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Leica Screw Mount Cameras:

User Buyer's Guide

In the US, Leica's original rangefinder series (1930-60) are usually called "screw mounts" or "LTM" for Leica thread mount. According to a friend in Japan, they are often called "Barnack Cameras" after the Leica's designer/inventor Oskar Barnack.    Keep in mind this page is Leica specific, not discussing the many other cameras using Leica screw mount.

Positives & Negatives, Peculiarities, Pre-War/ Post War, Chronology, What to Look For, Best Buys


Point of View:

This Not-So-Objective Buyer's Guide is for the user, not the collector. Rare models and variations are not mentioned here. There are a ton of collector's books for that. This page is for the person who, for whatever reason--nostalgia, love, or insanity--wants to shoot pictures. I highly recommend an older edition of the LEICA MANUAL which covers these cameras in great detail. This great series covers virtually all the accessories and will prove to be invaluable to you. Editions were published from the middle 30's to the early 70's. Note this guide is confined to Leicas only and does not cover any of the various Leica copies.


Positives and Negatives: Aesthetics Vs Photo Opportunities

All of that being said, you have to be kind of crazy to want to shoot with these cameras, but its a pleasant kind of insanity.


Peculiarities: a little bit eccentric

Metering: good news

Of course there is no built in TTL meter in the screw mount Leicas.   Worse,  there has never been a really good clip on meter for the Barnack cameras, until Cosina-Voigtlander decided to introduce one in late 1999.  For most photogs, this new meter will be a must have for their Barnack cameras.  Please see separate profile.

Film Loading: Easy is not the word.

As Elegant as they are, Leica Screw mounts are difficult to load. It's very easy for the beginner to futz around five minutes or more just to load the film. This is how I do it:

Two Built in Finders for RF and VF

Some writers will bemoan the fact that you have separate finders for the Rangefinder and Viewfinder on Leica Screw mounts. Well, it is different, but to my way of thinking it is not much of a disadvantage. The RF image is high magnification, 1.5 times life-size in the IIIa cameras and later. The VF is right next to the RF window in the IIIc and later, and is very easy to use. Only in the most extreme timing situations have I found myself lamenting two windows. The Viewfinder for all models except the IIIg shows no framelines whatsoever. The view shown is the focused image at 10 feet for SLIDES. As you focus to infinity, the image actually becomes slightly larger. In practice, this extra coverage helps compensate for the lack of framelines. The IIIg finder is a pure pleasure, very bright with parallax brightlines for the 50 and 90 built in. Both framelines are visible at all times. With both of them staring you in the face, it is not too hard to imagine the 135 inside the 90 frameline.

See Rangefinder/Viewfinders for camera comparisons.

Knob wind and rewind

One thing that may take some getting used to is that both the advance and rewind is by KNOB, not even levers. Translation: SLOW film advance and rewind. Just remember: Motordrives are for Sissies!

Parallax

Since the lens is one place, and the viewfinder is another, what you see is not exactly what you get. The problem gets bigger the closer you are to the subject. There are individual finders which you can use in the accessory show to help you out. See Accessory Viewfinders for details.

Double Exposures are Easy!

The low speeds are on the front mounted shutter dial, the high speeds on the top mounted shutter dial.  The top mounted dial ROTATES during exposure.     To set the shutter speed, advance the film FIRST.  Then raise the top shutter speed dial and rotate it to match up with the desired speed.   If you match it to the lowest number, usually 1-20 or thereabouts, you enable the slow speed dial.  Then rotate that to your desired speed.    Warning: you can get uneven exposures by resting your finger on the top shutter speed dial during exposure.    Yet, if you want double exposures,  ALL you have to do is turn the high speed dial in the opposite direction until it catches.  That re-cocks the shutter, and you can take another shot.  Repeat as many times as you want.

Lens Standardization

If you encounter an early Leica with a funny looking plugged hole on the back of it, this is the story behind it.  Originally Leicas did not have interchangeable lenses.  At that time, no 35's did since Leica literally invented 35mm photography.  Anyway, when Leica initially  made   interchangeable lenses, EACH camera was adjusted individually for infinity focus.    Each lens had to be matched and adjusted for each body.    Eventually Leica established a standard back focus.   Lenses and bodies matched for this new standard had a "O" marked on the lenses and on the lens mount in the early 30's.   The "O" marking was dropped by the mid 30's.    To quote the American Leica expert Marvin Moss:

"All early Leica cameras had problems in matching a lens to its body, since  the actual focal lengths varied i.e. (+ or - 1/10mm) and the bottom shells, not  being die cast also varied. The solution to this, in the late '20s & early  '30s  was to have a PEEP HOLE built into the back of the camera where a loupe  was attached.    They  were focusing on the aerial image rather than a ground glass, it was more  accurate.   After adjustments by adding shims (.001/mm) to the lens flange  the peep hole was plugged and the pressure plate revolved to make it light  tight."

Standard Accessory Shoes?

Pre-war cameras may have not so standard accessory shoes, which may or may not fit a postwar standard accessory finder.  Try a potential accessory finder before you buy one for that pre-war Leica.

The 50mm Lens

Remember all of the Barnack cameras are most easily used with a 50mm lens which matches their built in 50mm finder.    Wide angles are easier to use with Barnack cameras than teles, since there is less parallax compensation with the auxiliary finder.  This does not mean the 85, 90, 105, 135 lenses are not usable, just that the wides are easier.

Bulk Film Loading ?

Do yourself a favor, use real Leitz reloadable cassettes.


Post War and Pre-War:

Pre-war cameras before the IIIc are of a built up piece by piece construction. The IIIc and later has a much stronger die cast body shell.

Pre-war lenses are generally UNCOATED. The exceptions are mainly lenses that were sent back to the factory for coating after the war. Most modern Leica books criticize the optical abilities of these uncoated lenses to the point that many of today's photogs consider these lenses unusable. In my opinion, this is a big mistake.

Uncoated Lenses MADE Leica a runaway success in the 30's. Without these early lenses, there would be no M's or R's today. They must have done something right.

Today these early lenses generally need a good cleaning because they have a lot of fogging inside. With or without the fogging, I say shoot them and get ready for a new photo experience. Muddy gray tones, lots of flare, muted colors.

Great photography is about the visual effect upon the viewer, not sharpness. Try these old lenses and you will find a new style. Granted it is not for everyone, but neither is the Countach. By the way, virtually ALL screw mount lenses can be used beautifully on later M mount cameras with the proper Leitz adapter.  See Profile. If you want to play around with this effect, your M6 will do just fine. Many early M lenses were Screw mounts with an adapter. Eventually the bean counters figured they could sell more new cameras if their new lenses were ONLY in M mount.


Chronology of Barnack Cameras

Leica A

Strictly speaking the A is not a screw mount because it has a fixed lens, but I did not have the heart to leave it out. That's right, under this gruff exterior I'm really just a sentimental softy.

Introduced in 1925, The A was Leica's first 35 mm camera and the first successful production 35 mm still camera in history. Yep, this little camera is the Granddaddy of all 35 mm cameras. Sure it's funny, but so is the Model T Ford or the original IBM PC. Finished in black, this camera has a retro look which puts the current "retro" AF cameras to shame.

The A is limited by a non interchangeable 50/3.5 or sometimes 50/2.5 uncoated lens, limited shutter speed 1/500 to 1/20, and focusing by guessing the distance or by attaching an auxiliary rangefinder. The early one's are quite collectible and valuable, but the later ones in average shootable shape are often available in the $600-700 range.

I have never seen this camera mentioned as a "shooter," and I think its a big mistake. If you really want to appreciate the marvel's of today's do-everything cameras while getting back to the basics, try the A. It will make you a new photographer, or you may well die trying. Easy it is not, but it is a lot of fun if you appreciate nostalgia. Load it with the latest Kodak Gold and scan the negatives with your Nikon scanner into your Intel Pentium II so you can manipulate the image with PhotoShop. Who would have thought that in 1925???????

The A with an interchangeable Leica screw mount became the Leica Standard, or Leica C. Everything said about the A also applies to the C, but now you can change lenses too. What will they think of next??

Leica II

The Leica II has a special place in 35 mm history as the world's first 35 mm System Camera. Introduced in 1932, it had lenses from 35 to 135 and was the first Leica to have a built in rangefinder for "autofocus" focusing. It was the F5 of its time. All came in black enamel. The early ones came with nickel knobs. Its essentially a Standard A with the rangefinder added. No slow speeds yet.  The II is one of the few Leicas where the black ones outnumber the chrome.        See Separate Profile

Leica III

Introduced in 1933. This is a Leica II with slow speeds down to 1 second added. It's practically the same camera as the II otherwise.  III's can be found in both chrome and black. I personally prefer the black enamel.

Leica IIIa

Introduced in 1935, its a III with a higher top speed of 1/1000. All are believed to be in chrome. They are comparatively common cameras.   The IIIa established what became a standard shutter speed range from 1 second to 1/1000 in top end 35mm cameras.

Leica IIIb 

introduced 1938, a IIIa with the viewfinder / rangefinder eyepieces moved next to each other,  RF diopter   eyepiece adjustment moved from eyepiece to rotate around rewind knob, all but a handful chrome finish

Leica IIIc

Introduced in 1940, but full production did not start until after the war. The IIIc was a major improvement with a much stronger die cast body. The separate Viewfinder and Rangefinder were also placed closer together than the IIIa. These are plentiful and cheap. (yea!) No factory flash sync yet. Beware of early post war IIIc's which usually have a TERRIBLE chrome plating job which pits and peels easily. The IIIc's are the cheapest of any of Barnack Cameras and are a prime candidate for shooters.   1st postwar IIIc generally considered # 400,001

Leica IIIf

wpeC4.jpg (31355 bytes)Introduced in 1950. This is the first Leica with a factory sync for flashbulbs or flash. But don't get too excited about it. The sync speed is ridiculously slow at 1/20th or 1/25 and the sync terminal is nicely placed at the back of the camera where it can stick the sync plug into your eye. My advice, forget flash with Barnack Cameras unless you have a real self hatred...eh pure love for photography.   The pic shows a IIIf with the 50/1.4 Nikkor.

IIIf's are very plentiful in three different variations, the black dial (BD), the red dial(RD), and the red dial with self timer(RD ST). The "black dial" has black numbers around the base of the shutter speed dial for the flash sync delay, the "red dial" has red numbers, and the "red dial self timer" (surprise) has a self timer.   The Red Dial versions have an improved shutter from the factory standpoint, but from a user standpoint, they really amount to the same thing.     Since the black dial is the least expensive, it makes the best choice for a shooter.  

Leica IIIf Red Dial Self Timer (IIIf RD ST)

This is my own favorite, aesthetically.  I find its lines more balanced than the IIIg's.  It is a IIIf Red Dial with a self timer added.  Shown with 50/3.5 Collapsible Elmar.  See separate profile.

Leica IIIg

 

Introduced in 1957 and discontinued only 3 years later, this is Leica's most advanced of Barnack Cameras as well as one of the most desirable to both shooters and collectors. English translation: they ain't cheap.

It's a IIIf with a MUCH improved and larger Viewfinder which shows PARALLAX corrected framelines for the 50 and 90--the only Leica made LTM to do so.  The flash sync is also improved as you no longer have to futz around with the flash delay dial -- it is now automatic.   The IIIg  is a pleasure to shoot and always in demand. Collectors pay big bucks for Mint- or better. Look for ugly or engraved ones and get a real bargain.  Strangely enough, they will actually take pictures.  Shown is a Shintaro painted hammertone IIIg, sporting a Voigtlander 28/3.5 and Voigtlander 28/35 brightline Mini-Finder.  This combination is a favorite of mine, as it gives the shooter brightlines of 28, 35, 50, and 90.  Not too bad.

Barnack Camera Flash Synchronization

Only postwar cameras left the factory originally with flash synchronization, though it may have been added later -- at the factory or by an independent repairman.    In practical terms flash is a pain with these cameras, since the PC outlet is on the back of the top plate near the shutter speed dial -- where it can easily poke you in the eye or can easily be knocked out when you pick up the camera.  As if that is not enough, the X flash speed is very low. 

On the various If, IIf and IIIf cameras, look at the lower rotating dial around the high speed shutter dial.

IF those numbers are black,  electronic flash sync is 1/30th at setting # 2.

If those numbers are red, electronic flash sync is 1/25 at setting # 0, or 1/50th at setting # 20.

If you have a IIIg, electronic flash sync is indicated by the two lighting bolts on the high speed shutter dial, either 1/50 or 1/30.    The flash sync delay numbers on the IIIf were eliminated, making it a little bit easier.


Buyer's Guide: What to Look For, or watch out for

Best Buys

Sure, there are the stories of the Mint IIIg at the garage sale for $5, but how often can you depend on that? Besides, I already bought it.

At retail prices for the user, these bargains stand out:

Last but not Least, don't forget the value of Barnack Cameras as jewelry and fashion statements - - the finishing touch on your retro-technology "lost angry artist" outfit.  Njoy.


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Revised: May 05, 2004 Copyright  1998-2004  Stephen Gandy. All rights reserved.    This means you may NOT copy and re-use the text or the pictures in ANY other internet or printed publication of ANY kind.  Information in this document is subject to change without notice.  Other products and companies referred to herein are trademarks or registered trademarks of their respective companies or mark holders.