Leica announces new M3 Digital: "Back to our roots"

Posted on by Mike Evans

An M3 with a digital back: This has been the holy grail of Leica M photographers ever since the relatively bulky M8 was announced in September 2006. Why can’t we keep the size and weight of the film camera but have the advantage of digital, they wondered. Now they can have the best of both worlds.

Leica has today met this demand from a vocal majority with the announcement of the Leica M3D, a camera that has identical appearance, dimensions and weight to the first M, the M3, but with a digital sensor replacing the film plane. It was shown to the press this morning in the popular spa resort of Bad Wolkenkuckucksheim near Wetzlar.

Advance lever

The M3D offers the very essence of digital photography combined with the simplicity of film shooting. The only adjustments possible on the M3D are aperture, shutter speed and ISO. Even the ISO is not automatic, it has to be selected manually by means of a central dial on the back of the camera where other digitals would have a screen.

In a nod to tradition, the M3D even sports a film advance lever, just like the original M3. You have to advance this after every shot to re-cock the shutter and remind yourself that you are shooting digital film.

The M3D is similar to the M7 film camera in operation. It will accept any M lens and will be welcomed by rangefinder enthusiasts who have become frustrated by digital bloat and the emphasis on in-camera processing that epitomises most cameras on the market these days. Surprisingly, in view of the retro feature set, the M3D offers an auto shutter speed setting similar to that found on newer digital M cameras and on the still-current M7 film camera. This enables aperture priority shooting which is what most rangefinder photographers prefer.

RAW only

The Leica M3D is one handsome camera and serves to consolidate Leica’s new-found willingness to return to the purity of the rangefinder. The first step in this direction was the stripped-feature M262 but even that did not go as far as to dispense with the screen, nor with many of the processing options and buttons that go with jpg shooting. From now on it’s RAW only and that is how most rangefinder fans like it.

Speaking at this morning’s press conference, Leica CEO Hektor Barnack said that the M3D represents the epitome of the rangefinder experience. “This is das indubitable Wesentliche”, he told journalists: “This is the camera rangefinder enthusiasts have been waiting for. No screen to chimp on, no buttons to press in error while handling the camera, no menus to distract or confuse. It’s a pure, film experience but without the cost of developing and scanning. It is, not to overemphasise the point, back to our roots."

Stripped down

“Now we have catered for the techno modernist market with the outstanding Leica SL, we feel confident in stripping down the M even further. No longer does the M have to address every facet of the market. For all those photographers who still carry around our film cameras, including the M3, the M3D is likely to be a very compelling alternative.”

I have to say that ever since I tried the all-steel M60 edition, which turns out to be a rather heavyweight progenitor of the M3D, I have been convinced there is a need for a stripped down digital. By offering the film experience but without the film, the M3D is an economical alternative to an older film camera. I for one will not miss the high cost of processing and scanning.

The Leica M3D will be with dealers by the end of May and will cost £3,600 in Britain (including VAT) the same price as the film M7 or the MP.

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