In the past few years I explored Leica M rangefinder film cameras, but most recently I was able to get hold on an excellent looking double-stroke Leica M3 produced in 1957. It came with the original Leica light meter MR which sits on the hotshoe connected to the exposure dial of the camera. Unfortunately both camera and light meter were starting to malfunction shortly after I bought the combo. The light meter was not working reliable at all, and also a change of the meter's battery did not help either. I opened up the MR device after finding online a description how to clean the contacts, reassembled it - with the same unreliable result. My recommendation: don't bother with it, not worth to have it fixed either. In fact I found a much better use of the hotshoe position by using an external viewfinder for my 35 mm lens which I describe in detail below (the M3 has no 35 mm frame lines - the successor model, the M2, does - and yes, the M3 is older than the M2!).
Leica M3 with original Leica Light Meter MR
The Camera Body
The camera body is simply to fall in love with - rigid hard metal base in brass chrome with a good weight. I don't want to ever experience it, but I am quite certain that this camera can drop on solid ground from a handheld position without suffering damage of the body itself. Beautiful also the nicely engraved Leica name on top of the camera which I like much better than the much more attention grabbing Leica red dot on the front in later models. The camera sits very stable on a flat surface with chrome 50/2 lens attached. The center of gravity is on the camera housing and not moved towards the lens! The eyepiece of the viewfinder has no rubber gasket to protect eyeglasses from scratches caused by the metal ring. No biggie for me at the moment since I don't wear glasses while shooting, but I can see this is an issue for other fellows. On the back the camera has two flash synchronization cable sockets for electronic flash and flash bulbs. The latter ones are probably not in use anymore. So far I also never used any electronic flash with this camera either. The film indicator on the back plate is fairly useless IMO but nice to look at. It allows to select the ISO/ASA speed of the inserted film but has no function within the camera itself. It is just a reminder which kind of film speed is used.
The M3 also came in "trim" versions depending on its manufacturing date. Biggest difference between versions is double-stroke (DS) or single-stroke (SS) advance lever. Which one is better? I am pretty undecided about this since all my other film cameras have a single-stroke lever. But I was surprised how quickly I got used to the double-stroke lever. You need to twist the right hand thumb less with each stroke compared to a single-stroke lever (which turns further). I would not make DS or SS as selection criteria for a used M3 camera - both do the same job. Leica later abandoned the DS advance lever which might make a DS based M3 a bit more "unique" and vintage.
This feature might not be often used with Leica Ms, but I really like that the M3 has a shutter self-time release which was unfortunately abandoned by Leica in later models. It's a nice feature and comes handy for group shots where the photographer wants to be included. The shutter click is very silent. Compared to the shutter of my M6 - which I already consider silent - the M3 shutter is even less noisy.
One bad surprise with the M3 was once for me its a bit unusual tripod bushing - it does not fit to the more common 1/4" but is instead made for 3/8" bolts. You need a tripod reducer bushing - good to be aware of this before planning to shoot a sunrise or a sunset with the M3!
The M3 has no light meter within the camera - something seemingly backwards when using this camera in the digital age. You can fully ignore any kind of metering and estimate exposure by following the sunny f/16 rule. I personally find the latter a bit too uncertain since the sunny f/16 rule depends also on the latitude location - in more northern zones it is more like a f/11 sunny rule. With changing weather conditions (sunny/cloudy sky etc) it gets quite tricky sometimes using this rule, especially when taking photos of high contrast scenes. But there is a simple and nearly as convenient workaround - use a free light meter cellphone app. Some apps even distinguish between reflective and indirect lighting by using either the back or the front camera of the cellphone. I found that my light meter cellphone app - I am mostly using an app named LightMeter on my Android phone - is nearly as accurate as my Gossen light meter - instead of carrying cellphone and external Gossen meter, I now only use my cellphone app. In its reflective mode, it also allows some sort of spot metering which works well.
After I shot two films with my M3, suddenly the winder and the shutter were stuck. I read that this is quite common with older Leica rangefinder cameras which haven't been used for a while. Unfortunately, there is no easy homemade fix for that issue: You have to send the camera for a CLA which stands for Cleaning-Lubrication-Adjustment. The US-based Leica repair service in NJ never even replied to my inquiry if this camera could be fixed and how long it would take. Best solution is to contact one of the few independent Leica specialists which you can find online instead which are also very price-competitive and more responsive. My M3 was fixed in less than two weeks, only lubrication and readjustments of shutter speeds were needed as well as cleaning of the rangefinder system. It is working perfectly since!
How To Insert Film
The film insertion into the M3 might appear a bit sketchy in the beginning. The take-up spool is removable - make sure that it the spool is included when you intend to buy a M3! It is an essential part - in case it is missing, you can't insert any film in the camera. To use film, you have to remove this spool from within the right side of the camera after opening the base plate. Then you insert the beginning of the film into a thin slot within the spool. If done right, a dotted arrow will show up against the inserted greyish beginning of the film. Now both film cartridge on the left and take-up spool on the right are inserted into the camera. I find this the most tricky part since the spool has to click into place, but most often the film is not horizontally aligned yet behind the shutter. You might have to move the spool or the film cartridge winders a bit that the beginning of the film aligns with the gear rim of the transport spool which sits next to the inserted take-up spool. Or in other words: the lobes of the gear rim have to grab into the film sprocket. If this isn't done right, the film won't move! After you close the flap and adjust the base plate, take two shots and make sure that the two-dotted rewind knob turns every time you use the advance lever to transport the film. Then you are good to go! Removal of the take-up spool resets the frame counter of the camera to zero.
Rangefinder System and Viewfinder
The Leica M3 is considered to have the best rangefinder system of all Leica Ms even to this date. My experience with the M3 confirms this. The viewfinder is larger than on later M series cameras, and it comes with a bigger magnification finder of 0.92x (standard is now 0.72x and largest size offered is 0.85x). This is especially useful for 50 mm and longer focal lengths of 90 and 135 mm where this camera really shines with. To focus my 90/2.8 M-lens on my M6 is much harder due to the much smaller finder view than with my M3. Another benefit of the M3: no rangefinder patch flaring which appears sometimes in later models as seen in the M6. The M3 viewfinder has a bit of a bluish tint by looking through which does not matter at all. Later M series models like my M6 don't have this tint anymore.
The most frustrating to me is the lack of 35 mm frame lines - especially since 35 mm is my go-to focal length normally. Yes, probably the M2 would have been a better choice here, but simply this M3 worked out for me in a decent deal. Work-around is to use an external viewfinder which I mentioned in the first paragraph, but most of them - even used - are very pricey. I didn't want to vest more than $150-200 for this kind of viewfinder when my M6 already included frame lines for 35 mm lenses. After a bit of searching and waiting, I came across a good deal for a Braun Paxette 38 mm viewfinder in chrome - which fits perfectly on the camera's hotshoe and in its color. The 3 mm focal length difference is small enough that adjusting a composition with the Paxette viewfinder doesn't make a big difference compared to the final 35 mm lens-based photo. Best is that I was able to get it in excellent condition for its age for about $25.
Leica M3 with Braun Paxette 38 mm External Viewfinder
The M3 also requires a pretty good estimate which film ISO to use for an upcoming shooting. You never want to be stuck with a slow film ISO at 100 or below if there is no sun or it is getting slightly dark outside - especially if the camera is handheld. With fast film speeds more modern Leica film Ms also only can go up to 1/1000 seconds same as the M3. With an ISO 400 and a fast lens open at f/2 to allow some shallow depth of field, you might exceed the 1/1000 sec on a sunny day easily. Only way out then is to use a neutral density (ND) filter. I find myself most often using an ISO 125 film which I can push to ISO 200. With a f/2 lens, this allows me to shoot without ND filter and avoiding also too slow shutter speeds for most scenes outside.
Certainly a keeper camera for me - fully mechanical without need of battery, it will work the same with minimum maintenance needed for many years to come.