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.
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.
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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.
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