Leica M3: The 35mm Film Camera That Became a Legend

During the century-or-so that film was the dominant medium in photography, a handful of cameras made a mark deeper than the rest and became legendary for their impact and legacy. One of these was the Leica M3.

Introduced in 1954 and produced until 1966, the Leica M3 was the first model in the famous Leica M rangefinder line that continues to see new cameras produced in the digital age. While many M cameras have followed in its footsteps, the Leica M3 is still one of the most popular models alike among both collectors and photographers.

Analog or film photography is seeing a resurgence in interest and uptake. In today’s world of ever-increasing resolution — commercial cameras now boast over 150 megapixels — analog will always be a disadvantage given the physical limits of 35mm or 120mm (6×6) film, but the darkroom practice and the skill required to shoot a completely mechanical camera still has a particular allure on budding young photographers as well as those more advanced in age who had experienced analog photography before.

In this article, we will explore why the Leica M3 remains one of Leica’s most celebrated and in-demand models over half a century after it was first launched. The camera is considered to be Leica’s masterpiece by many, but how and why did this arise?

A Brief History of Leitz and Leica

Before we can understand the Leica M3, we need to understand Leica, the company, and the mystique. Ernst Leitz GmbH, which was founded originally as an optical company, was formed in 1849 by Ernst Leitz. The first defining moment was the invention of the prototype Ur-Leica (a portable unit designed to test motion picture film speed) by Leitz engineer Oskar Barnack in 1913.

Oskar Barnack soon realized that with the faster, smaller lenses that had appeared on the market, an opportunity to develop a small portable camera for his long hikes arose. The light bulb moment came when he took 35mm reel film from the motion picture industry and passed it horizontally through a stills camera instead of vertically, matching the small film to a small lens.

Motion picture film used 35mm film vertically with a smaller area per frame. Oskar Barnack passed the same film through a camera horizontally, producing a larger area per frame. Illustrations by Christophe Dang Ngoc Chan and Franz van Duns and licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 and CC BY-SA 4.0, respectively.

This breakthrough led to Leitz releasing the Leica I in 1925 which incorporated a fixed 50mm lens. Perhaps more than any other camera, the Leica II introduced interchangeable lenses and a rangefinder, allowing the photographer to see what shot they are going to get, and permitted the use of lighter equipment compared to the view and twin lens reflex cameras available up till then, basically effecting the demise of the view camera.

Fast forward three decades to 1954, when the company introduced the M3, which became its second defining moment and arguably the most iconic camera ever produced. That the Leica M3 saw the light of day in the period and era in which it appeared is a bit of a mystery, as the rise of Japanese manufacturers such as Canon and Nikon post World War II had pivoted the future towards the single-lens reflex (SLR) design. So a rangefinder like the M3 had its difficulties in achieving success from the word go… unless it was a joy to witness, use, and implement.

The M3, weighing a mere 610g with film loaded to go, however, made the Leica rangefinder concept a complete package. It provided a brilliantly simple yet efficient, completely mechanical, and optically close-to-perfect camera, with a new bayonet mount and a combined viewfinder/rangefinder that automatically adjusted the frame lines and corrected them for parallax. The manufacturing build quality and precision gave the company a shining reputation among camera makers for decades to come.

The M3 might have had some quirks — such as the mechanism for loading the film by removing the bottom plate, which still exists in some Leicas today for their battery compartments in digital models — but it is both a joy to grip and use. It is difficult to put into words the bliss and gratification of using a perfectly balanced and poised Leica M3, to this day.

The M3 was very successful for the company, selling close to a quarter of a million units when its production run ended in 1966. One has to keep in mind that the SLR concept promulgated by Nikon and Pentax still replaced the rangefinder during this period; the landmark Nikon F sold 862,000 over a similar period of time. But sale volumes are not an accurate indicator of camera quality and ergonomics now, are they?

In 1986, the Ernst Leitz corporation changed its name to Leica (short for LEItz CAmera) due to the popularity of the Leica brand. In 1996, Leica Camera split off from the Leica Group and became its own separate company.

Features of the Leica M3

Reviewing the features and specifications of any masterpiece can never properly convey its virtuosity. A masterpiece is far greater than the sum of its parts; it is a masterwork precisely because its genius renders it greater than its components.

Viewfinder and Rangefinder

The Leica M3 gets its name from the innovative and key new feature, meaning the rangefinder focusing spot inside the viewfinder frame or “M” for “Messsucher”, the German word for “measuring viewfinder/rangefinder”. Prior to the advent of the Leica M3, all the previous generations of Leicas (i.e. the screw-mount or Barnack Leicas, as they are affectionately known), had one eyepiece for focus and a second one for framing, with the model immediately prior to the M3 being the Leica IIIf (1950-1957). The Messsucher was therefore quite the innovative feature.

The Leica M3 thus became Leica’s first M camera, with the viewfinder having three automatically selected frame lines for three lenses (the 50mm, the 90mm, and the 135mm), with automatic parallax correction. For anything wider than 35mm, a separate viewfinder is necessary. The Leica M3 still combines perfectly with all Leica-M lenses, anything from 1954 to the present ones; Leica screw-mount lenses (1933 onwards) also pair flawlessly, using an adapter of course.

The Leica M3’s finder is still the biggest and best viewfinder, bright, uncluttered, and clear. Focus is easy to achieve and more precise because of the larger 0.91x magnification.

Single Stroke vs Double Stroke

The top of the camera, under where the photographer’s right thumb rests, is an easy transport (or film advance) lever that is either single-stroke (SS) or double-stroke (DS).

The transport lever on the Leica M3. Image: Leica.

Early M3 models featured a double-stroke lever, meaning it required two strokes to advance to the next frame of film and cock the shutter. This design decision was made to prevent the film advance system from tearing the film.

Later on, however, starting with camera number 919251 and onward, Leica began producing single-stroke cameras that advance the film with a single motion of the thumb that pushes the lever as far to the right as it will go.

A double-stroke Leica M3 cannot be fully advanced with a single long stroke, but a single-stroke Leica M3 can also be fully advanced with two half-strokes. Apart from the slightly extra time and effort required by the double-stroke over the single-stroke, both variants of the M3 remain popular with Leica photographers.

Other Features

The M3 has a solid shutter release button with no wobbling and a shutter system that is ultra-smooth, quiet, and precise, with no flipping mirrors of SLRs that are audible within a mile (that’s how loud they seem, at least).

When coupled with the Leicameter MR or MR-4, the Leica M3 becomes an ergonomic indulgence to use, with fool-proof semi-automatic exposure.

When coupled with Leica’s renowned M-mount Leitz lenses, the M3 can produce unrivaled image quality in terms of both sharpness and color.

Famous Owners of the Leica M3

Over the years, the Leica M3 has won the hearts of both renowned photographers as well as famous individuals outside the photography industry.

The late Queen Elizabeth II’s 60th birthday commemorative postage stamp, issued in 1986, shows her with the Leica M3.

Even Miles Davis was immortalized with a Leica M3. The camera of royalty.

Famous photographers who were known to use the Leica M3 include Henri Cartier-Bresson (who used it as his tool for candid “decisive moment” photography), Robert Capa, Robert Frank, W. Eugene Smith, Elliott Erwitt, Garry Winogrand, and David Douglas Duncan.

A Camera for a Lifetime

Leica advertised the M3 as a “lifetime investment in perfect photography”, and they had no idea how pre-sentient this would become for the M3. Many Leica M3s sold today on the second-hand market (which you can get for reasonable amounts unless you go for models with extremely rare serial numbers or the rarer black paint M3) come from owners who have left this world; like any other chef-d’oeuvre, the timeless Leica M3 outlives its mortal owners.

My own personal M3 was handed to me by Malta’s foremost eminent artist, still alive in his eighties, but wishing for his M3, which has produced books and award-winning prints, to keep living on. And live on it still does – Leica still services the M3 and getting parts for it is unproblematic to this day, and it still works perfectly close to 70 years after its release.

The Leica M3’s instruction booklet states, verbatim:

You are holding a LEICA in your hands — we hope you will derive as much pleasure from it as the multitudes of confirmed LEICA enthusiasts all over the world. In the LEICA M3, you have the utmost in photographic performance, speed, and convenience that we, as specialists in high-grade optical precision instruments, can provide. Such a camera does not come into being from one day to the next. It most favorably combines the experience of a long tradition in the design of scientific instruments with the latest advances in modern optics. It has matured through the many thousands of tests and trials at the hands of the elite of international photographers. You will see for yourself the scope and precision of the LEICA and how in many years’ time it will still be as exact and reliable as it is now.

Hallowed words.

Among the many reasons the Leica M3 is one of the world’s best 35mm cameras, especially today, is because it gets out of the way of the creative process. With the Leica M3, you are free to focus on producing a great image. The Leica M3 is embodied glory, perfection flawlessly purified.

About the author: Dr. Charles Paul Azzopardi is a fine art photographer, curator, photographic cultural heritage consultant, and writer. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. You can find more of Charles’ work on his website and Instagram.