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Leica R3: a review

The Leica R3 was Leica's first SLR camera with an electronically-timed shutter. It was produced and sold from 1976 to 1980 and came alternatively in black, chrome, safari-green, or gold finish. The camera was conceived in cooperation with Minolta, used Minolta electronics and is similar in external appearance to the XE-7. However, the R3 had several features that differed from Minolta's flagship, notably a Leica-specific mirror box, metering system, and shutter mechanism. About 70,000 copies of the R3 were sold, making it a commercial success for Leica and the second most popular R-system camera overall, just behind its successor, the Leica R4.

Leica R3
Leica R3 with Summilux 50mm f/1.4[amoebahydra]

In addition to the new shutter mechanism and the Minolta-inspired body style, the R3 offered automated exposure control in aperture or shutter priority, as well as the option of integrated (center-weighted) light metering, which were not present in the earlier Leicaflex SL2. Light metering is performed using dual CdS meter cells that provide full-area average metering or limited-area metering as indicated by the microprism area in the viewfinder. Aperture-priority automatic exposure can be undertaken in full-area or spot meter modes, while manual metering can be done in spot mode only.

The new electronically-timed, vertical-travel metal shutter was designed by Leitz in cooperation with Copal and made by Copal. It offers speeds from 4 to 1/1000 seconds plus bulb (B) mode. When in auto-exposure mode, the shutter is stepless, while it varies in 1-stop increments in manual mode. The electronic flash sync speed can be set at 1/90 sec or slower, using either a PC contact or the hot shoe. In case of battery failure, the camera can be used at a mechanical speed of 1/90 seconds.


Leica R3 Specifications

  • Leica R bayonet mount;
  • Electronic, metal vertically moving focal plane shutter;
  • Aperture priority, shutter priority, and manual exposure modes;
  • TTL integrated or selective exposure metering;
  • Ground glass, non-interchangeable viewfinder screen;
  • Hotshoe flash control; 1/90s, no TTL-metering;
  • External controls for battery self-check, eyepiece shutter, multiple-exposure, selective/integral exposure, DOF preview, self-timer, meter on/off;
  • ISO range of 12 – 3200;
  • Film transport by manual lever (optional motor drive for R3 MOT);
  • Batteries: 2 x SR44 (LR44) cells or 1 x CR1/3N;
  • Dimensions: 148 x 96.5 x 64.6mm (width x height x depth);
  • Weight: 780g;

The viewfinder of the R3 has an eye-level, non-interchangeable prism, showing 94 percent of the picture. Viewing is at full aperture, but a depth-of-field preview is also available. The viewfinder readout display includes metering needle, aperture, metering mode and shutter speed. The standard viewscreen has a coarse central microprism area and central split-image focusing aid with a matte focusing area on the remainder of the screen. A built-in viewfinder blind is available to prevent stray light from influencing the meter when the camera is used on a tripod.

From 1978, Leica produced a motor-ready version of the R3, the R3 MOT. It had connections on the bottom plate for a two frame-per-second motor winder. Besides these connectors and the R3 MOT designation, there is another small, but potentially important, difference to the regular R3: the MOT-version does not have a self-timer.

Along with the R3, Leica introduced the stepped cam to the R-mount. The earlier Leicaflex camera lenses had either one or two sloping cams for aperture connection. The lenses released since the R3 replaced or supplemented these cams with a single "stepped cam", which also conveys the maximum aperture of the lens to the camera.

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Headline specifications of all Leica R-system cameras
  Camera Shutter
range ($)
Leicaflex2000MNonon-TTL148.0 / 97.0 / 57.0770~32,5001964 - 68200-400check
Leicaflex SL2000selMNonon-TTL148.0 / 97.0 / 57.0770~75,0001968 - 74125-250check
Leicaflex SL22000selMYesnon-TTL148.0 / 97.0 / 57.0770~25,0001974 - 76400-600check
Leica R31000sel & intA/S/MYesnon-TTL148.0 / 96.5 / 64.6780~70,0001976 - 80125-250check
Leica R41000sel & intP/A/S/MYesnon-TTL138.5 / 88.1 / 60.0630>100,0001980 - 87150-250check
Leica R4s1000sel & intA/MYesnon-TTL138.5 / 88.1 / 60.0620~25,0001983 - 87150-250check
Leica R52000sel & int P/A/S/MYesTTL138.5 / 88.1 / 62.2625~34,0001986 - 91250-500check
Leica R61000sel & int MYesTTL138.5 / 88.1 / 62.2625~24,0001988 - 92400-550check
Leica R-E2000sel & int A/MYesTTL138.5 / 88.1 / 62.2625~6,1001990 - 94450-600check
Leica R6.22000sel & int MYesTTL138.5 / 88.1 / 62.2625~21,0001992 - 02500-750check
Leica R72000sel & int P/A/S/MYesfull-auto138.5 / 98.8 / 62.2670~30,0001992 - 97350-450check
Leica R88000sel, int, multiP/A/S/MYesfull-auto158.0 / 101 / 62.0890~36,5001996 - 02500-600check
Leica R98000sel, int, multiP/A/S/MYesHSS158.0 / 101 / 62.0790~9,0002002 - 091,000-1,500check

Leica R3 FAQ

The R3 is a very solidly build camera and inspires confidence through its considerable heft. However, it is not without weaknesses. The camera does not offer TTL-flash metering (introduced into the R-system with the R5), and does not provide a mirror lock-up option. Also, the Shutter speed and Aperture indications in the viewfinder are not always easy to read, and there is no viewfinder illumination.

Below are some additional issues and questions that have been encountered by Leica shooter's with corresponding responses or suggestions.

What are the Leica order numbers of the different R3-versions?

Leica R3 chrome: 10031; Leica R3 black: 10032; Leica R3 gold: 10050; Leica R3 safari: 10034 and 11876; Leica R3 MOT: 10033 [leica-wiki].

How is the shutter sound of the R3?

The R3 has a well damped mirror and the shutter sound is relatively subdued for an SLR.

How does the viewfinder of the R3 compare to the one of the Leicaflex SL2?

The R3's viewfinder is not as bright as the ones on the Leicaflexes (but few other SLR viewfinders are).

Is this R3 suitable for night or low-light photography?

One quirk of the R3 is that the light meter needle in the viewfinder is not illuminated, so that it is hard to see it in poor lighting conditions.

Does the R3 age well?

The Leica is very solid mechanically, but some users have reported problems due to failures in the AE circuits. Also, the camera uses foam seals between the body and the back of the camera. As the foam ages, it might no longer keep the body light-tight, so this issue should be checked before a purchase.

Where was the R3 produced?

The first 1500 black and 500 chrome bodies were produced in Wetzlar/Germany, and the remaining copies at Leica's production site in Vila Nova de Famalicão/Portugal.

Who produced the shutter for the R3?

The shutter mechanism for the camera was designed by Leica and produced by Copal.

What was the occasion for the special gold edition of the R3?

The gold edition of the R3 was produced in 1979 to commemorate the 100th birthday of Oscar Barnack, the inventor of the Leica camera. The top of the camera body was plated with 24 carat gold and features engravings of Barnack's signature, as well as the dates 1879-1979. A total of 1000 copies were produced and sold with a matching gold plated Summilux-R 50mm f/1.4.

Where can I send my R3 for repairs?

Leica Customer Care does no longer undertake repairs of the R3. The company recommends its clients to contact Paepke-Fototechnik in Düsseldorf instead.

Further Reading

Additional details on the R3 and its features and operation can be found in the Leica R3 manual. Moreover, a broader set of downloadable information resources on the Leica family of reflex and rangefinder cameras can be accessed on the Leica downloads page.

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