Barnack Leica Comparison – Leica i,ii,iii,a-g + Leica iiig vs Leica M3
This article provides a Barnack Leica comparison and aims to give a basic understanding of the vintage Leica Barnack cameras. It compares the Leica i, ii, iii cameras and explains the common features found with Leica iiia, b,c,d,e,f,g cameras + YouTube video.
Leica i vs Leica ii vs Leica iii
The Leica i, Leica ii and Leica iii cameras all share the same Barnack Leica camera body design but there are differences. Here is a quick summary:
Leica i – No viewfinder/ rangefinder or slow shutter speeds
The Leica i cameras such as the Leica ic (*not the Leica I original or the Leica I Standard) have no viewfinder or rangefinder built into the camera. Instead the Leica i camera has two coldshoe mounts on the camera top plate. This feature is an easy way to quickly identify a Leica i camera. The two coldshoe attachments let you mount both an external viewfinder and external rangefinder. The Leica i cameras also have no slow shutter speed dial on the front of the camera and this is replaced by a patch. (The same as seen on a Leica ii camera)(see below).
Leica ii – No slow shutter speed dial
The Leica ii cameras such as the Leica iic is the same as the Leica iii cameras except there is no slow shutter speed dial. As with the Leica i camera the absence of the slow shutter speed dial is covered with a patch. If the camera has the viewfinder and rangefinder windows and a patch on the front it is a Leica ii camera.
Leica iii – Many versions – Leica iiia, b,c,d,e,f,g
As with the first Leica LTM camera (of this series) being called the Leica i then Leica ii then iii then same is true for the lettering. The Leica iii ‘a’ camera was designed and released first. Next followed the Leica iiib, Leica iiic, d, Leica iiif and finally the last model the Leica iiig.
Popular Cameras: Leica iiia vs Leica iiic vs Leica iiif
I have the Leica iiia and the Leica iiig cameras but I think the most popular models are the Leica iiic and the Leica iiif. This is potentially the case because they are ‘refined’ or later versions of the Leica iiia camera but half the price of the Leica iiig camera. The Leica iiic and Leica iiif both have a single eyepiece with a split rangefinder and viewfinder window. The earlier Leica iiia has two separate windows, rangefinder on the left and viewfinder on the right.
The Leica iiia is the lightest of the Leica iii cameras so perfect for my taste. The Leica iiif has the self timer which is absent on the Leica iiic. In most other respects all of these cameras mentioned are near identical. (*They will have slight differences/ improvements over time).
Leica iiia vs Leica iiig
These two Barnack cameras are opposite ends of the Leica iii camera series. The Leica iiia was released in 1935 and is the first Leica iii camera to have a letter . In contrast the Leica iiig was the last Leica iii camera produced, released in 1957. You can read more about the Leica iiia camera on a previous article – Leica iiia (+ vs Leica M3)
Leica iiig vs Leica M3
The Leica iiig vs Leica M3 are more comparable than you might think even though one camera is a Leica M and the other is a Barnack Leica. Why? The Leica M3 was actually released before the Leica iiig and is the camera that killed off the Leica iii series. The ‘modern’ (at the time) new design of the Leica M3 brought many benefits over the Leica iiif (and the later Leica iiig).
Here are 3 features of the Leica M3 that I see as an improvement over the Leica iiig (and other Leica iii cameras).
“Improved” film loading
The Leica iiif and Leica iiig both share the same film loading process where you have to physically cut a strip out of every roll of 35mm film before loading it into the camera. This both wastes a couple of useable frames and is a pain if you use different 35mm film cameras (as I do). (You don’t want to pre-cut all your film if you may use it in your Nikon FE2 or Leica M film camera (as per this example)). Non-Leica iii camera don’t need the extra-long film leader (from cutting the film for the Leica iii).
Unlike the Leica iii cameras the new Leica M3 camera design allows the back of the camera to be opened while film is loaded. This improves visibility when loading film into a Leica M3 (or any Leica M film camera) and you can see if the film is both aligned (loaded straight) and engaged into the sprockets (will advance when you push the film advance lever). With all that said, after loading 3-4 rolls of film into a Leica iii camera it is just as easy to load film into as the M3. The only negative towards the Leica iii cameras is having to cut the film before loading.
Bigger brighter faster combined viewfinder/ rangefinder
The new Leica M3 offer a much bigger brighter combined viewfinder and rangefinder window. The Leica iiig still has the split single eyepiece design with one window for the rangefinder and one window for the viewfinder. Combining both into one view makes the Leica M camera much faster to focus, compose and shoot. Leica engineers tried to improve the Leica iiig (over the Leica iiif) by fitting a larger viewfinder. All previous Leica iii cameras only show a small 50mm view which is not easy to see clearly for accurate composition.
Leica iii photographers can overcome this drawback by fitting an external Leica 50mm viewfinder (or say a 35mm finder if they want to mount a 35mm lens). The Leica iiig is the only Leica iii camera to have a larger viewfinder that displays both 50mm and 90mm frame lines. Larger than the Leica iiif (and other Leica iii cameras) but still smaller than the Leica M3 viewfinder.
The Leica M3 viewfinder gives 50mm, 90mm and 135mm framelines and in my view is the best viewfinder of any 35mm film camera. Period.
New Leica M mount lenses
The Leica M3 camera also brought with it a new lens mount to become known as the Leica M mount. This is a bayonet fit design rather than the Leica screw mount fitting of the Leica iii cameras. (Screw mount is also known as Leica Thread Mount – LTM, L39 or M39). The older Leica glass from the Leica iii cameras can be mounted to a Leica M camera. You just need a Leica M-LTM adapter which can be found easily on ebay for around £10.
Sadly if you want to work back through history as I seem to be doing, Leica M mount lenses cannot be mounted to a Barnack Leica camera. You may own a Leica M camera (digital or film) and a few nice Leica M mount lenses like me. You can’t use your M mount lenses on a Leica iii camera (if you were to purchase one). Like me, you will need to buy additional LTM lenses for your Leica iii camera. (Review on these LTM lenses to follow!)
Latest technology meant these ‘modern’ Leica M mount lenses were new and improved over the older LTM lenses. The modern lens optics and new lens coatings made the optical performance of these Leica M lenses very desirable. This is probably a popular reason why some photographers upgraded. Moving to the new Leica M system and away from the Barnack Leicas.
More modern often means bigger!
As seems to be the case with cars, a modern Mini Cooper seems twice the size of the original Mini. The same is often true for lenses. As lens designers try to fit additional features into a lens the size generally increases. This is also true for the Leica M camera. Compared to the Leica iiia the Leica M3 body is over 25% heavier and has larger dimensions. The Leica iiig is the largest Leica iii camera and is closer in size to the Leica M3 but the M3 is still bigger. For me the compact size of the early Leica Barnack cameras is enough to own one. That is one plus for the Leica iii system vs Leica M system.
Leica iiig Portraits
YouTube: Leica iiig vs Leica iiia (+vs Leica M3) + Barnack Leica Comparison
Understanding the different Barnack Leicas
So if and when you come to buy an old Oscar Barnack design Leica camera you will be faced with lots of model numbers and letters. At first glance most of these LTM Leica cameras look very similar. When looking to buy myself I noticed that the prices vary widely so I knew that there must be some differences. I’m always eager to buy the best camera(s) I can so I did lots more research first. Below is a summary of what I learnt about the different Leica i, Leica ii, Leica iii (a,b,c,d,e,f,g) cameras.
Barnack Leica Comparison Table
*Table includes information available online from multiple sources
Best Leica iii Camera?
So with everything above considered what is the best Leica iii camera? I guess the answer will be different for everyone. If you like small, light and compact you will probably love the Leica iiia that I use. For more features a later Leica iiic or Leica iiif may suit you and these are easy to find on eBay. If you want the ultimate Leica iii camera it would be the Leica iiig. It has the larger viewfinder and offers the most features of any of the Barnack Leica cameras.
I hope you found this useful and i’m sorry there are some gaps in the data table above. Some camera facts just don’t seem to be recorded anywhere, such as camera weight of each model.