Homage To The Immortal Leica M3: Predecessors and Progeny of the Most Influential Rangefinder 35mm Camera ever

Aug 9, 2019  By Jason Schneider

In the pantheon of 35mm Leica cameras over the past century the Leica M3 of 1954 stands supreme. Only the prototype Ur Leica of 1914, the first production Leica (model A) of 1925, and the Leica II (model D) the first screw-mount Leica with built-in coupled rangefinder, marked comparable turning points in Leica history. The Leica M3 is a masterpiece of integrated design that took the rangefinder Leica to an unprecedented new level of sophistication and performance and propelled the photographic industry forward as other leading camera companies responded to the challenge it posed. Ironically, were it not for the M3, a camera that set the standard and defined the limits of what was possible in designing an interchangeable lens rangefinder 35mmm system, it’s doubtful the rise of the 35mm SLR, the DSLR, and the mirrorless camera would occurred as rapidly or rolled out in the same way.

Like most great designs, the Leica M3 is an ingenious amalgam of the best of existing technology topped off with a number of brilliant innovations that set it apart and transformed it into a timeless classic. The bayonet mount, the combined rage/viewfinder, and the rapid film-wind lever are 3 key features that differentiated the M3 from its Wetzlar-made predecessors (and from the glorious Leica IIIg of 1957-1960), and all appeared first on competitive cameras.

The Zeiss-Ikon Contax I of 1932, the first serious competitor to the Leica, had a bayonet lens mount, and the Contax II of 1936 added a superb long-base range/viewfinder, Nikon used a Contax-style bayonet mount in the seminal Nikon M of 1948 and all subsequent S-series rangefinder Nikons, all of which also featured excellent combined range/viewfinders. Canon stuck with the 39mm Leica screw mount on their interchangeable lens rangefinder cameras (eventually adding a secondary outer bayonet for long lenses on 7-series Canons) but the Canon S-II of 1946 qualifies as the very first Japanese rangefinder camera with a combined range/viewfinder, a signature feature of all subsequent screw-mount Canons. The Vest Pocket Exakta B and Night Exakta, both introduced in 1934, had very long (290-degree!) stroke left-handed film wind levers as did the Kine Exakta of 1936, the world’s first widely distributed 35mm SLR. The original Leica M3 sported a conventional right-handed film wind lever that advanced the film in 2 short strokes, but bowing to popular demand, they switched to a single stroke film advance in 1957 starting with serial number 915251.

Perhaps the most distinctive and defining feature of the M3 is its magnificent multi-frame range/viewfinder that provides a bright, crisply defined rangefinder patch that is so precisely aligned it can be used as a split-image rangefinder, thus enhancing focusing accuracy. Its groundbreaking, high-magnification, (0.92x) multi-frame viewfinder was the first ever to feature true projected parallax-compensating frame lines delineating the fields for 50mm, 90mm, and 135mm lenses. Illuminated by a separate frosted light-collecting window the frame lines are auto indexing, meaning that the right frame automatically appears in the viewfinder as you install an M-mount lens of the corresponding focal length.  You can also preview the effect of using other lenses via the manual frame selector lever located below the front finder window. Other M3 niceties include a self-zeroing frame counter, a hinged back section to facilitate film loading an inspection, and a classic Leica form factor with ergonomically rounded ends.

Although Leica brought it to an amazing level of functional sophistication in the M3 built-in parallax compensation was not exactly a new idea. Innumerable non-optical frame finders had adjustable rear peep sights that could be raised or lowered to more accurately compose subjects at various distances. Many accessory shoe-mount optical finders such as the Leitz VIDOM universal viewfinder of 1933-1939 (that covers focal lengths from 35-135mm) and the improved Leitz VIOOH (1939-1963) provide manual parallax compensation using a geared tilting mechanism controlled by a calibrated distance dial. The very first camera with built-in “automatic” parallax compensation may well have been the original scale-focusing Minox of 1937-1944, designed by Estonian engineer Walter Zappa and manufactured in Riga, Latvia.  Since this classic 8x11mm-format miniature “spy camera” could focus down to 20 cm (about 8 inches) for document copying with the aid of a handy-dandy “focusing chain” its inverse Galilean viewfinder provided parallax compensation over the entire focusing range using an ingenious tilting mechanism controlled by a cam on the focusing dial!

But the parallax compensation design that that may have had the greatest influence on the glorious M3 viewfinder probably came from (of all people) the Argus Camera Co, of Ann Arbor, MI, famous for their immensely popular, relatively inexpensive 35mm cameras (e.g. the fabled Argus C3 “brick”) that were squarely aimed at the mass market. Under military contract during WW II, Argus developed a new method for presenting a sharply focused, illuminated frame line in an inverse Galilean optical finder that was superior to the previously used Albada reflective design found on other cameras, notably Zeiss Super Ikontas. Since the light to illuminate the frame line came through a forward-facing window and the frame line reticle was not located in the optical path there were no size constraints on the design of the reticle itself, a key point in the M3 viewfinder’s design. And since the front lens had no reflecting function as it did in the Albada system it had the potential for greater design flexibility, which Leica fully exploited. Ironically the brilliant design Argus came up with never wound up in an Argus rangefinder camera mostly due to its cost, complexity, and size, but it was used in the Argus 21 Markfinder of 1947-1952, an attractive scale-focusing cousin of the Argus C4 that used auto-parallax-compensating “superimposed guidelines for easier composition.” It’s still considered a high point of viewfinder development for its era despite lackluster sales.

In the Leica M3 of 1954, Leitz solved Argus’ dilemma by the straightforward but costly expedient of building, in effect, a complete astronomical telescope into the range/viewfinder assembly with its inner focal point at the same plane as the frame line mask, just as they had in designing the VIDOM shoe-mounted finder 2 decades earlier. In the M3 finder the erecting roof prism is located behind the right-hand rangefinder window so it inverts the incoming light beam prior to its entering the inverting optics of the rangefinder telescope. The telescope objective itself is shifted as the lens is focused instead of pivoting the right-hand prism to invert the beam. And by matching the focal length of the objective with the positive field lens the rangefinder patch achieves a magnification (0.92x) that corresponds to the main viewfinder. Brilliant.

By coupling the rangefinder mechanism to the viewfinder mask the projected frame lines moves laterally and vertically to compensate for parallax error, and by adding a coupling cam to the lens mount, the proper frame line is automatically selected to match the coverage of the lens in use.  While the M3’s viewfinder is a phenomenal achievement and an effective compositional aid it is far from perfect. Full parallax compensation occurs only at 1 meter, and contrary to the claims of some writers, Leica M frame lines do not expand and contract to adjust for the narrowing of the image field (due to the increase in the effective focal length) as you focus closer. To the best of my knowledge the only rangefinder cameras that provide parallax compensating frame lines that also correct for field frame size are fixed lens models, including the Konica Pearl IV of 1958, the Fuji GS 645 and GS 670 (all roll film folders) and the Konica IIIA and IIIM, both 35mm rangefinder cameras

Amazingly, in that momentous year, 1954, Aires, a small Japanese maker of innovative rangefinder 35s, announced the Aires 35-II, an otherwise un-remarkable fixed lens leaf shutter model that incorporated a simplified but very effective automatic parallax-compensation range/viewfinder with a moving field frame line! In order to compete with the Leica M3, M2 and M4 Nikon brought forth the Nikon SP with built-in parallax compensating frame lines in 1957 and Canon followed shortly thereafter, incorporating ingenious multi-frame line range/viewfinders into their great VI- and 7-series interchangeable lens rangefinder Canons. During the ‘70s Leitz collaborated with Minolta to design the compact Leica CL (released in 1973) which had auto parallax compensation, and in 1981 Minolta went on to produce the remarkable Minolta CLE on their own, featuring parallax compensating frame lines plus advanced exposure automation. In 1999, Konica unveiled their remarkable M-mount Hexar AF with a 6-frame line viewfinder system (two displayed at a time) very similar to the Leica M6 but not quite as bright. Finally shortly thereafter Japanese camera and lens maker Cosina revived the Voigtlander name, bringing out a series of M-mount Bessa 35mm rangefinder cameras with (you guessed it) multi-frame viewfinders with auto-parallax-compensating frame lines.

My favorite Cosina-made 35mm rangefinder camera, and by far the prettiest, is the late great Zeiss Ikon (aka Zeiss Ikon ZM) of 2005-2012 said to have been made at the behest of Zeiss Oberkochen. The ZM has TTL center-weighted metering with a range of 0 to 20 EV (ISO 100) that reads off the shutter, a hinged back with a quick-loading system, and a base-mounted rewind crank similar to the Leica CL. The viewfinder has a 0.74 magnification and incorporates a rangefinder with a base length of 55.5mm, slightly longer than the Leica M7. The bright, projected, auto-indexing, parallax-compensating frame lines cover the commonly used focal lengths of 28, 35, 50 and 85mm, and the 28 and 85mm frame lines are displayed simultaneously. There’s also a manual frame selector lever on the front of the camera for previewing the effects of other lenses.  Other features: an electronically controlled, vertical travel focal plane shutter with speeds from 1/2000 sec to 8 seconds in A mode and 1/2000 sec to 1 sec plus B in manual mode, and X sync at 1/125 sec. The ZM has no DX contacts for auto film speed setting but provides manual sensitivity settings up to ISO 3200 ISO in 1/3-step increments.

The only multi-frame, parallax compensating 35mm rangefinder cameras still left standing after all these years? The redoubtable Leica MP and Leica M-A, which are still available brand new.  Fortunately the magnificent Leica M3 also lives in my current digital heartthrob, the superlative Leica M-10P which has everything, including the beloved M3 form factor.


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