You can’t have enough Leicas, especially the classic Barnacks from the 1925-1960 period. All models will make your photography heart beat faster. They are gems to behold with very sophisticated fine mechanics, purely manual and visibly built with love for the craft and for a lifetime. Today the last in the series, in which all previous improvements led to the Leica IIIg, produced between 1957 and 1960.
My first Leica was the III (mod f). Quite a mouthful, but the IIIa dates back to 1934 and was (hardware) upgraded to a IIIf model by Leica in 1954. Now that’s recycling! See my review of that camera. Instead of a new camera (after 20 years), it was fitted with a new, faster shutter and flash. I had the camera given a CLA and it can now go for another 80 years. The results of the 35mm camera are to dream of. Velvety smooth, vintage color photos, not the utmost when it comes to contrast and sharpness, but top notch when it comes to an atmosphere that can’t easily be put into words, the oft-quoted Leica effect. Some refer to micro contrast, others to a ‘3D pop up’ effect. It’s a time machine, it lets you see the world of today through the eyes of then, something creamier, softer, more loving. No pixels, no perfection, but an almost pastel of a precious or interesting moment in the hustle and bustle of today. Using a Leica Barnack is a conscious breathing exercise; it forces you to stand still, look and learn to see. It awakens the artist in a photographer.
Back to the Barnack, or rather the Leica IIIg which was no longer designed by Oscar Barnack. Sadly, the inventor of the 35 mm camera died tragically at a young age. His last design was the Leica IIIa in 1935. But in his spirit some later models were released, including the final g. Many think that the legendary Leica M is the successor to the last Barnack, but that is not true. The Leica M was released in 1954 years earlier than this (later) IIIg in 1957. Intended as a cheaper rangefinder for the larger audience.
Still, the IIIg does bridge the gap between the M and the classics. Like the M, the IIIg has a much larger viewfinder. This was one of the drawbacks of all the small Barnacks, the relatively small viewfinders and rangefinder windows. The IIIg’s rangefinder is also relatively small, but the viewfinder a breath of fresh air. Large and bright with another similar innovation to the M: framelines in the viewfinder image. In this case even for two popular distances, 50 and 90 mm. And beyond that you could still see the action outside the frames, which makes shooting easier. This allows you to decide which composition best fits the (visible) context surrounding your frame and stay alert to any action that could influence the shot. Also new and similar to the M was the moving frame viewfinder in the rangefinder mechanism that corrected for parallax (to close objects because the viewfinder is in a slightly different position to the lens). And for the first time a film type indicator on the camera back, like the M. In comparison to earlier Barnacks one could see again the small dial for slow speeds from 1/30, 1/15, 1/8, 1/4, 1/2 to 1 s. The IIIg incorporated also the late Flash (PC-)sync for Electronic and Bulb flash sync at 1/60 and 1/30 shutter speeds. And last but not least, an attractive self timer mechanism on front of the camera, next to the lens. But unfortunately, the IIIg also inherited the cumbersome loading of film through the bottom of the camera. Those who already own one Barnack know about the necessary trimming and lengthening of the insert strip of a 135 roll. Fortunately, there are numerous ‘how-to’-insert-film’- videos available on YouTube, of which this is one of the most recent and best. From the M3 onwards, this is simplified by opening a small cover on the back and checking that the film is inserted correctly into the sprockets.
Otherwise, the Leica IIIg is almost identical to its predecessors. On the top plate are the winding dial with a wheel for automatic frame numbers, the shutter with connection for a remote cable release, the conversion switch for advancing or rewinding the film, the shutter speed dial (1/1000s, 1/500s, 1/250s, 1/125s, 1/60s en 1/30s and the sync speeds. In the middle there is the cold shoe for attaching accessories, like viewfinders for lenses with different focal lengths or flashes. On the far left is the rewind dial. On the far left is the rewind dial with the diopter setting attached, useful for eyeglass wearers. On the front, it is easy to see how the frame-lines are projected through an additional, illuminated window, in addition to the viewfinder and two windows for the rangefinder. The model also holds strap lugs and has a tripod connector on the bottom plate. And it is also to the IIIg’s credit that we find the beautifully designed ISO rings on the back, which of course could not yet linked to the later TTL exposure meters (like the M6).
Rangefinder. You simply have turn the focusing lever on the lens until the double-image in the little window becomes a single one. Without a mirror, focusing is actually not possible. These did however exist in the 1930s, such as Ihagee’s Kine Exakta. But Barnack wanted a pocket camera, small and accesible for the general public. His mission was to bring photography to ordinary people. He envisioned vacation snapshots, shots of Christmas and birthday parties. But made with high quality, and not taken with the large medium format cameras that used single glass-plates as negatives. Film on a roll, a lot for little money and with an ease of use so everyone could photograph. In his quest, he designed one of, if not the most beautiful camera of all time. A Barnack is a work of art, a creation never equaled but endlessly copied, like the Russian Feds, Zorkis, but also by Nikon, Minolta and Canon. But never matched the original. His own Leica fetched 21 million Euros at an auction in 2022.
It puzzles me that so many Barnacks are still offered for relatively low prices on eBay. But that may also be temporary as the roll of film becomes wildly popular again and the search for classic quality cameras increases. Leica represents an important but (sometimes exaggerated) role in this. Atronomic prices especially play a role in this. But not with the Barnacks, which after all, next to the M’s, are Leica’s finest cameras. With a CLA turn, they are quickly restored to one long life, but often they just work without a CLA. Rarely are shutters defective or shutter cloths broken. Made for a lifetime in the 1930s and beyond.
But the camera only guarantees proper operation; the lens ultimately determines the quality of the photos. This is where Leica enjoys name and fame. It is certainly not unusual with Leica to pay much, much more for the lens than the camera.
It is certainly not unusual with Leica to pay much more for the lens than the camera. For the classic lenses on the Barnacks, however, we must turn to Prof. Max Berek, working for Leica. Indeed, without Berek, Leica might have been condemned to cooperate with the lens giant of the time: Carl Zeiss. The first Leicas used the famous Tessar lens, but they proved insufficiently capable of rendering the new 24×36 35mm format. So Berek’s lens was invented, the Elmax F3.5/50mm that evolved into the Elmar. At first these were not yet interchangeable, something that only became possible with the Leica I in 1930. The lenses had a 39mm screw mount which was later called the Leica Thread Mount (LTM). This mount was also still used on the Leica IIIg, although the first M mount bayonet connection was already available with the M3. A wide angle non collapsible 35mm F3.5 Summaron from the fifties was screwed onto this IIIG. After the war, collapsible lenses (for compactness) were slowly replaced by fixed, short lenses. The Summaron 35mm is considered a lens that is well suited for black and white and artistic photography. It is prone to flares, suffers from vignetting, but this is not its weak point, on the contrary it presents a kind of pleasing softness and yet has astonishing contrast to deliver very unique or artistic images. That goes for almost all the LTM lenses. My only exception is the sharp and collapsible Summitar 50 mm/F2 that is optical a superb performer (also on digital cameras with adapter!). Most lenses for the Barnacks are more expensive than the camera. On eBay you will mostly come across the Elmars, be alert for haze though, although a CLA service can fix this too. Remarkably cheap, on the other hand, are the telephoto lenses in Leica screw mount.
What is it like to still be shooting with a Leica IIIg in 2022? In a word: fantastic! You stand out in a positive sense with it, it is a flashy, but noy conspicuous camera, quiet in use, easy to put in your pocket and whole in style, with the original leather case to hang around your neck. Trim a few rolls beforehand and go on your way. It is an ideal reporting camera with the 35 mm lens. Focusing is very fast thanks to the rangefinder. Setting aperture and shutter speed is smooth and focus quickly determined in the large and clear search window. The results are beyond expectations, at least in my many rolls I have shot on the Barnacks with different lenses. I work primarily with color films because they give just the vintage color look do you expect from the camera. A new world through old eyes. Contrast is strong, shadows are pretty well detailed, the center is sharp and welcome softness at the edges like a picture frame. The Barnack has something the Germans refer to as ‘das gewisse etwas‘, the thing that is undefined, and makes it special.
Working with a Barnack is working on a friendship. A friendship for life. One so strong camera that it finally will outlast you too.