leica m3 vs. fujifilm x-t1

a comparison

This article is a comparison of the Leica M3 and the Fujifilm X-T1.

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 on earth am I comparing these two cameras to each other!?

Like many photographers from the past 20 years, I was raised on SLR type of cameras. As a reminder, these are your standard Canon, Nikon, Pentax high-end cameras. The type is defined by the mirror behind the lens that lets the photographer see the image coming through the lens prior to taking the photo. When the shutter is pressed, the mirror must flip out of the way to allow light onto the film or digital sensor. At the cost of compactness both in camera body and camera lens, this was a very convenient innovation in camera design never before had photography been so quick and easy. This is how SLRs rose to dominate the world of pro photography.

Typical small-size SLR camera

The Leica M3 is from the previous era rangefinder cameras where when composing a photo, the photographer does not look through the lens, but through a separate rangefinder window that is marked up with framing guides and a focusing aide. I became familiar with this style of camera after years of using an SLR, and for me 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

Ok, so what was the problem then?

So why not just stick to using the M3? Well, the M3 is a film camera. And while shooting film is fun, I still want the features, the convenience, the 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. Like, obscenely expensive.

For example, a Leica M-P (digital successor to the M3) is about seven times the cost of Fujifilm's top-of-the-line X-T1. So last autumn I bought the X-T1. Now that I've been using both the Leica M3 and the Fujifilm X-T1 for a long time, let me compare the two, and we'll see if the Fujifilm is a worthy replacement.

Similar in size, but opposite in color

Hefting the Cameras

The silent killer of a camera is how much of a pain in the ass it is to have with you. Every camera larger than a camera-phone is annoying to carry. You need special bags, straps, cases, and other crap just to get the camera in the vicinity of where you want to actually take the photo. Unfortunately, the more capable the camera is, the larger it tends to be.

The Leica M3 is nice and compact. It is a good trade-off of size versus camera quality. It is heavier than it looks, thanks to it's all-metal construction, but not so heavy that it will kill your wrist. Likewise, the X-T1 is compact, and is feature-dense. It is lighter than the Leica, but the body has more protrusions and areas that the camera can snag on fabric. However, in general, the cameras are very similar in this regard, especially when compared to larger cameras (like SLRs).

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

Setting Settings

My biggest gripe with modern, cheap cameras is that settings are difficult to change. Things like ISO, aperture, shutter speed, exposure compensation, focus, autofocus settings, and white balance can be arduous to change on the fly. High-end SLRs tend to be better about this, but the Fujifilm X-T1 reigns supreme for easy-to-reach settings. Look at the photo above: 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. On the flip side, changing autofocus points is enough of a pain in the ass that I don't bother, and switching the lenses to manual focus is equally difficult.

The Leica M3 shoots film, so you don't need to worry about white balance, "film simulations", or ISO, as they are built into the film you have loaded. (The previous sentence should go without saying...) Aperture and shutter speed have dedicated dials, and the absence of autofocus means a whole bevy of simplification around the manual focusing system. The M3 is a pain in the ass to focus in dark situations, but when there is sufficient light, focusing can be a little slow, but is extremely precise, and because you (the photographer) are manually focusing, it never focuses on the wrong part of the image. Further aiding the focus, are the distance markers visible on the lens. Pre-setting focus via aperture and distance markers is a wonderfully quick way to shoot, and with the film advance lever being very quick, the photographer can expediently waste tons of film.

In essence, the Leica edges out the X-T1 on setting the focus, but otherwise the two cameras are very similar when it comes to quickly changing the settings.

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

Looking through the camera's viewfinder

The Leica M3 is renown for its bright, large, clear viewfinder. It really is big, bright, and beautiful. When you stick your eye up to that window, it fills your vision with a vivid, clear image. There's nothing in the view except for the scene, the frame lines, and the focus guide. The frame lines for 50mm lenses' point of view are always visible, and frame lines for 90mm or 135mm lenses' points of view are visible when those lenses are attached, or optionally when you depress the preview lever on the front of the camera. Yes, the Leica M3 lets you preview what a 90mm or 135mm image would be without changing lenses. Why don't other cameras do this?

The Fujifilm X-T1 has a digital viewfinder renown for having zero lag. Well, not exactly zero, but so close to zero as to be zero for all working purposes. 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. Here is what is in there: 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 half that crap off.)

Each philosophy towards the viewfinder has it's advantages, but the Fujifilm X-T1's is definitely superior. Perhaps it could improve with some tips from the M3, 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

But what about the lenses?

If you have read about Leica equipment, you are doubtless aware 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, for me and most other people who spend too much time writing about Leica cameras, is the 50mm lens. With it's "normal" field of view and compact size, it is not uncommon for the 50mm lens to never leave the camera. Also seeing heavy use is the 35mm f/2.8 lens featuring the infamous "goggles" (these are needed because the M3's viewfinder is not, as built, a wide enough view to show what the 35mm lens will capture) with a slightly-wider-but-mostly-similar field of view as the 50mm. And then in the "oh yeah, also" category are the 90mm and 135mm lenses. Don't get me wrong, these longer lenses work just fine, but they're both large and heavy, and their fields of view are too narrow, so I usually leave them at home.

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. All four lenses operate in similar fashions, with matching aperture rings and focus rings. There are some minor differences in operation, but not enough to matter.

On the Fujifilm side of things, the lens lineup is less straightforward, but there's more flexibility. First off, focal lengths must be multiplied by 1.5 to get a lens with equivalent field of view on the Leica. This is because the digital sensor is smaller than a frame of 35mm film (this 1.5x conversion is a simplification the smaller frame size causes all sorts of subtle changes in the optical physics that hurt your brain if you try to work through the full implications). At the time of writing, Fujifilm has released 10 prime and 6 zoom lenses specifically for this camera, and told customers of more that are on the way. There's no need to own all 16 of these lenses (although I'm sure there are people that do) because there's a lot of overlap in the lineup. I have the 16mm, 23mm, 35mm, 18-55mm, and 55-200mm lenses, or the Leica equivalent of 24mm, 35mm, 50mm, 28-85mm, and 85-300mm lenses.

A murder of Fujinon lenses

Some of the Fuji lenses I don't own include dedicated close-up lenses, dedicated portraiture lenses, action zooms, ultra-wides, and low-profile "pancakes". All that flexibility is great! Each photographer can choose the equipment that best suits them (or just buy them all because we're addicted to buying gear). The sticking point though, 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. Not so large that the differences will stop you from taking photos, but the variations do sometimes slow me down in the field. And I hate fumbling over my camera settings.

So, okay, what's the upshot? The Leica lenses are top-of-the-line and have no faults. The Fuji lenses are not, but they come close enough the Fuji lenses will get you the photos you need (so long as all the choices available don't give you analysis paralysis).

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

What about the photos?

Enough about how the cameras look and work, how do the photos come out? How do these cameras help or hinder the images I'm trying to make?

The Leica M3 is a "classic" camera for a reason. Use the M3's completely manual controls long enough 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 to make these things happen, but the M3 is an excellent path to choose for the journey. It offers no shortcuts or crutches, and if you use the camera long enough to become quick and comfortable with it, you will be thinking differently about the fundamentals of photography.

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

It is in this area where the X-T1 is the opposite of the M3. Whereas the cameras have similar philosophies towards portability, controls, and even lenses to some extent, they are entirely separated by their approach to technology. The Leica's ode to mechanics is shunned by the fully electronic X-T1. When it comes to how the photo looks, the X-T1 can set the "film simulation" (how colors are handled), the film speed, the white balance, the sharpening, and more, for each frame.

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

But does this actually make the photos better?

Well that's the point of this entire article. Does all this technology actually make better photos? Or is it all just a distraction to entertain gearheads? This ... is difficult to answer. The world of 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. You don't need me to tell you that Digital photography is ubiquitous, and won the war years ago. But have our photos improved?

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

Yes, they have.

Yes, they have. I, reluctantly, must argue that the Fujifilm X-T1 is the superior camera and a worthy upgrade to the M3. The Leica M3 will never die, and let this article (and many others like it by other photographers) serve as tributes to this timeless camera. But the M3 had its day, and there is no argument about convenience the M3 is ever going to win, and convenience is key. The best photos are the photos that exist, and if nothing else, all this technology makes more photos possible. And that is why I must side with the Fujifilm X-T1.

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

First published on 18 Jul 2015; last updated on 28 Jan 2017.

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