The more gear I shoot the more I realize that there are very few absolutes in terms of better or worse equipment. Beyond truly ill conceived designs, something that’s honestly rare, it’s all about strengths and weaknesses. Trade offs that balance off one another that result in something that might be more or less suited to some particular circumstance, but rarely unequivocally better or worse as a whole.
A piece of gear can nudge you in certain directions in how to work and what to shoot simply because that’s where it gives you the best results. And depending on how well that nudge fits with what you want to achieve a piece of gear can feel like a better or worse fit. This is easy to mistake for inherit greatness, rather than the match to personal preference that’s actually at play.
The Leica M3 might be one of the clearest examples of this that I’ve shot so far. It’s one of the (or possibly the) highest regarded cameras throughout time and one that I thoroughly enjoy. But I’d be hard pressed to argue that it’s indisputably better than any other camera I’ve used.
I’ll circle back to this, but before that, a brief bit of background is probably in order.
Introduced in 1954 as an all round improvement over the company’s earlier screw mount cameras the Leica M3 established the formula for all Leica M cameras that followed. The basic shape of the M cameras is unchanged to this day and the M3 introduced most key features associated with the M line – the bayonet mount, the combined view- and rangefinder, automatically chosen framelines with parallax correction, et cetera.
Some will find interest in it simply because it’s the progenitor of such a highly regarded line of cameras, but that’s not why I ended up owning one.
For starters it’s still very practical and capable in use. Like all Leica M’s it offers a tactile but transparent shooting experience and the M mount lens lineup is second to none.
Beyond that there are a few things unique about the M3, enough for some to pick it ahead of any of the other M cameras available and enough for me to pick one up as a complement to my main camera, the Leica M4-P. Most of them have to do with a single component – the viewfinder.
Our country house needed some care and as winter turned to spring we started spending every day off there. Ripping out the kitchen was our first order of business. Unsurprisingly putting things back took longer than getting them out.
The M3 has a fantastic viewfinder. Optically it isn’t quite as bright as the ones in the most recent cameras, but despite the lack of multicoating it’s clear, contrasty and less prone to flare or ghosting than with newer ones.
What makes the M3’s finder really stand out among all the other M cameras however, is its larger viewfinder magnification.
Confusingly almost all rangefinder cameras have negative magnification viewfinders. So when you look through the finder things look smaller than they do in reality (not bigger as the word magnification generally implies). The most common magnification factor in the M line of cameras is x0.7* – things in the viewfinder look to be around three quarters their actual size. The M3 on the other hand offers a magnification of a hair over x0.9 making things appear much closer to life size.
* The exact figure is x0.72 for the film cameras and x0.68 for most of the digital ones, so I’ll refer to them collectively by rounding it to x0.7. There are also a few special issue models offering x0.85 and x0.58 magnifications.
This has both up- and downsides – some obvious, others less so. We’ll go through each of them in a sec.
For now though, we’ve established that the biggest difference between the M3 and any other M is that things look bigger in its viewfinder.
The Leica M3 ocular. I’ve added a plastic eye piece guard from DAG Camera to avoid any risk of the metal eye piece scratching my glasses.
Aside from how things look in the viewfinder the most immediate result of the larger viewfinder magnification is what framelines are offered.
The Leica M3 includes framelines for three focal lengths (which is incidentally where it got its name) – 50, 90, 135mm.
The 50mm framelines are always visible with 90 and 135mm ones brought up automatically whenever you attach a lens of the corresponding focal length.
Compared to the six different focal length framelines offered in newer M cameras it’s barebones.
Most notably there are no framelines for the wider 28 and 35mm focal lengths that are commonly supported in more recent cameras – they simply can’t fit inside the field of view of the M3’s viewfinder. This is probably the most noticeable restriction shooting the M3, in particular since 35mm is such a popular focal length to shoot on a rangefinder. I’ll get back to this but if you’re a frequent user of 28 or 35mm lenses the M3 probably isn’t the best choice.
But while you miss out on some flexibility there are other gains that for some make this worthwhile.
The view through the Leica M3 showing 50 and 90mm framelines. The corresponding view through the M4-P shows 50 and 75mm framelines. Note how much closer things appear in the M3.
With a 50mm lens mounted the M3 is simply wonderful. This is the cameras raison d’être if it ever needed one. For shooting this focal length on a rangefinder the M3 is unsurpassed.
Let’s break it down a little though. What makes it a nicer experience than with a lower magnification M camera?
Well to start with the view is more immersive as the 50mm framing area takes up almost the entire viewfinder field of view.
The larger magnification means that everything looks more natural and it’s easier to see what’ll be included in your frame and to make out smaller details (helpful with for instance facial expressions). That there aren’t any other framelines visible simultaneously also helps.
If I’m being super picky I’d have to bring up that I’m not a huge fan of the thickness and rounded corners of the 50mm framelines. One could also argue that in fast moving situations it’s good to see a bit more outside of the frame than you do with a 50 on the M3. But these are nitpicks on an otherwise flawless experience.
No matter how much you read about a piece of gear before getting it in your hands, there are always surprises.
To me the use of 90mm lenses on the M3 was one such surprise. As I’ve stated before (in my Elmar-C 90 review for instance) I don’t really find it all that enjoyable to shoot 90mm lenses on the standard x0.7 magnification Leicas. I even ended up picking up a 75mm lens instead, as my go to long lens of choice on those cameras.
However with the larger magnification viewfinder in the M3 the experience with a 90mm lens is much more pleasant. A large part of the viewfinder area is still in play with the 90mm framelines and as everything is bigger it’s easier to compose accurately*.
* Incidentally the physical size of the 90mm framing area on the M3 is almost the same size as the 75mm one on the 0.7x cameras
To me this might actually have a bigger impact on my enjoyment of the M3 than the great experience with 50mm lenses. A 50 is still enjoyable to shoot on the standard Leicas, but 90 is borderline unacceptable. On the M3 a 50 is certainly nicer, but for a 90 the improvement is vast and the end result is a very nice experience.
As for 135mm lenses there’s also an improvement with the larger magnification, but personally I still find the framing area too small to offer an enjoyable experience.
I quite like the perspective that a 90mm lens offers. There's plenty of compression but everything still has depth and definition. That the Elmar-C performs well with a very transparent signature makes the experience nicer still. In this instance, my kid seems less impressed.
As mentioned the M3 doesn’t include framelines for any focal length wider than 50mm. Depending on what lenses you’re looking to shoot this can be quite a hindrance, or a much smaller one than you’d expect.
For me the biggest issues arise with 35mm lenses. At this focal length (and for the type of shooting I like to do with it) I find I’m quite reliant on being able to focus and compose simultaneously. Here I don’t see an external viewfinder as a good option.
You can get a 35mm lens with so called goggles – a set of optics attached to the lens that sit in front of the viewfinder, reducing its magnification. To me it feels like a clunky and inelegant solution though and I’ve not felt to keen on the alternative.
Simply put I’d simply reiterate that for frequent use of 35mm lenses there are many other options better than the M3.
The Zeiss ZM 25/2.8 – A surprisingly good fit on the Leica M3.
Going wider however the lack of framelines isn’t as big an issue as you might expect. With a 28mm lens my shooting approach changes and I find it much more acceptable to use an external finder. I still prefer the experience of shooting a 28 on an M with corresponding framelines, but the M3 surprisingly isn’t bad at all.
Going wider still you’re practically required to use an external viewfinder on any M and here the experience on the M3 actually holds a surprising advantage – an additional factor influenced by the viewfinder magnification that’s pertinent regardless of the focal length used; ease and accuracy of focusing.
Accuracy in a rangefinder isn’t like in an autofocus camera, where you can compare algorithms or hardware modules that have measurably higher or lower hit rates. It instead simply comes down to how easy it is to see when you’ve focused just right.
This is influenced by many different factors but if you want to simplify things you can start by looking into two measurements, to get a sense of how easy or hard a rangefinder camera is to focus:
Increasing either of these measurements generally makes a rangefinder easier to focus accurately, decreasing either makes it more difficult*.
* This concept is known as Effective Base Length and if you want to dive down a rabbit hole on that, Hamish over at 35mmc has a good primer on the topic.
The rangefinder in the M3 is the same size as in all the other M cameras (which is to say it’s fairly large), but the larger magnification makes things easier to see.
This means that it can be easier to focus faster or longer lenses and get accurate focus than with cameras where these measurements are smaller.
But beyond the advantage of potentially higher accuracy the M3 is also more comfortable and easy to focus. An advantage that carries over regardless of the speed or focal length of the lens used.
Far all the upsides brought up so far there’s one downside to rangefinders in general and the M3 in particular – they’re no good at focusing closely.
As the two optical paths of the rangefinder and viewfinder converge one or the other is eventually blocked – it’s simply not possible to focus a rangefinder as closely as with through the lens focusing. Parallax is also an issue – as you’re not looking through the lens what you actually capture isn’t exactly the same as what you see in the finder. And the difference becomes increasingly pronounced the closer you are to your subject.
Because of this most M mount cameras focus down to 0.7m – not close at all compared to most other camera types. The M3 however inherits the even longer close focus distance of its immediate LTM predecessors – one full meter.
* It’s worth bringing up that some M3’s can be modified to support focus down to 0.7m, but it’s not always possible so it can’t be counted on.
If you already find the usual 0.7m close focus limiting the farther distance supported by the M3 will feel quite restrictive.
Before moving on from the viewfinder I feel that there’s one last aspect to touch on – the option of shooting with both eyes open.
While you can learn to shoot with both eyes open with any type of viewfinder and magnification, a rangefinder with a 1:1 viewfinder is probably the most comfortable way of doing it. Here the brain plays a trick where the framelines and rangefinder patch simply float in front of your field of view. It’s an interesting sensation and it allows you to be more aware of your surroundings and simply overlay compositions on the world around you. Quite useful for fast moving situations.
The farther you stray from a life size viewfinder the less apparent the effect and the less comfortable the experience. With the normal 0.7x magnification viewfinders in most M cameras I’ve not found this a very appealing way to shoot, but with the M3 it becomes much more viable.
It’s still not totally seamless though and ideally you’d probably want a camera with a x1.0 magnification viewfinder if this is your preferred way of shooting. I personally also find that shooting with both eyes open gets you more easily distracted and it’s harder to compose. So even with the M3 I tend to shoot the way I always have – right eye to the finder, left eye closed. But at least this technique has gone from something I never use to one I feel value in occasionally.
Take the first right after the grocery store he said. Without satellites to guide me I follow the road for as long as instructed. Feeling lost is an unusual sensation these days. I realize I miss it. Finally I roll up to the makeshift building supply store. How nice to not have to go to the mainland to pick these few things up.
The M3 is a very simple camera. It’s light on features and most of what’s there is functionally straight forward and there’s not much to dwell on.
There’s a small but nice shutter speed dial with all the same speeds that are available on the more recent cameras. The wind lever is very nicely designed and wonderful to operate. The shutter button has just the right amount of travel and resistance, plus it’s threaded to accept a cable release.
Loading film relies on a removable take up spool, shown here with the film leader inserted (note the arrow where the film shows through).
Loading film uses an archaic approach that’s fiddly and its best to avoid doing it on the go if you can. Once you’ve finished a roll of film rewinding using the extending knob is a little tedious, especially with modern 36 exposure rolls.
The M3 also has an exquisitely designed self timer that almost never comes in handy. There’s a very pretty spring loaded metal disc on the back where you can set what film you’ve loaded, so you don’t forget. Oh, and there’s a lever to preview other framelines than the ones currently selected.
Aesthetically the Leica M3 has a few unique characteristics compared to its successors. The bezels around the top plate windows is probably its strongest identifying trait, giving it a slightly more vintage look than the streamlined shape of the cameras that followed. It’s also only commonly available in silver chrome finish with black cameras fetching a significant premium.
Personally I enjoy the cleaner look of a more recent camera, especially in black, but I must say that the look of the M3 has grown on me since getting it. It certainly looks elegant.
That there’s no built in light meter maybe goes without saying at this point. So if you feel like you need one the M3 isn’t the ideal choice. You can get external ones designed for the camera, but they add quite a bit of bulk. Besides, shooting without a meter is way easier than you’d might think.
There are pockets of time here and there. Waiting for paint to dry, plaster to set or just taking a break. We take a walk to the boat houses, watch the birds, read comic books from when we were kids or just wait for the strawberries to grow.
It’s hard to quantify niceness – how pleasant something is to handle and use – but even harder to say how much it matters. It’s about preference more than anything else.
If you value things that are nicely built there’s certainly nothing to complain about with the Leica M3. Picking it up there’s a definite sense of no expense having been spared. From the materials chosen to assembly, everything feels exceptionally nice.
And if you put a great deal of value into this sort of niceness the M3 might just be the ultimate choice. None of the other M’s have quite the same level of exceptional build quality.
The M2 uses a less elegant external frame counter, the M4 introduces some less nice plastic detailing and later cameras sees a switch in assembly process where individually adjusted brass components are replaced with steel components that were simply discarded if they didn’t meet specifications.
Going back and forth between the M3 and my M4-P the newer camera feels more utilitarian in comparison to the exquisite M3 (despite the M4-P being smoothest camera I’ve ever shot previous to the M3).
Still in some ways I appreciate the more true feel of the M4-P over the smoothness of the M3. Besides that these minute differences melt away in use and both cameras are wonderful in their own way.
To sum up – if you prefer a heirloom-like, exquisite object the M3 is among the best bets out there. If you on the other hand prefer a no-nonsense tool-like feel a later camera such as the M4-P makes more sense.
We get closer to done as the days grow longer and the water warmer. We take more walks through the woods, heading to sea. Something is always catching my eye.
The M3 was in production for over a decade. During that time a number of adjustments and refinements were made to the camera. Going into depth on all these minor differences is beyond the scope of this article, but if you’re interested in digging into detail I suggest starting with the M3 section of this guide.
To me though most of the changes looked like straight forward improvements and I set my sights on a later model from the get go. There were two main aspects leading me to that decision:
I wanted a single stroke over a double stroke camera (intalk for if you need to advance film with two smaller strokes or if you can do it in one longer motion too). This change is a huge deal in some circles with steadfast fans of each design. Personally, I simply figured that I’m enjoying how my M4-P works in this regard and I saw little reason to not go for a single stroke camera, so it was an easy choice.
Changes to the ocular design was the other thing that prompted me to look for a more recent camera. The slightly larger opening in the newer design improves the eye point when wearing glasses. This is a change that gets surprisingly little attention, but of the two this was probably the most important change to me. I’ve compared an earlier and later camera back to back and I wouldn’t say the difference is huge, but still noticeable. The more recent cameras are simply slightly easier and more enjoyable to use with glasses. If you don’t wear glasses it’s not a significant factor though.
Beyond specific wants like these I don’t really think there’s a bad vintage of the M3 to get. Later versions are a little more practical, but earlier ones seem just as good in use (really early ones are often sought after by collectors though, and consequently priced excessively). As long as you get a well working camera or spend some money to have it serviced it’s hard to go wrong (though you’d probably end up spending more on getting a really rough camera up to par than simply getting a nice one from the get go).
When we finally finish what we set out to, summer has arrived. We’re ready for some time off but not for the heat. On the warmest summer recorded we go swimming every day and enjoy every evening outdoors. Flying kites in an open field is the perfect way to spend time.
If we go into what the M3 is like in practice, there’s really not much to shooting it. It’s simple to the point of ascetic but that means it’s possible to fully get to know, allowing it become second nature in use. To me it’s this unspectacular simplicity that make the M cameras so appealing to shoot.
That’s not unique to the M3 of course, but a trait shared with all Leica M cameras. However with the exceptionally smooth mechanical operation and close to life size viewfinder offered by the M3 this transparency is even more striking.
I often find that the feel of a camera is defined by what lens you mount on it. I think it can also make a few of the vagaries in the article a bit more concrete by exemplifying how the overall experience is impacted when mounting a few different lenses.
So to give a bit more insight here are some observations with the lenses I’ve used the most on the M3 since getting it.
If there’s an obvious lens to mount on the Leica M3 it’s the 50mm Summicron. There aren’t many combinations more classic than this one, and for good reason too – it’s an absolutely brilliant set up in use.
I’ve already gone on about how ideal the M3 feels to shoot with a 50 but it still feels worth underscoring just how natural of a fit it is. That the handling and balance is spot on also helps this sense of a very harmonious set up.
There’s a mismatch of vintage between the recent Summicron 50 I own and the decades older M3, but the lens and camera still feel like they were made for each other. Besides I find it nice to get such a contemporary and well corrected look from a camera made so long ago. My sole nitpick is that you have to take some care to not focus closer than the 1m mark when trying to get as close as possible.
Full review of the Leica Summicron 50/2 V
This fast 50 makes for a fantastic fit on the M3. This is probably the lens that’s spent most time on the camera since getting it.
The Sonnar’s short focus throw and rapid transitions between planes can make it challenging to focus accurately on many cameras, but with the M3’s larger magnification finder it’s easier to get focus spot on. It also handles great and as it only focuses down to 0.9m there’s not much focus travel that goes unused.
Overall the combination is a joy to use and almost feel more well matched than the Summicron. The recent shots I’ve gotten out of this set up cements the Sonnar as one of my favorite lenses and now I’ve found that the M3 probably is my favorite camera to shoot this lens on.
Full review of the Zeiss ZM 50/1.5 Sonnar
Picking this up for using this summer was a bit of a gamble, but in the end one that paid off. I didn’t really expect to enjoy this combination much. I prefer to use the integrated finder as much as possible and with a 25mm lens on a x0.7 finder M-camera that works perfectly fine. On the M3 there’s no chance of that though and you really need to have an external finder. To me this usually feels like a hurdle, but on the M3 it felt much more natural. I think it’s again mainly because of the larger finder magnification – as it makes it easier to focus (and consequently quicker too) the process of focusing with one finder and composing using another one feels slightly less cumbersome. It also helps that the lens is a fantastic performer. Honestly though, given the choice I’d probably rather shoot it on my M4-P with the 28mm framelines it offers. But it still works better on the M3 than expected and the combination has been a pleasant surprise.
I’ve already brought up how much more enjoyable I find shooting a 90 on the M3 compared to the lower magnification M cameras I’ve shot previously. Shooting the Elmar-C specifically on the M3 has given me a brand new appreciation for it. Despite the long focal length the lens is still compact and very light and it balances great on the camera. Composing and focusing is much more pleasant. I’ve made a few of my absolute favorites with the M3 using this lens.
Full review of the Leica Elmar-C 90/4
Summer winds down and the heat subsides. The memories linger hazily. It feels like time spent elsewhere, but still, everything points to us having been right here.
After all this nitty gritty, it’s about time to sum up.
However it’s hard to arrive at a satisfactory bottom line on the Leica M3.
The elephant in the room is its exceptional reputation as the best camera ever made. I can see where this might come from, but I can’t agree with it as an unconditional statement.
It’s more restrictive than any other Leica M for starters. Beyond that it’s also far less capable than even the simplest contemporary point and shoot or even most smartphones. Compared to recent mirrorless cameras it’s slow and dumb, heavy for its size, inept in so many ways and capable of little.
You could argue that it was the best camera of its time but even that I’m not sure would be an indisputable assessment.
The camera obviously has a good number of qualities. It surely wouldn’t be as highly regarded as it is otherwise. It’s just that within the realms of the criteria most people use to rate a camera as good or bad today the M3 would rate poorly. I think to understand its pull you have to realize that it isn’t a silver bullet.
However within bounds it can be very good. And for someone specific sets of criteria – attributing value to other things than the common points of evaluation, the M3 can even be considered truly excellent.
Shooting a rangefinder is always going to be about accepting a number of significant drawbacks for a few clear strengths. And the M3 is an extension on this idea – it does even less than most other rangefinders, but what it does it’s better at.
This is the key to its appeal. Because it does so very little it can be very simple. This allows it to become totally transparent in use in a way few other pieces of gear manage, even more so than its many successors. The viewfinder that’s unique and wonderful plays into this as well. Adding all this up and you’re starting to approach something very unusual.
I’m personally a bit too pragmatic to feel all that much appeal in the cameras historic significance or find it too big of a deal how nicely made it is. I can still appreciate these aspects though, and see why they can resonate deeply with others. Also the sound mechanics allows it to be serviced and feel like a new camera, despite its age of half a century. With proper care it’ll likely outlast me – an idea I find appealing, even if it doesn’t have too deep of a practical impact.
There’s no way I’d argue that shooting the Leica M3 changes me as a photographer in any fundamental way. My eye isn’t sharper, my aim isn’t truer, nor my hand steadier.
But the opposite also isn’t true – I end up with as many keepers and as nice results as with more contemporary cameras, way more capable on paper. And I have to say that I enjoy shooting the M3 more than almost anything else. That to me is probably the biggest argument for it.
Depending on what day of the week you ask me I might state that the Leica M3 is my favorite camera I’ve shot. I’m not sure that really matters though.
There are many other cameras the pragmatic side in me would have an easier time recommending than the M3. Choosing it over any of those appealing options means finding value in a few very specific aspects.
The choice could be about the highly particular set of features it offers and how it functions just so.
For some it’s perhaps a choice less about practicality and more about niceness. For others it might very well be about its historic relevance, or maybe it’s about experiencing one of the highest regarded cameras ever for yourself.
Either way I think that the M3 is more binary than usual – either you find appeal in it, or you don’t. There’s no right or wrong here, just the question whether this piece of metal and cogs resonates with you or not.
If it doesn’t – don’t worry about it, just shoot something else. There’s plenty to choose from.
If it does – well, I’ll leave that up to you.
All photos in this post were taken using the Leica M3 using the Leica Summicron 50/2 V, Leica Elmar-C 90/4, Zeiss ZM 50/1.5 Sonnar or Zeiss ZM 25/2.8 Biogon. Film used was Fuji Superia 400 or Kodak Portra 400, developed by Team Framkallning and scanned using the Plustek 8200i.
Images of the camera itself were made with a Sony A7, Fuji X100T or iPhone X. Exif-data is intact. Open any image in a new window for a closer look.