Meet the Camera Redux: Leica IIIc

Life is strange sometimes. A few months ago, I was undergoing one of those periodic bouts of gear lust that afflict most photographers from time to time. For me (this time), it was a Summitar, one of Leica’s classic collapsible 50mm f/2 lenses dating back to the 1940s. Long-time readers will know I have a thing for lenses with classic rendering, and the Summitar has it in spades. And while I was at it, I was also perusing screwmount Leica bodies – the models descended directly from Oskar Barnack’s original design – because, hey, what’s a classic lens without an appropriate body to go with it? But this was not a serious case, and I successfully limited myself to a couple of half-hearted Ebay searches and left it at that.

Then along comes the Win My Leica contest, a story already told here, which results in me being awarded a fully CLA’d Leica IIIc and an Industar-61 55 f/2.8 lens. As I anxiously awaited the arrival of prize, I did the things I normally do – excited as I was, it was not so all-consuming as to prevent the continuation of normal life functions – which includes poking into various antiques shops when the opportunity strikes. Camera-wise, this usually this results in finding half a dozen dusty old Brownies of various sorts, a 1970s-era SLR or two, and maybe a few plastic point-and-shoots, all seriously overpriced. But not this time. Oh no.

No, on this particular trip into one of the more-or-less local antiques malls (I find that term odd, though I suppose the concept of a mall is becoming a bit antiquated in and of itself), I stumbled onto something worth a good, hard second look. Sitting at the bottom of a multi-tiered glass display cabinet – itself an antique – was a single small camera, fully enclosed in a brown eveready case. I looked closer to read the name on the case: Leica.

The case was locked, so after finding an employee to open it up, I was handed the camera, along with the original manual and vintage copy of the Focal Press Leica Guide. Opening up the case, I immediately realized that this was indeed a Barnack Leica, a IIIc in fact, and the lens it was sporting was a Summitar. The condition of the whole kit was exceptionally good, with just a few small cosmetic flaws in the chrome finish; it had clearly been used, but not much and by someone who was quite careful with it.

The obvious question was the price. I’ve seen some astoundingly ludicrous prices attached to cameras in antiques shops. But a glance at the price tag showed that this one was pretty reasonable, but not so cheap that I ran immediately to the counter, greedily clutching my prize. And the price was for the whole kit; there were no prices for the individual pieces, and this being an antiques mall (meaning absentee vendors), there was no way to see if the owner was willing to split them up. I decided to mull it over for a few minutes.

The mulling period was abruptly terminated by the simple realization that I could not leave knowing that that Summitar – my Summitar (as I was already thinking of it) – was still in the case. I found the same employee and asked for the camera. As I waited for him to retrieve it from the case, I noticed a sign on one of the chairs in the stall: SALE! All Items 25% Off! Excellent…

Once I got home with my find, I started checking. The camera, the lens, and the books all dated to 1949. The manual was stamped with the name of a store in Stuttgart. Given that the distance scale on the lens is marked in meters, it makes perfect sense that this kit was bought in Europe. Interestingly, there was also a single sheet of thin paper tucked inside the manual, with a single typewritten line in German stating emphatically that French-language manuals were not in stock (underline in original).

Not all was perfect with the camera. It clearly hadn’t been used in a long time, and the slow speeds were off. The rangefinder spot was non-existent, meaning the mirror was shot. The aperture was stuck wide open and the focus was stiff, but I’ve dealt with enough old lenses to know that this is usually just dried up grease. But the rest of the kit was in fine shape. Importantly, the most vulnerable areas – the vulcanite on the body and the glass on the lens – were both excellent.

With a through CLA, made more difficult by the fact that every screw was locked in tight, the camera and lens are back in service. Judging by what I saw, this was the first time the camera or the lens has been open to the light of day since 1949. With the strong probability that this kit has been together since four years after the end of the Second World War, I would feel terrible splitting them up. They belong together.

So now I have two Leica IIIcs. And a Summitar. Let’s hope this calms my gear lust for a while.

Lens Hacking Made Easy…Not

Despite the encouraging tone of your fourth grade teacher, trust me, having an active imagination is a curse. As an adult it’s far worse, since you have more control over your own actions and more time to develop bad ideas. In spite of the countless other examples I could bring up, I will confine my comments to one particular result of my over-active brain, a little lens hacking project that I recently undertook.

This started with my acquisition some time ago of an Industar I-50 50/3.5 collapsible LTM lens. It came along with another lens (my FED 50) at no cost. The reasons for this lens being essentially free are simple: one, it had a front element that looked like it had gone ten rounds with a belt sander, and two, it had had its chrome stripped, fake Leitz Elmar markings added, and was a gaudy highly polished brass mess. It probably came from one of those ridiculous ebay fake Leicas that they seem to churn out in Russia these days.

I kept it thinking that one day I would either try to polish up the front element or do something with the mount. The first didn’t happen because I have plenty of other non-abraded, non-pimped-out LTM 50s that work just fine. As the misery of this past winter became more severe, my mind started to think about what I could jam into the mount and actually make work. I’m not sure in what order the various points of inspiration came, but the two main contributors were the Leitz Elmar 35/3.5 and the Nikon L35AF.

The former is a super compact lens that looks perfect on a Barnack Leica. Having recently found myself in possession of such a camera, and not wanting to shell out big money for the scarce wide Elmar, I started to think about building a 35mm lens out of the old I-50. I figured that any number of cheap point-and-shoot cameras could be used to supply the optics, which I would then adapt to the Industar, retaining the aperture setup, the focusing helicoid, and the mount.

But what old compact should go under the knife to give up its precious lens for this project? My requirements were simple: good and cheap. Something produced in large numbers, with a reasonably high quality lens, that would hopefully be easy to take apart and modify. I started investigating the options and fairly soon stumbled across an article about the lens on the Nikon L35AF. Now, you know perfectly well that the internet is full of articles about lenses, many written by people whose sole qualification for providing in-depth technical analysis is that they bought the lens last week and are trying to justify their purchase.

But this article was different – it was written by Nikon engineers and published on Nikon’s own site. What it described was a rather unique 35mm lens: a modified Sonnar formula rather than the more usual Tessar, well-corrected, with high resolution and fairly modern contrast levels. Nikon made a considerable effort to raise the bar for optical quality in compact consumer cameras and appears to have succeeded, judging by the high regard in which the L35AF – also known as “Pikaichi,” or “top notch” in Japanese – is still held.

A quick ebay search turned up plenty of examples. I selected a cheap one that looked used but not abused and apparently didn’t work. No reason to hack up a working camera when a broken one will do just fine. I had it in hand in a week and began stripping it down. This turned out to be quite easy, and very soon the lens assembly was out. I already had the I-50 taken apart, so the process of engineering the mating of the two into an unnatural creation of my own design began.

The optics of the Nikon are entirely contained in a small plastic housing with the helicoid cast into the outer surface and a wide collar with holes to engage the autofocus actuating mechanism. This was very handy, as it meant that I didn’t have to mess around with multiple pieces, and especially with keeping them properly aligned and spaced. The collar was far too wide, but I didn’t need it, so out came the Dremel and off it came. The remaining portion was of a somewhat smaller diameter than the space in the I-50 barrel, so the gap would need filling somehow.

The major engineering challenge was always going to be getting the optical block the right distance from the film plane to achieve infinity focus. In order to make the Industar body work, the barrel was going to have to be cut off and fixed in the collapsed position; this mimicked the look of the Elmar 35 almost exactly. Doing this proved insufficient; even placed as close to the aperture as possible, the glass was too far away, making infinity focus impossible. I had to grind down both the top surface of the mount and the edge of the front plate to get them lower in the body. Fine-tuning would be done later as needed with shims.

Once I got the barrel positioned deep enough, I had to find a way to secure it to the mount, as well as to secure the optical block to the barrel. Related to this was the need to keep the optics as close to perfectly centered as possible. I decided to try something non-destructive first, which turned out to be a fairly good solution: O-rings. A series of different sized rings hold the barrel quite securely in the mount, restricting movement yet easily removed (this is important when hacking together a lens, as you will be assembling and disassembling a lot). The optical block was trickier, as the O-ring had to be snug enough to hold the glass firmly in place, yet also allow it to reach full depth, and at the same time not restrict the turning of the aperture ring. Eventually, after much experimentation, I figured out the right size for this as well.

I was a bit concerned about indexing the aperture, but through a remarkable bit of good luck, the measured apertures calculated out to be close enough to correct (within a few tenths of a millimeter) to simply use the index marks on the lens face (in the Continental scale, 3.5 to 18) to correspond to the modern system from 2.8 to 16. The aperture is directly behind the glass, which is exactly the same setup as the L35AF. It’s also a nice round aperture, unlike the trapezoidal two-blade arrangement on the Nikon.

Leica IIIc, Nikon 35/2.8 Frankenstein, Ilford FP4+ in Caffenol C-H(RS)
Leica IIIc, Nikon 35/2.8 Frankenstein, Ilford FP4+ in Caffenol C-H(RS)

Countless hours of fiddling and fine-tuning were required to get things right (or at least good enough), especially infinity focus. There is really no margin for error with this – it’s either right or it isn’t. My Fuji X-E1 with LTM adapter proved indispensable in this; without a digital camera to check the focus, I would have been using a ground glass, which would have been far more time-consuming and in all likelihood less precise, given the small size of a 35mm film gate.

There are still a few issues. Foremost among these is that the rangefinder coupling of the Industar lens is completely wrong for the wider Nikon optics. I knew this going in, and resolved that this was going to be a scale-focus project from the get-go. As long as infinity was at the right place, everything else could be determined and marked. For starters I established focal points for 1, 2, and 3 meters and marked those. More precision would be nice, but it really isn’t necessary – most of my use will be zone-focused for street photography, set at 3m and moderate aperture.

Leica IIIc, Nikon 35/2.8 Frankenstein, Ilford FP4+ in Caffenol C-H(RS)
Leica IIIc, Nikon 35/2.8 Frankenstein, Ilford FP4+ in Caffenol C-H(RS)

The beauty of the the thing is its size. It’s just tiny, barely bigger than a body cap. The ergonomics are dated, but that’s true of most of my lenses. The glass is recessed well into the barrel, so there’s really no need for a lens hood. True, you need an external viewfinder with most cameras, but even so the whole thing fits easily into a pocket.

I’m not sure I’m entirely happy with the black finish I applied (I wasn’t leaving it polished brass); I may strip it down and try a different color. I also have an idea about adding click stops for the most-used focus settings, at least for 3m. If I can work that out it would be the perfect time to refinish.

 

Extended Review of the Leica IIIc over at 35mmc.com

I’ve written up a (much) longer review of the Leica IIIc for Hamish over at 35mmc, so go read it. I’ll even give you a link, because that’s just the kind of helpful guy I am:

http://www.35mmc.com/02/05/2015/leica-iiic-review/