Carl Merkin: The Thing With Three Eyes – A History of Three-lens Turrets

The Haber & Fink turret had a brief production run in 1949 and disappeared after 200 or so units were made, or should I say, converted by Haber & Fink  from original Leica screw mount bodies. These were a mix of new and used store stock and customers’ cameras sent in for conversion. Examples seen in my years of Leica collecting and study have generally been long base chrome bodies, usually post WWII Leica IIIc models.

These cameras were converted and sold at Haber & Fink’s New York camera store on Warren Street, in the old Radio Row neighborhood, west of City Hall. This area was razed in the late 1960s to make room for the construction of the World Trade Center. Radio Row contained a wonderful mix of camera, record and radio stores and a number of uniquely New York surplus stores, which sold old WWII photo and electronic gear, radio tubes, amplifiers and well … junk!

The two H & F cameras shown are unique, each in its own way: The black Leica III or Model F (photo 1 & 2) is camera #119700, produced in 1933. This black paint, nickel-knobbed camera was obviously sent to Haber & Fink by a customer for conversion, and it does not bear the Haber & Fink logo on the mounting block, as is the case with all others I’ve seen. It also has a crude flash conversion with a PC nipple standing straight up out of the top plate, just below the word Wetzlar. Recently acquired from a dealer over the internet, it is the first black paint Haber & Fink that I have encountered. Noted Leica  historian and author Jim Lager made the same observation on the day I spent with him photographing these two Leicas. This camera was 16 years old when converted, and now at 78 years old, it’s still a fine working instrument, running on all cylinders you might say.

The chrome body is #418519, which began life as a Leica IIIc (photo 3, 4, & 5). It comes from the first huge batch after the war, #400,000 to #440,000, produced in 1946 and 1947. I acquired it many years ago from the late Eddie Tillis and I’ve enjoyed using it on many occasions, but I’ve found that it is such a great conversation piece. It is so attractive to strangers in the street that I spend more time talking about it than using it.

At various times through the years, it has received:

1. A SELIS synchronization system with internal connection through the base plate and slider for delay adjustment, dating from around 1947.

2. A IIIf winding knob of 1950 or later vintage.

3. An after market PC socket on the rear surface of the top cover, just under the accessory shoe. (Date unknown)

4. And, last but not least, the three-lens turret.

The turret, milled from a hefty slab of aluminum alloy, was secured to a plate attached to the camera’s base plate and was operated by being pulled away from the body and rotated, in either direction, 120 degrees to the next lens position. Two of the lens openings have a groove milled out to accommodate the infinity lock on pre-war 35 and 50mm lenses. You can see this in the first photo of the chrome camera, with Nickel Elmar 35mm and a body cap over the two openings grooved in this manner. The third opening is presumed to be for your 73, 85, 90, 105 or 135mm lenses, which have no lock and wouldn’t need this extra groove.

To open the camera for loading, the plate must be pulled forward, turned to an intermediate position, about 60 degrees and left ‘stuck’ there, with lenses disengaged, in order to remove the bottom plate, lens stage and three lenses. You now have a camera in one hand, and a large mechanical device, three lenses and the base plate in the other hand. This kind of precludes loading “on the run” or even stand-ing up.

Pulling the plate forward is a real test of grip strength, as the spring around the main shaft is still very strong considering how many times it has probably been flexed over the years. This is true of every H & F turret I’ve handled. A pull outward of 13/32 inches is required to clear the slow speed dial when changing lens stage position. The slow speed dial also limits lens choices to those that don’t protrude more than 13/32 inches behind the lens flange. This disqualifies many wide-angle lenses, including my favorite, the Voigtländer 15mm Super-Wide Heliar and many vintage screw mount wide angles shorter than 35mm. These lenses can be used with these cameras by screwing and unscrewing them as you would do with any screw mount camera, but this defeats the whole purpose of the turret, namely instant lens changes. Sometimes this camera with three lenses can feel like a whole camera bag around your neck, but that brings us to the subject of lens choices.

My original plan was to use the Summicron trio, a pretty awesome and pricey choice in the screw mount world. The problem was the Summicron 90mm f/2 “soozi.” I hate to say it but she’s too fat to clear the center post around which the lens stage rotates. The real problem is the tripod socket, and not the actual girth of the barrel. In a way this is a good thing, because dear old “soozi” weighs a ton and is enough of a burden all alone, without being added to two lenses and a camera body already around your neck. The solution came in the form of the lovely, slender, feather-weight three-element Elmar 90mm f/4 lens pictured. Nearly on par with the “soozi” lens in terms of rarity (R7 vs. R8) and numbers produced (543 vs. 490), the Elmar is every bit “soozi’s” equal in terms of performance. Although the Elmar is two full f-stops slower, it makes it up at the other end, stopping down to f/32, compared to “soozi’s” f/16, and it has half-stop clicks, compared to full stops for the “soozi-cron”. I think I just coined a new term!

The lenses seen in the first two photos are:

  • 35/2 Summicron #1672234 from 1959 – R8
  • 5CM/2 Summicron #1599025 from 1956 – (two years before announced production figures for the rigid SM Summicron) – R8
  • 90/4 Elmar #1936235 from 1962 – R7

These lenses are decades newer than the body, yet another proof of the observation in a 1938 Leitz New York ad that “No Leica has ever grown obsolete.” The choice of viewfinders is also an issue with the turret. The black camera now “wears” a black nosed VIOOH, which is a nice match cosmetically, and it means your subjects now have seven windows staring at them. Probably a little unnerving, but I wouldn’t know, since I always stay behind the camera.

Leica  later produced the Orolf turret (photo #6) in 1960, which was built on a Leica M2 or M3 body, but was converted to take three screw mount lenses. Was it meant for veteran photographers who wanted the simpler film loading and improved rangefinder/viewfinder combination of the new M cameras, but still wanted to use their existing screw mount lenses? I believe that if Leica had made a similar turret for M-mount lenses, they might have had a winner, but the Orolf had a production run of less than 200 lasting less than a year and it was never really marketed. Note the long handle, which made it rather awkward to carry and use, and only helped when rotating the turret.  It is one of the rarest Leica  collector items today. It is a supremely elegant and over-engineered mechanical marvel.

In 1998, Leica came up with a new answer to the need for three focal lengths in one package with the landmark Tri-Elmar-M 28-35-50mm ASPH f/4 lens, a true masterpiece of optical and mechanical design and a personal favorite of mine. (photo #7) Combining the three most popular M focal lengths, it’s a high performance, high contrast lens with two aspherical elements. Used on the M8.2, as seen in the photo, the focal lengths become approx. 35-50-65, a very useful wide-normal-tele outfit.

Special thanks to Jim Lager, President Emeritus, Leica Historical Society of America for photos 1, 3, and 4.

-Carl Merkin

You can see more of Carl’s work on his page on Facebook, http://www.facebook.com/carl.merkin.photographs.