Home, Home on the Rangefinder: The Gift of a Leica M3

The world can be a funny place. A 1961 Leica M3 ELC was given to me this morning as an unexpected gift. The beauty of the craftsmanship is extraordinary, and I am so excited to be given the chance to own such a wonderful piece of machinery in my lifetime. More important is the generosity of the man who gave me the camera, and the old truth that chance favours those who are good to their friends. I just do not know where to begin.

In 1961, about 300 of these cameras were made. Ironically, the financial value of a hand-assembled camera like this has plummeted due to consumers abandoning 35mm film as a valid photography choice in 2011. A year or two ago, a camera like this might have fetched $2000, but today it is worth less than a basic digital slr. The reality is that 35mm film is getting harder and harder to use: there are few developers who can process the film, fewer people want to take time to scan their own negatives, and the film is getting expensive. This is a fully manual camera (focus, aperture, shutter speed, winding), and that is not easy to work with when even the cheapest camera is fully auto these days.  Still, I love film, I am working towards craftsmanship, and as this blog asserts, while we can…I will.

The camera is so beautiful. It appears to be in immaculate condition, and with some careful dust, hardened grime removal I might be able to avoid an overhaul right away. What I will not be able to avoid, however, is a recovering of the body with a new leather. At 50 years old, the vulcanite covering just disintegrated in my hand when I held it. I have contacted an American company, Camera Leather, in the U.S.A. about importing a replacement covering and look forward to seeing what they currently have in stock. The cost of refinishing the camera seems well worth it, and who knows what colour or finish I will be able to choose. I will feature the process in an upcoming blog entry. Yes, it would ruin the “collector” value of the camera, but let’s face it, the value is in using the Leica and not in shrink-wrapping it as an artifact. The last thing I need while shooting in a foreign country is for plastic to deteriorate in my hands from the heat. It will be glorious to see this brought back up to working spec condition for use. The best tools are taken care of and used to keep their shine; even swords rust unburnished.

The camera came to me with two lenses: the Summicron 50mm f.2 and the Elmar 90mm f.4. I have no idea what the focal lengths look like yet, as the Leica is a rangefinder, so you do not see through the lens. Like my Hasselblad SWC/M, I will need to learn how to see the photo from experience. Both lenses are tiny, hand-assembled and quirky. The Elmar’s aperture is just like a soft, round eye that smoothly opens and closes without clicking. It is not a killer lens, but I am thrilled to get to use it. The Summicron is the standard lens, and is supposed to be the one others are judged by. I may need to buy a viewfinder adapter for one of both of these lenses, but we shall see how the first rolls go. There is a lightmeter, but it appears like it is inoperative due to aging of the selenium cell. I will have to inspect it more closely tonight.

The plan is to test out a roll after I carefully clean the body up from human debris and dust that settles in after 50 years. I have to be careful, because the rubber is aging and plastic does not last forever. Case in point is the rubber shoulder strap for the Everready case [see below]. It just crumbled from my touch this morning.

I have never been too aware of the Leica world, and never figured that I would own one, because the M3 is pretty hard to find in usable condition and the M7 is too expensive for what you are getting. I would need to win a lottery before buying a new, digital M9 (coming in at about $8000 without any lens) – a lens to match that is around another $4000. The value is just not there to buy one of these on the used market, nor is it there to sell one. I know that this M3 is not a camera I will ever want to sell. I want to use my cameras, so that means this M3 will be put into service right away. I plan on shooting only black and white images with it, and hopefully will teach myself how to develop and process the film myself.  At the end of the day, this camera is meant for travel. India seems like the perfect place to drag this camera, maybe Russia. One way or another, this old dog has found a loving home with me until the end of its days.

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