The three greatest cameras EVER. Really? No, not really. But in their day each of these cameras held that distinction amongst serious photographers. And if we’re waxing nostalgic we might still make that claim—but it’s not based in reality. Although I will say that: These three cameras arguably represent the three best 35mm cameras ever made. My little pocket Canon PowerShot G15 will shoot rings around any of these cameras, at a fraction of the price, and do it all automatically if I choose (and I won’t even mention my Canon EOS 5D Mark II). But remember: It’s not the camera, it is most definitely the photographer (and that will never change). A beautiful State-of-the-Art camera will not turn you magically into Ansel Adams. However, these three cameras (amongst many others) hold a special place and import within photographic history. I own these ‘works of art & mechanics’ in my personal collection, and they are being cared for by my daughter back in the States (along with quite a few other classic cameras of yore). They are all in ‘mint’ or ‘near-mint’ condition, and still fully capable of taking world class photos—but, alas, with today’s digital technology thriving, and here to stay, I fear they will never again see the light of day.
Leica IIIf (RC/ST) 35mm Rangefinder Camera
The Leica IIIf 35mm camera (in its day it sold for today’s equivalent of $3,500). Now tell me this isn’t a beauty. Many photographers argue that this is maybe the most beautiful 35mm camera ever produced, and I think I would probably vote in favor of that argument. That’s why I chose the Leica IIIf as my first featured camera … it’s the camera everyone aspired to, but few could afford. Leica screwmount 35mm’s hit their zenith with the IIIf. If you’re an old movie buff like I am you will see Leica screwmounts all over the big and little screen (even as recently as the Indiana Jones movies). They are precision instruments as only the Germans can make them. The IIIf is quirky though, in that you have to trim the leader of your 35mm film about four inches with a pair scissors before you can load the film. This is a small camera (about palm size), and is THE perfect camera for street photography (even today). Load it with Tri-X film (B&W) ASA400, set the aperture to f/16 and the shutter to about 1/500s and you can shoot anywhere at anytime without a light meter or digital technology. Gently press the shutter release and all you hear is a soft “snick.” It’s a stealth camera par excellence.
I have a completely restored Leica IIIf RC/ST in my collection that is in near mint condition. Easy to carry, easy to use. Can’t live without digital … shoot film and have your negatives scanned so you can edit them in Photoshop. There are more MP’s in a 35mm negative than you can possibly imagine.
Leica M3 35mm Rangefinder Camera
Leica M3: The BEST 35mm camera EVER made? Many would answer with a resounding yes. Not quite as pretty as the Leica IIIf (the most BEAUTIFUL 35mm camera EVER made), but easier to use. And like the IIIf the M3 was and is the consummate Street Photography camera. The best viewfinder of any rangefinder camera, and again a shutter that just offers a soft “snick” when depressed. Like butter fans say (and I agree). Certainly I would say the Leica M3 is the best 35mm rangefinder camera ever made, but when Nikon introduced its Nikon F SLR they quickly captured the professional market, and Leica began its long decline. In addition to my Leica IIIf I’m also fortunate enough to own a late-model, double-stroke Leica M3 in near mint condition. My next post will show my vote for the BEST 35mm camera EVER made … the Nikon F.
I’ve had offers for over $2,000 each ($4,000USD) for my Leica IIIf and Leica M3 (and these cameras are almost 60 years old), but I just don’t have the heart to sell them. That’s the collector’s addiction I’m afraid. They are both in perfect working condition, and near mint cosmetically. Picking one up is like holding a piece of priceless art. The mechanics are just sublime. I’ve never had that feeling with my digital cameras. My Canon EOS 5D Mark II will do anything I ask of it, it is truly a remarkable camera in that regard, but it’s never captured my heart.
Nikon F 35mm Single Lens Reflex Camera
Nikon F SLR: My personal vote for the “all time” BEST 35mm camera EVER made (barely edging out the Leica M3). Pictured above with the Photomic T attached, and just the plain base model with no added light-meter. I have one of each in my collection. My Nikon F with the Photomic T is a War Horse, it’s all beat to shit and the T quit working a long time ago. It’s bruised, battered, scratched and dented. And it STILL takes perfect photos every time, and it’s nearly 50 years old, and has never had any work done on it. AMAZING.
My second Nikon F is the base model without the Photomic T. I inherited it from my dad who purchased it new in 1965. It is in near mint condition, unlike the War Horse. I also have the Nikon lenses that go with them, including a couple of the phenomenal 50mm 1.4, and the 105mm and 135mm. Sprinkle in some wide-angle lenses and that’s my complete Nikon F package.
I saw my first Nikon F when I was a very young Marine Corps Sergeant in Vietnam. It was the camera of the Combat Photographer, both military and civilian. A very few of the old die-hard photographers still carried the venerated Leica M3 (featured in an earlier post), but most took up the use of the Nikon F (and Nikon couldn’t make them fast enough).
They were entirely mechanical (unless you added the optional Photomic T light-meter), and indestructible. They were in fire-fights, rice paddies, jungles … they jumped out of helicopters, rode in the back seats of jet fighters. They’ve been shot at and blown up, but like Timex watches they just kept ticking. You can’t hardly break a Nikon F body … both of mine work perfectly today without ever having had any maintenance. Unlike the digital cameras of today, there is NO planned obsolescence built into them.
For all of those reasons, and more, the Nikon F gets my vote for the BEST 35mm camera EVER made.
Well, I hope you’ve enjoyed this stroll down memory lane—and can appreciate these gems from a bygone age. They were wonderful machines in their time, and they are still absolute works of art in my opinion. After almost 55+ years of shooting with film, I find these last 5 years with digital have been my most productive and creative. If you would like to see more of the classics, please visit my virtual museum on my website Indochine Photography International (www.IndochinePhotography.com > click on Museum on the top toolbar), or (Click Here).