Antique Camera #1 - Leica IIIa

August 11, 2020

Last thanksgiving, as I was walking through my parents' basement, I noticed an unusually old crate of boxy-shaped objects lying on a shelf that I had probably walked past hundreds of times. That familiarity is what made the contents so shocking - it contained a treasure trove of valuable antique cameras in a variety of states and conditions. Among these was the crown jewel: a fully-functional Leica iiia, circa 1935, and a hardcover edition of the Leica Manual.

My Great-Grandfather, it turns out, was an avid photographer and camera collector. I shot my first film on a camera given to me by my grandfather. My father is a successful amateur photographer in his own right, and he still teaches me so much. In this one box of history, I discovered the roots of my obsession and my passion. It's such a powerful and gratifying feeling to connect myself to an inter-generational legacy that can be traced back a whole century. 

And so begins my journey into the world of antique cameras. I can't promise this will be weekly, but I will update as often as possible with each of my unique finds.

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History Lesson!

Leica was at the forefront of 'miniature' photography - what we know as 35mm. In fact, 35mm photography would not exist without the Leica system. This right here is a very lovely, detailed account of the whole story if you want to dig even deeper. My camera, the IIIa, was a member of the championship team for the Leica brand. They had begun to achieve name recognition and sales were steadily climbing. They were so successful, in fact, that the Soviets gave up on competing with them and just cloned their cameras for pennies on the dollar. In the 50s, they would create the Leica M3, widely regarded as one of the best cameras ever built. That's their victory lap, but the Leica iii series is the bedrock the whole system was built on.

Repairs and Restoration

Thankfully, almost nothing needed to be done with the Leica to get it operational again. Think about that. Really think about it. This is a camera that was probably last used around World War II, sat in a box in his attic for decades, and was then transferred to a box in our basement for a couple more decades. And yet, it operates as if time means nothing to it. If you want to talk about quality engineering, talk to the Germans.


This camera is NOT an SLR (single-lens reflex), which allows the photographer to see the world directly through the lens via a system of mirrors and prisms. No, the Leicas are Rangefinder cameras. The left peep-hole is used to focus the image, while the right approximates the framing. And while this split-system is a little awkward at first, it is easy to adjust to and become proficient with. 

I have found that the strong limitations of the Leica force my shooting style to change for the better as I seek workarounds for the hassles of rangefinders. The manual focusing process is slower than with an SLR (to say nothing of lack of autofocus). The viewfinder on the camera is calibrated for a 50mm lens, which I, unfortunately, do not have. I shoot on a 35mm lens. This means that I have almost no sense of where the outside boundaries of my frame lie. And last but certainly not least, it is a hassle to crank the film to the next frame. There's no motor, no lever. That means repeatability and burst photos are out of the question. Get it right the first time.

So how does any of that inconvenience help me? The slow and clunky focus means catching any sort of moving subject requires a strong sense of distance and your depth of field. The Leica Manual brags that on a 35mm lens, at f5.6 (I think), and focus set to infinity, everything from 6 feet and further is within acceptable focus. Add in the framing issues, and it becomes, by necessity, almost a point-and-shoot camera. I am forced to pre-visualize my shots, imagine the field of view coming from my 35mm lens, and often find my focus based on DOF and approximate distance alone.

Is this a perfect system? No, not really. I mess up my fair share of pictures. But this is about the journey, not the destination. Every roll of film comes back better than the last, and in the process I am building skills and instincts that can be applied to all of my photographic and cinematic endeavors.