Many companies have made cameras that are very similar to Leica rangefinders. This is not a new phenomenon - such cameras have been made since at least the 1950s. Most of them have resembled Leicas only in functionality and general styling - logos have set them apart. I always wanted a Leica rangefinder, if only, at times, because I was told they were the best. Lacking that, a Leica copy seemed the next best thing.
It was late April of 2001, and I was in Moscow, with a group of students and a professor from school, studying economics and politics in Russia. We had gone to Ismalosky Park, a large flea market where one could buy most anything Russian - night vision scopes, cameras, bootleg cds, as well as more traditonal items, and just random stuff. I had seen the cameras, and I was determined to return and buy the perfect camera outfit, when there was time.
The next week, I was there again, money in hand, searching for the camera outfit of my dreams. I found a decent Kiev 60, with a Carl Zeiss 50mm f4, a Russian 90mm f2.8, and a Carl Zeiss Sonnar 180mm f2.8. I also ended up buying a Russian 85mm f1.5 lens that I thought would work on my Pentax Spotmatic (oops). And then I saw the dealer with the Leicas.
I had seen the occasional rangefinder, but nothing that really caught my eye - I was expecting something that said Leica, I think. And there it was. This dealer had a few other cameras, but most of his table was little, silver colored rangefinder cameras and lenses. And there, near the front, were a few with that magic word on top of the rangefinder "Leica".
It was a beautiful spring afternoon. The sky was a nice light blue, and the quality of the light was perfect. My backpack was getting a bit heavy, with all the camera gear I had purchased - I was just about ready to leave, and I found what I was looking for. I asked the dealer about the prices... I don't remember what he said of the others, but the one I had my eye on was about $60. I looked at it and checked it as well as I could without knowing anything about the camera.
I bargained with him a bit about the price and he accepted. He put the camera in a leather case and handed it to me. My quest was complete - I had found the cameras I was looking for, and I felt content. I left, almost skipping, but for the weight in my bag.
Back at the dormitory where we were staying, I evaluated my loot. The Leica copy looked nice, but I couldn't figure out how to load it... I had not seen anything like it - months later, I learned that the leader on the film for this camera had to be cut in a special way.
The camera is a decent copy of a Leica IIIf, I believe. The rangefinder and the baseplate appeared to have been painted silver, a look that has become more obvious as the paint has rubbed and now shows some black at the edges. On the rangefinder, in black, it says "Leica D.R.P. Ernst Leitz Wetzlar", and a serial number. The shutter has speeds from 1/500 - 1/25 of a second plus B. The shoe on the rangefinder is only an accessory shoe - every flash I have tried to mount there interferes with the operation of the shutter speed dial. There is no flash sync.
The camera loads in the peculiar way of all Leica rangefinders. Rather than having the back pop open, as on most cameras, the baseplate - the piece of metal on the bottom of the camera - comes off. This design gives the camera greater structural strength. One cuts the leader in a special manner, attaches it to the takeup spool, then places the whole mess in the camera. Then the baseplate is attached, and the film is advanced, as usual.
The lens, a collapsable 50mm f3.5 Leica screwmount, says "Leitz Elmar 1:35 f=50mm". The depth of field scale is mismatched with the lens, and the iris does not quite stop down all the way.
The leather case has obviously been resewn quite a bit. "Leica" is branded on the front, rather clumsily.
The camera is a decent performer. The lens isn't that great, but mechanically, the camera works well. It feels very solidly built, and functions smoothly. The action is good. I have put it through more abuse and difficult situations than any of my other cameras, with less trouble. It isn't a great camera, but for the money, it is a great camera to take anywhere. Wthout the leather case, it can fit in your pants pocket. I just wish the rangefinder were designed to show the area covered by a 35mm lens.