LEICA M3 Buyer's Guide
1955 LEICA M3 (21.4oz./610g with film, about $1,000) shown with LEICA SUMMILUX 50mm f/1.4. enlarge. This free website's biggest source of support is when you use any of these links, especially this direct link to the M3 at eBay (see How to Win at eBay), and you also can get them from Adorama and OC Camera. It helps me keep reviewing these oldies when you get yours through these links, thanks! Ken.
You're buying a 50-year-old mechanical camera. Just like buying a glorious 1955 Mercedes 300SL or 1957 Chevy Bel-Air, no matter how Holy its birth may have been, it's either been well cared for, or probably abused, these past several decades.
Exactly like every other 848-jeweled movement like the LEICA M3, it needs periodic cleaning and maintenance.
I've found that unless you're buying an M3 that has recently been overhauled, expect to be sending whatever you buy away for a fresh overhaul, and you're good to go
Unlike Japanese cameras, LEICAs only go for a decade or two before they need to be cleaned and relubricated. Even LEICAs from the 1980s need service today to run well; any 1950s or 1960s LEICA will certainly need a tune-up if it hasn't already had one.
I have Gus Lazzari do all my work. He more than knows what he's doing with fine equipment.
Even if your M3 had a fresh overhaul before you bought it, few people have any idea what they're doing inside a LEICA, so it will probably need to have that overhaul repaired. My first M3 ran OK, but when sent out, Gus discovered the last ham-fist had attached the shutter curtains incorrectly!
Parts are readily available. Excepting deliberate destruction or inept repair attempts, an M3 can be rebuilt for an unlimited number of lives.
A skilled technician loves working on the LEICA M3. Unlike lesser, newer LEICAs, its internal mechanics and designed-in precision adjustability make it a cinch to adjust to perfection — in the hands of an expert technician.
See also The LEICAMETER.
The LEICA M3 works best with a CdS LEICAMETER MR or LEICAMETER MR-4. They are the same, except that the MR-4 has its button on top, not on the side like the MR. Press the button, and these meters read a spot equal to about the field of view of a 90mm lens, and hold the reading for you to read a moment later your convenience. You don't have to read the meter while it's pointed at your subject. It will hold the reading so you can tilt the camera to see it well.
The older LEICAMETER M and LEICAMETER MC use selenium cells. These are accurate, however they see over a very wide area, and can't hold the reading. Therefore it is more difficult to get the reading you need, and once you do, good luck if you can read the live meter needle as you try to hold the camera in the same position you wish to meter.
It will be more difficult to find a good LEICAMETER than to find a good M3. I've bought many meters in order to find one that works.
Gus Lazzari has also done amazing work fixing my old meters.
The CdS meters run on a single, ordinary Wein EPX-625 cell, while the selenium meters are solar-powered, never needing batteries.
All of these four meters are interchangeable among the M3, M2, M1, M4, M4-2 and M4-P.
LEICA L Seal. enlarge.
As a way of identifying tampering to the LEICA M3's precision werke, LEICA stamps a script "L" into a black wax seal at the top of the lens mount.
If you have an "L," you have a camera that hasn't been twisted around by unauthorized people.
No "L," and no one knows who may have damaged the delicate innards of your LEICA M3.
Skilled repairmen, like Gus Lazzari, know how to service the shutter and rangefinder precisely without breaking the seal, or today, provide an "L" (Lazzari) seal in its place. Gus repaired my 1963 M3's shutter and adjusted its rangefinder, while leaving the seal intact; the silent mark of the expert repairman.
Do not ever fiddle with this seal; if you poke the seal and damage it, you've reduced the value of your classic LEICA.
All LEICA M3 have
0.91x finders with parallax-correcting frames for 35mm, 50mm, 90mm and 135mm lenses. (35mm frame when used with lenses designed for the M3, of course.)
Bulb and 1 - 1/1,000 horizontal cloth focal-plane shutters.
Fully automatic flash synchronization from 1-1/1,000 (to 1/50 with electronic flash).
Shutter buttons threaded for conventional cable releases.
Self timers, settable for any delay from 5 to 10 seconds.
Film wind levers (not knobs as on earlier LEICAs).
Self-resetting frame counters.
Hinged backs for easy film loading.
Film-type reminder on film back.
Rewind knobs, with a center that rotates as film advances, while the outside remains stationary.
Like any other product in continuous production for twelve years, there were some slight changes along the way.
None of the differences between these versions is of any significance to photographers, even if collectors choose to worry themselves sick over this minutia.
Any LEICA M3, of any age, is superior to any other LEICA.
I find even the very, very first M3 to be extraordinary. The added features are insignificant compared to the glory of having an M3, which even at its inception was a giant step forward with many incredible new features.
If you care, Leica has offered to modify older M3s to have these newer features, and for all I know, may today still update older M3s. I wouldn't worry about it; I shoot both my 1955 and my 1963 M3 alongside each other and don't notice the differences.
Since many M3 owners have had their M3s updated, your M3 will quite likely have some of these updates, even if it's older than the dates at which new M3s shipped with these.
Among the various differences you'll see are:
Serial Numbers (700 000 through 1 164 865)
Bigger numbers are newer, but who cares? We're not buying new cameras anymore; today we're buying 50-year old mechanical cameras.
Just like with 1958-vintage cars, it doesn't matter if one year had slightly better or worse reliability than another. What is critical is the condition of the one sample you're considering. I'd much rather a 1954 model that has been well maintained than a 1967 version that's been beaten to death and suffered numerous inept repairs.
This said, I know of no substantiated difference in quality or reliability of different years of M3. Collectors worry themselves into frenzies over looking for higher serial numbers, but you're far better off getting an old one and sending it to Gus Lazzari for an overhaul, after which it will run like new.
Frameline Preview Lever (from 01 January 1955, or from Nr. 785 801)
Photographers know intuitively what is seen by each of their lenses.
Non-photographers prefer the crutch of a preview lever, which for people who only shoot at Christmas and summer vacation and forget which lens sees what, lets one select various framelines without needing to mount that lens. This is for the same sort people who need to look at their Ferrari's shift lever to find second gear.
Honestly, there are only three frame lines; the 50mm line is used with reduced magnification for 35mm lenses. It's trivial to imagine them; if you can't visualize simple things like this, it's time to give up on photography and take up something else instead of trying to update an older M3 to add a frameline preview lever.
No preview lever? No problem!
Glass Pressure Plate (through 1957 or Nr. 854 000)
The very first M3's went to the insane level of using an optically-flat ground-glass pressure plate to ensure perfect film flatness.
These work great, except in some extreme conditions where they can permit static electricity and sparks to occur, thus the pressure plates were changed to metal in 1957.
Shutter Speeds: Scientific (through 1957 or Nr. 854 000) or Geometric (from 05 January 1957, Nr. 854 001)
All LEICA M3 cover Bulb and 1 second to 1/1,000, and have click stops at 1/250, 1/500 and 1/1,000.
The earliest M3s had click-stops at the scientific speeds of 1, 2, 5, 10, 25, 50 and 100, while newer models use the geometric speeds of 1, 2, 4, 8, 15, 30, 60 and 125 (with a red bolt at 1/50).
This means nothing, because one may set intermediate speeds between the clicks on either version. Set whatever speed you like and don't worry about it, although there are some small ranges on each version between which intermediate speeds may not be set.
This becomes even less significant when the LEICA M3 is used properly with a coupled LEICAMETER, in which case the camera's shutter-speed numbering is replaced by the scale on the LEICAMETER. Set the meter at the clicks, and you're fine.
Double-Stoke Film Advance (DoppelAufzug or Verschlussaufzug und Filmtransport mit doppel Hebelschwung, though 1958 or Nr 919 250)
Single-Stroke Film Advance (Verschlussaufzug mit einem Hebelschwung or Verschlussaufzug, from 26 March 1958, Nr. 919 251)
As Leica's very first thumb-wind camera, Leica chose to offer its esteemed customers the quiet precision of two short, sharp strokes to advance each frame and charge the shutter. LEICAMEN are never in a hurry.
Oriental cameras overlooked this, and allowed photographers to go out of their way and expend the extra and unnecessary effort to move their thumbs out-of-joint and wind the film in one long, exasperating stroke.
No big deal on Leica's part, so newer versions of the M3 also allow less reserved users to push the lever all the way to the front of the camera to wind and charge in one big, long stroke.
All M3 wind systems are precisely ratcheted, so one may use as many smaller strokes as one wishes.
Depth-of-Field Preview (from 26 March 1958, Nr. 919 251)
Another little bit of genius, never repeated on any other LEICA, is a clever variation to the rangefinder spot. By adding two little tits of different size on the top and bottom of the main rangefinder (measuring) spot, objects that are not exactly in focus, but still close enough to fit within the width of one of those spots, will be within the customary depth-of-field.
Specifically, with a 50mm lens, the smaller, lower tit corresponds to the depth-of-field at f/5.6, and the larger tit on top to f/16.
The earliest M3s had reverse-teardrop shaped lugs, with lower descenders with rivets below them, while newer models (from 1959, Nr. 963 001) use smaller half-circle lugs that seem identical to today's lugs.
The DIN film-speed standard changed in the late 1950s.
Early M3 film-reminders will show this with ASA 80 corresponding to DIN 21/10, and newer M3 show today's convention of ASA 100 corresponding to DIN 21.
The rotating centers of these knobs first had but one line on them, then an offset red dot, then two red dots.
These move as the film advances, allowing the photographer to confirm that his film is advancing.
All proper M3s are silver chrome, all quarter-million of them.
Leica made less than 150 in black, and less than 150 in olive drab. Collectors go ga-ga over these, and thus criminals take decent M3s, paint them, and successfully pawn them off on unwitting collectors. This is why you occasionally see one in a different color.
The LEICA MP (1956-1957)
Leica made just under 500 copies of a simplified "professional" version of the M3, called the MP. It has nothing to do with today's LEICA MP.
The 1950's LEICA MP included the LEICAVIT two-stroke thumb-activated speed-winder, and used steel instead of brass winding gears.
The 1950s LEICA MP used the more primitive M2 film counter and deleted the self timer.
In the 1950s, Leica advertised that if something claims to be as good as a LEICA, that that was prima facie evidence that a LEICA must obviously be the best, and that whatever was claiming to be as good as a LEICA, wasn't.
The LEICA M3 is the great camera to which every other camera aspires. Every time LEICA knocks out some sort of commemoration, it's usually some other camera trying to pretend it's an M3, like the LEICA M6's M6J edition.
Today, Leica tries to imply that the LEICA MP is the modern embodiment of the M3, but no: its finder is inferior.
As you may have suspected, Leica has never dishonored the M3 by offering it as part of any "special edition." It is the LEICA M3 which is honored by other cameras commemorating its glory. The LEICA M3 has never needed any special editions; every LEICA M3 is extraordinary.
One was a beater from 1955, with a worn 50mm f/2 collapsible lens. It worked, but it was gritty. The lens was worn. I sent it to Gus, and the M3 returned like new. The reason it worked is because it had had an earlier repair by a less-than-expert technician which Gus rectified.
My second M3 was an almost unused L-sealed 1963 M3, complete with meter, case, and rigid 50mm SUMMICRON, for about $900, delivered. Its slow speeds didn't work from lack of use, and one trip to Gus returned it working like new — with its L seals untouched.
Therefore, either buy from a good, dedicated LEICA dealer like OC Camera, or take your chances over eBay to save some money, but expect to take the time to send out your new M3 before you can enjoy it.
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