5 Frames with a Leica IIIa, Canon LTM 50mm f2.8 lens and Kentmere 400 – By Richard de Bulat
I have used this little Leica for a couple of years having bought it 2nd hand during the Lock-downs. The original lens was the Elmar 5cm f3.5, the type that sits inside the camera body and you pull out when taking photographs. This lens was not terrible, but lacked the contrast I expect from a Leica camera and, having read about photographers from back in the day who substituted it for a Canon lens, I decided to do the same. This is now the lens that I use, with better results, in my opinion. I decided to use Kentmere film simply to try it out and was surprised at the result in a number of ways.
I went out on a remarkably sunny day, a welcome break from all the rain we have been having in the West Country, walking over the Tamar bridge out of Plymouth and down into Saltash and the county of Cornwall. The sunshine made for a high contrast environment and I was interested to see how the Kentmere film would perform; it is not known for particularly great contrast, although I found that the contrast was generally quite good. Additionally, I saw that the film has very good exposure latitude and where I would, ordinarily, expect heavy shadow, I found good shadow detail with no loss of highlights and a very good level of sharpness.
I exposed the film at box speed and developed it in Rodinal at 1+25 which would enhance the grain to some extent, although I didn’t notice any significant graininess when I scanned the negatives and processed them in Lightroom. The Brunel Railway Bridge features heavily in this set of photographs; completed in 1859 it dominates the Saltash river front and remains in use to this day. The Tamar Bridge, in the background, carries road transport and has a pedestrian walkway.
I like using this little camera, which is surprising weighty considering its size and I think that the Canon lens, itself not exactly lightweight, gives surprisingly good results for its vintage. The Leica dates back to the mid to late 1930’s and works as well today as when it came out of the Leitz factory, and the Canon lens, produced around 20 years later is remarkable sharp. Of course, the Leica has its idiosyncrasies such as no film advance lever – you wind the film on via a knurled knob where you would expect a winder to be. Loading film requires you to cut a longer film leader and only the base plate comes off the camera body making the process a bit fiddly; nevertheless, with regular practice you will normally get an additional frame or two over and above the stated frame count.
The camera feels good in the hand; its weight gives it stability even though it lacks modern additions such as a grip or motor drive; in use, you can luxuriate in its supreme mechanical reliability and basic good looks. Bringing it up to your eye – one optic to focus and another, quite separate optic to frame, you naturally slow down and take a more considered approach to your photography. Being a rangefinder you can’t be totally sure that what you see in the viewfinder is exactly what will be exposed on the negative, although I rarely need to crop my frames to any great extent. The 50mm lens intrudes on the view also; if you use a lens-hood, it needs to be a ventilated one so that you can see through it; all-in-all, the camera demands attention to detail. Loading film, winding it on and, indeed, winding it off afterwards, is all a bit of a task, but part of the experience of using this piece of history, and the results, in terms of image quality at least, is excellent.
I use all kinds of cameras and formats and have favourites that I go to for different tasks and effects, but if I am simply going for a walk and want to record what I see, the IIIa is definitely one of my favourites. For a camera that is more than 80 years old it remains remarkably good in every way.
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