shoot hand held at slower shutter speeds and still get wonderfully sharp images.
Answer #5: Compact size
I can carry my M3 with a lens attached, two additional lenses, filters, 20 rolls of film, my light meter, lens hoods, and a notebook in my small camera bag (ONA Bowery) measuring 10.5 x 7 x 4”. All of this is to say, even at its most intense, my full M3 kit is still less obtrusive than carrying a messenger bag. It’s more versatile than a point-and-shoot and takes better pictures to boot. I can take all of this with me wherever I go, and if the need arises, I’m ready camera in hand; because that’s the point of having a good camera, is to have it ready when you need it. And not you, nor I, nor anyone else, knows when you’ll need it.
All of these things impacted me to getting my M3, but what caused me to keep it — to even reframe how I work and what my work looks like — is what I mentioned at the very beginning. I take more pictures with it. It’s that simple. I take more pictures, and more good pictures with this camera than all of my previous cameras.
So why would I ever replace it with something else?
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