Is Leica the Rolex of cameras?
There are certain brands that seem to develop a cult following in their respective fields. Whether it’s the result of the quality that they embody, their historical pedigree, the allure which surrounds them or simply hype, it’s sometimes difficult to understand exactly why. Names that come to mind are Ferrari with cars, Rolex with watches and, arguably, Leica within the world of cameras.
The history of the company dates back to 1849, when it first began producing microscopes. Under the leadership of one Ernst Leitz, the manufacturer carried out research and development that ultimately shaped how we take photographs today, introducing the lightweight 35mm film camera to the world. During its history, the company has always appeared to have preferred a slow, steady evolution, similar to Rolex, rather than rapid change. In fact, much of Leica’s offering today is not a million miles away from where it was seventy odd years ago. Just like you can hold a Rolex GMT 6542 from 1955 and see the lineage in today’s model, you can do the same with a Leica M3.
Not much has changed to the M3 since its launch nearly 70 years ago.
As with any brand that has developed something of a cult following, especially in the passion-led world of cameras, enthusiasts’ feelings about Leica can be quite mixed. Some swear by their cameras above all else, whilst others think that their status is exaggerated, heavily based on slick design and a healthy dose of hype. In any case, the brand power the company possesses is certainly interesting, in and as of itself. Given the obvious overlap between the world of watches and cameras, we thought we would dig a little deeper. Mechanics, design, utility and, to a large extent, emotion, all come into play.
This is not an endorsement of Leica, nor do we have any commercial relationship with the brand, of any kind. Rather, this is a simple exploration of a company that seems to possess a reputation and following, similar to Rolex in our world of watches. Even the mixed feelings and heated discussion which surround their cameras, add to the intrigue. Bearing this in mind, we thought we’d turn our lens on Leica, and see how it all came to be.
From microscopes to cameras
Leica didn’t begin its life producing cameras. Nor was it founded by Ernst Leitz, the man credited for leading them into photography. Before Leitz transformed the company, it began its life as Optisches Institut – or Optics Institute – founded by Carl Kellner in 1849 in the town of Wetzlar. Two years after its founding, Kellner would publish a treatise on optics titled “Das orthoskopische Ocular, eine neu erfundene achromatische Linsencombination”, which translates to “Ocular orthoscopy, a recently invented combination of achromatic lenses”. This outlined the progress that he had made in the production and development of microscopes, placing him, as well as the Optisches Institut, at the forefront of precision optics.
An instruction manual for an early Leitz microscope.
Meanwhile, just as Kellner’s company was beginning to grow, Leitz was leaving school. In 1858, at the age of fifteen, he chose to study mechanics, training as an instrument maker for physical and chemical apparatus. Ironically, he then spent several years working on watches for various Swiss manufacturers, discovering the pitfalls and challenges of series production and distribution. It was after this that he joined the Optisches Institut, quickly rising up the ranks to become a partner a year later, at the young age of only twenty-two. In 1869, when the company owner died, Leitz was thrown into prime position. He took direction of the company and changed its name for the first time to Ernst Leitz – Optische Werke – Wetzlar, already leaving his mark on the brand.
Over the next twenty years, Leitz would expand the company at a staggering rate, opening up an office in New York and increasing production to over 9,000 microscopes a year, with 950 employees working under him. It was in 1911 that he made one of the most important hires in his time running the company, with Oskar Barnack. It was Barnack who would invent the first Leica camera.
Oskar Barnack at his workbench in the Wetzlar factory, courtesy of Leica.
The engineer happened to be asthmatic, and the photography equipment which existed at the time didn’t allow for ease of use for someone with his condition. Specifically, Barnack wanted to reduce the size and weight of cameras in order to be able to take photographs during his travels. Therefore, in his spare time, whilst working for Leitz, he tinkered away at a neat and portable solution to his problem. In 1913, he managed to adapt a 35mm cinematic roll of film for still-camera use. However, his true innovation came when he began running the film horizontally, as opposed to vertically, which is how others used to do it at the time. This allowed for an extended frame size of 24x36mm, with a 2:3 aspect ratio, compared to the 18x24mm achieved by cameras that carried the film top to bottom.
The major hurdle that Barnack came up against was that the lenses that were available at the time, were either incompatible with his new form of camera or wouldn’t make the most of its extended frame size. To maximise his new setup, he would have to invent Leica’s first lens, in which he would make use of the Cooke triplet, an older photographic lens which made use of two biconvex lenses with a biconcave lens between them. This design would later evolve into the renowned Leica Elmar series of lenses. This process was helped along by Max Berek, a mathematician who’d arrived at the company just one year prior.
The patent gained by Leitz and Barnack for winding 35mm film horizontally.
Barnack produced his first prototype in 1913, improved upon his design the following year and then planned to take it with him on a trip to New York. This exciting metropolis would’ve been the ideal testing ground for Barnack’s new compact camera. Unfortunately, European politics put a halt to the continued development of the newly dubbed Ur-Leica, as the outbreak of World War One led to widespread disruption, especially in manufacturing companies. We don’t see another significant advancement until 1923, when Barnack was able to persuade Ernest Leitz II, now running the company, to put his camera into pre-production.
Only twenty-five of these models were ever made for testing, of which only three are known to be in original condition today. The most expensive camera ever sold at auction was one of these three, back in 2018, when it went for €2.4 million at WestLicht auction house in Vienna. The year after the Leica-0 was successfully tested, the Leica I entered full production, marking a clear shift for the company, away from their microscope past.
The Leica-0 that sold at auction in Vienna for €2.4 million.
The Leica I was presented at the Leipzig Spring Fair in 1925 to great success and seemed to captivate the imagination of photographers everywhere – although it did have one shortcoming that would take another five years to remedy. The area in which the original Leica I was lacking was that it only had one lens, which was fixed to the body of the camera. Barnack corrected this in 1930 with the release of the Leica I Schraubgewinde, which is known as the Leica Thread Mount, or LTM. Now with a 39mm threaded fitting, different lenses could be swapped in an instant, further reducing the amount of equipment a photographer had to carry around.
This was followed-up quickly by the introduction of the Leica II, the first Leica camera to have a rangefinder attached. This new addition to the Leica family, which was introduced in 1932, would become one of its defining characteristics, allowing photographers to have full control over what, and how, they captured their subjects. For those who are unaware, a rangefinder camera focuses using a dual image range finding device. You turn a ring, and when two superimposed images line up, you're in perfect focus. It would only take another year for the Leica III to be released, with an upgraded focal length of 28.8mm and slower shutter speeds. While this may feel like a quick sequence of releases and advancements, especially as we claimed earlier that Leica favour a slower pace of change, this was the brand laying the foundations on which they would continue to build for the next ninety years.
The Leitz factory in 1940.
One chapter of the Leica story that has nothing to do with cameras or the technology that goes into them, but still speaks to the heart of the company’s values, took place in 1938. The German based company, led by Ernest Leitz II, helped the persecuted Jewish population escape overseas while they could. This was facilitated by the fact that they had established themselves in multiple countries around the world at this point. Leitz not only helped to get them out of Germany, but also gave them jobs in the company’s commercial departments, as he aimed to help all, not just those he employed.
Developing Modern Leica
Just as World War One was disruptive to the business, so was World War Two. While the company didn’t disappear, there aren’t any marked advances to the product line until we reach the 1950s. What we do see established shortly after the war, in 1947 to be precise, is the very first photography agency. Called Magnum Photos, this cooperative enterprise was founded by five photographers, with the goal of getting their pictures into magazines and newspapers around the world. Equal parts commercial project and ideological group, this agency aimed to assert the right of the photographer to the integrity of his image, for example by insisting that no image should ever be cropped.
Henri Cartier-Bresson shooting with his Leica M3.
It counted amongst its members Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Capa, David Seymour and George Rodger, all of whom favoured Leica in their work. It was clear that these small, forward-thinking pieces of kit were starting to gain a real foothold in professional photography. We will see later on that as photojournalism, war photography and street photography started to rise, the Leica would be right there, taking many of the legendary photos that seemingly engrain themselves into our collective psyche.
A Leica M3 from 1954 and the Zegato limited edition M10 from 2018.
In 1954, we witness possibly one of the more significant launches in Leica’s history, the M3, where the M stands for messsucher, or rangefinder. This was the first camera in the M series, and it remains one of the cornerstones of the Leica brand today. This was shortly followed up by the Leica MP, in 1956, which was sold as the first camera for “professionals”. The next significant development in the product line came in 1976, with the Leica R3, an SLR based on a Minolta XE. It did away with the rangefinder that had defined their catalogue thus far. This Minolta base would stay in their cameras until 1996, with the introduction of the R8, which was a Leica from top to bottom. You find ébauches in cameras as well, not just watches.
However, until 1986, all of these Leica cameras were not made by the Leica company. They were still produced under the Leitz name. With Ernst Leitz II’s sons now running the company and the cameras gaining more momentum every year, it made sense to officially rename the brand to Leica GmbH in recognition of this. The impact these cameras had made was recognised again in 1994, with the release of the M6J, which marked the 40th anniversary of the Leica M system. A year later, we would also see Leica lenses become compatible with a few Panasonic cameras, proving the desirability of these optics.
A cross section of Leica’s offering over the years: a Leica-0 from 1923, a Lecia M4 from 1966 and a Leica Q2 from 2019, all courtesy of Leica.
Today, Leica boasts a full range of both mechanical and digital cameras, including an all-digital camera in the M series, with the M9 which first came out in 2009. One of the latest series to really capture the attention of photography enthusiasts was also the Q series from 2015, perhaps the most compelling all-rounder camera made by the brand. Now that we’ve looked at how they got there, let’s try and get a sense of Leica’s impact.
The Leica Legacy
The extended impact of Leica cameras can be hard to measure just from a brief review of their product range or their continuous R&D. What might give you a better sense of their reach, however, is the number of iconic photographs taken, and made possible, using Leica technology. In the same way that Rolex was there at the top of Everest or the depths of the ocean, simply because they provided the best tools at the time, so it seems to be the case with Leica.
The robustness of Lecia cameras has never changed, courtesy of ArtStation.
From harrowing napalm attacks in Vietnam to capturing the greatest boxer of all time, Mohammed Ali, there are images that seem to have transcended popular culture thanks to Leica. It was, after all, the portability and toughness of these cameras that allowed them to be taken into warzones and capture images such as The Falling Soldier by Robert Capa, taken in the Spanish Civil War in 1936. Their unobtrusive nature also meant that they could find intimate moments, such as the V-J Day kiss in Times Square, taken by Alfred Eisenstaedt.
Two of the more iconic images captured using a Leica system, Behind The Glare by Henri Cartier-Bresson in 1932 and V-J Day in Times Square by Alfred Eisenstaedt 1945.
We spoke with photographer and Editor-in-Chief of Type 7, Porsche’s digital magazine, Ted Gushue, who owns multiple Leica cameras and has been a long-standing supporter of the brand. Discussing the difference between using the manual functions on a Leica, compared to the automatic, electronic controls on Sony or Canon set ups, Gushue comments that “the others are very good, but they can feel like shooting with an iPhone. Just like I would prefer to look at my Rolex to tell the time, using a Leica gives a far better experience.” For many, that’s the difference.
While this may be true for Gushue,Leica cameras are not universally loved by photographers. Jonnie Craig, a photographer who first rose to prominence through VICE and the co-founder of 813 Studio, never found them to be the best fit for his photography. “The way they work is cumbersome,” he notes, “I often find myself trying to capture things in motion and using a Leica can take too long and you can miss that moment.” This is why, when he was gifted a Leica by the publisher of his first photography book, he actually returned it, “as it was impractical for what I used it for.”
The Leica system makes you stop and think on purpose.
The expense is also certainly a consideration with Leica cameras, and often one which warrants critique. Whether vintage or modern, they’re some of the costliest cameras out there. John Sypal, a Tokyo-based American photographer, who also runs the popular Instagram account @tokyocamerastyle, offered some thoughts on the subject. The idea of ‘value’ here” he commented, “is closer to whatever positive things you feel when you hold a camera in your hand or, even better, as you hold it up to your eye. It's the value you feel when looking at photographs made with it. These are all measured against an internal set of emotions and rules and need not be tied to logic.” Whether you agree or not, this is certainly a rationale that is familiar to many in the world of watches. A Rolex, or any mechanical watch for that matter, is redundant. Yet the emotion it generates can be worth the expense or inconvenience, to some at least.
It’s this kind of emotion which Craig believes leads to the majority of Leica purchases today. “I think a lot of the time consumers are wanting to express something about themselves. It’s people thinking they want to be a ‘Leica guy’ or I want to be a ‘Rolex guy’ and there’s nothing wrong with that. This irrational reasoning tends to be why people are willing to spend so much more on a product.” Craig himself has been prone to this thinking, seeing some of the value that lies in these cameras. As he puts it, “I always wanted a Leica but I never knew why. They are beautiful objects, undeniably iconic and I would happily have one on my shelf. But most of the people that I’ve seen using a Leica aren’t taking any good photos with them, as they’re so complex that the end result can be a hair away from aesthetically pleasing.”
The M10P Safari Edition is certainly capable of generating emotion.
Rather interestingly, all M series lenses that Leica has made will fit any and all M series cameras made. This means that you could buy a vintage lens from the ‘70s and fit it to your brand new M10. For those lenses that pre-date the M series, Leica have also made adaptors. We’re even aware of photographers using lenses from the ‘30s on their modern Leica bodies. It’s hard to imagine another company where their products would not only be functional 90 years on, but where you can use them in conjunction with their modern product line. For Stephen Pulvirent, a photographer and long-standing Leica shooter, who’s also the Manager of Editorial Operations at Hodinkee, this versatility forms part of the appeal of the brand’s cameras. “There are so many iconic photographs that have been taken with a Leica, and to think that one of those images, the light that made up that moment, could have passed through the lens that I’m using today. It’s such a special thing for me,” he says.
According to Sypal, it is in part thanks to this compatibility, and the fact that Leicas are “built like tanks”, that the prices of vintage pieces have gone up and up. “I think that they're more appreciated than a few years ago. I see a lot of them around, too. It would be a rare weekend afternoon in Tokyo if I didn't see a couple of Leicas out on the street.”
A Leica M10 under construction, courtesy of Leica.
Despite all of these positives, Leica cameras are not perfectly suited to every type of photography. “Anything where you have to focus quickly or use a big lens,” Gushue tells us, “Leicas will struggle. Things like sports photography, where you have to move quickly and capture motion. Their heavy weight also won’t help you here.” Sypal agrees that there are certainly areas of photography where a Leica might not be the best tool for the job. “There are photographic niches, like bird or macro photography, where a Leica M won't match a standard, desired, technical goal. But that doesn't mean you can't use them to photograph birds or the Moon. Indeed, such pictures would go beyond the worlds of ornithology or astronomy.”
A somewhat intangible aspect of Leica cameras that Pulvirent was keen to point out to us was the community. With any object that drives such obsession and fascination, there is a strong community that forms around them. You only have to scroll through Sypal’s Instagram account to see the number of people that can be found roaming the streets of Tokyo with a Leica around their neck. Just like spotting a vintage watch on someone’s wrist can trigger a conversation, and possibly even a friendship, so it seems to be the case with Leica.
The Leica Q Khaki from all angles.
In more recent times, there’s no avoiding the fact that Leica have also attracted a degree of critique from certain enthusiasts. Their prohibitive price point and the fact that they are increasingly becoming a status symbol, rather than the tool of true aficionados, come up whenever the conversation focuses on the brand. Craig thinks that for many, buying a Leica is a “very obvious choice and no-brainer" as it is a camera that seems to say more about them than anything else, as the brand has become so synonymous with high quality optics. The comparison with vintage and modern Rolex is apparent, yet again. Some mention robustness, quality and historical pedigree as the reason to own these things, whilst others think their desirability is prompted by hype and more superficial consumerism. In any case, what is certain is that Leica has reached a stage of popularity where it is no longer just a camera, or a tool, or an object. It’s a powerful brand, which is enjoyed by all sorts of people, for all sorts of reasons.
The story of Leica cameras is a vast one, dating back over a hundred years, covering everything from the technical difficulties of lens construction, to helping a persecuted people flee Nazism. Today, their place in the world of photography is strongly cemented. While they may not be for everyone, their presence and legacy in the photography world is undeniable.
Precision engineering is at the heart of what Leica has always done, courtesy of Leica.
Nowadays, they seem to steadily follow their path of innovation. They don’t sit still, but they never seem to move too quickly, jump on trends of react in haste. This glacial advancement is now in the custodianship of Peter Karbe, who heads up the department of optical engineering, a man who Pulvirent unreservedly describes as a “genius”. It is Leica’s lenses that many point to when discussing what makes them stand out, with their ability to masterfully balance sharpness, depth of field and build quality, like few others. It is these lenses that can get their core followers into a frenzy, as they did recently with the much-anticipated release of the Noctilux-M. This legendary lens from the late ‘60s and early ‘70s was produced in a small batch of less than 2,000, with the brand recently re-releasing it in their main catalogue. Clearly, it’s not just the watch world that looks to its archives for inspiration.
As with any brand that has achieved dominance in a certain field, Leica’s perception is mixed. Some have an unwavering support for their cameras and legacy, whilst others are quick to point out the apparent flaws. In this article, we aimed to not fall on either side of the fence, but rather give you an overview of the various factors that contributed to Leica’s standing today. Whether you’re into photography or not, we hope the combination of history, mechanics, craft and a healthy dose heated debate, have sparked your interest.
Our thanks to Jonnie Craig, Ted Gushue, Stephen Pulvirent and John Sypal for sharing their knowledge and experience of Leica cameras with us.