Recently I wrote about how Leica aficionados have a craft fetish where my implication was that I was somehow above that sort of thing. I could use any camera and get results that are just as good as with a Leica. Additionally, to prove my resilience to mere obsession, my preferred Leica was the looked down upon CL that was co-built by Japanese maker Minolta and was not up to the same quality standards as the other more revered German Leicas. What I particularly liked about the CL was that it was smaller and slightly more portable than the Leica M2/3/4/5/6/7 etc (as well as the ability to use Leica lenses). One of the idiosyncratic requirements for my usage of a walkaround camera is to be small enough to fit into my Billingham Hadley Digital bag along with some kind of digital mirrorless camera, which would enable me to carry both a digital and a film camera of some kind. An M3 or M6 with a lens were always pushing the limits of what I could carry, especially now that Micro 4/3s cameras are also getting bigger. Maybe I should just get a bigger bag? No, I am too fond of the perfect size of Hadley Digital bag.
A Leica IIIf came up for sale at a very reasonable price from Setadel Studios in Toronto and contrary to my ‘better’ judgement I was bitten by an irresistible temptation to try it out. I have thought about these old screw mount Leicas for some time, but have always dismissed them because of the small viewfinders and the fact that you have to focus in one viewfinder and then compose in a second one. It just seemed too clumsy and slow to shoot that way. In addition, there is a knob to turn in order to advance the film instead of a lever, and you also have to cut the film leader a few inches before loading the film. However, the big attraction, at least initially, was that it more compact. This is a bit misleading, since it is not really that much smaller, maybe only about one centimetre less tall than a CL and M3, but it feels much smaller in the hand and mysteriously takes up less space in my bag. The real pleasure, though, is shooting with it.
My IIIf is from 1950/51, so it is an early one. It does not have the self-timer on the front, which makes it look better in my opinion, and it is a black dial model that has the flash sync of 1/30 sec instead of 1/50 that came in the more preferred red dial model – not that this in anyway matters to me since I will not be using flash bulbs. The body is in excellent condition, the speeds are all accurate (hurray!) and the viewfinder and rangefinder patch are clean and clear. The IIIf viewfinder is designed only for 50mm lenses, so if you want to use other focal lengths you need to use an auxiliary viewfinder in the hot shoe. I still had a Leica Summarit 50mm f1.5 screw mount lens (L39) sitting on the shelf, so this was the other justification for getting the camera, to put this wonderful lens to use again. The Summarit is known for its glorious bokeh, a little soft wide open, but sharp enough when stopped down. Although it is a big lens, it still feels good on the IIIF. Nevertheless, I had to get an inexpensive Russian collapsible Industar-22 50mm lens (review to come shortly) so that I could make the IIIf small enough to fit in my pocket if I so desired.
Leica IIIf with collapsable Industar-22 f3.5 50mm (Red “P” indicates that it was built for the Red Army)
Lens choices for the IIIf are numerous. The main attraction is the drawing power of older uncoated or single coated lenses. Some of these lenses have that lovely combination of being very sharp and at the same time lower in contrast than modern multicoated lenses. The result is a unique look that is rarely duplicated in today’s lenses. Of course there are trade-offs; these older lenses tend to be soft wide open and the corners are rarely sharp even when stopped down. Because they are not multicoated, they will flare in bright light, so it can limit what you shoot. However, when the stars align and you get the right subject and lighting, it will all be worthwhile. There are numerous Leica lenses to choose from, but it is rare to find bargains here. Canon screw mount lenses are more accessible, the 50mm f1.4, 50mm f1.8, and 50mm f2.8 are all good choices. I have a 50mm f1.8 that has plenty of scratches on both the front and rear elements and still takes great photos. In fact, I think the scratches enhance the photos with less contrast (though more flare is the inevitable result of more scratches). There is the dreamy Canon 50mm f1.2, but size and cost are a problem. Then there is a plethora of Russian and East German lenses that are available in screw mount. I have been lucky with the few that I have purchased, contrary to the many stories of bad copies or poor craftsmanship, and they are cheap like borsht. For a slightly more modern look, there are very nice Voigtlander lenses like the compact Color-Skopar 50mm 2.5, which gives you something halfway between the old style and new. To be fair, it must be said that all these lenses can be used on modern Leica M cameras with an adapter if you should so choose, nevertheless, not as much fun as going native with them.
In usage the IIIf surprised me at how much I enjoyed shooting with it. Focus is relatively easy and quick, and the film advance knob, instead of being annoying, was actually quite efficient and felt pleasant to turn. If you set up the camera for range focusing you can street shoot with it, although a larger auxiliary viewfinder would make it easier and quicker to compose. It feels nice in my hands, not too big or too small. A benefit of the screw mount I particularly like is that there is no lens release knob to the right of the lens like there is on M Leicas, the fingers on my right hand would often wander towards the knob and sometimes release it unwittingly on the M bodies.
So how does the IIIf compare with other cameras? I can honestly say that almost every other camera that I have reviewed on this site is easier to use. However, since the IIIf is a rangefinder it will allow you to shoot in low light and/or slow shutter speeds with less camera shake than the SLRs reviewed, and I personally find rangefinder focus easier and more accurate than that of SLRs. More importantly, the IIIf has that magical combination of having just the right weight, size, feel, and precision craftsmanship to make me want to take it out and shoot all the time. This must be the craft fetish talking, I guess I will submit to it and just relish the overall joy of using the IIIf. It is certainly not a speedy camera to use, but without going on and on about the film shooter’s cliché of the advantages of slowing down one’s photography, the IIIf’s design fundamentally forces you to slow down, there is no way around that, and it is a good thing. The images it produces are not bad either! You can purchase a IIIf here.