A momentous decision made by one man in 1924 changed the course of history for both Leica and photography.
“I have decided... we shall risk it.”
THE DATE WAS JUNE 1924, and these words were spoken by Ernst Leitz II, who was making the momentous decision to commit his successful German optics company to the production of something completely new and completely unproven… a compact, but very high-quality 35mm format film camera.
The camera was the creation of Oskar Barnack, a brilliant optical engineer and inventor who had joined Leitz’s company back in 1911 and had been working on the project since 1913. A keen hiker and amateur photographer, Barnack suffered from chronic asthma which reduced his capacity to carry big and heavy cameras on his treks. This spurred him to start designing a more compact camera that would still deliver high quality images, something that had been largely mutually exclusive up until now.
Barnack’s idea was to use a film created from two 18x24 mm cine frames to give an image area of 24x36mm and so reduce the amount of enlargement required to make high quality prints. Unlike in a movie camera though, the film ran through Barnack’s design horizontally, and the plan was to use the offcuts of 35mm cine film. A bigger challenge was to design a compact lens with a large enough imaging circle and sufficient resolution. Fortuitously, there was another very talented optical engineer working at Leitz called Max Berek, and his contribution to the Leica camera project is often overlooked, but without his work on a suitable lens – subsequently described as “a stroke of genius” – the outcome might have been very different.
Barnack’s two prototypes – built in early 1914 and internally affectionately called the Liliputs – used a lens originally designed for microscope photography and there was even experimentation with a Zeiss Tessar cine lens. Prior to moving to Leitz, Barnack had worked at Zeiss where he had seen a prototype 35mm camera called the Minigraph which was made in Austria and used a Zeiss lens. The Minigraph recorded 18x24mm still frames on 35mm cine film (and was subsequently only produced in very small numbers), but it no doubt validated Barnack’s thoughts about how to obtain sufficient print quality from small negatives.
The Final Decision
After his father died in 1920, Ernst Leitz II took over the running of the family company and began to take more of an interest in Barnack’s camera, primarily because diversification was the key to survival in the challenging economic climate of the time. Not all his senior managers agreed though, partly because it would cost a lot to tool up for production and partly because the unproven ‘miniature format’ was considered too much of a risk, particularly to the company’s fine reputation. Nevertheless, in 1923, a preproduction run of 25 examples was commissioned (now known as the ‘Null serie’ or O series), primarily to convince the doubters, but the evaluations from selected professional photographers yielded mixed reviews. Eventually a special meeting had to be called to resolve the matter and, after four hours of debate, the two sides were still deadlocked so Ernst Leitz II
was forced to make the final decision. As he decided to turn Leitz into a camera maker, he could not possibly have envisaged the far-reaching effects of what was then a very courageous move.
The first few hundred serial production cameras were fitted with a Max Berek-designed, five-element 50mm f3.5 lens called the “Elmax”. It was the first lens capable of delivering the necessary quality – particularly corner-to-corner sharpness – for making big enlargements from a 24x36 mm negative and, of course, established the convention of the 50mm focal length being the ‘standard’ for 35mm photography. Later models switched to a four-element 50mm f3.5 Elmar lens and, for the record, a very early evaluation series were fitted with a four-element 50mm f3.5 Anastigmat lens.
On the first serial production cameras the lens was fixed and the earliest examples were called the Leca (derived from the first two letters each of Leitz and camera), but this was quickly changed to Leica to avoid confusion with a French-made camera called the L’Éca.
Initially sales were slow, but Leitz had shrewdly kept the first production run small (less than 1000 units) so when demand began to grow, it quickly outstripped supply, which is always a clever marketing ploy. From here on production was doubling every year and, by 1936, a total of 200,000 Leicas had been sold, proving that Oskar Barnack’s belief in optical and mechanical precision had been right. Unfortunately, his on-going health problems eventually got the better of him and he died, of pneumonia, at the start of the same year, aged only 56.
The original camera is now known as the Leica I (A), and it was continually refined during its long lifespan, with the biggest change being the switch to interchangeable lenses in 1930 with the model now called the I (C) which had a 39-millimetresdiameter screwthread mount. Initially, lenses and bodies had to be individually matched, but from 1931 onwards, the film-toflange distance was standardised at 28.8 millimetres.
Despite the arrival of later models, including the all-new M series, the last variants of the Model I remained in production until 1960, an indication of just how advanced it was for the early 1930s.
The Leica II appeared in 1932 and offered the convenience of a built-in and coupled rangefinder which had taken Barnack five years to develop so it provided the required degree of precision but was also compact enough not to compromise the camera’s small size. He called it “automatic focusing”. The Leica III was launched in 1933 and offered a range of slower shutter speeds down to one second. The IIIa variant from 1934 also extended the faster speed range up to 1/1000 second and has the distinction of being the last Leica camera design for which Barnack was fully responsible before his untimely death two years later.
Also in 1934, an interesting version of the III, called the 250FF, was launched. It accepted a bulk film cassette which contained ten metres of film – enough for 250 exposures – and was designed for press photographers to minimise the need for film changes when shooting a big story. However, the extra size worked against it and the 250FF wasn’t a great success.
Development of the III continued though the b, c, f and g variants; the last again surviving beyond Leica’s development of the M3 which represented a whole new re-imagining of the 35mm rangefinder camera. Launched in 1954, development of the M3 began just after WW2 and it was the brainchild of Ernst Leitz II’s son, Ludwig who, along with chief engineer Wilhelm ‘Willi’ Stein,
designed (and patented) one of its key features – an integrated viewfinder and coupled rangefinder which also incorporated the projection of image area frames for different lens focal lengths with automatic parallax correction. On the M3, these were for the 50mm, 90mm and 135mm lenses; and this camera’s model number was derived from the word messsucher (yes, there are three esses) which is German for “rangefinder” and “3” as in the three lens frames. Additionally, the M3 introduced numerous other conveniences including a bayonet lens mount, a single dial for both fast and slow shutter speeds, and faster film advance via a ‘rapid wind’ lever, initially double-stroke, but single-stroke from 1958. The configuration introduced with the M3 has gone on to define the 35mm rangefinder camera, and the key elements – most notably the combined viewfinder/ rangefinder – have been retained by Leica even in its subsequent digital models. Consequently, with its emphasis on precision engineering and high-performance optics, the M line has also come to define Leica even if it’s now only one of many camera systems (and other products) in the company’s portfolio. The 35mm line continues with the MP and M-A, and there are various digital Ms – the latest being the M10 – with this platform also a favourite for limited editions. Back From The Brink Leica without an M camera is unthinkable now, but it nearly happened in the mid-1970s when the company was under the control of Wild-Heerbrugg and it looked like the 35mm SLR represented the way ahead. The M5 had been a commercial failure and the new owners weren’t prepared to fund two 35mm camera systems, but they had different ideas at Leitz Canada which had been making M lenses since the 1950s.
Leitz Canada’s newly-appointed CEO, Walter Kluck, made an impassioned plea to have the camera tooling shipped across the Atlantic. It was eventually agreed that if he could guarantee orders of at least 4000 units per year, he could set up to build the M4. A consummate salesman, Kluck secured orders for 9000 units from around the world and, subsequently, the Canadian factory produced the M4.2 and the M4-P models until the early 1980s by which time, back in Germany, the historical value and future potential of the M series was once again being appreciated. Since then, Leica has had to tread a very fine line between tradition and technology with the M series, not the least with the transition into digital capture. A key strategy has been to create new camera lines which also embody the Leica ethos, but are less restricted by the M rangefinder heritage. This has allowed development of the digital Ms to be more selective and more in keeping with Oskar Barnack’s intention of “blithely ignoring the conventional”.
Only this way is an M line model like the current M-D possible – a digital camera without an LCD monitor screen (and hence no menus at all) so the only adjustments are for focus, aperture, shutter speed and ISO; and you have to wait until the image is ‘processed’ to see the result… just like when shooting film. Nowhere does the past and present in photography interface quite so purely or cleanly. Just as well there are the mirrorless SL, TL2 or CL systems for those who like their Leica cameras a little more progressive.
Yet Leica can never leave its past behind entirely, because it’s so closely interwoven with the history of photography, perhaps more so than any other camera maker. The original camera’s compact dimensions, combined with its comparative ease of use and exceptional quality, brought a new technical freedom to photography which revolutionised practices such as reportage and documentary work. It also delivered new creative possibilities derived from its unobtrusiveness, convenience and versatility, which allowed greater spontaneity and responsiveness on the part of the photographer. The later models simply built on this and then the M3 took it all a whole lot further
by being even quicker and more efficient in its operations. Few other cameras have had quite such an impact on how photographs are seen and recorded, and there’s no doubt Leica greatly contributed to the success and popularity of the 35mm film format.
A string of legendary names in photography adopted Leica cameras, among them Alfred Eisenstaedt, Robert Capa, André Kertész, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank, William Klein, Werner Bischof, W. Eugene Smith and Ernst Haas. As a result of their efforts, the Leica rangefinder camera is inextricably linked with much of the visual documentation of world events since the early 1930s through to the end of the 20th century. It’s a rich history, but one which on a number of occasions threatened to become a millstone around the company’s neck. Yet Leica has survived to celebrate its 100th anniversary in 2014, and looks to be thriving under the current management which sees that history as making an invaluable contribution to the “brand account”. With the stated intention of only adding to this account, it would seem Leica is already sufficiently enough ‘in credit’ to now be fully in charge of its future.
Barnack’s famous test shot of the Eisenmarkt in the historic German town of Wetzlar, taken with his prototype camera in early 1914.
After he moved to the Leitz company from Zeiss, Oskar Barnack began work on a compact camera that would still be capable of delivering high-quality negatives. This is one of the two original prototypes he hand-built over late 1913 and early 1914 (the other has been lost), and is now known as the Ur-Leica.
The same scene photographed in June 2018 with a Leica Q. Apart from the cars, not much has changed in the intervening 104 years. The plaque in the foreground marks the exact spot on which Barnack stood to take his historic picture.
A keen amateur photographer and cinematographer since his youth, Oskar Barnack (1879-1936) also suffered from chronic asthma which limited his capacity to carry big and heavy cameras when trekking. This was one impetus for the development of the first Leica camera.
Another famous test shot taken by Barnack on his ‘Liliput’ camera (the nickname for his prototypes), depicting a flooded street in the altstadt (Old Town) district of Wetzlar after the River Lahn broke its banks in January 1920. The series of images he took is now considered to be the first photo-documentary work shot with a 35mm camera.
A special version of the Leica III was the 250FF from 1934 which accepted a bulk film cassette containing ten metres of film, enabling 250 exposures before it needed to be changed.
After a short trial series with a 50mm f3.5 Anastigmat lens (perhaps as few as 100 examples), the Leica was launched with a fixed, five-element 50mm f3.5 “Elmax” lens (named after its designer, and derived from E Leitz and Max). This model is now known as the Leica I (A).
Often overlooked in the story of Leica’s first 35mm camera, without the genius of lens designer Max Berek (18861949) the optical performance would not have been as excellent as it was right from the start. In those days the myriad of calculations were done manually.
Introduced in 1932, the Leica II was fitted with a coupled rangefinder designed by Oskar Barnack and which he called “automatic focusing”. The lens was now a four-element 50mm f3.5 Elmar also designed by Max Berek. The viewfinder was separate from the rangefinder.
It’s rarely appreciated just how long the Leica I stayed in production. The last-of-the-line I (G) was built between 1957 and 1960 so was still around long after the M3 was introduced. It was primarily designed for scientific work (hence the absence of both a viewfinder and a rangefinder).
In 1930, the Leica I (C) introduced interchangeable lenses with the 39 mm screwthread mount. Initially lenses had to be matched to individual bodies, but from 1931 on, Leica introduced a standardised film-to-flange distance.
Perhaps even more significant than the Leica I was the M3, launched in 1954 and which represented the 35mm rangefinder camera re-imagined with numerous conveniences including a combined viewfinder and rangefinder, rapid-wind film advance and, of course, the famous M bayonet lens mount.
Leica initially struggled with the transition to digital imaging, before opting for a digital version of the legendary M. While the M8 (2006) was controversial at the time – mainly because of the ‘APS-C’ size sensor – it’s nonetheless a very significant camera in Leica’s history.Everything got back on track with the M9 (2009) which was the first digital M with a full-35mm sensor – made by Kodak – and is destined to be a another classic in the future.