The Photographic Historical Society of Canada

Loban on Leica - 1913 to 1935 - innovations and impacts
Gerald Loban
Program date: April 16, 2008

Gerry Loban
Gerry Loban by
Robert Lansdale

Oakar Barnack
Oskar Barnack

24x36 mm negative
24x36 mm negative

Patent drawing
Patent drawing

Null Series Lecia
Ur-Leica reproduction

Leica vs. Pocket Kodak
Leica vs. Pocket Kodak

Leica film cassette
Leica film cassette

Commercial cassette
Commercial cassette

Ernst Leitz
Ernst Leitz

Ur-Leica reproduction
Null Series Leica

Leica model A
Leica model A

Leica Lindburgh Ad
Leica Lindburgh Ad

Leica circles the globe
Leica circles the globe

Space for the RF
Space for the RF

Leica III with RF
Leica III with RF

Egonomics
Egonomics

Winding the shutter
Winding the shutter

Egonomics
Stereoly Accessory

Gerry is a long time member of the PHSC as well as an occasional speaker on topics near and dear to his heart - the little camera that could being one of those topics. With the Leitz facilities in Wetzlar surviving both world wars, we are blessed with umpteen books and articles on the history and minute details of the Leica and the famous optical institute from which it sprung on to the photographic scene in 1925, triggering the “mincam” revolution of the late 1920s and 1930s. Gerry chose to address the history of the Leica from 1913 to 1935 focussing on how it came to be, influence on camera design, and influence on photography.

Creation. The camera was the invention of mechanic Oskar Barnack who brought the idea with him when he joined the Ernst Leitz Optical Institute, world famous for its high quality microscopes.

Barnack was said to be in fragile health, and found the large cameras of the day with their heavy tripods and glass plates a challenge to carry around on outings. Barnack’s idea in the early 1900s was to create a small negative which could be enlarged to make a big print - a strange concept in those days of contact printing 8 x10 or 11 x 14 glass pates. In an early experiment, he made a camera that could make twenty discrete exposures on a glass plate. The plates he used weren’t up to the task and the enlarged prints were unacceptable in quality.

Barnack was also interested in movie apparatus which may have been the source of his idea to use 35mm film. He chose to double the size of the movie frame, establishing the standard 24 x 36 mm negative size. He made a test camera - the Ur-Lecia as it became known later on. It had many of the Leica features - a film wind concentric to the shutter button, accessory shoe, collapsible lens, frame counter, and a cloth focal plane shutter of a single speed, fixed slit design. And a cap to cover the lens while the shutter was being rewound.

To use the Ur-Leica, a strip of 35mm film was cut in the darkroom and carefully wound on a feed spool. A take-up spool was then attached to the loose end and the film and spools carefully inserted in the camera via the removable bottom plate. Both Barnack and Ernst Leitz II used the Ur-Leica from 1914 on, (Leitz even took it with him to New York City). The camera was equipped with a lens designed by Max Berek, the optical designer for Leitz.

Gerry showed samples of the Leica patent drawings and compared the camera’s size to the model 3 pocket Kodak of the day (the model 3 negatives contact printed postcard size prints).

Refinements to the Leica continued after the great war. When the post war recession left the company with excess capacity, a short run of cameras, called the “Null Series” was produced and handed out to selected photographers for trial use. The Null series models still had the non capping fix slit shutter, so a cap was attached to the lens, a five element “Anastigmat”. Feedback from the photographers was unfavourable, but regardless, Ernst Leitz decided to manufacture Barnack’s camera. An original null series camera recently sold for around $480,000 US. Leica Camera sold a working replica of the Null series camera for some $2,500 a few years ago.

The little camera, newly christened the “Leica” was launched in 1925. The model A, was a hit . It had a fixed lens with the signature “hockey stick” infinity lock, an optical finder, a new self capping focal plane shutter designed by Barnack (the design was used for decades) and a 5 element Anastigmat, shortly after renamed the Elmax. A year later an improved 4 element lens called the Elmar became the standard lens for the Leica.

The model A has shutter speeds from 1/25 (initially 1/20) to 1/500. In response to demands for slower speeds, Leitz brought out the less costly model B with a leaf shutter mounted on the lens instead of a focal plane shutter. The dial set Compur shutter was later replaced with a rim set Compur shutter, but the model was unpopular in both configurations (increasing its value to collectors).

Another Barnack innovation was a clever brass cassette that allowed the photographer to preload a number of rolls of film in the darkroom. The cassettes where light tight enabling film changing in the field. The cassette consisted of two brass cylinders surrounding a spool. A clever knob and lock system allowed the light tight aperture to be opened wide by the action of locking the base plate on the camera. The means to load and use the cassettes was explained in detail in many books and brochures of the day.

To promote the Leica and its growing popularity, Leitz began using ads featuring famous people and events. In 1930, interchangeable lenses were offered for the new model C Leica. Initially, due to variations in the lens mount to film plane distance, the lens were keyed to a specific camera by serial number. Within the year, the distance was standardized and the Leica Standard was released enabling any of the interchangeable lenses to be used on any Leica Standard body. The first two lenses offered were the 35mm Elmar wide angle and the 135mm Elmar long focus lens.

Additional lenses and accessories came along quickly through the 1930s. Fast lenses like the 5cm Summar f/2 and 73mm Hektor f/1.9, and even a variable soft focus lens, the 9cm, f/2 Thambar. Stereo and close-up attachments joined with filters, viewers, rangefinders, tripods, etc creating a system camera.

The next big innovation was the decision to add a built in rangefinder without increasing the size of the camera. Previous models used a separate rangefinder in the accessory shoe. The photographer adjusted the rangefinder setting, then transferred the distance reading to the lens. Now the lens focus was set by the acting of merging the rangefinder images. A special version of the Leica named the Reporter accommodated a large roll of film capable of recording 250 shots.

Gerry considered the Leica camera quite complicated - built like a Swiss watch. [Lipinski, in his 1955 ‘Miniature and Precision Cameras” adds some interesting insights to the nature of precision camera mechanisms, for example noting that the Leica IIIf uses a carefully matched selection of individual components and shims to meet its high level of quality.] Besides the quality of its lenses there is the “Leica feel” - the ergonomics, and utility, the way the camera and its controls fit the hand comfortably. One can wind the shutter by simply dragging a finger along the winder knob - smooth action. [the same qualities apply to the Leitz microscopes of the era].

Influence on camera design. In the first decade of its existence, the Leica had a major influence on the industry, especially in bringing the 35mm film to prominence as the preferred film size for decades. Other well established camera manufacturers responded to bring competing models to market. In 1931 Kodak bought the August Nagel company to gain access to its precision camera works. Three years later, Kodak announced the new 35mm Retina camera made at its new German subsidiary. Zeiss Ikon scrambled to bring out its own 35mm camera - the Contax with everything more than the Leica offered - greater lens range, faster lenses, more elaborate mechanical construction, longer rangefinder base, faster shutter, novel controls, etc. all of which increased cost, failure rate and vulnerability, for Leitz had patented the “easy way”. [Gerry elected to omit the very heated debate of the time between loyal Zeiss Ikon fans and the Leica upstarts. Respected Zeiss lenses like the Tessar four element design patented by Zeiss designer Paul Rudolf in 1902 were suitable competitors to the Leitz Elmar. The Contax with its awkward controls and failure prone metal focal plane shutter was not.]

Kodak capitalized on the market for 35mm film by designing a novel and simple film cassette made of thin sheet metal with end caps and a felt lined light tight film slot. The cassette fitted not just Kodak cameras, but the Leica, Contax, and most other popular 35mm cameras of the time. The popularity of the mincam prompted research by film companies like Kodak and Agfa to create fast fine grain films designed for still camera use.

The excitement generated by the convenience, flexibility and relative ease of use of the new miniature cameras spurred others to make competing cameras in the same style and along the same lines. Russians made direct copies of the Leica II with no regard to patent rights. Others waited for patents to expire before embarking on knock-offs of the Leica and Contax - often with similar sounding names (Leca, Nicca, Leotax). Many inexpensive cameras were made to serve those unwilling or unable to pay for the more expensive models. Post WW2 saw a wave of Japanese versions including models from Canon and Nikon. Initially, Nikon copied the Contax lens mount and external look while using the simpler and more reliable Leica style shutter and rangefinder mechanisms.

A great many manufacturers adopted the Leica shutter design which uses two curtains that run at the same speed. Slit size and therefore exposure is controlled by the amount of delay before the second curtain is released to chase the first. After the exposure, the two curtains “cap” blocking any risk of light hitting the film during shutter rewind.

Paul Wolff
Paul Wolff c1935
Oskar Barnark
Oskar Barnark
Magnolia Blossom
Magnolia Blossom

Movie Premier NYC
Movie Premier NYC
Fine Work
Fine Work
Aircraft
Aircraft

Influence on photography. “Candid Camera” was a term used to describe the work of Eric Salomon who was using a small Ernemann camera at the time, later changing to the Leica. Dr. Paul Wolff was a pioneer in creating quality Leica photographs. Famous for his 12x16 prints, Wolff concocted his own fine grain developer formula. His many books show the kind of photographs that could be taken in all kinds of situations with the Leica. Henri Cartier-Bresson quickly adopted the Leica for his work, shooting mainly with the 50mm lens and printing full frame. Of the many famous photographers who became Leica enthusiasts, Gerry ended with some examples of photographs by the famous Life Magazine photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt, and by Ivan Dmitri from his 1936 book “How to Use Your Candid Camera”. Dmitri shows how the Leica can capture good quality photographs under tough lighting - night shots, theatre shots, action situations - photographs well beyond the capability of most photographers using the larger traditional cameras.

Summing up. After 10 years in the market, the Leica evolved to a camera offering shutter speeds from 1 sec to 1/1000, an f/2 normal lens, and many interchangeable lenses and accessories to tackle any number of specialized photographic tasks. Its specifications and capabilities set the standard for the duration of 35mm film era in photography.

No other product had such an influence on the camera industry and photography. The Leica established the 35mm film as a standard. It changed the very way photographers took pictures, and became the basic model for miniature cameras for over 75 years.

It is interesting to note the relative consistency in the cost of a Leica when viewed in terms of the number of weeks of salary it would take to buy one. The 1931 Leica sold for $220 - about six weeks salary. Twenty years later in 1951 the Leica went for $295 again roughly six weeks salary, and even today at $4,700 for an M7, it is about six weeks salary.

[Gerry saved for another day the story of Leica’s postwar recovery with the incredibly popular M series camera, manufactured even today; its move to Canada and how this saved the M series; its faltering and late response to the SLR and decades later to the digital world. Today Leica Camera is a small niche player divorced from its microscope and Leitz family roots.]

Some interesting links:
The Books not Abandoned
Leica Historical Society of America
Leica Camera
Oskar Barnack
Dr Paul Wolff
Dr Paul Wolff Bibliography (pdf)

Tamarkin Camera

1946 Military Report on Leitz - Part 1
- part 2


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