Since the release of the Leica MP in 2003, and even more so since it was partially taken over by a private equity firm in 2011, Leica has undeniably become a hyper-luxury brand. Built on the back of Leica’s heritage during the heydays, when film was virtually the only show in town, the Leica brand has morphed into something extraordinary. Yes, in 2015, The name Leica is synonymous with luxury. And depending on who you ask, maybe even douchebaggery.
After all, this is a brand which, with a straight, smug German face, released a Lenny Kravitz cross-branded, ‘pre-worn’ digital camera and lens set that not-so-subtly conjures up the image of Gary Winogrand’s M4, which you can purchase for the oh-so reasonable price of $24,500, or roughly the price of a new car. Or if you prefer, a really nice ‘pre-worn’ German luxury car.
It’s also the brand that recently marketed a $74,500 set of limited edition digital cameras and lenses that featured, amongst other things, a “Swiss Anti-Fingerprint Coating.” I’m not making that up, ladies and gentlemen, that happened. Because hey, owning a luxury, limited edition item is one thing, touching it is something entirely different. Touching cameras? That’s GROSS.
Finally, it’s the brand that feels absolutely no shame in selling a modern re-hash of it’s most recognizeable camera and charging $4,180 for it.
It’s no wonder then that people in the world of 35mm film photography think buying and owning a Leica must be an expensive enterprise. I’m here to tell you that it doesn’t have to be. In fact, for the price of new budget DSLR I put together a beautiful Leica kit from scratch using little more than some eBay skills, one visit to two of my local camera shops, and a little guile. Now, a budget kit like this won’t make you as good of a photographer (or guitar player) as Lenny Kravitz, but it won’t break the bank either. It might also keep you from becoming a douchebag.
But enough trashing on a once great brand, let’s learn more about my metal hunk of German awesome.
The camera is a Leica M3 Double Stroke. The classic M. Likely the pinnacle of camera making from an era where people still made things by hand and crafted them to last. And since this particular M3 was made in 1953, it already character in spades. No need for faux-brassing. Fuck you, Kravitz!
I’ve owned other M bodies in the past and I can safely say that the M3 is far and away my favorite. The finder is simple, with big bright 50mm framelines and a .92 viewfinder magnification, which means you’re seeing things virtually just as they are in front of you. The rangefinder patch is large and contrasty, making focusing an absolute breeze. And then there’s the feel and balance of the thing; everything feels rock solid in your hands, like it was meant to be there. What about the film advance, you might ask. Well, the film advance is so buttery smooth it will make you sick from its buttery richness. IT’S THAT BUTTERY.
Oh, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise, the M3 is a sexy, sexy camera. It’s all simple lines and inviting curves. It’s a masterpiece that I don’t think a single camera maker has ever bested.
I knew going into this project to build a Leica kit on the cheap, that there were going to have to be compromises. Leica lenses are some of the finest 35mm lenses out there, but they don’t come cheap. I knew I wanted my 50mm lens to be fast enough to shoot indoors, so a maximum aperture of f/2 was a requirement. I took to eBay to find a suitable Leica Summicron, hoping that I could find a killer deal. I looked and looked, but Summicrons just weren’t popping up in the price range I was looking for.
And then on one fateful day, it happened. Trips to two local camera shops and two sightings of a lens I had previous heard nothing about. A Leica Thread Mount lens, made by Nikon quite early on in its existence that fit my requirements. It was hefty, the focus throw was smooth, and my god, both copies of the lens under $200. Now we were talking. But was it going to be any good?
After hopping online to do some research what I found was that what I may have discovered a diamond in the rough. People online raved about the lens, arguing that it matched and even exceeded virtually all of Leica’s early 50mm offerings. I immediately jumped on the cheaper of the two copies and haven’t looked back since.
This lens is fantastic. It was optimized for wider apertures between f/2 and f/4 and in practice it shows. It’s one of those lenses, like its F mount cousin, that does everything really well, even wide open. And it does so with extremely good resolving power, smooth bokeh, and excellent contrast at those wider apertures. I’ve made prints of 11x14 (the largest I really like printing 35mm negatives) of negatives made with this lens that look fantastic.
Jupiter 12 35mm f/2.8
Surely you didn’t think I was going to be able to afford two lenses for a Leica kit without one of them being Soviet, did you?
It should come as no surprise that in order to keep costs (way, way) down, I turned to the former Soviet Union for my wide angle needs. The Jupiter 12 is a Soviet copy of a mid 1930s, Zeiss Biogon 3.5cm f/2.8, which means that it comes from terrific stock. It is sort of famous for its bulbous rear element, which conjures up images of a biodome living on the back side of a camera lens. It’s light, almost suspiciously so, and you have to be careful mounting it to the camera, lest you hit something with that giant rear element.
Of course when you bring up the Jupiter 12, you’re bound to hear about how quality control was iffy at Soviet factories and how it lacks corner sharpness blah, blah, blah, blah. Boring. The only question that matters is, does the lens produce quality images? And the bottom line is that it does. It produces fantastic images under all kinds of circumstances. Not all circumstances mind you (more on that below) but still, under most circumstances it’s a terrific performer. If you want to go pixel peeping, I’m sure you can find some technical flaws in the design, which is now 85 years old, but why are you pixel peeping? Honestly, who gives a shit, you should be making photos!
Now, before we get all excited and head to eBay, I should mention that this lens does have one major drawback, which is that the aperture ring is recessed inside the outer lens housing. There are no finely made clicking aperture dials here, my friends. No, you need to turn that camera toward you and look into the lens to set your aperture. It takes a little practice getting used to, but after 2 years with this lens, I have gotten used to it.
Also, despite having a built in ‘shade’–which is really just the glass element being set back into the lens–it does tend to flare a bit when you shoot into the sun. If you absolutely love shooting directly into the sun, this might not be the best choice for you. However, that isn’t really my style, so it hasn’t been an issue, but your mileage may vary.
Let’s talk money
Bellamy over at the fantastic site Japan Camera Hunter wrote the following in a Leica buyers guide he put together around the same time I bought my kit:
One of the main questions I get is “can I get an M3/2/4/6 for $600 Mr. Camerahunter?” Now, I would love to say yes to you, but I would be lying.
Well, in my case, I was able to put together the entire kit I just spoke about above for $600. That’s right, one classic M body and two lenses for $600. Sounds crazy, right?
Well, here’s the breakdown and a little explanation as to how I managed to do this:
Leica M3 - $450
Finding this body for this price required a few things; mostly patience, but also a fair amount of research. When buying a camera that was originally built in the 1950s it’s important to check a few things, like the state of the viewfinder and the shutter and whether there are any service records.
My main goal when looking for an M3 was to find a camera that had a fully functional shutter and a viewfinder that wasn’t suffering from separation, de-silvering, or the like. Basically, it needed to work, even if it was looking a bit rough. The first of these two things is easy to check. You can always ask a seller online for pictures of the finder and something in writing about the accuracy of the shutter. The former can be more difficult, because it’s not everyone who knows what a newly separating finder looks like.
Anyhow, the amount of time from when I started looking for an M3, until I started to see some really viable options in my price range, was about 2 months. That’s where the patience came in. I can’t tell you how many times I nearly caved after thinking to myself, “Oh, you can spend $700 on a body, it will totally hold its value!” Hitting your limit during an auction can be a disheartening and annoying process, but you might just need to stick it out for a bit.
Soon after finding an M3 with some wear on the top plate, I made sure to ask the seller about the shutter, the viewfinder and any relevant service records. Amazingly, the camera had been serviced within the past four or five years and was given a clean bill of health. Even more amazingly, that wear on the top plate seemed to be turning off eBay buyers and I landed the body with the one and only bid I made on the camera, a stunningly low $450.
Nikon Nikkor 50mm f/2 HC Lens - $125
As I mentioned above, this lens came from a shop in Portland, Citizen’s Photo to be exact. This was the cheaper of the two copies of this lens that I found in Portland. The reason this copy was so cheap was because of some oil on the aperture blades of the lens, which frankly doesn’t much matter on a lens of this type. To be clear, oil can cause issues with autofocus lenses which need to close or open the aperture blades at the moment of shutter release, but on a manual focus lens like this, it’s unlikely to cause any issues. And at $125 it was worth the slight risk.
Jupiter 12 35mm f/2.8 Lens - $25
This lens came to me through a trade with a buddy of mine, Nate Matos, who runs the site pdexsposures.com. I can’t remember exactly what the trade was, but I do remember having to put in money or some extra film on my end, so I’m putting the price around $25.
For those of you out there looking for a cheap(er) way to shoot a Leica M rangefinder camera without breaking the bank, there is hope. You don’t need to be rich and you most certainly don’t need to be Lenny Kravitz. You will need a bit of luck, a lot of patience, and may need to compromise a little bit to get it done, but it’s very doable and in my opinion worth the while. If you have any questions at all about finding a Leica, feel free to get in touch or track me down on twitter @6cmzumquadrat.
In part two, I’ll discuss some alternate options for putting together a Leica kit on the cheap.