The Leica M3: 5 reasons why it’s the greatest camera ever

Written by and published on

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 $1,500used 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.

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?

~ Alexander

Share your knowledge, story or project

At the heart of EMULSIVE is the concept of helping promote the transfer of knowledge across the film photography community. You can support this goal by contributing your thoughts, work, experiences and ideas to inspire the hundreds of thousands of people who read these pages each month. Check out the submission guide here.

If you like what you're reading you can also help this personal passion project by heading on over to the EMULSIVE Patreon page and giving as little as a dollar a month. There's also print and apparel over at Society 6, currently showcasing over two dozen t-shirt designs and over a dozen unique photographs available for purchase.



More related reading

Previous

5 Frames… On my father-in-law’s 80 year-old Agfa Billy Record I (120 Format / EI 125 / ILFORD FP4 PLUS) – by Barry Altman

5 Frames… Of Kodak Plus-X Aerecon II 3404 (35mm format / EI 50 / Nikkormat FTN) – by James Harr

Next

14 thoughts on “The Leica M3: 5 reasons why it’s the greatest camera ever”

  1. Another point: M3 build quality. At some point during the last decade Leitz GmbH was asked what the retail price might be for a contemporary Leica with the same quality as the M3. As I recall, the answer was something above $27,000.

    Reply
  2. Enjoyed the article, big fan of the M3, I bought mine during the last recession, about half what they are now.
    I use a 40mm Voigtlander on it using the outer edges of the frame to compose, works well, and at f1.4 it’s a very affordable competent lens. Thanks for sharing your experiences.

    Reply
  3. enjoyed your article and appreciate your feelings towards your camera. i own and admire my m3, for what it is and for what it makes me want to be: a better photographer. for me it is the only camera i, or any other PHOTOGRAPHER could ever want and/or need. no it doesn’t have all the modern “bells and whistles” but what true visionary artist (not that i am one) needs ‘bells and whistles’

    Reply
  4. I could say the same things about my Minox35 EL that was always in my (jean) pocket since 1979 until my smartphone.
    (but I still enjoy shooting film – medium format)

    Reply
  5. Beautiful pictures Alexander. You make a strong argument for the M3. For the small size and reliability of your combo, its very hard to beat. I think what makes the package is the collapsible Summicron. I have a Konica I rangefinder, that the collapsible Konirapid makes it an awesome little carry-around camera. I think where these arguments fall apart is that the M3 while excellent, is relatively expensive. Of course, things of quality are expensive, but also rare.

    Let’s face it, the Leica fails the value test. At $1k + $400 for a CLA, the cost/performance ratio for the average shooter just isn’t there. Obviously, Leica doesn’t build for the mass market, so the Leica is not the camera that most people will have with them, which we all know is the “best” camera.

    The collapsible Summicron is capable of beautiful images, but try finding one in decent shooting condition for less than $500 – $600. Even fungus infested Leica glass commands over $200.

    This is insane. For the average shooter, the price of entry is $2k at *minimum*.

    If we’re strictly talking about film cameras, and rangefinder/SLR preference notwithstanding, the Contax S2 is barely larger and weighs slightly less than the M3. Paired with the Zeiss 45mm f2.8 Tessar, its a very pocketable camera. Total cost, roughly $700. Same weight, same approximate size at half the cost.

    While the quality of one’s tools is important, its not everything. To those that disagree with the notion that “the camera is just a tool”, remember – you can still take lousy pictures, even with a Leica.

    Reply
  6. for sure that some of the pictures, esp streets and shadows, and the textures of stone and metal, could not be taken in digital – necessarily leica? probl not, but if it inspired you, then it worked

    Reply
  7. I am agree with the writer and sroyon comment who has given to us marvelous articles about lab and dark room (it was perfect). The Leica M3 is the best for me. I love this camera, I use mostly with different 40mm lens, of course 50mm and exclusively the Leica Tele-Elmarit 90/2’8 which is a winner because his sharpness and compactness.
    I have also tried so many cameras, and to take many good pictures, the M3 is a pretty killer especially pair with good light and small lens.
    Thank you for this great article.
    Your 2 M3 are single or double stroke. Personally I prefer the single stroke of my black M3.

    Reply
  8. Hi Alex,
    Nice posting. I think the greatest strength of the M3 lies in the viewfinder. It was made to favor the 50mm lens.
    My ‘native’ lens is the 35mm. I’ve got a M2 and it works for me because of a quirk. I found the camera in the back on a dusty shelf in a second hand shop in rural Vermont. This is going back 25+ years. The guy who owned the shop & I bartered, and we arrived at a fair price. I got home, sent it out to be CLA’d and I was contacted by the service. They wanted to ask me who installed the M4 viewfinder in the M2. I had no idea; no external markings indicating a special edition. I surmised it was a previous owner. Now, what works for me is the 35mm frame. It’s the visual equivalent of the M3 with the 50mm lens.
    Everything you say about the M3 applies to the M2 – simple design, 3 basic controls, an almost seamless movement from eye to bringing the camera up to snap the photo without breaking stride.
    Continued good shooting, be safe in these times of the pandemic!
    -Dan

    Reply
  9. Have you tried the M2? I may be be biased, but I love it for all the same reasons. As a plus I can shoot a 35mm without the goggles! : )

    Reply
  10. My comment would be that “The assertion of the article is undoubtedly true for the author.” The opposite would be true for one who does macro work. Or sports photography. The camera is a tool, and while we develop attachments to them, you don’t drive a nail with a screwdriver.

    Reply
    • Hello Wendall,
      I’ve heard the phrase “the camera is a tool…” for about 50 years. I say BS.
      If you’re working construction, you don’t buy the cheapest air hammer at a discount tool store. It’ll break down. Sure, it drives nails, but it won’t be reliable; it won’t stand up to hard knocks and real world conditions. You buy a DeWalt or an equally manufactured tool.
      It’s the same with any gear. You buy quality; you get quality, you produce quality. All equipment will break and need adjustment or service sometime during it’s working life; that’s a given. Some breakdown less often.
      If you’re a weekend photographer, or a casual snapshot photographer, buy the most inexpensive camera you can get. If it’s used a total of 20 hours per year, it’ll last.
      Leica cameras (along with the Nikon F line and the Canon F-1 series) were made for demanding conditions. Many did get destroyed, but only after hard use. Most of the visual history of the world in the 20th was made on these cameras, not with a Nonameflex fitted with a 50mm Mediocre f/3.5. If I’m putting myself in danger to capture a photo, I need to know the camera won’t fail. Trust in your (good) tools. They won’t let you down.

      Reply
  11. I adore my M3, the viewfinder alone marks it out as special. I never got on with my last M2, but the addition of an M5 with its glorious finder and ergonomic layout (plus that excellent meter) gave me pause. With goggled Summaron the M3 is perfect, then I bought an excellent M2 for the Light Lens 8 element Summicron replica and that works beautifully. Any of these M cameras are wonderful, but I use the M3 now for 50mm and above, and the other two for 50mm and below.

    Reply
  12. Nice article, I am lucky enough to own an M3 too, and I highly identify with what you say about how it can motivate you to take more pictures. I’ve found other cameras which do that too, but to me the M3 is special. However: “It’s so light and compact it’s barely there” – compact yes, but I wouldn’t call it light for a 35mm film camera 😉

    Reply

Join the discussion