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Finding an Alternative to the Leica M3

Introduction

The Leica M3 is, as with all Leicas, an incredibly popular camera. As prices rise and stock diminishes, there is an interesting debate about who the M3 is for. Is it necessary to turn to this German icon for a true rangefinder experience?

Put simply, no. Not at all. There are plenty of solid, capable alternatives to the M3. Many cameras even outperform it in one way or another. Here we’ll outline a few, share our thoughts, and provide some basic information about them. 

This list is far from exhaustive. There are plenty of options when it comes to buying a rangefinder camera. Some questions worth asking are “do I need interchangeable lenses?”, or “do I want a light meter?”. We’ll discuss both below.

But first, let’s take a look at the M3 and see what we’re attempting to emulate. Why do people want the M3 in the first place? What’s so special about this 70 year old German metal?

The M3

The Leica M3 is a mechanical 35mm rangefinder camera with interchangeable lenses. The M3 was the first Leica camera to feature the M bayonet mount, and replaced the aging thread mount cameras.

Many photographers consider this the best Leica M mount camera due to its simple, iconic, and well-rounded performance. This, of course, is up for debate depending on your preferences.

The Leica M3 is a very bare bones camera. You can load and advance the film, change the shutter speed, and focus the lens. There is no meter, battery, or electronics. It does have an automatic frame counter and frame line selector, though.

The three in M3 stands for the camera’s three available frame lines. These frame lines — 50mm, 90mm, and 135mm —  automatically appear in the viewfinder when a lens of one of these focal lengths is attached. It’s just like magic.

This means there are two important things to consider when buying an M3:

When shooting with lenses wider than 50mm, you won’t have the right frame lines. This means you cannot accurately frame your photos without an external viewfinder. So wider lenses are a bit difficult to shoot on an M3. With a standard 50mm lens, though, the M3 shines. 

The M3’s viewfinder is designed for efficiency with this normal focal length, and has magnification that makes 50mm framing precise and simple. With other Leicas, the viewfinders are designed for use with wider lenses, like 35mm or 28mm. Because of this, the standard 50mm framelines are smaller and less precise. If you’re mainly a 50mm user, the M3’s viewfinder may be the way to go.

The Leica M3 is an iconic camera that’s easy to identify, even when put next to other Leicas.  The three windows on the front — the rangefinder, viewfinder, and light-gathering windows — all will have a slightly raised border around them. It’s a bit like a picture frame! If the windows are raised on a Leica M, you know you’re looking at an M3. 

Considering the age and popularity of the Leica M3, it’s surprising how many of them are in excellent cosmetic condition. Many of them will be free of scratches or dents because these cameras were seen as an investment and a precision photographic tool. Leica owners tend to treat their cameras very well.

Even if you manage to find an M3 in excellent condition, though, we recommend you bring it to a respected technician who can give it the love and care it deserves. Fortunately, there are many capable Leica technicians around the world who can at least CLA (Clean, Lubricate, and Adjust) an M3.

But this article is about alternatives to the M3! If you’ve been turned off by the price, or simply can’t find one in good condition, here are a few other options to consider.

Alternatives

Leica M2

If you insist on getting a Leica camera, the Leica M2 is worth considering. When it was released in 1957, the M2 was marketed as a budget alternative to the M3, and the prices reflect that today.

The M2 was the second model from Leica’s M series. The main differences between the M2 and M3 are the frame counter and viewfinder. While the frame counter on the M2 will advance automatically, it must be manually reset to zero when a new roll is inserted.

The viewfinder is quite a bit different, though. The M2’s viewfinder has built-in framelines for 35mm, 50mm, and 90mm instead of the M3’s 50mm, 90mm, and 135mm. This means the M2’s viewfinder is wider than the M3’s, showing more of the scene but becoming less precise with the standard 50mm frame lines because of it.

Like it’s predecessor, the M2’s top and bottom plates were made of brass and its shutter goes from 1 second to 1/1000th. It has two flash sync ports at the back and a single-stroke advance.

There can be some variation in different Leica M2s. The early models came with a film rewind button instead of the lever, which are typically more sought after today due simply to their mild rarity. Most, but not all, came with a self-timer. 

The M2 is a great alternative to the M3 due to its lower price and very similar handling. If you shoot 35mm lenses or wider, you may even prefer the M2.

Leica M2 Specifications

  • 35mm rangefinder camera
  • Lens mount: Leica M mount
  • Viewfinder: 0.72x magnification
  • Focus: Manual
  • Shutter: Horizontal cloth focal plane
  • Exposure: Manual
  • Shutter speed: 1” to 1/1000th and bulb
  • Flash: Cold shoe with separate electronic flash and bulb connectors
  • Weight: 560g

Leica III

The Leica III was released by Leica in 1933 and was the first model of the Leica III series. This series featured the M39 screw mount, and was Leica’s standard until the release of the M3 in 1954. 

Screw mount Leicas are an entirely different experience than their bayonet mount cousins. Their design language, viewfinders, loading system, and lens lineup are distinct from the M mount cameras, requiring a slower, more methodical approach to photography.

M mount lenses cannot be mounted on screw mount bodies, although screw mount lenses can be mounted on M mount bodies with an easy-to-find adapter. This eliminates most of Leica’s lens lineup since the 1950s.

The older bodies and lenses come with a pretty dramatic drop in price, though, and you could find a Leica III in good condition for half what you’d pay for the M3.

The III is similar to its predecessor, the Leica II, just with a separate dial for slow speeds, lugs for a neck strap, and a slightly altered viewfinder. Leica engineers improved the optical system and gave the III a 1.5x magnification ratio.

One major note with the IIIs, and with most thread mount Leica copies, is that the rangefinder and viewfinder are separate. In the M3, Canon 7, and other rangefinders, the windows are put together so that focusing and framing can be done simultaneously. Because the III and its copies are older and less advanced, the technology did not exist yet to combine the two.

As mentioned, the Leica III uses Leica’s M39 thread mount. This mount became popular across Europe and Japan, as Leica’s cameras standardized the 35mm format. Many companies, like Canon, used M39 and took quite a bit of inspiration from the III for their early camera designs.

These “Leica clones” are also great alternatives to the M3, and we’ll cover a few later in the article.

One large advantage the III has over the M3 is, ironically, its small size. The III was designed with portability in mind, from its short stature to the collapsible lenses it sold with. With the standard 5cm f3.5 Elmar, the Leica III is truly a pocket powerhouse.

Early Leica IIIs were black, but most variants were chrome.

Leica III Specifications

  • 35mm rangefinder camera
  • Lens mount: Leica M39 screw mount
  • Viewfinder: 1.5x magnification, with separate rangefinder window.
  • Focus: Manual
  • Shutter: Horizontal cloth focal plane
  • Exposure: Manual
  • Shutter speed: 1” to 1/500 and bulb
  • Flash: External cold shoe with no flash sync
  • Weight: 543g

Canon 7/7s

If you want to veer away from Leica, Canon has good 35mm rangefinder cameras too. The Canon 7, also called Canon Model 7, was produced by Canon from 1961 to 1965. It comes with the M39 screw mount and also accepts a special bayonet mount.

The Canon 7 was designed for the press who needed fast rangefinder cameras. In many ways, it is technically superior to its Leica contemporaries, but prices remain low even today. The 7 is arguably most famous for the 50mm f0.95 “Dream Lens” that was released for it in 1961. This lens is so wide that it requires a separate bayonet to mount properly to screw mount cameras.

The 7 and 7s were the pinnacle of Canon rangefinder design, which had taken the screw mount Leica pattern far beyond what Leica had done with it. The 7 has a built in dual stage selenium light meter, and the 7s has a similar dual-stage CdS meter. The 7 is similar in size and weight to the M cameras it released alongside, and manages to pack more features in at the same time.

The 7 and 7s have manually-selected frame lines via a dial on the top of the camera. These frame lines — for 35mm, 50mm, 85mm/100mm, and 135mm — are parallax-corrected and appear in the viewfinder when selected.

These cameras also have a metal shutter, which makes them a bit louder than M rangefinders but also means they’re a bit less sensitive.

An important thing to note is that Canon also made a suite of lenses for M39, mostly under their Serenar line. Some of these lenses are exceptional, with the 50mm f0.95 gaining fame for its fast aperture and the 50mm f1.4 easily outperforming German alternatives.

These cameras can be readily found from Japan in excellent condition, and cost far less than anything from Leica despite outperforming them. A serviced Canon rangefinder would be a useful addition to any rangefinder collection.

Canon 7 Specifications

  • 35mm rangefinder camera
  • Lens mount: M39 screw mount
  • Viewfinder: 0.80x magnification
  • Focus: Manual
  • Shutter: Horizontal metal focal plane
  • Metering: Selenium light meter or CdS cell.
  • Shutter speed: 1” to 1/1000 and bulb
  • Flash: PC connector for external flash
  • Weight: 622g

Nikon S3

The Nikon S3 is a professional 35mm rangefinder introduced in 1958. It’s quite similar to its predecessor, the SP, except with a simpler viewfinder. Much like the M2 was the simpler, cheaper M3, the S3 was the simpler, cheaper SP.

While Canon took inspiration from Leica for their rangefinders, Nikon turned towards Zeiss and borrowed quite a bit from the original Contax rangefinders. This means in-body focusing helicoids, long rangefinder bases, and a sharp focusing wheel near the shutter button.

The S3 has a life-size, 1:1 magnification viewfinder without parallax correction, which means you can shoot with both eyes open and see more of the scene around you, although the viewfinder isn’t useful for lenses other than 50mm. 

The viewfinder in general is on the small side, and a bit dark as well. Nikon’s rangefinders are reverse-contrast, with a lighter rangefinder patch than the rest of the viewfinder. This enhances contrast in the rangefinder patch, but leaves the viewfinder a bit dim. 

The Nikon S3 may have borrowed a lot from the Contax rangefinders, but Nikon’s S mount is slightly different from the Contax RF one, meaning there are some compatibility issues. The low production number of these cameras and lenses mean that they can get a bit pricey, but there are also some cheaper options from Voigtlander in the native S mount, made for their modern Bessa R2S.

The S mount does not have the same wide selection of lenses that M or M39 mount rangefinders will have, but the lenses are all of top quality and come from reputable manufacturers.

In 2000, Nikon released an updated handmade S3 rangefinder model to celebrate the new millennium. The camera came with a new Nikkor 50mm f1.4 lens as well. These collectors’ edition cameras have an incredibly high value, much exceeding that of an M3.

Nikon S3 Specifications

  • 35mm rangefinder camera
  • Lens mount: Nikon S bayonet mount
  • Viewfinder: 1:1 magnification with no parallax correction
  • Shutter: Horizontal cloth focal-plane
  • Focus: Manual
  • Exposure metering: Manual (but can be used with a selenium meter accessory)
  • Shutter speed: 1” to 1/1000, Time, and bulb
  • Flash: PC socket
  • Weight: 589g

Leotax D IV (& Other Leica Clones)

When the first Leica was released in 1925, it revolutionized the photographic industry. By standardizing the 24x36mm frame size and creating a compact, easy to use camera, Leica was the pioneer of the 35mm camera market. Like all innovations, others were quick to copy it.

Many sought to emulate the Leica formula, including companies in Germany, the Soviet Union, and Japan. One particular Japanese example is the Leotax, made by Showa Kogaku. This series consists of 20 iterations that gradually improved the thread mount Leica formula.

The Leotax D IV came out in 1950 and most closely emulates the Leica III. Around 2,500 were made, alongside a line of collapsible and rigid lenses. These cameras have a shutter speed range of 1 second to 1/500th.

Many copies of the Leotax will have a “Made in Occupied Japan” engraving on the top plate. This signifies to an export market, like the US or Europe, that the product was made during the American occupation of Japan that occurred post-WWII.

Leotax D IV Specifications:

  • 35mm rangefinder camera
  • Lens Mount: M39 Screw Mount
  • Viewfinder: 1.5x magnification, with separate rangefinder window.
  • Focus: Manual
  • Shutter speed: 8” to 1/500 and bulb

Zorki 4K (& Other Soviet Rangefinders)

The Zorki 4K is a capable rangefinder produced in the Soviet Union for two decades. Over 500,000 of these cameras were produced during its lifespan. 

After World War II, Soviet engineers left Germany with parts, plans, and machinery from both Leica and Carl Zeiss. At first, Leica copies were produced under the FED name, but eventually a separate line was created for Zorki cameras. The 4K is the longest-running camera in this line, and was sold from 1956 to 1978.

Zorki means “sharp sight” in Russian, and the 4K was an extremely popular camera for export to Europe due to its low cost and above-average performance.

The Zorki is a simple camera, like many on this list. It features a small 1:1 viewfinder, like the Nikon. with a relatively-bright reverse-contrast rangefinder. The viewfinder is designed for use with 50mm lenses. Shutter speeds range from 1 second to 1/1000th. Its rangefinder base length is quite long, making focusing accurate.

The 4K has the M39 screw mount, meaning it can accept lenses from Leica, Canon, Voigtlander, and many other Leica clones. There are also a host of Soviet-made lenses, like the standard Jupiter-8 50mm f2 or the Jupiter-12 35mm f2.8. 

These Soviet lenses were post-WWII replicas of Zeiss designs taken from German factories, and are capable of wonderful results if properly maintained. There are also some of the famous Helios-44 available in M39 mount, although the vast majority of this bokeh monster were made for the M42 Zenit SLRs.

Zorki 4K Specifications:

  • 35mm rangefinder camera
  • Viewfinder: 1:1 magnification
  • Focus: Manual
  • Shutter speed: 1” to 1/1000 and bulb
  • Weight: 687g
  • Shutter: Horizontal Cloth Focal Place

Canon Canonet QL17 (& other fixed-lens rangefinders)

The auto-exposure, fixed-lens, pro-sumer Canonet QL17 is a worthy alternative to a professional, interchangeable lens, manual rangefinder like the M3? Put down your pitchforks, Leicamen. For plenty of people, yes it is.

The Canonet is one of a plethora of compact rangefinder with sharp, fixed prime lenses. If your answer to “do I need interchangeable lenses?” is no, then a fixed lens camera is worth considering.

The 45mm f1.7 lens found in the QL17 model is exceptionally sharp, and faster than plenty of Leica optics that cost 10x the price. It’s possible to find a Canonet, buy it, and have it repaired for a fraction of the cost of an M3. 

The same can be said for plenty of other fixed-lens rangefinders, like the Olympus 35 RC, Konica Auto S3, or Yashica Electro 35. These cameras, fully repaired and guaranteed, will still be considerably cheaper than a Leica. Check out our review of the Yashica Electro 35 for more info on what it’s like to use a camera like this.

If you’re not considering buying more than one lens, it doesn’t necessarily make sense to invest in the Leica system.

The Canonet in particular is a wonderful example. Where most of these compact rangefinders will have auto-exposure only, the Canonet allows for full manual. You do lose active metering when switching from auto-exposure to manual, but it’s not too hard to meter in auto-exposure mode and then switch to manual.

Another con of the Canonet compared to the M3 is the rangefinder. It’s just not as big, bright, or contrasty as the M3’s. It’s also less accurate, due to the compact body and shorter baselength. It does have the light meter readout in the viewfinder, though.

The Canon’s body will feel quite a bit cheaper than a Leica, but that comes with a drastic reduction in size and weight. If you’ll only be using one lens, then it’s worth considering a fixed-lens rangefinder instead of spending extra money for features you won’t be using.

  • 35mm rangefinder camera
  • Focus: Manual
  • Shutter speed: 1” to 1/500th and bulb
  • Weight: 620g
  • Shutter: Copal Leaf

Conclusions

If you’re thinking of buying a Leica M3, or any other Leica for that matter, it’s important to consider the decision carefully. These cameras are investments, and most will require periodic repair to ensure a long life. It’s also important to consider alternatives that can take the same photos without requiring a second mortgage on your home.

In terms of the M3, it’s ideal for photographers that shoot with 50mm lenses only. With it’s tighter viewfinder, you can frame with 50mm easily. Anything wider requires an external viewfinder.

It’s also important to note that the M3’s viewfinder cannot parallax correct closer than 1 meter. If you have a lens that can focus closer, the frame lines in the M3 cannot be trusted at that close distance.

There are plenty of rangefinders that can accomplish the same tasks, and even some that outperform the M3. It’s hard to deny that Gear Acquisition Syndrome (GAS), though, and owning a Leica comes with a certain amount of street cred that cannot be explained. If you’re a 50mm shooter that insists on Leica’s pure, simple shooting experience, then the M3 is the Leica for you.

Feel free to let us know your favorite M3 alternative in the comments.

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