Street Smarts; The Savvy Consumer’s Guide To Pre-Owned, Collectible, And Vintage Cameras; Leica Screwmount Cameras

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.

Leica 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.

Leica 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.