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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 fields.
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 equipment.

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 was obvious.

This was also the period of the rapid development of Leica lenses, and many famous lenses - Summicron, Summilux, and Noctilux - were first produced.

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 light-metering system.
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 line.

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 website - a great resource for photographers around the world!

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