The Leica 'S' for today's photographer

Copyright by Karim Ghantous 1999

There is a seductive contrast in a machine which on the one hand is pretty to look at and well engineered and on the other hand is so spartan in its feature list. There are few machines of this type and the Leica thread-mount camera is one of them. Sure, it's old and it isn't cheap, but beauty has more value than the mere sum of youth and technological sophistication. The cameras in question here do not have TTL light meters. In fact, they have no meter at all. Some don't even have flash contacts. They have two shutter speed dials. And film only loads from the base.

It's been 39 years since the old Leica screw mount cameras were discontinued. The successor to the L39 is of course the M series camera, with its bayonet lens mount, automatic viewfinder-to-lens matching and other practical improvements. In fact the M Leica was so well conceived back in ‘53 that there are barely any noticeable improvements that the company has been able to make in the recently released MP; the M7 has electronic and TTL flash metering. However, the L39 (or S series) cameras are still useable, practical machines - if a little esoteric and idiosyncratic. Like the M series cameras, they were never intended to be cheap: the best materials for the time were used, so they will serve you for the rest of your life.

I've had mine for almost a year and as expected there were a few things to learn that they just don't teach you in manuals. The early models were made when almost everybody bulk-loaded film on their own using Leica’s special, three-piece, re-useable metal cassettes. That was a time when good old black and white film was cheaper and faster than colour emulsions. And although these cameras may be slower to operate than modern 35mm cameras, compared to the big 4”x5” and rollfilm types, the Leicas were considered quick and efficient.

So what's changed? It's not as if a machine can lose any of its usability over time, but when other machines with better features come along, it may seem stupid to go backwards. Not so with the Leica S. For a start, it's quite smaller than the M models. And if you have ever used an M camera, you will know that compared to modern SLRs, it's pretty compact. So the most obvious thing is that the S model is its small size. If we think it's small now, even with all our APS and 135 compacts, imagine what people thought of it back in the 1930s. Two unique features are the round winding and rewind knobs. Today, all our manual cameras are operated by levers. But the knobs on the L39 Leicas can actually be thought of as practical in a strange way: they don't catch in clothing or straps and they only add a fraction of height above the top of the rangefinder housing. The only problem is the rewind knob. It's a little slower than the modern versions which include a fold-out lever. Supplementary fold-out l evers were sold in the USA years ago but I haven't seen any second hand ones around.

It will appear incredible to non-Leica enthusiasts that someone would pay the same amount of money for a Leica S camera as for a technically superior camera, like the Olympus OM-1/2. A Leica L39 body will cost much less than an M2 or M3, let alone M4 or higher. And the lenses will cost a little less, too, although the flexibility isn't there - back to that in a moment. But a good kit (3 lenses and one or two bodies, filters and caps) will cost more than the equivalent SLR kit. This is partly because Leica prices are always high due to the cameras’ reliability and collectability. Unfortunately, many Leicas are doomed to the collector's shelves (prisons, more like). So good, fast and wide-angle lenses are of course expensive. Fast lenses are actually not the main problem. After all, most pictures, whether indoors or not, are taken at about f/5.6 or f/8. The most frustrating problem is the little accessories like rear caps. Some camera stores just won't sell you any. Camera body caps are slightl y more common. Lens caps are difficult, too, but the good news is that you can buy them new from Leica. The bad news is that they cost something like $28.00 - that is how much is costs for a new, plastic E39 cap. And you can forget finding caps for odd sizes. Filters for odd sizes are not easy to find, but you can buy new E39 filters in all popular colours, but only the best companies (like B&W) seem to make them, so prepare to spend lots.

The most important thing you need is film and by golly there's plenty to choose from. The best type of film to use in these cameras is b&w or colour negative. Remember, there is no built-in meter, so you either need to estimate or carry a hand-held one with you. If your meter is accurate, then of course use colour slides, but the lenses may not have quite the high contrast that today's lenses can offer. Needless to say, colour negative film is just as potent in a Leica S as in an SLR, but b&w film gives such pleasant images.

Film loading is slow and precise. The film loads from underneath, after removing the base plate. This arrangement of not having a swing-away back may have made the body stronger, but it might cause you some headaches if you don't practice first. The following is the best method for loading the film successfully. Select T on the slow shutter speed dial and release the shutter. Now, the curtains are out of the way. Get the camera facing upside down, so you look onto the base. Remove plate. Take out take-up spool (yes, it's separate). Slip in the end of the film under the thin metal tongue (it can be a little difficult the first time you do it, but don't assume that it's rusted - keep trying) and jam it in, making sure the film abuts the edge of the spool. Pull out the film from the cassette only as far as it needs to go and slip both the cassette and the spool evenly down into the body. There should be no resistance. The reason why you should get the shutter curtains out of the way is that you can see - if the lens is removed - if the top edge of the film has slipped underneath the top edge of the frame aperture. If it has caught, then all you need to do is have another go.

It is important to know what to expect from the S Leicas in the field. That is, the way they will perform in practice and what you can and can't do with them. They are best used for landscapes and portraits. That's because, in the first case, you can take your sweet time in composing a shot and not worry about the lack of autofocus, motor drives and matrix metering modes. The size of the camera will allow it to fit in smaller bags, too. And in the second case, the non-threatening look of the camera will reduce your subject's anxiety. In fact it could be a conversation point which helps the both of you to relax, resulting in better, livelier portraits. Typical sport, action and close-up photos are in general not easy to take - in fact, don't bother trying.

The shutter does not have the legendary silence of the M6, but it is very positive and crisp. While the M cameras have bright and big viewfinders, the S cameras prefer brighter conditions, partly because the finder is so small and partly because the rangefinder optics are not as advanced as those on M cameras.

The bigger the lens, the more it will intrude into the bottom right hand corner of the built-in viewfinder. The 50mm Summicron - the third generation f/2 lens after the Summar and Summitar - is wider than its predecessors. Its optical quality is superb but the front section of the lens intrudes, but only slightly. The IIIg has its viewfinder set slightly higher than all the previous S series cameras, so if you are blessed with one you should have fewer problems.

Early S cameras have two eyepieces. That means that the viewfinder is separate from the rangefinder. Later models have them still separate but closer together in a twin eyepiece and the focusing eyepiece is magnified 1.5x to effectively extend the accuracy to that of the later M3. Unfortunately, the viewfinder is not comfortable to look through. It's bright enough, but the edges are not sharp (not the edges of the glass, but the black border) and the magnification is about 0.5x. I have seen better magnification in a disposable camera's viewfinder.

Note that the thread-mount Leicas do not have selectable viewfinders. This is unlike the M cameras, which have up to six different frames projected into the finder depending on which lens is attached. The expected method for composing in the old Leicas would be to use a supplementary, bright-line finder or the universal unit, called the Imarect (there are others, as well). Those are fitted to the accessory shoe. If you want to use any other lens besides the 50mm, you will almost without question have to purchase one of these finders. The built-in unit, besides being small, offers you the standard 46 degree (50mm) view only. The most expensive model, the IIIg, has a parallax corrected built-in finder with frame markings for the 50mm and the 90mm - permanently visible. To make focusing easier in lower light levels or areas of low contrast, tilting the camera gives a more distinct view of the dual images of the rangefinder. There is one neat accessory which is difficult to find (of course) which aids focusing: a little red filter which slips over one of the rangefinder windows. But don't buy it until you measure its diameter, because earlier cameras had differently sized windows.

Winding the film on is easy, though not quite as simple compared to the M cameras. There are no motor winders available. You should use 36 exposure rolls if you think a situation won't allow you to change film quickly or often. You should be warned that shutter speeds should be set after winding on the film, as the main dial rotates with the winding knob. The main dial's connection to the shutter mechanism is so direct that when the shutter is released, the dial quickly spins back to its rest position. Two more things: lift the main dial upwards before turning it to the required shutter speed, then let it drop. Whether you use the main dial (fast speeds) or the slow-speed dial, always make sure that the other dial is set at the marked position (either 1/25, 1/20 or 1/30 sec. depending on the model). All of this is easy and taken for granted once you get to know the camera. But knowing it now prevents you from looking like a fool when you try the cameras out at the store - and ignorant salesmen won't sell you a camera you don't want. (I asked a salesman a question which I knew the answer to and he got it wrong.)

Lenses from 35mm to 135mm are easy to get. They aren't too expensive, but cheaper ones can be had if you are happy with other brands. You may think that there would be no point if you weren't going to use Leitz lenses, but those of us who are financially challenged have to make do without original lenses while we slowly save up for them. Availability changes due to fashions in collecting, but it seems that Canon lenses, often reputed to be at least as good as Leitz ones, are not easy to find at the moment. Russian lenses are actually pretty good, especially some 21mm models. And they aren't expensive, either. Some photographers find them better value for money than Leitz lenses but they are not easy to find here. Many thread-mount lenses are collapsible, which means that with a twist and a push, the lens retracts into the body by around two centimetres or so.

A bonus is that you can buy Canon SLR lenses and use an FD to L39 adapter - but because the whole point behind rangefinder lenses is their small size and slightly different optical design, you really should give this idea a miss. If you want to buy an ‘odd’ focal length lens, like 100mm, then make sure that your universal finder - if you have one - is compatible. For example, Leica’s own Imarect supports the 73mm focal length, but the Zeiss turret finder, made for their Contax cameras, doesn't. But the Zeiss can support 85mm lenses whereas the Leitz can't, although because of its design (one lens with a shrinking/expanding diaphragm) you can estimate it. Some lenses come with their own finder, but some of them are awful, such as the Canon finder which came with my 135mm lens.

Below is a list of the truly practical and well-featured models that will not leave you wanting much. As our discussion is about the practical use of the S series models, the list excludes all the early models. It also excludes special models like the II, IIc and so on which have no slow-speed dial. Those variants are generally more expensive. Please refer to in-depth books contemporary to the camera for comprehensive details.

III (model F) no separate 1.0x standard B, 1 - 1/20 - 1/500 standard
IIIa (model G) no separate 1.0x standard B, 1 - 1/20 - 1/1000 standard
IIIb no twin 1.0x standard B, 1 - 1/20 - 1/1000 standard
IIIc no twin 1.5x long B, T, 1 - 1/30 - 1/1000 standard
IIId yes twin 1.5x long B, T, 1 - 1/30 - 1/1000 standard
IIIf yes twin 1.5x long B, T, 1 - 1/30 - 1/1000 then
B, T, 1 - 1/25 - 1/1000
IIIg yes twin 1.5x long B, T, 1 - 1/25 - 1/1000 50mm & 90mm bright-lines; parallax corrected

Please note a few things. Firstly, as useable as the IIId is, only 500 units were made - it is basically a IIIc with a self-timer - so if you have one, preserve it and use another model instead. Late model IIIfs and all IIIgs have self-timers. When body length is indicated as 'long', the difference is small but base-plates aren't interchangeable with standard width models.

It is irresistible to make concluding remarks regarding the cameras’ aesthetic appeal. It may not be apparent, but the thread mount Leicas ooze good taste art deco. How is it that Leica rangefinders are the most beautiful 35mm cameras in the world? Perhaps an iron law of nature is at work: objects with integrity are always easy to distinguish because everything else that is right and good naturally comes into play around that object.

The seductive, compact size and precise, rugged simplicity and flexibility of the S Leicas is a gift from heaven; we all need machines which give us emotional satisfaction. Who would contemplate taking a beautiful photograph without a beautiful camera? Henri Cartier-Bresson, W. Eugene Smith, Leni Riefenstahl, Alfred Eisenstaedt, Ilse Bing and many others who used the thread-mount Leicas certainly wouldn't.

Further Reading

The New Leica Manual by W. D. Morgan & H. M. Lester, published by Morgan and Lester
That just happens to be my version; there are actually more than a few, updated regularly to keep up with models and accessories. The Leica Manual was first published in 1935 and possibly is no longer in print. This is a solid, 400+ page volume with chapters authored by Alfred Eisenstaedt and Ansel Adams. Almost every aspect of photography with the Leica is covered here, from photojournalism to microphotography to even close-ups of a stamp collection.

Reprints of Leica instruction manuals, published by Hove Books
These are the official instructions by the Leitz company, reprinted in compiled volumes. They are useful for understanding how to use the cameras and what to pay attention to, but like all official literature, few solutions or in-depth discussions are offered.

Leica: The First Fifty Years by G.Rogliatto, published by Hove Camera Foto Books
This was first published in 1975 and I am not sure if it is still in print or not. It isn't too thick and has a useful table of serial numbers covering all thread-mount cameras and lenses. It also describes all the models in detail, but not every single accessory.

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This article previously appeared in Photographic Trader #79