A few years ago, my wife’s grandfather Joe gave us a collection of his vintage cameras, and when I say a collection, I mean 200+. After sorting through them, I stumbled across some Leica lenses which rang a bell immediately – Leica is the epitome of optical precision and craftsmanship. While most old cameras have little value, a vintage Leica may still sell for a few thousand bucks. I started reading about Leica and their history and I really became fascinated by that brand. Not only can you use lenses that were built in the fifties on your brand new Leica Digital camera, but they also help to create stunningly beautiful picture with a very specific vignetted look. Just think for a second which other parts in your everyday life that are over 50 years old still work with your latest gadgets – probably none. As a fan and user of Leica lenses, I didn’t have to think twice when I received an invitation from Leica to attend their 100 year anniversary celebration in Wetzlar, Germany. Today, I would like to share with you my impressions of that event and introduce you to some of their history as well as their magnificent products. In short, if you have never heard of them, Leica is to Photography what Patek Philippe is to the watch industry – exclusive, mechanical perfection and priced above all others.
What is Leica?
Leica is an acronym for Leitz Camera. Founded in 1849 as a company for optical instruments, the company has undergone a few changes, but today the core of the business is Leica Camera. In 1913, Leitz employee Oskar Barnack had a medical condition that did not allow him to lift much weight, and so he started working on prototypes for a compact camera that he could take hiking. This camera was based on the same 35 film that was generally used for movies, it was just transported horizontally, rather than vertically, but more importantly Barnack and Leica invented this 35mm film format. WWI delayed production of a number of samples until 1923 and a year later Leitz decided to start production. It was an immediate success, because all of a sudden photographers were able to take snap shots with handy cameras that were unimaginable beforehand. As such Leica created the entire genre of photojournalism and street photography as we know it today, and leading avantgardists at the time such as Henri Cartier-Bresson, Ilse Bing or Robert Capa all had to have a Leica.
By 1954, Leica had built a worldwide reputation for quality cameras, but customers were demanding more and Leica delivered. They introduced the now famous M System with the M3 camera which sold over 100,000 within the first three years. On top of that, this camera was full of innovations and built like a tank, yet infinitely more handy than other cameras available. Because of its success, it had many followers who copied it, including Canon. To me the most astonishing aspect about the M system is that the old lenses from the 1950s can still be used on any M camera made from 1954 – 2014.
Leica was always on the forefront of innovation and they were the first to use lens coatings, computer aided lens design, etc. but in my opinion the most important invention was autofocus (rather than manual focus) which is used in almost all cameras today. By 1978 they had fully-functional autofocus prototypes, but at the time the management wasn’t focused on the camera section of the business very much, and so they basically sold off the technology to Minolta. In the following years, things changed and the camera business grew stronger, hence the company was renamed Leica in 1986. The company moved away from Wetzlar to the nearby Solms just 2 years later. At the same time, Leica now stood for two things: superb optical and mechanical workmanship but also for products that were terribly outdated.
Ten years later, Leica became a publicly traded company, but it did not provide the positive effects that were anticipated. Instead, sales decreased and Leica almost had to file for bankruptcy in the early 2000s. For a while, Hermès had bought a stake in Leica, but in 2006 the remaining 36.2% was sold for 15 million Euros to ACM, and Leica became a privately held company again. At the time, Leica had a revenue of 107 million Euros but it was losing between 10-20 million Euros a year and had recently laid off about 400 of employees.
ACM is owned by the Austrian Dr. Andreas Kaufmann, and his acquisition paired with a great vision was without a doubt a key turning point in Leica history. To back up that claim, just look at the numbers: by 2010-2011, Leica’s revenue had climbed to almost 250 million Euros with a profit of over 36 million Euro. This development paired with the goal to hit 500 million Euros by 2016 attracted Blackstone, which bought a 44% stake of Leica in 2011. The reasons for this turnaround are manifold. On the one hand, Leica introduced the S-System for professional studio photographers in 2006 and new Leica boutiques popped up all across the world. On the other hand, internal structures were changed, the marketing once again highlighted the core of Leica.
In line with the new brand concept, it was just a logical step for the brand to go back to where the very first Leica camera – the so called Ur Leica – was born. The Leitzpark in Wetzlar, Germany is a brand new production facility that also serves as the company headquarters. Interestingly, it was built by Dr. Kaufmann’s company ACM and not by Leica itself. Instead, it is just leased to Leica. The opening to the public was planned to line up with the anniversary event on May 22 and so I was one of the very first to explore the Leitzpark on opening day.
The 100th Anniversary Event
The Main Building
It all started with a tour of the new main building, which was is very modern, with lots of refined details, such as the terrazzo floor, geothermal heating / cooling and fascinating staircases. It was designed by the famous German architect firm gruber + kleine-kraneburg who also built the Bundespräsidialamt in Berlin, which is also defined by round shapes, glass and simplicity. Built with visitors in mind, the Leitzpark complex includes an entrance hall with adjacent space for exhibitions, a little museum, cafeteria, a Leica flagship store, offices, conference room and last but not least production facilities. From the outside, is reminiscent of large 35mm film rolls, which is probably not a coincidence. In line with Leica’s self-understanding as a technological leader, the building is green in the sense that it not only features solar panels on top but also an intricate system of geothermal water pipes in walls, ceilings and floors that cool the building in the summer to 22ºC – 72ºF and likewise keep it warm during the winter.
Inside, the color scheme is dominated by black and white with a hint of stainless steel, creating a clean, modernist atmosphere that allows a seamless transition to the similarly sterile production facility. The main area can be used for multiple purposes and houses a collection of famous photographs shot with Leicas, as well as milestones in their product history. For the anniversary, 10 photographs of 10 famous photographers were presented in the main area’s “10×10 Exhibition”, which was curated by a team lead by Mr. Kaufmann’s wife Karin Rehn-Kaufmann.
If you think of some of the most iconic photographs such as the V-J Day kiss in Times Square, the Napalm Girl in Vietnam, the portrait of Che Guevara – they are all were shot using Leica cameras. With such a rich photographic history, Leica displayed 36 out of 100 pictures in a rotating, permanent exhibition “36 AUS 100” of these world famous photographs – each of which was stunning in their own right. Above all, Leica invited some of those photographers, and so I had a chance to speak to famous personalities such as Nick Ut, the creator of the Napalm girl shot. I discussed with him the dilemma of such famous shots, because often photographers are reduced to just one famous picture, even though their other work may be likewise superb or even better.
Across the 36 photos, you can find bronze busts of key personalities in Leica’s history such as Oscar Barnack, Ernst Leitz and Max Berek as well as show cases with iconic Leica cameras and lenses. Adjacent to it, you are lead through a informative hallway which shows the production facilities on one side and historic and new Leica camera gear on the other.
Of course, Leitzpark also includes a flagship Leica store with special editions, as well as a photo studio and printing machines. Going forward, Leica will also offer printing solutions in collaboration with White Wall and photography classes, which makes perfect sense considering Leica was the first one to teach modern photography classes in the 1950s and 1960s.
Fortunately, we also had a chance to see the production facilities but no pictures were allowed inside. Overall, the machines that grind and polish the lenses were probably the most impressive aspects. First of all, they are made of different types of special glass and then brought into a spherical or aspherical shapes. Similar to CNC machines, the machines grind the glass to absolute perfection, because it is always compared to the perfect matrix, allowing the machine to remove material in just the right places. Sometimes, the process for one lens element can take 60 minutes, and lenses are made of several elements. Once they are shaped properly, the lenses are coated with special materials to minimize reflections and the edges are hand painted for the same purpose. The success of Leica was founded on the compactness of its cameras, but it achieved a legendary status because of its superb lenses.
Leica was always on the forefront of innovation in this area. For example, well into the 1950s, lens calculations were done by hand, but by the late fifties, Leitz was pioneering computer-aided lens calculations. By 1965, it became clear that the optical quality of lenses could be strongly improved with aspherical lens elements, but since the manufacturing of these items were so expensive, it would be impossible to use in a serial production. Helmut Marx, the head of the Leica lens calculation department took on the challenge, developed a grinding machine and so the first lens with an aspherical element was offered in 1966. Although it was an economically too expensive to produce, the 50mm f/1.2 Noctilux lens remained in production for 9 years! Obviously, the desire the create a perfect product surmounted the desire to make money. Today, most quality lenses have at least one aspherical element and sometimes even more. In order to get a much better understanding of how a lens is made made and what goes into it, please watch this highly interesting video.
Of course, events of this caliber always have a number of speeches by local politicians and important figures but since they had the appeal of microwave manual, I explored the Leica Auction a little more. More so than other photography brands, Leica has a die hard following, including collectors who are willing to pay astronomical prices. As such, it doesn’t come as a surprise that the most expensive camera ever sold at an auction was a Leica camera from the 0 series from the first pre-production run for $2.77 million (€2,160,000). Likewise, the most expensive digital camera ever sold was a one-off design of the Leica M camera for Product Red charity, by Apple designer Jonathan Ive, which was sold for for over $1.8 million.
At the auction at Leitz Park, 100 historic items were sold, and surprisingly, a Leica 250 GG with Leica-Motor from 1941 and starting price of €120,000 emerged as the top lot fetching €576,000 (approx. $785,000). This camera was equipped to hold enough film for 250 exposures (pictures), something that was extremely rare at the time. Nicknamed the “Reporter” it was in fact more often used on war planes during WWII than in photojournalism. Because of that, only very few units survived. Considering the strong collector community and the fact that these items are limited, it seems like a sound investment that will stand the test of time and increase in value more reliably than your stock portfolio.
Leica WWII Tour
During WWII, Leitz produced optics for tanks and rifles. In order to protect production facilities, Leica was moved to a bunker along with 2 other local companies. Mr. Leitz was against the regime but he was forced to employ forced laborers. Since the German military oversaw production, women were raped and held under inhumane conditions, but Leitz did the best he could in providing them with food, and even financed the escape of 100 Jewish workers to England. Years after the war, 6 former workers returned to Wetzlar and stated that Leitz was by far the best company to work for as a forced laborer, and hence they carved the company name into the bunker walls. To me, it was a fascinating moment, because many companies try to hide their involvement in the darkest chapter of German history, but it seemed to me like Leitz was genuinely against the system and did everything he could to protect his employees from the cruel regime.
Because collecting is not necessarily about quality but always about rarities, Leica is big into special editions, be it for Hermès, Sheikhs, or special events. As such, it didn’t come as a surprise to see a Special 100 Anniversary edition, consisting of two M cameras and three Summilux lenses (28mm f/1.4, 35mm f/1.4, and 50 mm f/1.4). All items were milled out of solid stainless steel, which was something thought to be impossible before. The M series is by far Leica’s most successful camera system today, and the 28, 35 and 50 mm lenses are the quintessential Leica focal lengths for photojournalists. You will never find short 14mm wide angle or 400mm telephoto lenses. So far, all is consistent. However, one of the cameras was a film camera – Leica’s first in over a decade is called M-A and was a special series of the MP, the other one was based on the Monochrom, a digital camera with a black and white sensor that only lets you shoot pictures in black and white but with a staggering number of shades of gray. With a starting price of €22,000 for the very first set, it was sold for €144,000 (almost $200,000)! As you can see, Leica is not afraid to release high price cameras that only appeal to a tiny niche, as long as it is a quality item. Apart from that, they also presented a number of other Leica 100 camera editions such as the S, Monochrome and D Lux, all of which are available from the Leica store in Wetzlar.
Leica Camera Systems
Up until the anniversary event, Leica had two main camera systems. The small rangefinder M camera with a full frame sensor, meaning 24 x 36 mm (the frame size Oskar Barnack created and lenses, as well as the S series introduced in 2006, which is a medium format camera (or slightly smaller) than that, that is directed at studio photographers who can afford to spend thousands of dollars on it. Personally, I own a few old Leica M film cameras and while I am comfortable with manual focus, there are many situations in which autofocus produces better results. As such, I find the S system more intriguing, though the current sensor is rather outdated and will be soon replaced with a new one at Photokina, the world’s largest photography tradeshow in the world, later this year. So if you are a fashion / studio photographer or you simply want to own the most expensive DSLR camera money can buy, then I suggest you wait a few months.
Leica T System
At the Anniversary event, Leica also launched an entirely new, mirrorless camera system called the T system. When Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone 4 in 2010 he said :
“You gotta see this in person. This is beyond the doubt, the most precise thing, and one of the most beautiful we’ve ever made. Glass on the front and back, and steel around the sides. It’s like a beautiful old Leica camera.”
The new T system was obviously inspired by that, and the look of glass in the front and back with steel colored metal on the side, clearly shows what inspiration the Leica designers had when they started this project. Equipped with a smaller, less expensive APC-C sensor, which is produced by Sony and also used in many other cameras, it is targeted at a new customer demographic with slightly smaller pockets, that still wants to experience the craftsmanship and the simplistic design of a Leica machine. The goal of stay true to those Leica values, while bringing some new innovations to the table. It starts with the camera case, which is milled down in cooperation with AUDI technology from a solid aluminum block and then hand polished for 45 minutes to achieve its simplistic, Apple device inspired look. Leica even created a video called The Most Boring Ad Ever Made, which is almost 45 minutes long. The entire camera menu was newly designed from the ground up allowing the user to customize to his heart’s content. While not quite as intuitive as an iPhone it is much better than other menus available from other camera manufacturers out there. On top of that, little details like the way the battery compartment door is designed to ensure that the battery doesn’t fall out, or the way the strap holder attaches, are done so elegantly. As you’d expect from a Leica, the body is made in Germany and of very high quality and retails for $1850. Now, that might seem high but compared to the $6,950 for a Leica M, it seems like a bargain.
According to Leica COO Markus Limberger, an optical expert who is not an avid photographer, the lenses are made in collaboration with the successors of Minolta, and while that may seem strange it deserves mentioning that Leica already entered a collaboration with Minolta in 1973, which resulted in the not so successful Leica CL camera. Apart from that, you should know that Leica opened a factory in Portugal in 1973, in order to lower costs. However, they also settled in an area where watchmaking had a tradition because camera and watches are both about fine mechanics. Today, about 600 employees build parts and mechanics which are then transported to Germany, so they can be assembled in Germany to get the Made in Germany logo. This kind of behavior is common in the industry, but at the same time it shows once again that where things are made are not as important as how well they are made. Of course, if a higher price tag is demanded because of the Made in Origin, it should be clear where things come from but Leica has always been very transparent about their Portugal plant.
Currently, the T systems only has two lenses in their lineup, a 35mm f/2 equivalent ($1950) as well as a 27 – 84mm f/3.5-5.6 equivalent ($1750). Later this year a Vario-Elmar-T 55-135mm f/3.5-4.5 ASPH telezoom lens and a Super-Vario-Elmar-T 11-23mm f/3.5-4.5 ASPH wide-angle zoom are supposed to follow. I had the chance to play around with the camera a little bit and to test controls. Overall, the picture quality seemed very good but the zoom lens is so slow that you never achieve the effect of a Noctilux or Summicron lens, and to me this is what Leica photos are often all about. I love to shoot their lenses wide open and a slow zoom just doesn’t provide the typical Leica look in my opinion. Of course, you can always use M lenses with an adapter ($400) but then you won’t have autofocus. Moreover, the Leica T system does not offer any image stabilization, which has become the absolute standard for mirrorless cameras. At the end of the day, Leica seems target a slightly less exclusive consumer than the M customer, but also someone who still doesn’t want to own a mass market camera. The intuitive touchscreen and analog controls are probably the best in the camera market and the materials seem superb, though slow lenses are just not something I would want from a Leica. For a more in depth review of the Leica T, click here.
Just like a tailor creates a bespoke suit for a customer, Leica offers a unique program for custom cameras. To my knowledge this is the only camera manufacturer in the world to offer this kind of service. Not only can you change the colors and materials of each camera, but you can also have specific buttons or levers added to your hearts content. At this point, it is not possible to choose from a range of different sensors or the like but maybe this is something we will see from Leica in the future. I can just imagine what the price tag will look like, but that’s rarely a concern for Leica customers anyway, and if you truly want a unique piece of photography equipment that was designed with you in mind, Leica is the place to go.
It seems to me like the future for Leica is bright. With 3 major systems, a loyal following that is focused on quality rather than price and new production facility, I am curious to see what we will see next from Leica. Recently, they acquired Sinar from Switzerland specializing in large format photography, and they also produce cinema lenses which are built to even higher standards than photography equipment. I would hope that they come up with a new way of image stabilization for their cameras, and that we continue to see new and interesting lenses in the lineup, along with autofocus (the one they use for the S system works well) though I am sure, Leica will surprise us one way or another.
What do you think of Leica and their craftsmanship? Do you see the value proposition they offer? Please let us know in the comments below.
If you understand German, you might find this 45 documentary about Leica interesting: