Why the Leica M3 is a special camera to me.

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of handling every single M rangefinder camera model Leica has ever manufactured (including a few limited edition examples of each).

And although I’ve previously worked with most of these cameras, I’ve never had the opportunity to handle all of them at the same time so that I could compare their build quality, viewfinders and shutters.

The one that remains my favourite is the Leica M3.  

Many photographers have previously discussed why the M3 is regarded as perhaps the best M camera Leica ever made, so I won’t re-hash all of that here.

Others, it will come as no surprise, disagree with that assessment and have been quick to point out its faults.  Even I recognize its not-too-insignificant shortcomings.

For example:

Do I wish the M3 had 35mm frame lines?  Yes.

Do I wish the M3 could focus closer than 1 meter for most lenses?  Of course.

Do I wish the M3 had a built-in light meter?  Sure.

But, I know that the addition of each of these features ultimately takes away from something else.   It essentially ruins the formula that makes the M3 the M3.

(Incidentally, the compromises inherent in every camera design decision is why a photographer who sets out to find the “perfect” camera is, in actuality, on a fool’s errand — and all of us have been guilty of playing the fool.)

Still, the sense of purpose and dependability that the M3 brings to the pursuit of photography seems unmatched by every other model.

I can tell you that its build quality really is second to none.  Pick up an M3, and it truly does feel like a solid and singular block of matter.  It’s an illusion of course, because the M3, like all subsequent M cameras, is made from a plethora of parts:

(↑ re-building of a Leica M3 by Kanto Camera)

But, in the M3, the decision process around which parts were chosen and how they were put together was done with the least number of compromises.  It’s evident when you pick one up.  Even the much-glorified modern film camera reincarnations of the M3, the Leica MP and M-A, feel somewhat tinny and hollow in comparison.

Besides build quality, the other attraction to the M3 for me is its clear viewfinder, which is the most resistant to flare and has the highest magnification of any M.  These qualities are very helpful when composing and focusing.  The view is also uncluttered.  In comparing the M3 viewfinder to the one found in the digital M10, where bright and blinking LED frame lines compete with the subject for the photographer’s attention,  I can’t help thinking that, somewhere along the way, Leica lost its focus, so to speak.

(But I know I am in the minority on this, since — more and more — blinking visual aids are the preferred feature set for many photographers.)

And, as much as I would love it for the M3 to have an internal light meter, I have to admit that, once again, the blinking lights in the M6, M7, and MP viewfinders seem to distract more than aid.

Am I being picky in writing all of the above?  Yes, of course.

Could I go on, and on?  Unfortunately, yes 🙂

But I will stop here.  The truth is, all of the M cameras do an excellent job of getting out of the way of the photographer.  For me, however, the M3 does it best.

—Peter.

12 thoughts on “Why the Leica M3 is a special camera to me.

  1. No, no, no. Do go on! 😉

    For some, the M4 is their Holy Grail. I have not owned one, though. M cameras are something very special, though, that’s for sure.

    I’d like to see the film bodies with an upgraded shutter. I don’t think that the cloth curtains are more discrete than the new metal ones in the M10, although I could be wrong. It would also be no bad thing if the film bodies inherited the new VF.

  2. Ian says:

    It is good isn’t it, just a pleasure to use.

  3. Sean says:

    Could not agree more, and for me the 0.91x magnification is worth the sacrifice of the 35mm frame lines, which you can guess a little wide and crop/straighten these hybrid days and it opens up the 90mm portrait option. On my Dig M, I’ve got a diopter and 1.4x magnifier, with my M3 I have neither and can crystal clear. I keep the MR4 meter on top, it’s near being a Spot (90mm), push the reading, sometimes at waste level if its even light, and use the large Shutter Speed dial on the meter. Which given the size of the SD on the meter and SD on the camera looks to be the way its designed. I’m so used to it the camera looks odd without it!

  4. jkjod says:

    Every Leica made? Were you at Marks house?

    In all seriousness, I’d say you can’t really go wrong with any of them – find the one that ticks all the boxes for you and be happy. I’m still waiting for the MP3 to come down in prices 😂😂😂

    • The MP3 was there too (I’ve played with a few of those in the past as well). I used to think it was my ultimate film camera, until I first handled one. You know what? It feels a lot like a standard MP. In other words, I prefer the M3. Nonetheles, your point about finding the right camera that ticks all the boxes for you is a good one.

      Regarding our mutual acquaintance… exactly!

  5. Will says:

    Peter, after following your blog and family/Leica adventures for a couple of years now, I have finally had the opportunity to join in on the Leica conversation. I purchased an M3 with 50mm Summicron DR (no goggles). So excited! The only problem I can see is that focus doesn’t reach infinity. I can line up the rf image at normal distances, but it won’t reach long distances. Before I burn through a roll of film, do you know if those shorter distances will be in focus, or will they be front/back focused? Oh, and do you recommend against fiddling with this sort of adjustment?

    • Will says:

      I think I just figured out the purpose of the round button thing on the lens (Rigid, not DR). Infinity focus can be achieved now, albeit with a little practice.

    • Congratulations Will and welcome to the Leica world! I’m not sure what issue you’re describing, but please be aware that the Dual Range lens can be pulled outward by the focus ring and rotated around a central mark/notch. One one side you can focus from 1 meter to infinity. On the other side you can focus from 1 meter down to approximately 48 cm (but you need the “goggles” attached to unlock the focus ring in this position).

  6. Roel says:

    Hi Peter, The M3 is just great! Have you ever tried the M5? I know it is almost cursing according to some people and it is not a M3 but i like it for what it is. I think it is a very interesting camera/Leica.

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