Leica IIIA: Fifty years of ownership leads to an encounter with a Sony A7
Fifty years ago I was a student walking back to my digs at Reading University in the UK on a wet, cold October afternoon. I stopped to look in the window of Whitby's Camera Shop — one of three excellent photography stores in Reading at that time — and I saw a Leica IIIA for sale for £27.10s.¹
I had been a keen photographer for six years and had progressed from an Halina 35X to an East German-made Exa SLR which I had bought new for £12 in 1962. The Exa was made by the company responsible for the well regarded Exakta SLR. The Exa had an interchangeable lens and a waist-level look down viewfinder. It was very well made and had seen good service in my hands.
The next day I had done a deal — see receipt. The Leica was mine for just £17.10s after I had part exchanged the Exa.
The salesperson in the shop explained that he had taken the Leica in part exchange on an Asahi Pentax Spotmatic a few days earlier. At that time Japanese SLRs made by Canon, Nikon, Yashica, Topcon, Miranda, Konica, Minolta and Pentax were the hot items.
They were very well made with usually excellent optics and they were well priced. No wonder my Leica had been traded in. It had no built in exposure meter — not even an accessory meter — the rangefinder occupied a tiny window and was separate from the equally small viewfinder.
It was not even a combined viewfinder/rangefinder which first appeared in the M3 in 1954. The idea was that you did your focusing in the left-hand window and then moved to the tiny viewfinder to frame the scene. And the viewfinder was strictly for the 50mm standard lens. If you were fortunate enough to own other lenses of different focal lengths then you had separate viewfinders for them.
My Leica was a 1938 model —so it was already 28 years old when carried it from the Reading shop. The lens was a much newer 1958 collapsible f/2.8 50mm Elmar. The camera was very clean and it was a UK or US market model as the focus scales were Imperial — which is just as well since I rarely used the rangefinder, preferring mainly to focus by estimating the distance and setting the focus manually.
Because of this I tended to use smaller apertures to maximise the depth of field as a guard against focusing error. This was a pity as my photography at that time would have benefited from more wide-aperture shots but that's how it was.
The Leica came with one very useful accessory — a recent Leica 50mm brightline viewfinder. This was a real gem and made the camera much more usable. Also included in the deal was a Leica lens hood, a Leica lens cap and a Leica strap.
I did so much with that camera despite its serious shortcomings. A year after I acquired it I took it on a university expedition to northern Norway and some of the photos from that wonderful time can be seen here.
I was finally tempted to join the Japanese SLR movement in 1978 — I had emigrated to Australia the year before — when I bought an Olympus OM2 while on a trip to Singapore. In those days there were substantial duties on cameras imported into the UK and Australia/NZ so Singapore and Hong Kong were the duty-free shopper's paradises. Now that is all over and the best bargains are to be had at home. Buying the Olympus in Singapore meant that I kept the Leica IIIA and amazingly I have kept it ever since — see photo —and the outfit is complete even down to the lens cap.
About five years ago I was tempted to give the old girl an outing for the sake of nostalgia. I dusted her down and bought a 36-exposure cassette of Ilford Delta 100 film. I have never finished it. After five frames I decided that working with the old Leica was just too much hard work. So it stayed on the shelf.
Then in 2015, while on eBay looking for an adapter to fit a Minolta lens to my unloved E-mount Sony a7, I saw that there was a Chinese-made adapter available to fit old Leica screw thread lenses onto Sony E-mount and it cost only A$22. I bought one and when it arrived I put it on the shelf next to the Leica and promptly forgot about it. I should explain that I outgrew my camera gearhead phase about 40 years ago and nowadays my primary — almost sole — interest in photography is in taking photographs. So I tend not to get excited about messing about with gear.
About three weeks ago, while looking for something else, I came across the adapter and as I was just about to go out for an afternoon walk I took the Elmar lens off the old Leica and fitted it to the Sony with the adapter.
Now a gearhead would use the combination to take a series of photos of garden walls and bookcases at various apertures and would be able to provide a learned discourse on the performance of the venerable old lens. I just used it to take a few real photos and I was very surprised by the results. Old lenses have much less effective coating than modern glass and this often leads to lower-contrast photos. Additionally, surface scratches also reduce contrast.
Surprisingly, despite my old lens having had had a hard life and I have never used a protective filter, the front element is very clean. The photo of the maritime advisory notice referring to the ex-HMAS Adelaide diving site was taken with the lens at f/2.8 and is very sharp. All the photos, to my mind at least, have a distinct Leica look. One benefit of using the lens on the Sony is that you can manually focus very accurately — something I was never able achieve with the old Leica.
What does this exercise prove? That a good old Leica lens can still perform. What am I going to do with this knowledge? Nothing. The lens and the adapter are resting peacefully on the shelf again. Now if you'll excuse me I'm off to take a few shots with some modern gear.
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- £27 pounds and ten shillings (or £27.50) which is equivalent to around £480 in 2016 ↩︎