Camera Review: Leica IIIa (1938) / by Simeon Smith

Considering how many cameras I’ve reviewed, I’m really not that interested in camera reviews. 

Hang on. That sounds egotistical. 

But, I guess it’s the truth. 

I’d quite happily write reviews for cameras and lenses all day, but I’m not that into reading other people’s reviews. I suppose everyone’s entitled to my own opinion. 

The reason that I’m not that interested in most other people’s reviews is because they don’t tell you what I REALLY want to know. 

I don’t care about construction, features, or economics. I’m all about what it feels like emotionally to shoot with a camera, how inspired am I with it round my neck, how satisfying the buttons and knobs are to use.

Other reviews of the Leica III will tell you about the history of Oskar Barnack’s 35mm cameras. They’ll tell you about the groundbreaking features. They’ll tell you about the quality control which meant that most of these cameras are still in great working order 80 years after they were built. They’ll tell you that bottom loading cameras like this are a pain in the arse. They’ll tell you that their unique way of loading the camera is the right way, and they’ll tell you that this is THE BEST camera to shoot street like Cartier-Bresson. 

But none of them will tell you what a 1930’s Leica smells like. 

In case you hadn’t guessed, this is not an objective review. Objectivity is overrated. 

This is my favourite camera, and I’ll tell you why. 

I was just getting into film photography, a good few years ago. I walked into Cardiff Camera Centre, and they had a showcase full of barnack cameras. A proper collection, probably put together over decades spent looking for rare variants. 

At the time I was shooting with a Holga and a Smena Symbol, just playing around on the Lomography site. 

I must have grilled the guy behind the counter for at least half an hour about his collection, and left telling myself I’d save up and buy a Leica IIIa.

It took a while to find a camera body cheap enough and from a source I knew would sell me a quality, serviced camera. In the meantime I shot with a FED3, also a Leica thread mount camera, but made cheaply in the soviet union, and started buying cheap soviet lenses to go with the camera body I had yet to buy. 

I patiently waited watching stock come and go on reddotcameras.co.uk - an amazing website for everything Leica. 

A few months of watching the site and the perfect IIIa for me came up. Great working condition, a bit of brassing, but someone had drilled through the top plate to add a flash sync port (something the original lacked). This made it great for someone like me that wanted to shoot with the camera, and pretty much worthless to a collector. 

When it arrived I understood why people say that you can’t compare the russian copies to the real deal. Almost 80 years since this first left the factory and everything still works amazingly well. 

There’s so many reasons this is my main camera.

 

  • I want to carry it everywhere with me, regardless of if I’m using it. It’s beautiful, it’s compact, I’m not scared it’ll get damaged because, well, it’s lasted this long!

  • I love the experience of shooting with it. The feel of the film advance knob. The spring-loaded shutter speed. The firm release button. 

  • It disarms my subjects.

It’s not better or worse than any other film camera. It’s a way of presenting light to the film. But it’s my way of presenting light to the film, and I just love it. 

I’ve since bought a back-up, and between the two cameras I shoot maybe 90% of my images.

The camera bodies are nothing without lenses, and I pretty much shoot 3 lenses, all 50mm, all cheap, all Soviet, all bloody amazing. 

  • Industar N-61 LD – Make sure you get a later LD version of this lens, as the coating makes all the difference. Contrasty, forgiving, light, built like a tank. 
  • Industar 22 – Collapsible. With this on the Leica, it fits in the pockets of my ever-present denim jacket. Looks like a Leica Elmar. In my opinion, better than the Leica Elmar. Definitely cheaper than the Leica Elmar. 
  • Jupiter 8 – a lovely lens for low light, but the aperture ring doesn’t stay put, so it’s a pain to shoot. 

Other recommendations:

The Voigtlander wide angle lenses are beautiful and pretty reasonable. The Lomography copy of the Jupiter 3 is just outstanding, but pretty pricey. The Canon 50mm’s are great, but if you’re in the UK you’ll probably have to buy them in from Japan.