What can we say about Leica that hasn’t already been said? The subject of countless articles and blog posts, every inch of every Leica ever made has been scrutinized ten times over. Their reputation often precedes them, and whether we like it or not, they’re the camera that so many photographers aspire to.
To the casual enthusiast, the Leica camera is a symbol of an unspoken hierarchy within the photographic world and a reminder of our rather lowly place in that world. The constant stream of Leica, Leica, Leica on social media urges us to view our otherwise incredible cameras with disappointment because they lack the famous red dot, and our photographs as subpar because they were made with a Japanese lens.
The very mention of the words “Leica M” conjures up equal parts excitement and queasiness. My admiration for the camera is tempered by the simple fact that they’re too expensive. Whenever I see one, I foolishly ask myself how serious I am about photography, and if I’ll ever reach the point where I can be proud of what’s in my bag. It’s a sorry state of affairs, all brought about by the lustful coveting of that ubiquitous brand name.
But, wait, not all Leicas are expensive. It seems there’s an entire subset of models in the Leica lineup that have somehow ducked the hype. They’re the screw mount Leicas, and the easiest to buy of this range is the Leica IIIc. Compared to the M, this camera is so rarely spoken of on social media that it’s downright obscure, which is baffling considering the camera’s strong reputation among hardcore photographers. All the moaning about cost versus capability that we so often hear leveled against the M series becomes entirely moot when discussing the IIIc.
But though I’d heard so much about the IIIc, I’d never actually shot one. To rectify this (and to finally get my mitts on an affordable Leica) I took the plunge and ordered one for myself.
Leica gained fame by being the first company to fully embrace and subsequently popularize the 24x36mm film format that would henceforth be known as 35mm (and today’s full-frame digital sensors). The initial intent of 35mm was to give true portability to photographers unwilling to lug around the 4×5 press cameras and medium format TLRs of the era. Legend has it that the inventor of the Leica, Oskar Barnack, suffered with a bad back, and designed the Leica to be as small and light as possible in an attempt to avoid slipped discs or hernias. The resulting camera, the Leica A, embodied the very spirit of 35mm photography. It was compact, light, and easy to carry around, a revelation to press photographers and photojournalists. It’s no overstatement that the masterful design of the Leica is directly responsible for the explosion in popularity of 35mm photography that we’d see in the subsequent seven decades.
With all this historical relevance, I’m not going to lie, when my Leica finally arrived at my doorstep I was a little nervous. Like finally asking out your high school crush after weeks of torturous deliberation, handling your first Leica is an affair filled with anxiety and sweaty palms. And just like the moment you finally do ask that person out, you’re never truly prepared for what happens next.
Pulling the camera from its shipping box, the first thing that struck me was the size. The Leica IIIc hails from the lineage of this first camera, and shares the same compact and ergonomic design philosophy embodied in the Leica A. This camera is absolutely puny compared to other film cameras of the day and smaller than almost anything created since its introduction. Apart from its apparent pocketability, its remarkably diminutive stature tells us a thousand words about the ethos of the camera and of the genesis of 35mm photography itself. Today, it still feels incredibly natural in the hands, which is even more remarkable when we consider the camera’s incredible age.
Unfortunately for us living in the digital age, that’s where the comfort ends, and even for shooters used to classic cameras, handling a Leica IIIc can be one of the most disorienting experiences around. Knobs have been placed where we typically find levers, the back doesn’t swing out for easy loading, the usual single viewfinder is here replaced by three (two of which we actually look through), there’s more than one shutter speed dial, things are written in German, there’s a weird infinity sign next to a lever that probably does something critical, and… it’s just confusing.
But after a drink of water, some research, and a few minutes of playing around with the camera, I managed to muddle through. The primary shutter speed dial has to be pulled up to operate, and selects speeds from 1/30 of a second to a surprisingly speedy 1/1000 of a second. A separate slow-speed dial on the front of the camera selects speeds down to 1 second, as well as the camera’s T mode (timed exposures). The two viewing finders constitute the machine’s separate rangefinder and viewfinder, an archaic feature that makes sense considering the camera’s advanced age. Winding and rewinding the film occurs via the knobs on opposite ends of the camera, with rewind being engaged by a wonderfully ancient-looking lever in front of the shutter release. And that infinity sign with the lever? It’s a built in diopter for the rangefinder, a godsend for the glasses-wearer.
Though easily understood after a few minutes, screw-mount Leicas will seem archaic and backwards compared to the hyper-automated wonders of today, and frankly, they shouldn’t make sense to shoot today. Yet somehow, the Leica IIIc manages to make perfect sense when one finally understands how to operate one. And just as that last thought crossed my mind, it hit me- the Leica IIIc is the Yoda of cameras. It’s small, powerful, a little bit ugly, and it speaks backwards but makes perfect sense.
The only thing that doesn’t really make sense is, of course, how the camera is loaded. Instead of loading from the back of the camera, loading occurs from the bottom. This kind of construction lends itself well to the structural rigidity and light-tight properties of the camera, but it frankly makes loading a pain in the ass to do correctly, especially for the first few rolls.
First, the bottom plate comes off via a latch. But wait! The bottom of the camera tells us to “Stop! and Draw No Further”. The accompanying picture shows a canister with a film leader that is much longer than what we are used to today. The film will not spool up if the leader is any shorter, so the film leader must be trimmed to an appropriate length (10-11 cm) before loading. Then, pull out the film spool and insert the newly-trimmed film leader from the canister into the spool. With all of that done, we can place the attached spool and canister into their slots, guiding the film into the small crevice between the shutter mechanism and the back of the camera.
Previously I’d been advised by the internet that at this point in the process I should replace the bottom plate, take up the film slack with the rewind knob, and advance the shutter twice. If all was well, the rewind knob would turn in time with the advance knob. Except it didn’t. I tried for about 15 minutes to no avail and much frustration.
Almost as if on cue, the frail voice of Master Yoda echoed in my head, “You must unlearn what you have learned. Do or do not. There is no try.” With mustered courage I opened up the bottom plate again, reattached the film, and rewound it until I could visually confirm that the sprockets inside engaged the spool. I latched the bottom plate closed one last time, said a small prayer, and advanced the film. The rewind knob finally moved, indicating that I had in fact successfully loaded a screw mount Leica. This is the closest I’ve ever come to using the Force.
Loading woes and dubious Star Wars references now out of my system, it was time to see how the Leica IIIc actually operated in the field.
The operation of any screw mount Leica is a divisive topic among photo geeks. Some praise it for its ability to slow down the photographic process while others deride it for requiring way too many steps to take a single goddamned picture. Both camps, incidentally, are correct. The Leica handsomely rewards the patient and cruelly punishes the impatient. Being a very impatient shooter, the first outing with the Leica IIIc was infuriating for me. If I didn’t adhere to a strict order of operations, the Leica came back to bite me with an underexposed frame, or worse, an entirely empty frame.
For the curious, the order of operations is thus: meter or guess at the exposure, set aperture and shutter speed, roughly frame in the viewfinder, switch to the rangefinder to focus, switch back to the viewfinder, roughly compensate for parallax, press the shutter, and wind onto the next frame. After the roll’s done, flick the old-timey rewind lever to R, and begin the unfortunate task of rewinding by knob instead of crank. And after that’s done, refer back to the loading paragraph to successfully (hopefully) load another roll.
In addition to loading film and shooting a photo, the process of mounting lenses also manages to be tedious. Every lens must be screwed in rather than simply snapped in via the slick bayonet mounts to which most shooters are accustomed. This older method is finicky compared to cameras and in its own way discourages the use of multiple focal lengths. This last effect could be a blessing in disguise for swap-happy shooters. Pick a lens and shoot it.
The viewfinder of the Leica IIIc doesn’t promote lens swapping either. Unlike Leica’s M series cameras, the viewfinder only supports the 50mm focal length. This means that shooters interested in other focal lengths for their Leica IIIc are obligated to obtain an external viewfinder to frame correctly. These viewfinders are widely available (and indeed, my Leica IIIc has been outfitted with a Leica VIOOH variable frame viewfinder) but it’s yet another inconvenience and expense that some shooters could certainly do without.
Another annoyance in the already egregiously longhand photo process, the rangefinder on the Leica IIIc is not coupled with the viewfinder, meaning shooters have to switch back and forth between windows to acquire focus and compose. And to make things worse, the rangefinder mirror on many screw-mount Leicas are unhappily dim, the result of seventy-odd years of aging. This makes focusing even more difficult, slow, and tedious.
In comparison to more modern machines, and even compared with machines dating back as far as the 1950s, the screw mount Leica is tedious and time-consuming. Great cameras are often praised for their ability to get out of the way, but the Leica IIIc manages to do the exact opposite. It gets in the way at every single possible moment, sometimes even going as far as to distract from the actual photo itself. This would normally be grounds on which to sell the camera and buy something more suited to making photos and less suited to sitting on a shelf, but I haven’t done that. Quite the contrary. This is a camera that I plan to keep for as long as I live.
That’s because the Leica IIIc has taught me that speed isn’t everything. Though it’s true that the camera’s clumsiness gets in the way initially, once we’re past the teething period it transforms into a surprisingly intuitive machine. The separation of each and every possible function and the limitation to one built-in focal length seems criminally restrictive at first, but over time these restrictions seem to dissolve. What’s left is a photographic experience that is, after all its myriad complications, surprisingly pure.
The entire beauty of the Leica IIIc lies in its ability to get to the heart of the matter. Because of its legendary build quality, the Leica takes us through each step of the photographic process with inimitable grace and style, making even simple functions like changing the shutter speed take on a greater significance. Every pull of the shutter speed dial, every twist of the aperture ring, every press of a button, and every wind of a knob feels definite, deliberate, and, yes, decisive. At its best, the Leica gently reminds us that photography once was and still is a miracle of humanity.
Of course, all of this flowery praise means jack if the images don’t look good. Luckily, the Leica’s M39 mount encompasses some of the greatest lenses around at every price point. At the higher end we get the famous lenses made by Leica themselves, in the midrange we get the fabulous Japanese M39 lenses from Canon, Nikon, and Minolta (under the name of Chiyoko), and at the low-end we get the eccentric and capable (though inconsistent) Russian lenses. The Leica IIIc caters to shooters from every economic strata, unlike its more ritzy descendants.
But here’s the real kicker; the screw-mount Leica bodies are cheap (for a Leica). And the most attainable of the screw-mount Leicas is the Leica IIIc, the model made immediately after World War II. Their long production run make them plentiful and undervalued in comparison to other Leica screwmount cameras. My review camera was only $200, chump change compared to the suitcases of money required to purchase a Leica M.
Yes, the price is higher than many other 35mm cameras, and it may indeed seem too high for what is even by vintage standards an archaic, outdated camera. But when we consider that the IIIc is part of a range of Leicas that make up the most historically significant cameras ever made, the cost quickly becomes both reasonable, and a moot point. We’re paying for history, class, and sophistication. Combine these superlatives with the camera’s unique shooting style, its impeccable build quality, and its undeniable street cred, and the IIIc becomes nearly irresistible. Hey, it’s a Leica. What more can we say?