With prices of all film cameras at historic lows, now is as good a time as
any to glom onto that classic screwmount Leica you've always wanted!
When it comes to embodying the classic Bauhaus dictum "form follows function,"
nothing can beat a vintage screwmount Leica. From the late version of the Leica
I or C of 1930/31 (the first model with standardized 39mm screwmount) to the
fabulous Leica IIIg of '57-'60 (last of the breed), all are exquisite
minimalist designs that exude mechanical precision. Unlike modern cameras whose
outer appearance is usually created (or at least tweaked) by the styling department,
old Leicas are cameras designed by engineers with taste. Their beauty is based
on the elemental elegance of the machine itself. Screwmount Leicas are also
user-collectibles par excellence--they're great fun for prowling
around shooting pictures the old-fashioned, utterly manual way, or just fondling,
focusing, and firing the distinctively smooth, quiet shutter. And if you get
the right lenses (which aren't always the historically correct ones),
they're also capable of outstanding results that will rival the output
of your shiny new 10-megapixel marvel.
IIf of the '50s is identical to the IIIf except for the
cute circular blanking plate in place of slow speed dial. This
model, shown with coated 50mm f/3.5 Elmar lens, costs about the
same as the IIIf and is a good choice if you don't need
speeds below 1¼25 sec and can nab a clean one at a good
price. Courtesy Ken Hansen.
As practically anyone reading this is well aware, classic Leicas can be damned
expensive, and many luscious examples are well beyond the range of the average
user-collector, including this one. In fact, 35mm Leicas in general, and rangefinder
models in particular, have held their value remarkably well, resisting the downward
price spiral all film cameras have experienced in the wake of the digital revolution.
Nevertheless, the prices of some relatively high-production screwmount Leicas
that are not collector's heartthrobs have slipped somewhat over the last
few years and you can now snag a clean, functional classic Leica at a pretty
attractive price. True, you're unlikely to get one in mint or near mint
condition, but for $200-$300 you don't have to settle for a "user,"
eBay-ese for a ratty but operational model. Would you believe Excellent or Excellent
Plus, meaning clean but with a few superficial scratches or other minor blems?
If you're lucky, patient, savvy, or all of the above, the $300 figure
can even include a good lens, like a 50mm f/3.5 Elmar or 50mm f/2 Summitar.
Obviously, you're not going to get a clean Leica IIIg body or even a pristine
'32 Leica II (or D) with original lens for $300. What I'm talking
about is bread-and-butter models in plentiful supply, such as the pre-World
War II Leica IIIa; the Leica IIIc, which was made before, during, and just after
the war; and the fabulous Leica IIIf of '50-'56, the penultimate
screwmount Leica. All these models have the classic Leica look, and similar
basic features, namely separate slow and fast shutter speed dials with speeds
of 1 second to 1/1000 sec plus B and T, coupled rangefinders, separate optical
viewfinders, knob wind and rewind, manually zeroing frame counter, and charmingly
inconvenient bottom film loading. The prewar IIIa model is distinguished by
more widely spaced viewfinder and rangefinder windows (the latter with an eyepiece-rotating
rather than lever-set eyesight adjustment). All are ergonomic masterpieces.
Their rounded ends fit perfectly in your hands and they're noticeably
smaller than most recent 35mm cameras, hewing to their creator Oskar Barnack's
concept of a "miniature" camera. That's why they're
fantastic for discreet street photography and, in their heyday, were used by
the world's greatest photojournalists.
IIIg with collapsible 50mm f/2.8 Elmar lens: A pricey collector's
prize in mint condition, this combo can be snagged for about $1100
in nice shape if you keep your eyes peeled and your powder dry.
Courtesy Stan Tamarkin.