Leica - The Legend
(by Peter Hennig)
Leica - the Legend More than any other camera, the Leica is bound
up with the style of modern photography that aims to capture life
surrounding us. The Leica system represents the watershed between
old and new photography.
Dreams are powerful. It is ideas of what could be that drive
development and produce change. Nineteenth-century photographers
had good reason to dream of improvements; today it is hard to
imagine the conditions under which they worked, with heavy cameras
and complicated techniques that put a damper on any spontaneity
in their photographs.
The late nineteenth century saw great technological advances,
and naturally attempts were made to deal with some of photography's
problems, but they all failed because the necessary preconditions
were lacking - a technological change is rarely the result of
a leap in the dark, but instead is dependent on progress in many
A great deal was missing. Film was not sensitive enough; it did
not have the sharp or fine grain needed for the small negatives
that would make a small camera possible. Lenses could not produce
the detail that would be required to achieve the necessary enlargements.
Finally, it was difficult to achieve sustainable economies of
scale in the manufacture of increasingly complicated, high precision
Leica Standard from 1932, here equipped with special rangefinder.
A New Film
The turn of the century saw the arrival of the moving image
and the feature-film. This was the result of a wholly new emulsion
technology, that took the form of a long, running spool of film
with perforations along the edges. The new film had improved definition,
and introduced a whole new range of possibilities for holding
the films in a well-defined plane during exposure. While in the
years before World War I bold attempts were made in the U.S.A.
to produce a series of still cameras for 35 mm film, these cameras
were basically cine cameras that took still shots, and their somewhat
klunky look and unsatisfactory sharpness meant that success eluded
them. The demands for sharpness in a still negative or slide are
much higher than for projected cine film.
One Man and His Vision
As with so much else in the technical history of photography,
the story of the Leica camera begins in the German university
town of Jena, where a young man called Oskar Barnack was taken
on and trained by the Carl Zeiss company. Barnack was an enthusiastic
amateur photographer, and with his heavy large-format camera equipment
he trudged up hill and down dale, deep into the Thuringian forest
- a pastime it soon was apparent was irreconcilable with his troublesome
asthma. For Barnack the choice was either to start using smaller
equipment or stop taking photos altogether, and as early as 1905-1906
he had started to experiment with small negatives and big enlargements.
The results were as discouraging as they had been for so many
others: the film was too grainy and the lens not sharp enough.
The pictures did not even meet the lowest standards!
Through a good friend, Barnack got a position with the Ernst
Leitz company in Wetzlar from 1911. This company was of the highest
repute in optical science and production, and was probably the
only one able to compete seriously with Carl Zeiss in microscopy.
It was here in 1913 that Barnack built the first prototype of
what was to become the Leica camera.
What he produced was a small, flat, narrow camera with corners
that were rounded for easier handling, designed for taking photos
in the doubled cine format of 23 x 36 mm on perforated 35 mm film.
The lens was retractable so that the camera could fit in the breast
pocket of a jacket. It could be said that the whole thing resembled
little more than an encased spool of film, and it was obvious
that it exploited small negative film to the full in order to
make a small camera. This was the origin of the classic Leica
shape that remains the same to this day. The fundamental ideas
of the camera's principles were now clear, but the lack of a serviceable
lens was still a problem.
From Idea to Reality
It was not easy to convince a traditional microscope manufacturer
of the worth of a completely unknown concept, a miniature camera
that had yet to prove it could achieve what was expected of it,
but in 1923 Barnack managed to persuade the board to manufacture
a small trial series that would be circulated to leading figures
in photography. The prototypes were equipped with either a Leitz
Summar lens or a Zeiss Kino-Tessar lens, neither of which lived
up the necessary standards. The final decision on whether to produce
Barnack's camera was the result of the economical crisis. For
a long time Germany had been in a deep depression, and Leitz was
frantically searching for products that could compensate the fall
in microscope sales, so that it would not have to fire its specialised
personnel. A deeply divided board discussed Barnack's camera endlessly,
but in 1924 Ernst Leitz II took the final decision: Barnack's
camera would be built!
Now all the means at the company's disposal could be used to
research and develop a lens that was up to the task, a project
that fell to the manager of the optical department, Professor
Max Berek. Within a very short time he produced a five-element,
anastigmatic lens, soon to be bettered by a four-element model
that was to become the famous Elmar 3.5/50. The resolution was
0.03 mm, which provided over one million picture elements on a
surface 24 x 36 mm in area. This was sensational: no photographic
lens had even come close to this kind of resolution before, and
from the very beginning Leica's reputation for razor-sharp lenses
was made. By using an original placement for the aperture stop
that had been extremely difficult to calculate, he obtained a
lens speed that was exceptional for the day. Ever since, sharpness
and contrast have been the distinctive features of a Leica lens.
A Difficult Audience
To begin with the new photography was slow getting off the
ground. Many dismissed the camera, and sneeringly called it 'the
garter'. This was largely because they had not appreciated the
need for accuracy in exposure and developing required by the small
format. From the very start they had decided to take a conservative
approach, and thus took the first failure as a sign that they
were right after all. In time this changed, and the Leica camera
built up an enthusiastic following. Manuals were written and translated
into several languages; new photography had well and truly arrived.
The Triumph of the 35mm
In the early 1930s the Leica became a system camera with interchangeable
lenses. It was even equipped with a built-in range finder without
appreciably enlarging the adaptable camera body.
But Leitz now faced competition, amongst others from Zeiss with
its enormous research potential that was not easy to match. During
the 1930s Leitz also fell behind in the development of high speed
lenses. The Leica was a high quality camera, but at the same time
had a simple, straightforward construction. What was sometimes
lost in sophistication was made up for in solid reliability. When
the war came the Leica became the absolute favourite of the war
photographers - on both sides. That the Leica was the photographer's
camera of choice was already apparent, but there was another circumstance
that had great significance for the successful establishment of
the new photography: the introduction of modern colour film by
Agfa and Kodak in the mid-1930s. Colour film had been invented
under the constant pressure of the film industry, and therefore
it was only available as 35 mm film. If you wanted to take colour
photographs, you had to buy a 35 mm camera!
Leica IIIc, the favourite camera for war photographers
during the Second World War.
The Golden Years
The 1950s and 1960s saw the period of Leica's greatest expansion.
In 1954 the Leica M3 was introduced, and was an instant hit with
news photographers. The M3 was a stable, easy to handle camera,
and the light, brilliant viewfinder was equipped with shining
frames that reflected inwards, one for each lens. The range finder
integrated into the viewfinder had a broad base and an unrivalled
setting contrast. Compared to normal techniques used in 1950s'
cameras, the new Leica technique was astounding. The M2 and M4
soon followed, where the difference lay in the design of the viewfinder.
It was not long before the Leica had conquered photojournalism.
Wherever you saw a news photographer, the Leica M's dominance
This was also the period of the rapid development of Leica lenses,
and many famous lenses - Summicron, Summilux, and Noctilux - were
Leica M3 - a construction concept that attained a dominating
influence on modern reportage photography.
The Leica M Today
The Leica M also proved to be mechanical success, with its
extreme durability and reliability. Most M3s from the 1950s are
still doing sterling work today with a minimum of maintenance.
For this reason the basic construction has remained unchanged.
There is no real difference between a 1950s' M3 and today's M6.
The refinements are a more complex viewfinder and a built-in TTL
You may well ask why you should buy a particularly expensive camera
that lacks both auto exposure and auto focus, but a camera's advantages
always depend on what you plan to use it for, and the advantages
that the Leica M had in the 1950s still hold good today. It has
held onto its unique position despite forty years of technical
progress in the rest of the market.
You can trust a Leica M in tough situations. The time it has
been in production proves that. The brilliant viewfinder gives
photojournalists an unequalled view of the subject and its limitations.
The broad-based coincidence range finder outdoes every existing
system on the market in precision, even in very poor light. This
is why Leica has an f1.0 lens as part of its standard product
These are all striking advantages, but what attracts many experienced
photographers is the Leica lens' superb performance in all areas
critical to a picture. To take focus, which is just one of those
elements, it should be noted that if you look at the point/line
resolution according to the ISO-norm, the Leica is the sharpest
lens on the market. So, this is a camera with a very special profile
and an illustrious past that has given it a legendary reputation.
It is not easy to sum up a legend; you rarely do it justice. Maybe
the best attempt was made in a slogan competition a couple of
years ago: 'Cameras come, cameras go, everything changes - but
the Leica remains'.
You can see more articles and information by Peter Henning on
the Photodo.com website - a great resource for photographers around