After spending 40 years in a house loft forgotten and unused, this 1938 Leica IIIb together with its 1938 collapsible, chrome Summar f2 50mm lens and original every-ready case, found its way to me, to be given a new lease of life. It is testament to the Leica’s reputation for reliability and quality manufacture that from the first time I wound on this beautiful mechanical jewel and cocked its shutter, it worked just as it did the day it was made 77 years ago.
One can only imagine what this camera has ‘seen’. What tales it could tell! Previous owners used and looked after it well: apart from corrosion caused by the leather case removing the plating on the slow speed dial, what wear it has has been caused by honest use by owners who obviously treasured and cared about the camera – after all in its day the IIIb and Summar was expensive: new the equivalent of around £2,600 at 2015 prices. It was obviously loved and maintained regularly: at some point a previous owner had a flash socket added to the front, and the shutter button collar has been replaced.
Having this camera my possession I feel less like a photographer than its custodian, its steward to cherish it and pass it on the next generation, to someone who feels the same way as I do. In my book there are few cameras that evoke this kind of passion.
Anyone with a serious interest in photography eventually meets up with ‘Barnack’ and ‘Leica’. Many consider Oskar Barnack (1879-1936) to be the father of 35mm photography. An enthusiastic photographer, Oskar longed for a way the make cameras smaller and lighter. While working as an optical engineer in charge of microscope research for Ernst Leitz at Wetzlar, Germany, his talents led him to develop a camera that used a strip of 35mm cine film, the so-called Ur-Leica of 1913 (by the way Leica stands for LEItz CAmera).
However, it wasn’t until after WWI, in 1924, that the first Leicas were made for sale to the public. The 24x36mm format as we know it, was on its way! From a tentative beginning through various iterations and continuous improvement – a standardised lens screw-mount, integrated rangefinder, faster speeds etc – we get to the IIIb.
The IIIb model is the last of the affectionately named ‘Barnacks’ with a body length of 133mm (5¼ inches), about 3mm (⅛ inch) shorter than its successors. It is the last to have a separate top and main body, the one-piece body being introduced in 1940 with the IIIc (model production dates do sometimes overlap).
Following on from the IIIa (1935-1948), the IIIb has improvements, the major differences being that the viewfinder and rangefinder eyepieces are much closer together and the lever for rangefinder focus adjustment is around the base of the rewind knob.
Shutter speeds run from Z (bulb), 1/20, 1/30, 1/40, 1/60, 1/100, 1/200, 1/500, 1/1000 of a second on the top dial, with an ⅛, ¼, ½, 1 second and T (time) set via the front dial. Speeds must be set after cocking the shutter, which is done together with advancing the film for the next exposure by turning the large knob-wind. Once cocked, the top speed-dial can be lifted upwards and turned to the required speed and dropped into its relevant slot. The eagle-eyed will notice that at 1/1000 the speed-dial doesn’t drop down as far as at other speeds.
To access the slower speeds the top dial is set 1/20 and the front dial is set to the appropriate slow speed. On ‘T’ the shutter stays open until the front dial is moved to another speed. On tripping the shutter the top dial will revolve, so unless you want to have odd or inconsistent exposures, keep your trigger finger well away as you trip the shutter button.
Grown photographers the world over eulogise about the Leica shutter action. The wind-on with a precise silkiness without any trace of grittiness or slop, the shutter button depressing smoothly until the horizontal, silk focal-plane shutter trips with a satisfying, solid but quiet ‘klack’ or ‘ker-klop’ that belies its mechanical simplicity but lets the user be in no doubt as to its integrated, precision perfection, which demands to be used time and again. Oskar got it right first time. There is nothing quite like a Leica shutter action.
In a word; very …with the caveat that probably the biggest irritation for most is loading. For a start there is no hinged back, just a separate, removable bottom plate, which is the granddaddy of today’s M Leicas. Before loading the film’s leader has to be extended; there’s a helpful guide on the bottom plate.
Over the years I have been given some weird and wonderful suggestions regarding loading a ‘Barnack’, but I have found following Leica’s film trim guide printed on the bottom plate the best way to consistent success:
1. Pull out the film leader, with small scissors trim to 100mm (4 inches) as shown.
2. Remove the bottom plate and take-up spool and attach the film leader to the take-up spool
3. Drop the film into the camera, making sure the cassette and spool are seated fully.
4. Wind the rewind a little to take up the slack without pulling the film off the take-up spool.
5. Attach the bottom plate.
6. Making sure the rewind release lever is set to ‘A’, wind on, watching that the rewind knob turns to confirm the film is running through correctly.
7. Fire off a shot.
8. Wind on and fire another shot to clear the exposed and trimmed film leader.
9. Wind on again and set the manual frame counter to ‘1’.
10. You’re good to go.
Usually I get 38-39 shots per 36-exposure roll. To rewind your exposed film back into its cassette turn the rewind release to ‘R’, lift up the rewind knob and turn it until you feel the film detach itself from the take-up spool, continue for a few more turns to make sure the film is fully into the cassette.
Okay, compared to a M’s wonderful viewfinder, a IIIb’s is a little squinty (I wear spectacles), doesn’t have brightline frames, an integrated rangefinder patch or automatic parallax correction, but it is perfectly usable. With a x0.5 magnification, the viewfinder projects a soft-edged image against solid black edges for 50mm lenses only. Considering its age, it is surprisingly bright and clear.
The rangefinder magnifies x1.5 (giving an effective base length of 57mm) and the image focus can be adjusted by the lever sited around the rewind knob. It focuses to roughly 1m (3 feet). In poor light it is a little dim, but with care accurate focus is not a problem.
Compared to a modern camera a ‘Barnack’ takes few more actions to take a shot. After winding on with the gnurled knob, making sure the required speed and aperture are set, the scene has to be focussed using the rangefinder, and then the eye transferred across to the next-door viewfinder to compose the picture. It isn’t difficult and once one gets into the swing there is a satisfying rhythm to it. Of course one could set the lens at, say, 3m (10ft) and use the camera as a point-and-shoot.
In our modern, digital age where even inexpensive cameras have automatic focus, exposure and wind-on, where the image is available via instant playback and can be sent across the world in a blink of an eye, a ‘Barnack’ such as the IIIb could be classed as an overpriced, out-dated anachronism that pretty much has zero relevance in today’s photography, even to a dedicated film user.
Nevertheless, this diminutive survivor from the early beginning of 35mm photography with its quirky ways rewards in bucket loads. In the hands of those suitably attuned it reconnects one to those distant, pioneering camera manufacturing days before CAD, plastic, chips, pixels and disposability, and produces superb images. A ‘Barnack’ Leica in the hand opens one to a world where engineers and opticians worked with slide rules, pencils and paper to design no-expense spared gems fashioned exquisitely from brass, nickel, steel, chrome and glass.
That such a camera from a bygone age is a such a joy to use still, and continues to produce stunning images, is nothing short of remarkable and a fitting tribute to the vision, perseverance and genius of Oskar Barnack.