John Robb

Melbourne, Australia

John Robb is a photographer from Melbourne who likes to look an the other direction with a camera and find new and interesting...

The Leica IIIa – Quality Never Ages

In the 1920’s a small German company started to produce camera that was the first to utilise off-cuts of 35mm motion picture film – it gave the world a camera with a film frame size of 24×36mm – what we’ve now come to know as full frame. The company was Leitz and the first of the cameras was called the Leica. A decade or so after the first Leica appeared the design had evolved to the IIIa.

The IIIa you see here dates from the mid 30’s and was originally owned by my grandfather and before him a British fighter pilot during World War II. It’s not in the most pristine condition but I find that somewhat comforting – to me it’s a working camera rather than an exhibit.

At this point in the review you’re probably going to start thinking that because of its age using the Leica would be a simple thing akin to a box brownie (or other simple cameras like the Holga) – you’d be wrong. Put it this way: the box brownie is instant coffee – you can’t control the destiny of how your picture will appear so you can only accept the average or ugly. The IIIa is like a full on espresso machine – the quality can be spectacularly good or can be shockingly bad – it’s the operators skill that the difference. To stretch the analogy, modern digital is like a Nesspreso coffee machine – depressingly good every time but somehow not as involving.

The picture below shows the shutter release, the film advance knob (incorporating the frame number dial), the film rewind lever and one of the shutter speed dials – for exposures below 1/20 you use the other dial on the front of the camera body.

This example is equipped with a Summitar 50mm f/2 lens – the more expensive of the options available at the time. The lens is on a screw mount and the front element can be slid backward into the body for compact storage. The aperture is adjusted via the control on the front of the lens.

Focus adjustment – now the fun begins……..

To focus the Leica of this generation you look through the left most of the two viewfinders and rotate the focus ring until the two ghostly images in the viewfinder align in a vertical orientation. This split focussing is achieved by taking a view from two viewfinders at the front of the camera body. The focus viewfinder also has its own focus control – so you first focus the focus mechanism then you focus the camera – get it???

Perhaps it pays to fix the focus and just use a big depth of field and for this there is a scale on the rear of the lens barrel for that purpose.

The main “framing” viewfinder is on the right and sits as close as possible to the lens to reduce the parallax errors with it being off centre and away from the lens axis. With both viewfinders you have to work hard – the vision they provide is pretty bad in comparison with modern units even in compact digital cameras. The rest of the controls are straight forward including the film advance and rewind controls.

This is a product of a pre-plastic age – everything is solid metal. The result when handling the camera is something that is the size of a point and shoot but with the weight of a large DSLR. It’s and eminently pocketable device but make sure the pocket fabric is well stitched. Some Figures:

Canon Powershot G9: – 360g
Canon EOS 450D body:- 475g
Leica IIIa:- 640g
Canon EOS 40D body:- 822g

Reliability wise the model III’s biggest weakness was the horizontal focal plane shutter. The early ones were a cloth only affair and can tear. To alleviate this problem this unit gets a few dummy exposures every few months to avoid things sticking and a carefully custom cut long film leader that won’t foul the shutter when it’s loaded.

Just recently I took the camera out for a roll of film after a long time on the shelf and one of the images that caught my eye I posted on the bubble.

It may 3/4 of a century old but when you get an image right it feels like the Leica IIIa was made yesterday.

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