Leica IIIa

The Leica IIIa was part of a series of revolutionary cameras designed by the legendary Leitz designer Oscar Barnack during the first half of the 1900s. The III, produced during the 1930s, would eventually be superseded by the well-regarded M series in the 1950s. Already a very compact camera, the IIIa came with a retractable 50mm f2 Summar lens, making it smaller than anything on the market at the time. Leica produced other retractable lenses as well, such as the 50mm f3.5 Elmar and 50mm f2 Summitar.

This is the first and only Leica I’ve ever owned, and my expectations were high for a camera company held in such high regard. I happened across an eBay auction for this camera and lens at a very good price, and figured at the very least I could resell it for a profit. Two weeks later it arrived in the mail and I became a member of the Leica club.

My IIIa appears to have been well kept. I was told by the previous owner that this camera had been used in a university engineering department and in fact still has the ID sticker on the back. I decided to leave it on.

I’m still not used to composing with a rangefinder. Fujicolor CN100, Summar 50mm f6.3

Aesthetics and feel. When I received it the first thing I was impressed by was its size. Despite having looked at pictures online, I hadn’t expected it to be so small. It really is tiny when compared to other vintage rangefinders – the Canon P is massive next to it and even by today’s standards the Leica III series is extremely compact.

It’s small, but dense. A lot of cameras from this time period can be described as dense; made from brass and other metals before plastic gained widespread use. What the Leica has that other cameras might be lacking is a feeling of quality and precision.

Fujicolor CN100, Summar 50mm f2

Reliability. This is an area where I can’t speak in detail about. I don’t use it much for two reasons; it’s in nearly pristine condition and I’d like to keep it that way, and it’s not the fastest or easiest shooter I have for street photography. I’ve run two rolls of film through this camera and have fiddled with it extensively – turning dials, firing the shutter, extending, retracting, and focusing the lens. It’s fun just to hold it. Everything seems to be in working order, but some of my pictures didn’t come out for one reason or another. But some did! I was surprised to see that any came out at all, considering how old it is.

I have no idea why this picture came out like this. Fujicolor CN100, Summar 50mm f12.5

Image character. From what I’ve read online, the Summar one of the lesser Leica lenses in terms of resolution and contrast. This is the only Leica lens I’ve ever used, so a detailed comparison to others is out of the scope of this post. I would have to agree that my lens exhibits a low contrast character common amongst lenses of this time period, before coatings were applied. To me, it’s still plenty sharp. One issue that exacerbates the low contrast is the tendency for these lenses to develop haze over time. I believe cleaning them is a relatively easy fix, but I haven’t attempted to yet. In any case, the haze is hardly noticeable so I don’t think it would have a significant impact on image quality.

This picture looks slightly underexposed. Fujicolor CN100, Summar 50mm f2

Operation. I’ve read that Leicas require relatively frequent CLAs to ensure they operate properly. I’m not sure if, or when my IIIa’s last CLA was, but when I took it out for a test run I was surprised to find all dials, switches, and shutter speeds functioned smoothly and accurately (as best as I could tell without professional equipment).

Fujicolor CN100, Summar 50mm f2

While the operation of a camera like this is foreign to someone in the 21st century, I’d have to say the camera is fairly intuitive. One quirk is the bottom loading film door, rather than a swing open door present on more modern rangefinders and SLRs. Loading and removing film is a tedious process, but doable after watching a quick YouTube tutorial. The film advance also uses a knob in lieu of a lever. Advancing to the next frame is awkward at first because you have to actually twist the knob which rotates the spool inside the camera, but it’s actually somewhat satisfying. I’m not sure why. Another feature which was foreign to me is the separate shutter speed dials for fast speeds (1/30s-1/1000s) on top and slow speeds (1/20s-T) on the front, whereas later models conveniently combined these dials into one.

One last thing worth mentioning is that the IIIa has a focusing window on the left, and composition/framing window on the right. The focusing window is used to line up your double images as you turn the focus ring on the lens. The composition window shows an approximation of the field of view of a 50mm lens. Both windows are tiny, and it’s very difficult to focus in low light. Glasses wearers like myself will probably have difficulty focusing. With that said the focusing patch is very easy to see when lighting conditions are right.

View through the composition window.

Conclusion. The IIIa is a fun camera through and through. It can’t compete with the ergonomics and efficiency of cameras from later decades and as such I would categorize it as more of a novelty. But for its time, it’s clear to see why it revolutionized the world of photography and why Leica retains its reputation even today, 82 years from when my camera was produced. It’s exciting even just to hold it, if not to take photos than for its historical significance. It’s not going to be my daily shooter, but it’s fun to take out every once in a while and appreciate how far camera technology has come.

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