Mention Leica to a group of photographers and you’ll get everything from awe to ridicule. No other company today is as intrinsically entwined in photographic folklore and few elicit such emotion.
The German company pretty much invented the 35mm camera format in the 1920s with the commercial release of the Leica I, which in the hands of an ever-expressive and adventurous photographer, gave birth to photojournalism and reportage as we know it today. Oskar Barnack, poached from optical rivals Zeiss, had actually been tinkering with idea of using cine film in a pocketable camera since 1914, but war disrupted development, and it took 10 years or so until the concept finally become reality.
The Leica changed photography. It was small, unobtrusive and could be used handheld with enough depth of field and quality. No longer were photographers forced to lug around large plate cameras and tripods – they could be mobile, adaptable and reactive.
So why the polarisation today? Well Leica's relatively recent metamorphosis into a luxury brand from the workhorse camera manufacturer (and respected microscope company) it once was. With a reputation built on quality and innovation (with the later arguably evaporating in recent decades), Leica is to optics what Rolex is to timepieces. Anyone who can pay $10K for a 50mm lens probably owns one of those oyster pearl-faced watches to.
The term ‘luxury item’ has become synonymous with the ‘red dot’ (the famous Leica logo designed in the 70s). It wasn’t always like this of course. In 1954 when Leica introduced the M3 (their first integrated rangefinder/viewfinder camera that revolutionised photojournalism) it cost a pretty penny, but was hardly considered luxury or even exclusive. It was designed for photographers who demanded a reliable, versatile system in a changing world. Utilitarian might be going a tad too far, but the M3 - a camera recently voted the ‘gadget of the century’ - was all about function and purpose. In the decades after its release, the Leica would become the ubiquitous reportage tool.
Fast forward and the binding force for Leica-love in this digital age is down to pure craftsmanship. A digital camera - let’s say the ubiquitous iPhone for this example - is a beautifully designed and conceived device which will probably be seen in 50 years as a defining work of art. To say digital is soulless and somehow not worthy of ‘classic status’, is of course absurd. By definition however, craftsmanship is about creating something with hands. A Leica M3 is a totally mechanical masterpiece designed to last - and I mean really last. Like any mechanical device, it requires regular maintenance but how many other cameras work today as they did in the 1950s?
Compared to newer versions of the M, the ‘3’ deserves its eminent status. The M2 (which confusingly was released five years afterwards) was ‘built to a price’ but retained most of it’s siblings alluring qualities. It did of course alter the frameline menu from 50/90/135 to the arguably more useful 35/50/90.
The numerically-ordered subsequent offerings from Leica; the M4, 5, 6 and 7 predictably added a slew of modern features. ‘Better’ film rewinding and loading in the M4, built-in exposure metering in the M5, TTL flash in the M6TTL and finally auto-exposure in the M7. The more recent MP and the MA are simply an exercise in Leica finding their mechanical mojo again and making a new camera much like they did in 1954.
I certainly haven’t used (let alone owned!) the full gamut of M’s, but through friends, photo shop visits and chance meetings on the street with kindly photographers, I’ve been fortunate enough to at least fire a few frames on most Leica rangefinders from the pre-bayonet IIIf to the M7. I can say without reserve that the Leica M3 (in my very mumble opinion of course) has never been bettered in ‘feel’. It may not be the most ‘efficient’ photographic tool - many will no doubt prefer 35mm framelines and a built-in meter - but in terms of sheer quality, the M3 reins supreme.
The ‘brass knight’ also boasts the most elegant viewfinder found in a rangefinder. Granted it’s not as bright or as large as some other M-mount cameras (the Zeiss Ikon takes the ribbon there), it’s perfect in nearly every regard. It’s crisp, incredibly accurate and the patch is almost impervious to flare. In essence, looking through an M3 finder is pure joy. Ergonomically the late model M3s (after a few minor refinements) are sublime and the engineering from an era when quality wasn’t built to a price.
When I sold my ‘perfect’ M3 I was filled with sellers remorse. But having fallen in love with the Zeiss 35 f2.8 Biogon-C, I was forced into a ‘rational’ decision. The M3 went and an M2 arrived in it’s place. It’s still a great Leica but it’s still not quite up there with the best Leica of all... the M3.