|Type||35 mm rangefinder camera|
|Lens mount||Leica M-mount|
|Flash||standard accessory shoe with separate bulb and electronic flash connectors|
|Dimensions||138 × 77 × 33.5 mm|
The Leica M3 is a 35 mm rangefinder camera by Ernst Leitz GmbH (now Leica Camera AG), introduced in 1954. It was a new starting point for Leitz, which until then had only produced screw-mount Leica cameras that were incremental improvements to its original Leica (Ur-Leica). The M3 introduced several features to the Leica, among them the combination of viewfinder and rangefinder in one bright window, like on the Contax II, a bayonet lens mount, and rapid film advance lever. It was the most successful model of the M series, with over 220,000 units sold by the time production of the M3 model ended in 1966.
It was succeeded by a number of later film M series cameras, including the Leica M-A film camera in 2014.
The earliest Leica M3 pre-model that was built, sold at auction in 2009 for €72,000. In June 2019 a pre series model from 1952/1953 was sold for €360.000 at the 34th Leitz auction in Wetzlar.
This new bayonet mount, which has not been changed in the following half century, is called the Leica M-mount. Lenses are changed faster than with a screw mount, and framelines set automatically. Non-Leitz/Leica bayonet-mount lenses can also be used (although none were produced in any quantity while the M3 was sold), and a simple adapter also allows the use of screwmount lenses (whether from Leitz or other companies).
The M3 has an exceptionally bright viewfinder when compared to any previous or subsequent model, including the modern M9. The M3 has a high magnification factor of 0.92×, which is useful in critical focusing, and especially with long lenses (subsequent Leicas would use 0.85×, 0.72× or 0.58×).
It was the first Leica to combine rangefinder and viewfinder into one window. (Other cameras, such as the Contax II, already had this feature before World War II; and other companies were making screwmount bodies with combined finders.) Framelines for 50, 90 and 135mm are shown, although none for any wider lenses. However, Leica solved this problem in two different ways:
The 50 mm framelines are always visible. The viewfinder image is slightly larger. There are two ways to select the 90mm or 135mm framelines:
Viewfinder cameras do not show exactly the same image in the viewfinder and on the film, due to the distance of the viewfinder to the view axis of the lens. This parallax problem is compensated in the M3 by moving the framelines when the lens is focused. This full parallax compensation is limited to one metre; closer distances require special "Leica glasses" as described above.
The Leica IIIf and its predecessors had used a knob to advance the film. For fear of tearing the film, early M3s had a double stroke advance lever, like the Neoca 2s would. Later models (from model no 919 251) had single-stroke levers, which quickened up operation of the camera. Another type of variation is in the film pressure plate used. Early models used a glass plate to keep the film flat, whereas later models used a metal plate.
Loading of the film is done by removing the bottom plate, like on the Leica II and III series. A door flap on the rear of the camera can be raised, allowing for easier access to the film, thereby overcoming a problem associated with these earlier screw-lens-type Leicas. The film is inserted from the bottom of the camera after the user has pre-attached the leading end to the take-up spool. Special cassettes were also available.
Previous screw mount Leicas used two separate shutter speed dials for slow and fast speeds (the fast speed dial on top of the camera rotated during firing). The M3 combined slower and faster speeds and the dial does not rotate during firing. Supposedly, this reduces vibrations in the camera. Early models used a non-geometrical series of shutter speeds. On later models this became the international standard of 1s to 1/1000s.
Variants of the M3 were made for specific purposes. The Leica 24x27 was a camera with neither rangefinder nor viewfinder, made for the postal service to photograph electricity meters.
The M3 was supplemented by the M2 with a 0.72× viewfinder more suited to wide-angle lenses. The next model was the rangefinder-less M1, intended as an interface with scientific instruments or with a visoflex. With the exception of the larger Leica M5, subsequent Leica M-series cameras have a strong family resemblance to the M3.
In 2002, a miniature replica camera, the Digital Classic Camera Leica M3, was made by Minox (by then bought by Leica).