By way of history, I have had a few Leica cameras over the last 20 years, all have been film with the exception of my Leica X typ113. My first Leica was a IIIc, purchased mostly out of curiosity, which I used for a little while with a similarly aged collapsible 50mm f3.5 Elmar. From there I purchased an M6 followed by an MP. The Leica MP was my first new Leica and this became my main camera and travelled everywhere with me.
When digital took over for me, I sold my Leica equipment with some regret and committed fully to Nikon digital cameras. I quickly missed film and although I still have a couple of Nikon film SLRs, a Leica M3 began to get fairly regular use when I wanted to escape the digital world. In a time that we spend much of our time looking at an electronic screen, there is something refreshing about viewing through a simple window rather than an electronic viewfinder.
Far from being the first Leica, the M3 started life in 1954 and for six years stood alongside the screw mount 35mm cameras that were released in 1925 and continued in production until 1960.
The M3 was a hugely successful model, roughly a third of all Leica M rangefinders produced are in fact M3s, far outselling all the following M cameras, including the very popular M6.
Assuming you are a 50mm lens user, the Leica M3 is arguably the best choice. Why? The viewfinder - it provides a clear, uncluttered and closest to life-sized view with its 0.92x magnification, only the rarer 0.85 variants of the M6 and some “a la carte” builds come close. Aside from the increased focus accuracy, this view really is very special and allows a minimalist, “both eyes open” window for composition. Side by side against the 0.72x magnification of most other film Leicas, the difference is very noticeable. The latest Leica M10 viewfinder has received much praise having moved from the 0.68x magnification of prior digital Leicas, to 0.73x.
What else, the smoothness of operation, of course helped by decades of use, is really there, I also like the raised surrounds around the viewfinder windows which not only look good, but I find help avoid smudges. The design was perfected in the “mark 1”.
There are of course some drawbacks compared with later models - a slower rewind crank, though perhaps stronger and of course a slower film loading system do make changing film a more lengthy and fiddly process.
And of course the lack of a built in meter. I do find the heavily centre weighted meters of later Leicas to be very good, the lack of any built in meter on the Leica M3 is often seen as the key disadvantage, in fact I enjoy the lack of red lights in the viewfinder distracting me, prompting me to do something different than stick with my pre selected exposure. In complicated situations, I have a small Sekonic meter in my pocket and in fact the myLightmeter Pro iPhone app is accurate and easy to use too. But estimating exposure really is not difficult to learn and it encourages the discipline of getting the camera ready even before you are ready to take the picture. Later Leicas clearly have some benefits, but with a 50mm lens, for me it really is the best, of course it is a personal choice - others may prefer a meter or different frame lines, or faster film handling. But in my opinion they really did get it right first time here, not only in design but in the absolute best quality.