Leica M3 camera

Classic Project: Leica M3 Rangefinder camera

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Why some photographers still hail the Leica M3 as the best camera ever made.

More than 60 years after the introduction of the Leica M3 35mm film rangefinder camera, experts and collectors still routinely tout it as the “best camera ever made”. Despite legitimate objections to the claim (loading the film is notoriously difficult), the honours are based on a simplicity of design that left the user with only two variable parameters (shutter speed and depth of field), and a build quality that was to become legendary, based on manufacturer Ernst Leitz Optische Werke’s (as Leica was once called) background in microscope production.

This accolade turned to myth as Leica cameras gained a reputation for being behind some of the most iconic photos of the 20th century (including the raising of the Soviet Union flag over Berlin in 1945). In the 1950s, adverts for the M3 boasted that “99 out of 100 images seen in National Geographic” were shot on Leica.

Until the middle of the 20th century, serious photography had mostly mimicked fine art. It had been a stately process in which huge tripod-mounted plate cameras had sought to freeze the world. Yet with the introduction of the pocket-sized, handheld M3 came spontaneity that gave photographers the freedom to invent vivid new genres, from the frontlines of conflict to the fashion catwalk. Artists such as Henri Cartier-Bresson abandoned their easels in favour of the camera. Cartier-Bresson, one of the greatest photographers of all time, only used one camera throughout his career: a Leica M3, which he described as “a way of life”.

Despite Leica becoming the flag-bearer for the compact camera, other manufacturers – mostly German, Japanese and Russian – were developing ever more miniaturised and technologically advanced cameras. However, while some overloaded their products with mostly redundant gimmicks or sacrificed visual fidelity in pursuit of low production costs, Leica struck a balance that, despite the camera’s huge cost, led to sales going past 220,000 in 13 years.

The history of the M3 starts in the early 20th century, when former Zeiss engineer Oskar Barnack joined the Ernst Leitz business as head of R&D. One of his tasks was to invent a small machine to test cinematographic film stock. The result was the Ur-Leica, a prototype stills camera that evolved in the years leading up to the First World War. By the time it had been refined to the point where it could go into production, it was 1925 and the Leica (from ‘Leitz camera’) was born.

For a company that had previously been a household name in microscopes, cameras were a departure. While the trade press sniffed at a product one reviewer called ‘a toy’, such was the public demand for this new breed of camera that it paved a way for future designs. Its original image aspect ratio of 3:2 became a fixture still in use, even on sensors in digital cameras.  

As with many technology breakthroughs, Barnack’s came from a simple idea, which was to make big pictures from small negatives. Yet creating high-quality enlargements required a specially designed lens, which is where optical pioneer Max Berek came in. Before long, Berek’s 50mm lens was part of the Leica set-up along with ‘range-finding’ focusing.

As the camera became more sophisticated, shutter speeds became faster, while bayonet mounts allowed lenses of different focal lengths to be interchanged.

Now photography could finally detach itself from the studio, ushering in a golden age of reportage photography with which Leica’s name will always be associated.

Leica M3 Rangefinder facts and figures

Date: April 1954

Originator: Ernst Leitz GmbH (now Leica Camera AG)

Cost: US$297 in 1957 (approx £2,000 in today’s money)

The Queen got her first Leica M3 in 1958 and is seen with it on one of her 60th birthday commemorative stamps.

The earliest known M3 was sold at auction in 2009 for €72,000.

James Bond uses an M3 in Ian Fleming’s book ‘Goldfinger’.

Voted ‘top gadget of all time’ by Stuff magazine.

In production for 13 years with 220,000 units sold.

Despite being called the M3, it was actually the first camera in the ‘M’ range (the M2 was launched in 1957).

The ‘M’ comes from the initial letter of ‘messsucher’, the German word for ‘rangefinder’.

Advertised by Leica as a ‘lifetime investment in perfect photography.’

General arrangement of the Leica M3

Film transport and shutter tensioning lever

Shutter release button

Film counter

Shutter speed dial

Reversing lever for rewinding film

Red dot on bayonet mount of lens

Delayed action release (self-timer)

Bayonet lock button

Lens focusing lever

Viewfinder selector lever

Aperture scale of lens

Depth of field scale

Rangefinder window

Classic project Leica M3

Image credit: E&T

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