When someone asks the question “What is the ‘best’ 35mm rangefinder ever made?”, a great number of responses will likely include either the Leica M3 or the Nikon SP. The reason for these two models on the tops of so many people’s lists is that they are both very good cameras, made by two very good companies, at a period of tremendous innovation in the industry.
The Leica M3 and Nikon SP aren’t just two cameras that collectors today like to compare, they also competed against each other in the 1950s when each was released. The Leica M3 came first, beating out the Nikon S2 which was the model before the SP, so you could say the SP had a bit of an advantage as Nippon Kogaku was able to see what they were up against, whereas Leitz’s release of the M3 came unexpectedly and without any real competition to compare themselves to.
As I type this, I am well aware of the immense popularity of both of these models, along with the huge number of people who strongly love one model over another, and I am certain at least a few people won’t make it to the end of this Showdown without repeatedly stabbing their Mike Eckman voodoo doll™!
I’ll also give the disclaimer that I consider myself a fan of both cameras. Holding and shooting either a Leica M3 or Nikon SP is an amazing experience. Both cameras are worthy of their inclusion at the top of many people’s lists because quite simply, they both deserve it. But this is the Internet, where people love making lists and insist there must be a best of everything, so here’s my best attempt to determine the best 35mm rangefinder comparing the two best options I could think of. That’s a lot of bests!
Looking at the specs, it is clear the two cameras were meant to compete with each other, which is exactly why this showdown is being done in the first place. But of course, two cameras that look very similar on paper may not always come out so close in use.
Of all the categories in this showdown, lens selection is probably the easiest one to score in favor of the Leica M3 as the mount is still used today and new lenses are still being made for it. The Nikon S-mount, which is almost identical to the original Zeiss-Ikon Contax mount, has not seen a new lens made in quite some time. Furthermore, M39 screw mount lenses can be used perfectly with a Leica M adapter without sacrificing any functionality on the M3, further adding to the selection available.
I’m being very careful here not to suggest that M-mount lenses are superior to Nikon lenses, as over 100 years of history proves that Nikon (then Nippon Kogaku) was an excellent lens maker. I might even agree that in specific periods in the past, Nikkor lenses were superior to anything you could mount to the M3, but again, that’s not what I’m judging here. In terms of pure selection, there are simply far more options for the M3 than the SP, so the M3 is the clear winner here.
Winner: Leica M3
If all a camera needed to have was a shutter, lens, and viewfinder, there likely wouldn’t have been such a huge variety of them released over the past 150 years, but beyond the basics, people looking to buy a camera spend their money on something that has the complete package of everything that they want. A long list of well thought out features are going to make the decision to purchase one model over another much easier.
When both the Leica M3 and Nikon SP were new models, the sales people working in camera shops would have had to know which features each had, and try to find the one that fits the needs of each customer better. If someone wasn’t yet convinced at the quality of a Japanese made camera, going for the M3 was the logical choice, if cost was a concern, the Nikon was the more economical choice, but for everyone else, the features of each camera likely helped them make their decision.
In terms of what’s necessary to take photos, both the Leica M3 and Nikon SP compare favorably. There isn’t one major feature that one has that the other doesn’t, but there are some differences. For the Leica, a large and bright viewfinder with an extremely accurate rangefinder patch, and the ability to close focus down to 21 inches with the optional “dual-range” Summicron would have been tremendous selling points. Compared to other cameras when it was first released, having a door on the back of the camera to inspect the film compartment while loading film was a big improvement over the earlier screw mount Leicas, as was the film advance lever and single shutter speed dial with every speed on it.
The Nikon SP had the benefit of coming nearly 3 years after the M3, but when it did, it matched the M3 in all of those areas, but improved upon them by having an entirely removable back, something that for many people made film loading easier but also allowed for optional bulk film backs, something the Leica didn’t. Later versions of the SP had a Titanium foil shutter which was impervious to pinholes in a cloth shutter from the lens being exposed to direct sunlight. The Nikon SP also had a dual viewfinder system with up to 6 focal lengths represented from 28mm all the way to 135mm without the need for an auxiliary viewfinder.
With the M3, if you wanted to shoot anything wider than 50mm, you either had to trade in your M3 for an M2, use an auxiliary viewfinder, or in the case of the Leitz Summaron 35mm lens, use a set of auxiliary goggles that go in front of the viewfinder window to alter it’s focal length.
The Nikon SP also supported an external motor drive which allowed for up to 3 exposures per second, something that professional photographers would have definitely found useful. The M3 was never offered with any sort of factory motor drives, although some third party modifications can be made to give it this capability. Finally, the SP had a gimmicky, but neat illuminated viewfinder attachment that when clipped to a small post in front of the accessory shoe on the top of the camera, would illuminate the viewfinder frame lines and rangefinder patch in complete darkness. It wasn’t necessary, but it gave the camera a “gee-wiz” feature that the Leica lacked.
When looking at pure features, excluding the Nikon SP’s illuminated viewfinder accessory, all of the additional features for that camera make it a better camera, and if a motor drive or bulk film back is something you needed, the SP is the definite winner here.
Winner: Nikon SP
Although I mention the viewfinder as a feature above, the viewfinder is such a critical part of what can make or break a camera, I think it’s deserving of it’s own section.
Before getting into the differences between the viewfinders on both cameras, I should point out both the Leica M3 and Nikon SP have two of the best viewfinders on any rangefinder camera ever made. Both are deserving of praise as there really is no loser in this category, but there are differences.
Nippon Kogaku’s marketing material is quick to point out the Nikon SP’s two viewfinders offer six different frame lines for lenses from 28mm to 135mm, but for anyone who hasn’t ever handled one before, you may not realize that the second viewfinder showing a full 35mm image with 28mm non-parallax corrected framelines, is separate from the rangefinder and quite a bit smaller. It’s essentially like having a shrunken down auxiliary wide angle viewfinder integrated into the body. It certainly works, but is a far cry from the gloriously large wide angle Leitz or Canon viewfinders.
The Leica is limited to only three frame lines, 50mm, 90mm, and 135mm, but in the case of the two telephoto lengths, the camera automatically detects which focal length to use and adds in the appropriate frame lines in the viewfinder. The Nikon SP lacks any ability to detect focal length and requires you to manually set the length using a dial on the top plate.
Frame lines aside, comparing the rangefinder patch of the two cameras, the Leica M3’s is quite a bit larger. An unscientific estimation looking at both cameras side by side, I’d say the Leica M3’s patch is not only twice as large, but is also one of the largest rangefinder patches on any 35mm rangefinder I’ve ever used.
As a person with poor vision where a good viewfinder is essential to using a camera effectively, I prefer the one in the Leica M3. To some, the lack of any wide angle frame lines might be a con, but I’d wager that the majority of people shooting wide angle lenses on a rangefinder camera are already used to using an auxiliary viewfinder, plus using a dedicated wide angle viewfinder is both much larger and more pleasant to use than the tiny secondary wide angle viewfinder in the SP.
For me, this one’s not even close. The Leica M3 has a better overall viewfinder than the SP, but if it sounds like I’m dogging on Nippon Kogaku’s premiere rangefinder, I must repeat that the SP is also very good too. It’s just that in a head to head comparison against what I consider to be the best ever made, the Leica M3’s viewfinder wins.
Winner: Leica M3
The design and layout of a camera’s controls is a largely subjective thing to rate as what is comfortable to one user might be different to another. The tactile feel of a knob or dial likely won’t have any impact on the usability of a camera, but still might evoke an opinion one way or another to one person that another doesn’t agree with.
With that in mind, I’ll start off with a generic statement that neither the Leica M3 or Nikon SP have any poorly located controls or strange ergonomics. Every single control on both cameras is exactly where you expect it to be, and for the first time user, likely would not require any sort of tutorial in how to use the camera.
In terms of size, both cameras are pretty close in every dimension. The Leica is about 2mm wider, a hair thicker, and maybe 1mm shorter. Remove the lenses, and the weight of the two bodies are within 2 grams of each other, making both cameras equally stressful on your neck while out shooting.
The difference here is going to come down to two very minor differences. The first is that for my hand size, the rounded edges of the M3’s body are slightly more comfortable to hold, and the location of the Leica’s shutter release button is more forward on the top plate which is not only in a more comfortable location for my finger, but also allows for a more secure grip of the camera.
In the two images above, I asked my wife to hold both cameras without any instruction from me. All I asked her to do was hold them in whatever way felt the most comfortable to her. Notice how with the Leica, her middle, ring, and pinky fingers are securely wrapped around the front of the camera and her index finger rests on the shutter release more to the side.
With the Nikon, the shutter release’s location is closer to the back of the camera, requiring her to hold her hand farther back with her index finger coming more from the rear of the camera. The more backward location of her hand, means that her other three fingers aren’t able to wrap around the front of the camera as much, resulting in a less secure grip. I could have asked her to keep her hand more forward to allow for a tighter grip on the camera, but this would have required she contort her index finger at a rearward angle, to reach the location of the shutter release.
Comparing how she instinctively holds the camera compared to how I do, the locations of my fingers are almost the same. I have longer fingers, so I can wrap them around the front of the Nikon a little better, but my longer fingers also require a more contorted angle to reach the shutter release. On the Leica, it just feels more natural.
With the rest of the camera’s use largely the same, it all comes down to body shape and the location of the shutter release, and for me, the M3 gets it more right.
Winner: Leica M3
In some of my previous Showdown articles, I’ve put cameras head to head that have pretty significant differences in reliability. For example, the Pentax K1000’s fully mechanical build has proven to stand up to the perils of time much better than the electronics in the Canon AE-1, but in this comparison, you’re talking about two of the best cameras ever to come out of Germany and Japan.
Both Leitz and Nippon Kogaku ascended to the top of the camera making world, not because some Kardashian hawked their camera in a TikTok video, but because they tirelessly committed to excellence in every facet of each camera’s design, construction, and testing.
Quite simply, the Leica M3 and Nikon SP are two of the best cameras ever made, but even the best of the best are not immune to father time as both cameras used for this review had a couple of issues. For the Leica, it’s shutter speeds are clearly out of adjustment as the curtains don’t separate at 1000 and 500. The slower speeds work OK, but I don’t trust the 1 second setting either. The Nikon’s shutter seems to have held up better, but the viewfinder has some pretty significant haze making it pretty difficult to see through.
Of course, no camera, even the best ones, were meant to last forever without any service, but I believe that with some TLC and a CLA, both the SP and M3 could be AOK! I don’t think there’s enough of a measurable difference here to declare one as more reliable than the other, so this one’s a tie. My only disclaimer is, that if you are prepared to spend the money to buy either of these cameras, you should also be prepared to get them serviced too.
I don’t know why I even bother to bring up the performance of either camera as you’re comparing a Nikon and a Leica rangefinder that are both highly regarded for their ability to make great images. Each of these cameras have been good enough for countless amateur, semi-pro, and professional photographers for greater than half a century, so they’re certainly good enough for you.
This ones a tie…duuuh!
Price / Value
In order to fairly compare two cameras on price, I think you need to take into account both the price at which the camera originally sold, and what you can get them for now. In my showdown for the Pentax K1000 and Canon AE-1, I noted that when each model originally went on sale, the K1000 was much cheaper than the AE-1 and that it wasn’t until decades later that the two cameras began to be recommended head to head as good student cameras.
This isn’t the case with the Leica M3 and Nikon SP as the two cameras have always been marketed head to head as direct competitors. Looking at the 1960 catalog from Olden Camera in New York City who sold both cameras new, the price of a Leica M3 with the 50mm f/1.4 Summilux, 50mm f/2 Summicron, and M3 body only were $468, $399 and $270 respectively.
In the same catalog, the Nikon SP with Nikkor 50mm f/1.4 and Nikkor 50mm f/2 (a body only price is not listed) were $375 and $329.50 representing roughly a 20% discount for the Nikon.
Looking at prices today is a bit more difficult because condition varies tremendously, plus if you just look for eBay sales of the Nikon SP, you’ll find a number of the 2005 Special Edition which go for dramatically more and aren’t reflective of an original SP, so I won’t count those.
For a modern day price comparison, I searched sold eBay listings for both the Leica M3 and Nikon SP body only and with a 50mm lens. I eliminated any that were listed as in Parts condition or were in obviously poor condition. I also eliminated any that came with extra lenses, rare lenses, original packaging, had black bodies, or anything that would boost the overall lot of either camera. My intent was to find a middle ground version of both cameras in a similar user condition to the two I had available to me in this review.
There were 153 Leica M3s that matched my criteria, of which body only Leica M3s in user condition seem to start around $1100 and go up to about $2100 in tested condition with a lens. Outliers in this range were up to $2550 for a really nice single stroke model with 50mm Summicron, and $350 for a really horrible looking body. I found both double stroke and single stroke models in this range and although there were a lot more double strokes to choose from, the single strokes seem to be on the higher end of the price scale.
Using the same criteria as above, there were only 34 sold Nikon SPs to choose from. The much smaller number is consistent with how many fewer SPs were sold than the Leica M3, so this difference is not surprising. User condition bodies start at around $700 and went up to $1600 with a lens. Outliers in this range was a Japanese “MINT++++” example for $1818 and a parts only body that really didn’t look that bad for $405.
There is an obvious risk with buying any used half century old camera, especially those not guaranteed to work, but despite their rarity, I feel confident in saying you will spend less money to get a nice Nikon SP than a Leica M3.
Taking into account that the Nikon SP has always sold at a discount ever since it was first released, and that now it’s still a more affordable option, it’s pretty clear that the Nikon SP is the value leader between the two.
Winner: Nikon SP
There’s always a certain expectation of ruffling someone’s feathers when you put two very popular cameras head to head, which is why I don’t do these Showdown articles that often. In the case of the Leica M3 and Nikon SP, I am well aware of how many fans both cameras have.
If I’m being perfectly honest, based solely on pure emotion, I have always been and probably always will be a Nikon guy. Both my first film SLR and DSLRs were Nikons. I consider the Nikon S2 to be one of my all time favorite cameras and the N90s is a camera I regularly mention as the best value film SLR ever made. I love the history of both Nikon cameras and Nikon the company. For the longest time, I never sought out to own a Leica M3 because so many people raved about them, I grew a little tired of all the hype.
The reality is, both of these cameras are well built, both have a large availability of some of the best lenses ever made, both are historically significant, and both are excellent examples of the “Golden Era” of both the German and Japanese photo industries.
That said, if I had to make a recommendation of one over the other, I’m going to have to go with the Leica M3. Sure, it’s a bottom loader, it doesn’t support a motor drive or bulk film backs, and it doesn’t have built in frame lines for any lenses wider than 50mm, but the things it lacks aren’t things that matter to me and the whole bottom loader panic gets blown out of proportion quite a bit. If there were both back loading and bottom loading M3s, sure, I’d choose the back loading one, but the fact that I can see the whole film compartment when loading the SP doesn’t automatically make it a better camera.
The Leica has a much better viewfinder for all the lenses I’d use it for, it is more comfortable for me to hold, it has a larger selection of lenses, and although the Nikon equals it in this regard, it has an incredible build quality that’s as good as anything ever made.
Both when the Nikon SP was new and today, it can be had for less money, but for most people, even at a lower price, a nice Nikon SP is still quite an investment, and whatever savings you might have going with one isn’t enough for me to pick it over the Leica.
What do you think about my recommendation? Do you agree or disagree? Let me know in the comments section below.
I’ve written full reviews of both the Leica M3 and Nikon SP which can be found below, but don’t take my word for it, check out one of these other excellent reviews for both cameras.