Compiled and written by Andrew Nemeth, Australia
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Site last updated:  Sun, 12 Dec 2010

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Leica M3 - the original M rangefinder

Introduction

Released in 1954 and discontinued in 1966, the Leica M3 is to date the most successful M model, with over 220 000 sold.

These cameras, despite being forty-plus years old, aren't just for collectors or camera-fondlers either — see this May 2003 photo.net discussion about using an M3 for everyday shooting:

<Photo.net: #0054HA>

In April 2002 Roberto Watson-Garcia gathered together a dozen photographs of the scores of parts required to make an M3. So you never imagined how complicated an all-mechanical rangefinder camera can be, eh?

<photo.net/…/folder_id=196838>

Which M3 to get?

The closer you get to 1966, the more you can expect to pay. Single-stroke models cost more than double-stroke, serial numbers above 1 million attract a premium, while above #1.1M lands you in "sky's the limit" collector territory.

My advice is to get a beater #920K (or later) single-stroke with a clean VF. It shouldn't cost more than $US 800, even less maybe, especially since Leica MP's now soak up those who would have gone for the M3 earlier on.

How can you quickly distinguish a later model M3 from an earlier one? Easy — look at its "ears": if the strap eyelets look like tear-drops, then it's an older model. If however the eyelets are small and round, then it's a later model made in the 1960s.

Buy with a Warranty

Let's face it, these things are over forty years old and are pretty much antiques. Things wear out, jam, crack, break. If you purchase with a warranty then at least you'll have some recourse when your new M3 arrives DOA.

Obviously a lot depends on how much you're willing to pay. If it's just a "beater" for a couple of hundred dollars, then factor in the risk of failure into the low price. If OTOH you are forking out over $US 1000 for a mint/ collector M3, then it would be wise to insist on some kind of warranty as well.

My own experience will be instructive here. When I bought a 1964 M3 in June 2003, the shutter/ wind-on mechanism jammed after only seven hours (!)

Luckily the camera came with a twelve-month warranty (as a consequence of having paid top dollar for it at a major Sydney camera store), so all I had to do was send the camera back to have it repaired, for no additional cost.

It came back and worked flawlessly for four months, and then jammed again. As it was still under warranty, I sent it back to be repaired, again for free. This time Leica were so embarrassed they sent the camera all the way to Solms for a complete factory overhaul, and even issued me a brand new "courtesy Leica M7" to use while the M3 was away (!)

Without the warranty, not only I would have been up for hundreds of dollars in repairs, but I would have also missed out on the Solms overhaul and freebie M7!

Loading film Is A Pain

The M3 inherited the earlier LTM's needlessly tricky film spool loading mechanism. So when buying a camera, ask the seller to show you how to load it, as it's much easier to learn from an experienced user than trying to figure it out yourself.

One tip though, when inserting the film leader into the removable take-up spool, make sure you press it in all the way, such that the "dotted arrow cut-out" on the spool shows film underneath for its entire length.

Another couple of tips. Unlike subsequent Ms, keep the camera back open during loading. Only close a M3 when you are certain the film has engaged the film advance sprockets. Also, scrounge around for spare film spools as they have a tendency to fall down drains or roll off into the sunset when trying to do a fast(ish) film change.

BTW, it is because of the M3's fiddly loading scheme that the "rapid load" mechanism was invented ten years later for the M4. Goodbye, good-riddance and notice how it didn't come back as a retro feature in the otherwise screw-for-screw M3 clone, the current Leica MP.

Speeding up film loading

There are three ways you can do it: (1) get yourself a few extra film spools and pre-thread them before leaving home; (2) install the "M2 Quick Load Kit"; (3) have a camera tech replace the entire film loading mechanism with the modern "rapid load" apparatus.

These topics are discussed in greater detail elsewhere in the FAQ.

No RF patch flare!

As I note elsewhere in this FAQ, when Erwin Puts blessed the M3 as the only M model (aside from the MD-2…) with a truly flare-free viewfinder, many were sceptical.

But I have to give Puts credit where it's due, because he was right. I have never seen the RF patch on my (1964) M3 flare. Point it straight into a spotlight or at the sun — no flare. Ever. Amazing thing!

So if you're excessively bothered by RF patch flare and cannot afford the new MP, then a trusty M3 may bring you a few steps closer to salvation.

Tinted Viewfinder

The uncluttered 0.92x viewfinder with its long rangefinder base and thick 50mm frame-lines, is still one of the M3's main selling points. If you're a 90mm lens user, the M3's 90 frame-lines are also the best and largest to use in the entire M line.

Eagle-eyed users will notice the M3 (and M2) finder has a definite blue tint, while the rangefinder patch is slightly yellow. This is unlike more recent VF/RF combinations, which are neutral grey and white respectively. The colours can be best seen by holding your M3 at arm's length in front of a (say) white curtain, and then looking at your camera from the front. On the M3 you will see the small (lhs) RF window is yellow and the larger (rhs) VF window is pale blue. Later M's don't do this.

Whilst the colour-tinting is sorta cool, there's a downside in that the viewfinder is much dimmer than current M models. Out in the sun it doesn't matter much, but in darker light it's a PITA. Although M3's made after S/N #1M are slightly brighter — <Photo.net: #00Fk8J> — it's still dim enough to warrant packing a bright-line accessory viewfinder for indoor use.

Yellow RF tint — gold-plating or just age?

Thanks to dogged persuit by Bill Blackwell, this matter was finally put to rest in April 2006.

Now pay attention — the yellow colour is due to Gold Plating. Not oxidation, weathering or even Elf urine, but honest to goodness Au.

<Photo.net: #00G7fv>

This sits well with established Leica Lore: the M3 yellow/blue rangefinder scheme was no accident but rather a unique feature to make focusing easier for newbies. Wetzlar dropped the idea for later Ms as a cost-cutting measure.

Metal eyepiece scratches your glasses?

There's a lot of hand-wringing over this in discussion forums, yet there are a number of very simple solutions:

  1. Aki-Asahi Leica M2/M3 Eye Piece Patch 4 pcs ($3.50)
  2. The Lutz Konermann designed "Scoop" PET plastic eye-cup ($6)
  3. Paint around the offending ring with Liquid Electrical Tape.
  4. Cut out a leather donut and glue it into place (obviously use a craft glue which can be pulled apart at a later date).
  5. In June 2004, Babar Khan recommended following:
    As far as the M2/M3/M4 metal eyepiece scratching glasses — I just got the Leitz snap-in plastic for the metal eyepiece from Don Goldberg (DAG) which works like a charm! And it's only $15.00 and it fixes this nasty problem.
  6. In September 2004, Kenneth Frazier sent me the following tip:
    I picked up several US39¢ "keyminders" at my local hardware store the other day. They are soft round plastic rings for color-coding keys, and they are a nearly perfect fit for the eyepice of the M3. I tried several until I found one that was snug.
  7. In January 2006, Tom Willekes sent me another tip:
    I was at "The Source by Circuit City" and they have silicon O-rings, intended as replacements for the small earphones used by iPods and such. For $5.00 (for 4) I thought it was worth a try. It turns out they stretch nicely around the metal M3 eyepiece and provide excellent protection from scratching my eyeglasses. They also seem to seat around it fairly solidly; they haven't fallen or rubbed off yet.

M3 viewfinder dimming, separation & black-out

After forty years the materials used in the M3's viewfinder can show their age. Problems can manifest themselves in two ways:

Prism de-silvering

This is where the silver coating used in the rangefinder beam-splitters become oxidised. It goes from a mirror-like silver to black silver-oxide, resulting in the central RF patch blacking out and being unusable.

Be aware of this. As there are no spare M3 VF mechanisms available, once your finder de-silvers then that's it, Game Over. Usually the only way to fix it is to completely remove the entire RF mechanism and replace it with a new M6J or 0.85 M6/TTL finder, at of course major expense.

Luckily CRR Luton (UK) can offer (the world's only?) "re-silvering service", see below.

Finder separation

Here the problem is with the transparent adhesive ("Canadian Balsam") used to hold together the viewfinder optics. On many M3s this glue has dried out, resulting in glass separation and — eventually — focus patch black-out once the elements separate far enough apart.

Caveat — a little bit of yellow crazing around the VF edges isn't obviously the end of the world. Many finders separate a little and stay that way (and remain perfectly usable) for decades. Unfortunately others can go from pristine to blackout in a couple of years (or even one hefty whack). M3 finder separation is very much a YMMV thing. So although you should keep it in mind, don't fret about it.

The good news is that you can have this problem fixed by simply re-glueing the prisms with modern UV optical adhesive (see below).

M3 Finder repairs

CCR Luton (UK) specifically claim the following on their www site:

Do you have an M2, M3 or M4 with the viewfinder "blacked-out" and do not wish to pay £500 or more to replace the rangefinder? We can re-silver the prism and restore the viewfinder to original condition for a fraction of the cost of a new rangefinder.

(BTW, see also this M rangefinder restoration page on the CRR Luton website which details their construction, how they work, typical forms of deterioration and the kinds of repairs which are available.)

Furthermore, in May 2004 I emailed Don Goldberg (DAG) about this — here is his reply:

I can re-cement M3 main prisms, however, it sounds like yours is not all that bad. Many M3 main prisms have a border of "glaze" around their main prism & optically it's as good as new. When & if the prism starts de-cementing into the main prism area then it's a good idea to re-cement — which costs $US 200.00.

Finally, according to a March 2006 online discussion, quite a few people have had their M3 prisms re-glued and it appears to work well: <Photo.net: #00FqI6>. Clearly there's hope for "VF separation anxiety" after all!

DIY repair

Why not? Simply disassemble the camera and RF mechanism; use acetone to dissolve the Canadian Balsam holding the prism together; re-cement using modern UV optical adhesives; allow time to cure; then re-assemble & re-calibrate the RF; and then put the camera back together again. Pretty easy really.

According to Jeremy Tok in a December 2005 discussion at <Photo.net: #00EXtu>

With these rapid-curing adhesives, one may even do away with jigs or construct very provisional ones to hold the prism in place while the adhesive hardens.

Indeed.

M3 Fame and Glory

The M3 has been around long enough to become a famous cultural item:

Rangefinder min. focus is only 1m

In October 2002, Al Kaplan noted the following important warning:

Just be careful if you use an older M3 body. They left the factory with a minimum rangefinder distance of one meter, but can easily (by a tech!) be adjusted to focus closer, like the M2 through M7 bodies.

Why did they do this? Because most M lenses at the time (1950s), aside from the 50mm DR, only focused down to 1m. The shorter focus 0.7m lenses were introduced a few years later with the M2.

Replacement flash sync plugs

Lost the little PC plugs at the rear of the camera, or want to replace them with something nicer? No problem — you can buy new brass or black paint ones for $US 10 each from:

<quickreleaseplate.com>

Why the double-stroke M3?

In June 2002, Roger Michel provided the following detailed explanation:

[…] The change from single to double stroke occurred at S/N #915251. The DS M3 was, in some ways, a transition from the knob wind [LTM] cameras. The belief was that a lever wind camera advance would put a lot of strain on the film, possibly tearing sprockets.
 
When leica first moved to lever wind from knob, therefore, they opted for a lower geared DS action. Once they became convinced that the films were robust enough, they went to the SS model.
 
There is widespread belief that the DS mechanisms are more prone to failure. I think that is right. However, I don't think the mechanism is inherently weaker, it's just that it has necessarily been used twice as much (two strokes per advance) over the years as in comparable cameras. The DS clutches can be routinely replaced with SS at a cost of about $350. However, a DS camera in good shape will give you years of trouble free service. As an aside, I must admit that I generally advance my SS M cameras by using two short strokes. It's faster for me.

Leica M3 links

External sites

See the following sites for reasonably detailed blurbs about the M3:

  1. <photoethnography.com/ClassicCameras/LeicaM3.html>
  2. <jck.net/leica/index_e.html>
  3. <cameraquest.com/mguide.htm#M3's>
  4. <dantestella.com/technical/m3.html>
  5. <imx.nl/photo/leica/leica_m3_a_tribute_to_a_lan.html>
  6. <pacificrimcamera.com/pp/leica/m/m3.htm>
  7. <lausch.com/leica3m.htm> (German)

Elsewhere in the FAQ

This FAQ has a number of M3-related entries — see any of the following for more info:

A note about possible broken links

This FAQ has over 900 external links. Over time it is inevitable some of them will break. If you are bothered by this, see this detailed topic elsewhere in the FAQ.

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