Photo courtesy George Eastman House
True, it has been tweaked over the last half century, and today's Leica MP and M7 have slightly improved range/viewfinders and built-in meters. But in terms of sheer quality of construction, the classic M3, with its projected, parallax-compensating, auto-indexing 50, 90, and 135mm finder framelines and 68.5mm-base, 0.92X finder magnification, is still unsurpassed in terms of actual field performance and as an object of timeless beauty.
It's like butter
The Leica M3's controls operate with silky smoothness, and it's been universally hailed as the camera that fits your hands better than any other--and as the prime tool of most of the renowned photojournalists and street photographers of the last 50 years. Its horizontal, cloth, focal-plane shutter is also whisper quiet and provides mechanically timed speeds of 1-1/1000 sec.
One stroke or two?
Two versions are available: double-stroke (two very short strokes to advance the film to the n frame) and single-stroke (one longer, but still fairly short stroke to advance the film). Since the M3 is the only model ever offered with double-stroke advance, some collectors prefer it, but the single-stroke version is a bit more convenient for shooting fast action. (Buying tip: Choose your M3 on the basis of its mechanical and cosmetic condition, not wind-lever strokes!)
Bottom loading (with a hinged back section so you can see that the film is taking up properly) takes some getting used to, but it sure makes for a rigid body and superb film-plane alignment.
One for the ages
While the Leica M3 is a premier investment-grade collectible that will certainly enhance your collectible camera showcase, it also happens to be an good picture taker, particularly when fitted with the 7-element 50mm f/2.0 Dual-Range Leitz Summicron. This magnificent lens performs at least as well as the latest 50mm f/1.7, f/1.8, and f/2 lenses offered by leading camera companies, and will even give the current 6-element Leica 50mm Summicron-M a run for the money! You could conceivably call this combo the user-collectible classic of all time!
I also recommend...50mm f/2.0 Dual-Range Summicron, E-: $300
See "Used Leica Lenses" for current availability