Home Cameras/Lenses Leica First Impressions: Leica IIIf after sixty years

First Impressions: Leica IIIf after sixty years

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  My new (to me) IIIf hailing from 1953 together with a 75-year-old f/2 Summitar 5cm lens. The accessory viewfinder is a vintage Voigtländer which is almost identical to one that Leica marketed in the 1950s. It isn
My new (to me) IIIf hailing from 1953 together with a 75-year-old f/2 Summitar 5cm lens. The accessory viewfinder is a vintage Voigtländer which is almost identical to one that Leica marketed in the 1950s. It isn’t necessary for the operation of the camera but it does provide a bigger image for composition

My new Leica baby is this venerable IIIf “red-dial” screw-mount rangefinder. I’ve long wanted to dip into the collectibles market and this wonderful example of precision period engineering just fell into my lap. It was made in 1953, Coronation year, so is exactly sixty years old. In excellent condition, it still takes perfect pictures (I am sure) and is a joy to use once you master all those complex dials and settings.

It came complete with a 50mm (or 5cm as they said in those days) f/2 Summitar lens, of which more later, and set me back just over £430. It is perfect retro eye candy in my book and good value at the price.

The camera

Old Leica hands (I am acquainted with many) will know all this. They will know that the IIIf was the penultimate screw-mount Leica and was manufactured between 1950 and 1957. Its successor, the IIIg with a larger and much improved viewfinder incorporating automatic parallax adjustment, ran from 1957 to 1960. The IIIg is the more desirable collectors’ item, without a doubt, but is also twice or even three times as expensive as the more humble but equally capable IIIf.

It is interesting that these screw-mount cameras continued in production for nearly seven years after the arrival of the M3, the forerunner of today’s Ms. The M3, with its quick-release bayonet mount and amazingly large combination viewfinder and rangefinder, was a superior camera but came at a superior price. At the time the IIIf and IIIg were still in demand because they were cheaper and probably preferred by owners of the old screw lenses. I haven’t been able to find details of prices in the 1950s but Leicas would have ranged from £125 to £200. I must check but I imagine the IIIf (body only) would have been at the lower end of this range, equivalent to about £2,900, while the M3, on introduction, would have been around £180 (£4,200). These figures are based on the retail price index. However, looking at it from an average earnings perspective, the IIIf would have been over £7,000 and the M3 around £10,000. This shows just how desirable and exclusive Leicas were in the early fifties, especially at a time when imported goods were almost impossible to obtain.

  Taken with the 1939 Summitar lens mounted on my 2013 Leica M
Taken with the 1939 Summitar lens mounted on my 2013 Leica M

The IIIf, like its predecessors, has two adjacent spy holes, one on the left to set the range and one to the right to compose the view. We are now so used to the combined viewfinder, introduced in the M3, that these tiny windows seem toylike and inadequate. But they do work. The images are small, no mistake, but setting the range is just as accurate as it is on modern Ms and the viewfinder is perfectly adequate. It does lack parallax adjustment for close subjects (up to 10 meters) so an element of intuition is necessary. Interestingly, the rangefinder has diopter adjustment (via a lever coaxial with the film rewind knob), a feature that was dropped in the M3 cameras and is still missing from modern digital Ms.

The screw-mount Leicas lack a film advance lever (that came in with the M3) and it is necessary to turn the reassuringly substantial advance knob until the next frame locks into place. It is a precise operation with a clear stop when the frame is in place, not at all like contemporaneous cheaper cameras (such as my Box Brownie) where film advance was all a bit hit or miss. In addition, the frame indicator, which surrounds the advance knob, must be set manually when inserting a new film. On the M3 the counter is zeroed automatically when a film is inserted.

  Old Summitar, new Leica M
Old Summitar, new Leica M

Although the dials and controls are rather intimidating at first glance, they are actually very simple and easy to master. Honestly. Apart from the film advance knob (which includes adjustable indicators for film type and whether colour or monochrome), there are two speed dials–one for fast speeds and a second dial on the front of the camera for slower speeds under 1/25s. My model is the red-dial version, introduced in 1952/3 and so called because the flash synchronisation engravings are in red. Earlier models are now referred to as as black dial IIIfs.

Loading film in these old cameras is a bit of a pain, a pain I am shortly to endure. As with even modern Leica film cameras it is necessary to remove the bottom plate from the camera and thread the film through from one side to the other. Later M models have a hinged back which allows you to see what you are doing. With the screw-mount Leicas it is a case of loading blind. Curiously, the IIIf requires the film leader to be trimmed by scissors, something of a chore but easily learned by all accounts. If this is not done the film will not pass through the gate and could get stuck, something to be avoided at all costs.

Despite all these caveats, the IIIf is a very sensible and usable camera and should still produce excellent results. It has no built-in light meter (a top-mounted accessory was available but surviving versions tend to be unreliable) and, if coming from a modern camera, you might need an external light meter or, even, an iPhone (there are several excellent apps, including Pocket Light Meter). Old hands can sniff the air and decide on the correct exposure, especially when shooting black and white film which is pretty forgiving. Colour needs more precision in exposure.

Rangefinder and M

I have always wondered why the M series, the bayonet-mount cameras, started at M3. According to Leica’s current literature (and following received wisdom), the M designation derives from the German for rangefinder, Messsucher and refers to the combination rangefinder and viewfinder used on all M models since 1954. Actually, Messsucher is correctly translated as rangefinder while the German for viewfinder is simply Sucher, a near relative of the English word seeker. This is all well and good, but the IIIf and IIIg, as with all predecessors from the Leica II (Model D) in 1932, had built-in rangefinders and viewfinders so they could also be described as having a Messsucher. The only difference is that the screw-mount cameras relied on two separate optics, one for viewing, one for measuring range, while the Ms, from 1954, combined both functions in one finder.

My intuition tells me (altough I have no proof) that the Leitz marketing boys (or chaps as they were in those days) decided to call the new camera the M-three to differentiate it from the still-current top-model three-f while still retaining some logical chronology. Otherwise we would have had an M1 (which did happen but, confusingly, not until 1959). The top Leica models from 1932 onwards are all technically rangefinders although some cameras, for special scientific purposes or specifically to sell at lower prices, were produced without rangefinders or, even, viewfinders. Perhaps some expert on the period can comment on my wild surmise.

  Monochrome conversion in Silver Efex Pro, again with the old lens mounted on the latest Leica M digital
Monochrome conversion in Silver Efex Pro, again with the old lens mounted on the latest Leica M digital
  Crop from the above frame
Crop from the above frame

The Lens

The 5cm (50mm) Leitz Summitar was the forerunner of the modern 50mm Summicron and was produced from 1939 to 1953. In all, 171,000 were made, with the biggest sales year being 1939 which accounted for over 11,000 of the run. My new lens is one of the very early earliest and it is interesting to ponder on its life during WWII. Was it here in the UK already or did it spend its war in the hands of some German officer on the western front, later to be sold on the black market for a couple of packs of cigarettes?

Unlike modern lenses, the front element has no coating. Coating, to minimise reflection and improve contrast, was introduced on the Summitar from 1945 onwards. This example is in good cosmetic condition and performs well although contrast is relatively poor, possibly as a result of the lack of coating. I have bumped up contrast in post processing in the accompanying examples. I had a choice of three similar lenses, different ages, but this one was definitely best overall condition with no fungus and no scratching of the front element (which is a hazard on these old lenses).

Unusual for modern eyes, this Summitar is collapsible so that it can be retracted into the body of the camera when not in use. This makes for a very compact overall package and was a good idea which still makes sense today. Pulling out the lens and twisting it a few degrees locks it into place ready for action. As with all retractable lenses, the focus adjustment lever locks at infinity so that the lens can be unscrewed with the focus ring fixed in place. The spring-loaded finger lever is pressed to release.

There is no definitive answer as to whether or not it is desirable to collapse this lens when attached to a modern digital Leica (with a screw-to-M adapter ring). Common sense tells me that it is probably ok; and I know one or two people who claim to have done it without damage to shutter or sensor. But it is a matter for personal choice and I have to say that, so far, I have not been brave enough to push the lens fully home. I need someone to tell me with confidence that it will not cause damage.

Unlike modern Leica 50mm lenses, this Summitar has a minimum focus distance of 1m (current lenses focus to 70cm) and I found this to be surprisingly restrictive even though I am used to the relatively long minimum focus distance of all Leica lenses. If you are approaching from experience with modern autofocus lenses you will find this particularly annoying.

Using a screw-to-M adapter, I tried this ancient 75-year-old glassware on the latest 2013 Leica M with very satisfying results. It is reasonably sharp and displays no evidence of vignetting or softness at the edges (although I have read that this softness is typical of the lens). I did several test shots and ended very pleased with the results. It has an unusual swirly bokeh at wide apertures, unfortunately not demonstrated here. There is a certain vintage quality to the results but the overall impression is positive. You could do a lot worse than spending £200 on such a lens if you can find one in good condition.

It is telling that even these old screw-mount lenses (with very few exceptions) can be used on contemporary digital Ms (with an adapter ring). Manual focus, considered by many modern photographers as anachronistic, is the key to the longevity of Leica lenses. All these lenses, from the thirties of the last century to the teens of this, are totally optical-mechanical devices that will continue to function for another century or more. This is not the case with modern auto-focus lenses, some costing big bucks, which will head towards the old curiosity shop as soon as the circuits blow and those little focus motors grind to a halt. This is precisely why Leica lenses are something of an investment and why you can still pay £200 for a 75-year-old Summitar.

In use

Apart from my initial test shots with the lens on a modern camera I have not had the opportunity to check out the operation of the IIIf. I am itching to get a film loaded and take to the streets but this will have to wait until I return from China. My results will be posted in due course.

In the meantime, I have the IIIf sitting on my desk and it is a beauty, a mechanical marvel. Sir Jony Ive, in another incarnation, could have been the Wizard of Wetzlar.

Finding an old Leica

If you check eBay and other auction sites you will find many older Leicas for sale. Most, surprisingly, hail from the USA and relatively few from the UK. Without doubt you can save money by buying direct in this way. But you have to consider the mechanical condition and, in the case of lenses, the possibility of fungus or other damage.

If you want the camera simply as an ornament only good cosmetic appearance is important. For me, though, a large part of the fun of owning such a classic camera is in being able to use it. For street photography (and the IIIf is likely to be a perfectly useable street-tog tool) this is such a strange old camera that it will be totally unthreatening. You will be able to get closer to the action than you could with a modern Nikon sporting one of those intimidating zoom lenses.

I decided to take the safer route and bought from a Leica dealer, picking up a six-month warranty along the way. Perhaps I paid a little over the odds but I think it is worth it for peace of mind, especially since I am new to the collectibles game. Red Dot Cameras has perhaps the widest range of old Leicas you will find anywhere in Britain. Ivor Cooper tends serried ranks of screw-mount lovelies, arranged strictly in production order.

Here you can certainly find a IIIf from under £200 or a IIIg from around £600 together with a selection of contemporary lenses. The f/3.5 Elmar was the classic lens for these cameras (with the f/2 Summitar being reserved for “very experienced photographers”) and Ivor has a good range to choose from. He also has a large stock of used M film cameras and M digitals as well as all the latest Leica gear.

Last word

A photographer friend and Leica enthusiast, who read the draft of this article, cautioned me about stepping into the dangerous shoals of Leica history: “There are so many real authorities on older cameras that it would be best to tread very carefully and don’t go into too much detail in depth.” True, and point taken. Still, I like jumping in where angels fear to tread and I await the howls of protest and comments of correction. This article is written from the perspective of a newcomer to vintage cameras. We all have to start somewhere.

2 COMMENTS

  1. I think your article was refreshing. I have just taken the "small step for me and a giant leap for my kind" and bought a Leica IIIf. I use digital cameras and love the immediacy. However, there is something special I think, about these wonderful old cameras and having to wait for the results with bated breath and anticipation.
    They are not hard on the eye either, if I may add.
    Thank you, loved the article.

    • Chris, Thanks for your comments and I hope you love using the IIIf. We are all so used to disparaging digital cameras which are considered out of date after a couple of years that we need reminding that a good film camera, almost irrespective of age, is still a good camera. Interestingly, my IIIf is one year younger (1954) than my M3 (1953). Yet the M3 looks as though it was made yesterday while the IIIf looks more like it is from the 1930s. In truth, both are capable of producing wonderful pictures. Even the current MP (which is virtually an M3 with light meter) or the M7, (with more electronics) are not necessarily capable of producing better shots.

      Incidentally, I do believe that digital cameras such as the D800, Leica M and Sony A7, have reached a level of excellence that should keep them relevant for years to come. We have been on a steep curve of improvement in the past ten years but current full-frame digital models will still be producing excellent photos for many years (subject to the problems of finding spare parts). There is a limit to how many pixels we want or, more to the point, need.

      Mike

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