The Leica M3 was produced from 1955 to 1963 and is regarded as one of the most iconic cameras ever made. It is an entirely mechanical (containing no electronics at all) "rangefinder" camera, shoots 35mm film cartridges, and was designed and assembled in Germany.

The Fujifilm X-T1 was introduced in 2014 and is still in production. It is a 16-megapixel "mirrorless" digital camera and is awash in cutting edge technologies, designed and assembled in Japan.

So why compare em!?

Like many, I was raised on SLRs. Canon, Nikon, Pentax – SLRs have been their flagship products for decades now. SLR – Single Lens Reflex – is defined by the mirrorbox between lens and film/sensor, bouncing light (reflexively) up into the viewfinder. This complexity exists so the photographer can preview the actual image. Push the button, and the mirror flips out of the way so light can reach the shutter. The design necessitates larger camera bodies and lenses, but the payoff in seeing through the lens and the resulting better photos was worth it. This is how SLRs rose to dominate photographer's camera bags.

Typical small-size SLR camera

The Leica M3 is a rangefinder – the paradigm most popular before SLRs. To compose with a rangefinder, you look through a separate viewfinder lens that is marked up with framing guides and a focusing aid. I only became familiar with rangefinders after decades of SLR use, and it was a breath of fresh air. What the camera lacked in convenience (no autofocus, no looking through the lens, no automatic exposure), it more than made up for in compactness, control, and precision.

Rio Del Mar, September 2013, Neopan 400 in a Leica M3

So what's the problem?

Why not just stick with the M3? Well, the M3 is a film camera. Shooting film is fun, but I still want the features, convenience, and flexibility of a modern digital camera. Leica does make new, digital versions of the M3. But they are expensive. I mean, all cameras are expensive. But Leica cameras are really, really, really expensive. Costlier-than-my-car expensive. Shit-on-the-third-world expensive. Tophat-and-monocle expensive.

The Leica M-P (digital successor to the M3) is, for example, about seven times the cost of Fujifilm's top-of-the-line X-T1.

So I bought an X-T1.

And now, I've been using both the Leica M3 and the Fujifilm X-T1 for a long time. I will compare the two, and we'll see if the Fujifilm is a worthy replacement.

Similar in size, but opposite in color

Heft

The silent killer of a camera is how much of a pain in the ass it is to have with you. Every camera is annoying to carry. You need special bags, straps, cases, and other crap just to get the camera in the vicinity of what you want to photograph. And unfortunately, the more capable the kit, the bulkier the baggage tends to be.

The Leica M3 is nice and compact. It is a perfect trade-off of size versus quality. It is slender and solid, heavier than it looks, but not so heavy that it will kill your wrist.

Likewise, the X-T1 is compact and feature-dense. It is lighter than the Leica, but the body has more protrusions and things that snag on fabric. You can comfortably hold this camera for hours without straining yourself.

Minutia aside, the M3 and X-T1 are very similar in shape and size, especially in comparison to SLRs. Where one can go, so can the other, and neither require anything more than a simple wrist strap.

Look at all those amazing doodads and widgets! You can do so many things!

Setting Settings

On most modern cameras, changing exposure settings sucks. Things like ISO, aperture, shutter speed, exposure compensation, focus, autofocus settings, and white balance require holding down modifiers, digging into menus, or memorizing arcane steps.

However, the Fujifilm X-T1 reigns supreme for its easy-to-reach settings. Look at the thing – there are dedicated dials for ISO, shutter speed, and exposure compensation right on top of the camera, and the lens has a clearly-marked aperture ring. White balance and "film simulation" type have dedicated buttons that change only those settings. True, changing autofocus points is a pain in the ass, but it's the exception rather than the rule.

Does the Leica M3 do it better, though?

The Leica M3 shoots film, so white balance, "film simulation", and ISO are decided by what film you have loaded (duh). Aperture and shutter speed have dedicated dials, and there ain't no autofocus, but there is a great manual focus system (the "range finder" that gives the camera its name). The rangefinder is great when there's sufficient light – you align your images and choose the precise spot to focus on – so it never focuses on the wrong part of the image. But when it's dark, you can't see shit, so you just guess. Or you use the distance markers written on the lens. Some people prefer shooting this way even in the light. They set focus by zone and run-and-gun, expediently wasting tons of film.

Despite the film and focusing on the X-T1 and M3 being worlds different, the two cameras otherwise are siblings when it comes to setting exposure – quick, mechanical, can be done even while the camera is 'off'.

The X-T1 features a large, berjillion-pixel, articulating rear screen; the M3 does not

through the looking glass

The Leica M3 is renown for its bright, large, clear viewfinder. I can confirm – it really is bright, large and clear. Stick your eye up to that window and it fills your vision with a beautiful, vivid image. There's nothing between you and the scene other than frame lines and the focus guide. A lever even lets you preview the frame lines for other focal lengths, how thoughtful.

The Fujifilm X-T1 has a digital viewfinder renown for having zero lag. Well, not exactly zero. It's on the high side of zero, nearly not-zero, definitely not a one, but certainly a number so small that zero is a fine approximation. Look, I'm prone to motion sickness, and image lag would trigger that, so that I do not get seasick while using the camera means there's no image lag.

While not quite as big and bright at the M3's, the Fujifilm gives you a real live preview of what your captured photo will look like. This is huge. Fujifilm then clutters up the view with displaying repeats of all the camera settings into the viewfinder. There's the white balance setting, the film simulation setting, the current dynamic range, number of photos remaining, the file quality settings for photos, the file quality settings for movies, the focus distance, the picture histogram, the shutter mode, the auto exposure mode, the shutter speed, the aperture, the exposure compensation, the ISO, the battery level, and also includes (displayed on top of the image) a level and indication where the camera is focusing. Holy hell, I should see if I can turn that off. (Update: I just turned most that crap off.)

Each philosophy towards the viewfinder comes with advantages. But, let's cut the crap, the digital approach – previewing the actual image you will capture – is superior. Perhaps X-T1's default settings could improve with some of the M3's beautiful simplicity, but I am never going to surrender my live image preview again.

The Leica M3 sports a fashionable 50mm f/2 Summicron in chrome, where the X-T1 is dressed in a jet black 35mm f/1.4 Fujinon

flash fast glass

If you know of Leica, you know that Leica lenses are lauded as being among the finest made. I don't know that I'm qualified to say the same, but I can say that the lens set designed to accompany this M3 is superb. The workhorse of the fleet is your normal – the 50mm. With it's practical field of view and compact size, it is not uncommon for the 50mm lens to never leave the camera. It excels in every situation and at every aperture, no matter what or where you're shooting.

Also seeing heavy use is the 35mm f/2.8 lens featuring the infamous "goggles". The goggles zey do nussing! are needed because the M3's viewfinder is not, as built, a wide enough view to show what the 35mm lens will capture. So the goggles go in front, fixing that. With a slightly-wider-but-mostly-similar field of view as the 50mm, the 35mm lens is a great alternative for times when the normal is too narrow.

Then in the "oh yeah, also" category are the 90mm and 135mm lenses. So, like, these longer lenses work just fine. But they're both large, awkward, heavy. And their fields of view are too narrow. So I nearly never use them.

Leica M3, with 35mm f/2.8, 50mm f/2, 90mm f/2, and 135mm f/4 lenses.

With this set you can do pretty much anything. Hell, with just the 50mm you can do pretty much everything. The other three are just icing. All four lenses operate in about the same, with matching aperture rings and focus rings, and image quality is never a concern.

Over in Fujiland, the lens lineup is less straightforward, but has more flexibility. At the time of writing, Fuji has 10 primes and 6 zooms available, with more announced. There's no need to own all 16 of these lenses – there's a lot of overlap – but that shouldn't stop us from trying. I have a bunch, more than I can fit in my camera bag. Don't be like me.

A murder of Fujinon lenses

Fuji's got lenses for macro, for portraiture, for crazy wide angles, for shooting sports and weddings, for shooting in harsh weather, for shooting wildlife and birds, for keeping the camera as compact as possible. All that flexibility is great! Each photographer can choose the equipment that best suits them or just buy them all.

The bad news is that not all these lenses work the same way. True, the Leica set has minor differences from lens to lens, but the differences with the Fujinon lenses are larger. These variations – remembering the specifics of how each lens works – can and do slow you down in the field. And I hate fumbling over my camera settings, missing a shot because I cannot get the camera set right.

The good news is that what the Fuji lenses all have in common is top-notch image quality. Faded colors, blurry details, chromatic aberration – these things just aren't concerns when shooting Fuji glass. You never have to stick to the "good" apertures. You never have to worry about avoiding certain lighting.

So, okay, what's the upshot? Which approach is superior? The Leica lenses are top-of-the-line and have no faults, the pinnacle of German engineering. The Fuji lenses are not, but they come close. Reputation aside, both systems have lenses with enough oomph to give you worry-free shooting. Only the nerdiest pixelphile would have any reason to pick the Leica over the Fuji due to lenses.

San Francisco's Sunset District seen with the X-T1 and a 35mm lens

the photos?

Enough about how the cameras look and work, let's talk about how the photos come out.

The Leica M3 is a "classic" camera for a reason. Use the M3's completely manual controls until you get past the lack of technology, and you will then realize that your compositions improve, you really know what exposure means, and you zone focus as easily as breathing. No, it does not take a Leica rangefinder to make these things happen. But if you want to force yourself down this path, you won't have a better sword at your side than the Leica M3. It offers no shortcuts or crutches, and becoming quick and comfident with it requires you to think differently about the fundamentals of photography.

Seattle's waterfront area seen through the Leica M3 at 50mm using Fuji's Superia film

Here's where the X-T1 is unlike the M3. While the cameras have similar philosophies towards portability, controls, and even to some extent lenses, they are separated by their approach to technology. Fujifilm lets the technology do the heavy lifting. The Leica's ode to pure clockwork is shunned by the fully electronic X-T1. When it comes to how the photo looks, the X-T1 can set for each frame individually the "film simulation", the sensitivity, the white balance, the sharpening, and more.

The Fujifilm shooting in BW-Y film simulation (black and white with a yellow filter)

But does this actually make the photos better?

This is the crux of the discussion; does all this technology actually make better photos? Or is it all just a distraction to entertain gearheads?

Film is not what it used to be – most film stocks are discontinued, new film stocks are rare, and quality development only remains at specialty labs which charge a premium for the favor. Film is disregarded by most photographers, considered obsolete, antiquated, derelict. You don't need me to tell you that Digital photography is ubiquitous, and won the war years ago. But has digital made our photos better?

A photo taken with the M3, exposure, focus, and composition all set by me

Yes

Yes, it has. Despite my love of film, even I must argue that the Fujifilm X-T1 is the superior camera. It is a worthy upgrade to the Leica M3. The Leica M3 will never die, and this article is one among thousands that serve as tributes to this timeless camera. But the M3 had its day, a time when it was the ultimate photography machine. But now us M3 enthusiasts must face the truth – when the M3 is surpassed by a camera like the X-T1 that marries cutting edge technology to timeless design sensibilities, even holy grails become relics.

It's why, when heading out to make pictures, my hand reaches past the M3 and instead wraps around the X-T1.

But you can pry the M3 from my cold, dead hands because nobody said I'm allowed to own only one camera