Expectations and anticipation: Shooting a Leica M3 for the first time – by Linus Kafka

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While my freshly shot and developed Tri-X 400 (using Kodak D76) is hanging up to dry, I would like to summarize some of my thoughts about shooting my new Leica M3 for the first time.

I bought myself a double-stroke Leica M3 as a birthday present from a local seller who is also a member of my Facebook photography group. Although I did not know him personally, having the community connection made a difference. The price for the camera in working condition with a v1 50mm f/2.0 Summicron (collapsible) lens was $1000. Shortly after receiving it, I sent the camera to Youxin Ye for a full CLA and a leatherette replacement, for another $350.

Leica M3 and Leica SUMMICRON-M 5cm f2 Collapsible
Leica M3 and Leica SUMMICRON-M 5cm f2 Collapsible

The day after my birthday in May, I loaded it up with the aforementioned Kodak Tri-X 400 and shot using the Sunny 16 rule which in this case, meant f/16 at 1/500 speed under the full sun (since 1/500 is the closest speed on the Leica M3 to box ISO on Tri-X 400). There’s a lot of information on Sunny 16 on the internet and I read too much, as I am prone to do. Best to get out and shoot and find out for one’s self. Here in Arizona, it’s bright – very bright – in the sun, so we may actually benefit from Sunny 22, but I stuck with Sunny 16 all the same.

In the interests of full disclosure, the Leica M3 is not my first M-mount camera. That would be my Voigtlander Bessa R3A, Bessie, which I have owned for about 4 years now. I really, really like the Bessa and although it is hard to compare these cameras directly, you may want to get my impressions of both. Before I do that, I will beg your forgiveness for not giving you a solid answer yet other than the somewhat wishy-washy conclusion that both are just tools and both do their job well.

There are several things I like about my Bessa that need to be gotten out of the way since it is hard to not think of the Bessa’s benefits while struggling with the M3.

First, it has a light meter. I like meters. I don’t have a problem with meters. If you understand how the meter on your camera responds to situations like backlighting, why would you not want to rely on one?

A lot of reviews of the M3 stress the idea that not having a meter allows the photographer to concentrate on the basics and understand light. I get that, but does a meter really interfere with understanding light? And the idea that you can run a meterless camera without batteries in an emergency feels slightly disingenuous. Those of us still carrying around film cameras are probably checking our batteries, keeping spares, or even carrying other film cameras with us. Batteries are cheap and plentiful and I like using my Bessa’s meter.

It helps me and reassures me. Is that a crime?

Now, as I’ve mentioned, the M3 is not metered, forcing reliance on either a hand-held meter (whether dedicated or one on your phone), a hot-shoe mounted meter, or the photographer’s estimate of the lighting situation.

I’m new to this experiment in self-reliance, but I don’t share the common praise about the M3’s uncluttered viewfinder creates a very distilled and basic shooting environment. I have never found a meter to clutter my viewfinder. Not having one is just different and more challenging. Walking around the yard and the park taking time to take pictures is one thing, but having that additional calculation on top of timing and composition might tax my skills. I’m not sure yet.

Perhaps I will develop as a “better” photographer, but at the moment, setting the Bessa on aperture priority metering allows me to street-shoot more confidently than I expect I’d be able to right now with the Leica.

Next, the Bessa has a phenomenal viewfinder that makes focusing and framing very easy. Although it does not automatically switch viewfinder framelines when you change a lens, it does have settings for common lenses.

For my first day with the Leica, I only used the native Leica Summicron 50mm f/2 v1 and my Voigtlander Nokton 40mm f/1.4. The 50mm is the non-rigid (collapsible) model, meaning one has to pull the lens out and “lock” it into position before use. I never forgot to pull the lens out, but under stressful conditions I imagine it’s possible. Technically the M3 does not have framelines for a 40mm, but I just ignored the 50mm framelines and used the whole viewfinder, which is what many on the internet recommend.

Each of the photo pairs in this article compares the different field of view between the Voigtlander Nokton 40mm f/1.4 and Leica Summicron 50mm f/2 v1.

I found the Nokton easier to focus because of its big focusing tab, as opposed to the Summicron’s focusing button. The Nokton was easier to set apertures with as well. With the Summicron, the aperture engravings are very small and the ring for setting aperture is set tight up against the ring that one uses to pull out and lock the lens. Both are going to be good quality lenses, I expect, and the pictures will tell. However, the Nokton also goes down to f/1.4 while the Summicron “only” opens to f/2.

While focusing on the horizontal axis with the Leica M3 was quite easy, I missed the 100% viewfinder on the Bessa. The Leica is big enough though and at x0.91 magnification, the M3 has one of the higher magnification viewfinders in the Leica M range. I found focusing vertically a challenge, but your results may vary. I also found it too easy to block the rangefinder window with my finger, which means I need to work on my grip. It’s not a flaw with the camera – indeed, the long rangefinder base is one reason, supposedly, that Leica’s provide a good focusing experience. My finger probably rests near this position naturally and I need to adjust it.

With the standard loading system intact (no quickload or other adjustments), I was anticipating that loading and rewinding the Leica would be problematic. It’s not. It’s just different. However, while shooting I did notice that sometimes the film felt a bit “jammy.” The camera never jammed and although I have not yet scanned my negatives, I don’t see that any shots are out of alignment on the film. So, the “jammy” feeling, while disconcerting, did not have adverse results.

I did not experience the so-called buttery advance that people refer to except perhaps that the Leica doesn’t feel quite as ratchet-ty as other cameras. That said, I did not feel awkward with the double-stroke, but I also didn’t feel it was superior in any way to the single stroke. Although many have claimed that the shutter noise on the M3 is ultra-quiet, I did not feel that it was much quieter than the Bessa. If you are doing street photography or taking pictures, for instance, on a subway train, no one is going to hear the click of either camera.

The Leica M3 is iconic, historic, beautiful, and built to very high spec. The Bessa is beautiful and built tolerably well. The Leica is heavier, but not so heavy that I didn’t feel I couldn’t walk around with slung by my waist all day. Most importantly for shooting is the lens, and after that is how well the camera holds the film on a reliably flat plane to ensure accurate focus, how well the camera seals against light and how well the shutter works.

For the moment, I am going to stick with the Leica and challenge myself to learn light better, but my initial impressions are that the Leica is not a mind-blowing experience. It is very nice, and as I grow with it, perhaps so will my respect and love for it. For now, Bessie is safe.

~ Linus

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33 thoughts on “Expectations and anticipation: Shooting a Leica M3 for the first time – by Linus Kafka”

  1. A very good point has been made regarding the possibility that the film might not be loaded just straight. The ‘buttery smooth’ comment makes me cringe – oh dear. Well never mind. A legacy in 2007 enabled me to buy a 1955 double stroker with wear to the body and brass ‘peeking’ through.
    A friend had given me a Weston Master V and I got 50/f2, 90/f4 and 135/f4 lenses and hoods. Another friend gave me a black leather man bag and I got a few rolls of Tri-X. I later bought another M3 and the 35/f2.8 spectacles lens. The viewfinder is dimmed with this, however in this country at least UK. The specs lens is ok for abroad. I got a non-specs 35/f2.8 and the SBLOO 3.5cm top-mounted viewfinder. Now that is bright.
    Compared with the screw Leicas, film loading in M cameras is a doddle, even the 3, 2, 1, D with removable take up spool as the back door flips up.
    I love my outfit and will never part or give them up. Since acquiring this stuff I’ve had no servicing or repairs or failures or breakages. The stuff just goes on and on.

  2. Fantastic review. Clear and honest. After handling a Leica m3 and also trying a few versions of bessas, I ended Up using my saved up money and bought a Bessa R3M
    Zero regrets as is such a fantastic camera. Built well, function and form amazing too. And after using it , it’d be so difficult to give up that amazing 1x viewfinder!

  3. Hi Linus,
    Thanks for posting my comments about meters/metering/exposure. May I make a couple of comments about the 40mm focal length?
    I’m not a tester of equipment. But, I have a 40mm M-Rokkor (two, in fact) and I liked the diminutive size when it was mounted on my M2 (at one time, someone replaced the M2 viewfinder w/a M4 viewfinder) or my M4-P. Lots of stuff can be found on the ‘net regarding the angle of coverage, etc. when using these lenses on a M body. There are no framelines for the 40mm focal length, so…
    I set up a test for myself. I set up a tripod about 15 feet away from a wall with a distinctive linear, geometric pattern. I shot three pictures in landscape and three pictures in portrait format. I used a 50mm, a 35mm & the 40mm M-Rokkor. The test was done with both my M2 & M4-P. I processed the results and I found that there was virtually NO difference between the 35mm & 40mm lens. They are so close in angle of view that in actual picture taking situations, you wouldn’t notice the difference. Big difference between the 40mm & 50mm lens.
    I sold off both the 35mm & 50mm Zeiss lenses. As far as I’m concerned, I’ve put the 40mm vs. 35mm debate to rest FOR ME. Other Leica models will yield different results because of design changes with the freamlines. Others can do their own tests.
    The 40mm M-Rokkors are identical to the 40mm Summicron-C lenses. The big advantage for the Rokkors is the accessory size: 40.5mm vs. the oddball Leica accessory size unique to the Summicron-C. The Rokkors are going for half the cost of the Summicrons on ebay. Both the Summicron-C and the M-Rokkor are light, compact and sharp. The 40mm when mounted on a M body, it makes a tight, compact & light combination for all day shooting.

  4. Very great review, and very great camera.
    I love the M3, it is a fantastic camera.
    I have not own a Bessa but a Rollei 35 RF, which is just gorgeous with a wonderful meter, I have used it with a Rokkor 40 which is also a fantastic lens. Now, I use only the M3, black one DS from 1965, with a Summicron 40 or a Voigt Nokton, or a LTM Canon 50 f1,4, or a Leica Tele_elmarit 90 f2’8, and others lens, I can also used in my Sony A7 RII.
    I have loved the Rollei 35 RF which is too expensive because he has the Role name, but it is a Best, so my thought is a Best is great. I prefer the Leica M3, only for the feeling of a wonderful masterpiece.
    Like you, with a 40 mm, I use all the viewfinder and it works well. Sometimes I feel the Nokton a lille soft, where the sum micron seems for me more bright, bit it depends of subjects and focus. I mostly shot at F8, to use enough DOF and have great sharpness. The M3 at f8, with a Tmax 100 with one 40 mm is a combo.

  5. Really good review, in my personal opinion the sum micron shots stand out more that the 40mm, dunno why – they seem to have more pop and contrast, agree with you about a meter but you can always over expose by 1,2 or even 3 stops without noticing too much – most film loves light!

  6. Agreed on the joys of aperture-preferred automation. Leitz did make a battery-powered meter that fit on top of the M3 and coupled to the shutter speed dial, FWIW.

  7. I recently got myself an M3, and I really like it. The film advance is smooth (not sure if it’s buttery or not. Definitely enjoyable). I would prefer having a light meter in the camera, mostly because I can’t guess light indoors well. I carry an external light meter with me and use it mainly to practise guessing. By now, my guesses outdoors are correct almost always, at day time.

    The camera was expensive, and i can’t justify the cost logically. Eg, my Chinon SLR cost ca 15usd and produces results that are of the same quality — it can use excellent Pentax lenses that are also cheap. But I still love taking the Leica with me. Focusing works very well for me, I enjoy the weight, the construction, and perhaps most of all, the quiet shutter. Additionally, the camera will, unless i damage it, likely keep it’s value. In a sense, I’m renting it for free, with a high deposit.

    I also considered getting a voigtländer R3 instead. There was one (new old stock) on offer here for the same price as my somewhat scratched up M3. But it wouldn’t have kept it’s resale value and, more importantly, I’d still have wondered how the Leica would’ve compared.

  8. Using a Leica for the first time is rather underwhelming. It doesn’t live up to the hype. Until you switch between different cameras and learn to appreciate the Leicas simple but elegant functionality. At least that’s what happened to me. I learned a lot using a Leica M.

  9. Please buy a 2 or 3 stop ND filter (B+W MRC) to permit f/4 and f/5.6 on the Summicron at that EV. The Summicron I has a distinctly classical (yet sharp) rendering from f/2.8 thru f/5.6.

    Nice writeup!

  10. A few more comments on meters:
    I had both the M6 & M7 at different times…I sold them off because the lights/display was too distracting in the viewfinder. I’ve carried Luna-Pro meters (analog & digital), the superb Weston Master V, a 3×5 card with general exposure guide lines. I have the tiny Voigtlander clip on meter mounted on my CL. My M2 & M4-P have the Leicameter mounted. The Leicameters were CLA’d & upgraded to 625A batteries by DAG.
    The Voigtlander is scary good…but you must remember to transfer the settings to the camera. The Leicameter is coupled to the shutter speed dial…they ‘read’ the angle of a 99mm lens, so you need to use it like a semi-spot meter, very accurate. After 50 years of pushing film through cameras, I’m getting to the point I can guess fairly close, and confirm with the meter.
    With B&W film, you’ve got a bit of wiggle room with exposure, less with color stock.
    Photography is never boring.

  11. Interesting thoughts! I think we’re on a different page when it comes to meters and what’s good/not good about them, but that’s ok 🙂

    A couple of comments…

    – If the advance on a freshly-CLA’d M3 feels ‘jammy’ something is wrong. Seriously. The ‘buttery smoothness’ isn’t just fanboy hyperbole, that is how it should feel. I would be sending it back to YYe.

    – The ‘Collapsible’ Cron doesn’t need to be collapsed. This sounds obvious, but it really changed how I felt about mine when I realised I didn’t have to pull it out for every shot, and push it back in every time it went in the bag 😉 Nowadays mine only gets collapsed when I’m taking it off the camera.

      • No I don’t mean that at all! The Cron definitely needs to be extended if you want it to focus correctly.

        What I mean is that I don’t *collapse* it, unless I’m putting it away for a while. I extend it and leave it extended. I think there’s a perception that collapsible lenses need to be collapsed every time you put them back in the bag – they don’t.

  12. Just keep using the M3 and if you accept it for what it is, you’ll come to appreciate it more and more. I have the Bessa L and aside from a few winding issues it has been a great camera. I also had one of the first Bessa’s that came out and stupidly sold it. I want the M7 so I can use aperture priority, but for now I have to settle for my M6 and CL. Heavy sigh.

  13. I used my first M3 in 1969, having reported to a Military Intelligence office in Italy. We had two M3 sets, with 35mm, 50, and 135mm lenses. We also had Leica IIIgs. I was too young to know about Leicas, but fell in love with them anyway.

    Years later I could afford a Leica of my own, a IIIf black dial. DAG did a CLA and it’s sitting there waiting for me to take it into my retirement. I’ll check this site for film and processing availabilities. I don’t have a lab available to me any more. I have a couple Leica lenses, and use Casina M39 lenses.

    Louis A. Sousa: I also wear glasses. The rimmed eyepiece unscrews for cleaning. I cut a piece of heat-shrink tube to circumference size, and slitters the tube lengthwise. Careful hair dryer heat shrinks the tubing nicely and it almost looks as if the camera came that way.

    BTW, in Cold War Europe, when we had to cover a street demonstration, the all-steel Leicas were comforting. Voightlander Bessas would not have been able to clear a path to safety.

  14. Thanks for this thoughtful article and comparison. For me it also underscored that I should probably get the Bessa I’ve wanted for the last decade and never got, as they are still available new despite going out of production.

    I am also fairly certain that Legacy Pro 100 is not a Kodak film, but is rebadged Fuji Acros 100. The Legacy Pro films from Freestyle were made by Fujifilm and the Arista Pro types were from Kodak, 100 and 400 being Plus-X (RIP) and Tri-X, respectively.

  15. Some of what you’ve “heard” about the Leica M3 or any Leica M is lore and IMHO taken to high levels of silliness. That said, you have to consider context for some of it. The quiet shutter for one thing. If one is photographing inside, let’s say at a board meeting or a family gathering. A quiet shutter is gold. My mother in law hated to be photographed. I could get her with my M6 and she wouldn’t know it.

    I agree with you about the meter. Again, I think the comments of purity and clean viewfinder are snobby and silly. Again, context helps understand those comments. Most folks who chose to use the old Leica’s, do so for the experience. They want to go old school and shoot like the legends of the past. When they talk about meter-less photography, they are comparing to modern cameras in a romantic way. The masses pick these little comments up and carve them in stone.

    I think you’ll find that the more you use your M3, the more you will appreciate it. Just remember, it is an old tool and shooting it is not as easy as your Bessy. But if you put the Bessy away and only use the M3, in time you’ll grow to love it. It takes time to get unused to having the convenience of a meter, but it is doable and it will make you a better meter reader.

    Thank you for sharing your experience. I enjoyed it.

  16. Hi, I have the same setup, except my body is single stroke born in 1957. If the camera is not advancing smoothly, perhaps you did not seat it straight in the take up spool, or on the sprockets? The advance on mine when loaded properly is intensely smooth. I prefer the M3’s film loading system to the M6 new style. The collapsible 50 is very capable. I tend to treat the lens with care. The glass is quite soft from my understanding. I obtained an inexpensive screw-on ventilated 39mm lens shade (ebay) for it and it that works well to reduce flare and give protection against a drop. The lens threads don’t seem any worse for the wear – filters mount with no problem. Being an eyeglass wearer, I purchased a cheap plastic rim that seats over the viewfinder to put an end to scratching my glasses. Recently I shot a 35mm lens on the M3 and like you used the entire viewfinder with good results, using care to locate the subject where I want it relative to the center of the frame. For metering when I want it, I use a shoe mounted Voigtlander meter and it is accurate and from its small size meshes well with the camera – as long as I remember to translate the metered settings to the camera! I use Peak Design strap mounts to avoid damage to the strap lugs from metal rings. My lugs are a bit worn. Vertical shots do take getting used to, I often block the finder inadvertently. I recently went to Youxin’s home and observed as he completely dismantled and CLA’d my M6. It was a great experience. Enjoy your beautiful M3!

    • Thank you! I hope to enjoy it, but I need to get out more with the M3 to have a more fully informed opinion of the shooting experience. I have also heard the glass on the 50mm is soft and got both a lens shade and a UV filter. I intend to compare shots between the two as there is great debate about putting another piece of inferior glass in front of the lens. I like the idea of a shoe-mounted meter as you describe, but I have several hand-held models and figure if I can lug around the M3 and still feel the need for a meter, I can lug around one of my lighter ones.

    • Thank you! I hope to spend more time with the Leica so that I can have a more fully formed opinion. I also have gotten the lens shade for the 50mm – for the same reason – but I also picked up a filter. I’d like to compare both since I have heard a lot of debate about whether to put an inferior filter on Leica glass. Youxin did a great job with my CLA and I recommend him highly. As for metering, I like the idea of the shoe-mounted Voigtlander, but I have a bunch of hand-held that I should just carry around for when I’m feeling insecure about my abilities!

  17. Two comments…

    – If a freshly CLA’d M3 advance feels ‘jammy’ something is wrong. Seriously, the ‘buttery smoothness’ isn’t just fanboy hyperbole, that’s how it should feel.

    – The Cron Collapsible doesn’t have to be collapsed. This seems obvious, but I became much more fond of mine once I realised I can just leave it extended 😉

    Out of interest, when you say you had issues focussing vertically, do you shoot portrait orientation with your shutter (right) hand up or down?

  18. This is a really refreshing read. I own both and M3 and an M2 and I love them both dearly. That being said, I’m also aware of their limitations and have never aligned myself with the “If it’s not Leica, it’s crap crowd” I own a slew of other rangefinders and SLR’s and each have their own strengths and weaknesses. I just appreciated reading this because it is one of the most honestly written reviews of an amazing camera that was a complete game-changer in 1954, but in reality is a far less practical choice for a photographer today. I just finished a weekend of shooting an event with both M bodies, and ergonomically absolutely loved it, but there were a few tricky lighting situations where an on board meter would have helped me work much more efficiently.

    Great read and thanks for sharing!


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