Meet the Camera: Leica IIIg

Is there a twelve-step program for camera-buying addiction? If not, I think I’d better start one.

I thought I had it under control. I’d hit a nice plateau. I had good examples of cameras I liked and was happy using. My needs were met long ago, but excess seemed to be tapering off. I felt like I’d reached critical mass and was starting to cool off to a steady, even temperature. And I was. Really. I’m not just rationalizing. Well, mostly.

What I did not count on was the unexpected availability of one of my Holy Grail cameras at a price that didn’t require me to find a buyer for a kidney on short notice. Behold my downfall, the Leica IIIg.

This, for those not as far gone as me, is the pinnacle of Leica’s screw-mount cameras, the last of the direct line from Barnack’s original before the M-mount bodies took over for good. It still has all the quirks of the early cameras – bottom-loading, knob-wind – save for one, for you see the IIIg sports a viewfinder dramatically improved from all those that came before. Bigger, yes, but also with brightlines for both 50mm and 90mm fields-of-view, and parallax correction to boot. For the first and only time, one could have these conveniences neatly packaged in a tidy little LTM body.

I have wanted one of these pretty much from the moment I knew they existed. When I got my IIIcs last year, they only confirmed my perception that the small Barnack body would be a good fit for me, and in turn heightened my lust for a IIIg that much more. The problem, quite simply, was cost. The IIIg was sold for only three years, from 1957-60, and only around 41,000 were made (contrast that with some 133,000 IIIcs or 184,000 IIIfs). Add to that the “last-of-the-line” mystique and improved features and you can hear the prices rising. Sure, it was an anachronism. The early M-cameras were already out in 1957, so the IIIg was always going to come off second-best to most buyers. It’s an oddball, but in the collecting world, today’s unloved oddball is tomorrow’s lucrative investment. A quick glance at completed ebay auctions or the Collectiblend sale price tracker showed just how eye-popping those prices would be: they’ve held steady for years at right around $800 for a body in very good condition.

So I’d written it off. Barring a lucky antique store find (my $30 Rolleiflex gave me the undying hope that every junk shop I go into might hold some similarly-underpriced treasure), the IIIg would remain in the realm of fantasy. Besides, what do I need another camera for?

The fickle universe had other plans, realized via the number one enabler of the camera-addicted (at least in the States), KEH. They had some pretty significant sales recently, and of course I had to poke around. You never know what you might come across, right? So I browsed, somewhat aimlessly, until I was halted in my tracks by a very well-priced Leica IIIg. When I say the price was low, I mean it was half the price of the last one I saw advertised there, and that one haunted me for a while with non-buyer’s remorse after someone scooped it up inside of 24 hours. On top of that already low price, it was eligible for a further significant discount as a result of the ongoing sale. Oh, KEH, you evil, tempting bastards.

I bought it almost before I knew what I was doing. It was reflex. Hell, if I hadn’t grabbed it, someone else would have, and quick too, I’m sure. I figured once I had it in hand I could decide if it really was all it was cracked up to be, in which case I would keep it (which in turn would hopefully motivate me to sell off a few less-used cameras), or that the advances over the earlier Barnacks was more hype than substance, meaning I could sell it and make a few bucks in the process. It’s win-win!

When it arrived it became clear fairly quickly that it was not going anywhere. Condition was really quite good, with the exception of a single ding in the top plate, a few bright marks here and there, and a couple small bits of vulcanite missing around the lower corners of the body. The shutter sounded nice and smooth, and the speeds seemed fine (KEH is pretty good about noting when the speeds are off, so I expected them to be OK). The new viewfinder is worlds apart from the old one. It’s a pleasure to use, familiar yet different.

So here we are. The camera stable has grown again, in spite of my best intentions. I really should thin the herd a bit – I’m already creating a list of cameras that either need to be used more regularly or sold. It’s easier said than done, of course. But at least I know I have a problem, and admitting that is the first step. I have no idea what the second step is.

Semi-Random Photo for 9 January 2016

Leica IIIc, W.Acall 35/3.5, Fuji Superia 400
Leica IIIc, W.Acall 35/3.5, Fuji Superia 400

Meet the Lens: W.Acall 35mm f/3.5 LTM

This is a lens suffering from an identity crisis. First of all, nobody seems to know a lot about the Japanese manufacturer, which is apparently Sankyo Kohki, an aftermarket maker of Leica thread mount lenses in the 1950s, before switching over to SLR mounts in the 1960s. But if that ambiguity weren’t enough, the real problem is that the branding of the lens, W.Acall in this case, is only one of five different known brand identities applied to what is apparently virtually the same lens. In addition, there are examples marked W.Komura, W.Telesar, W.A. Astra, and Force. The speculation, and it is only that as far as I can tell, is that these may have been different “house brands” for retailers who wanted their own lines of lenses. Whatever the reason, it sure makes things confusing sixty years later.

In any case, this is all quite irrelevant to the actual purpose of the lens, which is to take photos, something it does very, very well. On the face of it, the specs are pretty unassuming: mediocre speed at a maximum aperture of f/3.5, four elements in three groups with a nice blue coating, eight aperture blades with click-stop adjustment. Nice enough, but nothing extraordinary.

EDIT (5Feb2016): I acquired a similar lens to this one (free, but with many problems) and made an interesting discovery while taking it apart. The optics are not the four element/three group arrangement I noted above (I read it somewhere, and clearly did not question it closely enough), but appear to be six elements in four groups, making it a Double Gauss design. This may help to explain the exceptional performance of these lenses. I have not yet disassembled the W.Acall that is the subject of this review, but I strongly suspect the optics are the same.

The first clue that you may be dealing with something more than just a cheap knock-off Leica lens is in the build quality, which is really excellent. Heavy solid brass all around, with a useful knurled focus ring (marked in feet only on mine, but I’ve seen photos of lenses with a dual feet and meters scale), and smooth, positive, well-damped controls (once I cleaned out several decades-worth of dirt and hardened lubricants). It’s also quite tiny, comparable in size to my Canon 35/2.8 (an early all-chrome model), making for a compact package when mounted on a small body.

But the real payoff is in the photos. Whatever magic pixie dust they sprinkled over this lens, it worked. The pedestrian specifications belie a superb set of optics. It is one of those relatively rare lenses that manages to be simultaneously both sharp and smooth, with lovely transitions into the out-of-focus areas. If I had to choose a single word, I think it would be creamy. Photos taken with it remind me a lot of those I’ve shot with my Summitar, and I consider that high praise indeed. Certainly, it has all the characteristics typical of lenses of the period – center sharpness and softer corners, especially at wider apertures, low to medium overall contrast – but these are not flaws to my eyes.

It’s a pleasant lens to use, though the ergonomics are not exactly modern. The aperture control is a little small and rotates with focus, so the scale is marked twice on the ring, and the location varies, making it a bit slower to adjust than a modern lens. But once you’ve settled on an aperture, it’s fine. I find the focusing ring falls to hand quite easily, making the whole shooting experience quite natural and instinctive.

As some of my LTM cameras lack 35mm framelines, an external viewfinder is necessary. I have the matching Canon piece that came with the 35/2.8, which is rather good really (again, once I cleaned it) and has been my go-to option for quite a while now. I did not need another viewfinder, but I bought one anyway. I don’t really care too much about matching kits, so it’s mostly coincidental that the new VF is a Komura unit. What actually prompted the purchase were two factors: first, it is a brightline finder, which is easier to see and allows for some peripheral vision while shooting, and second, it was really cheap. The glass is tinted and has a rather striking gold coating, making it fairly flare-resistant.

The two-piece hood is also a Komura-labelled piece, but made to match this design. Again, I did not acquire it to purposely match the lens. In fact, it was actually donated by a fellow RFF forum-user who read a question I posted about the dimensions of the original hood after experiencing some vignetting with a generic hood I was using when I first got the lens. Thoughtful design shows in details like the fact that the inner potion is notched to make it useful as an easy way to turn the aperture ring, and the notching feels different from the knurling on the focus ring, so there’s no mistaking which one you’re turning, meaning you can operate the lens strictly by feel. It’s a nice brass hood that of course perfectly matches the lens, as long as no one looks at the brand name.

Unintentionally acquired though it may have been, I have to say that the completed kit does look good mounted on one of my Leicas. It makes for a great street photography rig on days when I want something a little wider than my usually-preferred 50mm, or just when I want to grab a small, easy-to-handle general purpose setup on my way out the door. While not as pocketable as my absurdly small hacked Nikon L35AF 35/2.8, the W.Acall has the advantages of a wider aperture range (the hacked lens only stops down to f/11, while this one goes all the way down to f/22) and proper rangefinder coupling.

Having mentioned two other 35mm LTM lenses that I own in the course of this review (full disclosure: I have the Jupiter-12 35/2.8 as well, so the W.Acall makes four), it should be obvious that I really didn’t need this lens at all. I’d been keeping an eye on them for a while, as I had read a fair bit about them and sample photos intrigued me enough to think that it warranted further investigation. When one came up fairly cheaply, I grabbed it, and I’m glad I did. It’s still early days, but I’m really happy with the initial results I’m getting. There’s a nice consistency in the character of the photos from this lens with the Summitar 50/2 and the Canon 100/3.5, making for a handy three-lens kit option. I expect it will be getting a fair bit of use.