Monday, December 4, 2017

Good Things in Small Packages: Leica IIIC Camera

At the Parthenon, Athens, Greece, 1955. Photograph on Kodachrome film with this Leica IIIC.
This is my Leica IIIC rangefinder camera made in Wetzlar, West Germany. It uses the standard 35mm perforated film with frame size of 24×36mm. My dad bought this IIIC in 1949 when he worked for the US Navy on Guam. It came with a 5cm f/2.0 Summitar lens. He had owned an American-made Perfex 35mm camera during the war years but had wanted a Leica for a long time. During World War II, a few Leicas were exported via Sweden, but they were reserved for special uses (spies or well-placed generals?).
Advertisement from Olden Camera & Lens Co., New York, January 1947. Note Leica IIIB and Summitar cost  $385.00.
After the war, one of the ways a war-ravaged Germany began to rebuild its economy was to export precision optical equipment, such as the famous Leica cameras. My dad took the opportunity of low prices at the post exchange on Guam to buy this body and lens. As I recall, he said they cost $150. He used this little Leica for many years, taking family photographs when we lived in Greece and southeast Asia in the 1950s and 1960s, and I used it in the 1970s and 1980s
On modern standards, this camera is a bit fiddly to use. First the viewfinder has two windows. The way I use it is to first look through the right finder, which shows the complete scene covered by the 50mm lens. If I like the scene, I shift my eye to the left window and focus on the object that is most important. By the way, it is a remarkably accurate focus arrangement considering the short base length. Then I shift back to the right window, do the final framing, and take the picture. Really, it is easier in practice than to describe in text.
With permission from The Online Darkroom.
Second, the film needs to be trimmed with scissors to have a long tongue before you insert it in the take-up spool and then slide both the 35mm cartridge and take-up spool into the body from the bottom. Leica once sold a trimming guide, but you do not need it. Just use you Swiss Army knife and trim about 8 or 10cm from the tongue, and it will work. Once loaded, turn the rewind knob gently to remove slack. Then, when you advance the film, make sure the rewind knob is turning in the opposite direction to be sure the film is truly advancing. Again, it is easier to do than to describe.
As the photographs show, the camera has almost watchmaker precision in the fittings. The chrome on mine is pitted because in the early post-war era, chromium was hard to buy and many German cameras had poor plating.
With permission from The Online Darkroom.
Leica marketed lenses ranging from 21mm to 400mm, all the best quality available at the time. Oddly, my father never bought any more lenses. A few years ago, Sherry Krauter in New York cleaned and checked the Summitar lens for me. Mine is pristine and never suffered the scratches in the soft coating that plague so many 1940s lenses (old-time photographers cleaned their lenses with their neckties).

The Summitar lens was in production from 1939 to 1953. The war-time production lenses were uncoated, but were anti-reflection coated from 1946 on. The construction was a complicated design of 7 elements in 4 groups. It must have taken a heroic effort to compute the ray paths by human computers using mechanical calculators and trigonometry tables. The central sharpness is superb, but the edges fall off, and there is some field curvature. This can be used creatively, and regardless, "sharpness" is not normally the factor that makes a photograph successful.

These older Leica bodies have a screw mount for the lenses. The thread is 39mm × 26 turns-per-inch or threads-per-inch (tpi). This was a Whitworth threading standard, which was common in microscope manufacture in the early 20th century. Hundreds of different lenses from German, English, and Russian companies were made for this 39mm mount, but focal lengths other than 50mm require an auxiliary viewfinder to show the correct frame. This is a different 39mm than the 39×0.75 thread used for large-format Copal 1 and many other shutters. And it is different than the 39F pitch used for 39mm filters that screw into the front of many Leica lenses. Confusing? Yes, of course.
The shutter in the body had been troublesome for over a decade, but Don Goldberg (known as DAG) in Wisconsin did a fantastic job overhauling it mid-2017. This is the main roller, on which Mr. Goldberg marked the areas that were badly worn. He replaced it with a new-old-stock main roller, the genuine Leica part. For how many other consumer products that are almost seven decades old can you still get factory replacement parts (possibly some watches or Rolls Royce motorcars?)?
The Summitar lens uses filters with a unique 36mm tapered thread. No other lens ever made used this size. I did not use filters too often on my Nepal trip, but when needed, I had Leitz Series VI filters and a Tiffen retaining ring. It is a bit clumsy but manageable, and the series filters can be used on other lenses with the appropriate adapter rings. A polarizer is the most clumsy, but Leica made a brilliant fold-out polarizer just for this task (on my shopping list).

The Summitar lens is a bit quirky. My example (and maybe all of them?) has a lot of field curvature, so the edges of a flat object will be fuzzy. But a typical scene with the subject near the center has smooth out of focus area around the edges. This out of focus appearance is known as bokeh. Thirty years ago, almost no one thought about it, but now digital photographers are obsessed with the topic. The newer Type 2 and Type 4 50mm f/2.0 Summicron lenses that I use on my Leica M2 body are "better", but I rather like the old Summitar. It feels good to have my dad's camera in operation again. He would be pleased.
Village Elders, Siran Danda, Gorkha region, Nepal.
School girls, Dhulikhel, east of Kathmandu.
Young ladies of Nepani, Gorkha District, Nepal.
For a trip to Nepal in October of this year, I decided to use this little IIIC with black and white film and skip the obligatory digital camera entirely. It was a great success. Many Nepalis were amazed that I was using a mechanical camera almost 70 years old. It was a tension-breaker to let people look through the viewfinder, but I had to explain that there was no LCD screen for them to see the results. Surprisingly, some of the camera stores in the Thamel area (the main tourist zone) in Kathmandu still stock fresh Ilford and Fuji film in 35mm size. But you probably could not find any 120 or large format film. These examples are on TMax 100 film, developed by Praus Productions in Rochester, NY. I had only used TMax 100 once before and I'm impressed by the fine grain. Nice stuff. To measure exposure, I used a Gossen Luna Pro Digital meter, usually in reflected mode but sometimes in incident mode.
Cooking pots at Thubten Choling Monastery, Solu Khumbu region.
Tools at Serlo Monastery, Solu Khumbu region.
Hanging around in Kathmandu. Note: most mannequins in Nepal are European ladies (but maybe made in India??).
Nepal is a fabulous photographic destination. The people are friendly and welcoming. The country is developing and changing quickly. Go soon to see remnants of an earlier era before they are torn up and replaced with the new commercial world. The same warning applies to Cuba: Go before the developers pillage and ruin it, especially if American developers ever move in.

For an earlier article about how I have used Leica cameras to record urban decay, click this link. Thank you!

Mike Johnson, former editor of Camera & Darkroom magazine and now author of The Online Photographer, wrote an excellent article in 1992 about Leicaphilia.

35MMC has a useful article titled 7 Reasons You Should Own a Thread Mount Leica. I agree with the author that these cameras slow you down and make you think. You just can't spray and pray like the digital crowd and then doodle around with Lightroom for weeks culling files, pretending that you are an artist.

1 comment:

  1. Fine article, fine 3C review. My all-time favorite cameras were 2Fs, which have subtle-but-forgotten-by-me advantages. Today, for the same purposes, I rely on Konica Hexar AF which substitutes reliable-but-complicated tech for Leica's total lack of tech...a workable trade off. As well, Konica whups Leica optically...but I'm limited to 35mm bright frame only. I doubt my Konica will find someone to rebuild it in the far distant future, the way your Leica did :-)

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