How Leica cameras revolutionized photography

Michael • updated June 5, 2022 • 5 min read

How Leica cameras revolutionized photography

The end of posed photography and the invention of the snapshot. Real-life photography was possible with the first Leica camera.

 

When Ernst Leitz introduced the Leica 35 mm camera at the Leipzig Trade Exhibition in March 1925, others dismissed it as a toy. They laughed too quickly. The little device, which cost 290 German Reichsmark and came with a leather case and integrated rangefinder, was one of those innovations whose significance changed the photography history

Taking images had previously been an expensive affair: either one used medium format roll film cameras, which did not provide professional quality. They also used large-format plate cameras the size of briefcases. For just twelve images, a photographer had to carry 5kg of plates, cameras, and a tripod.

Photo of the Ur-Leica, 1914
Photo of the Ur-Leica, 1914. ©Leica

The 35mm camera eliminated the weight and inconvenience of photography. Leitz’s camera weighed only 425 grams and was small enough to carry in a jacket pocket. The new 35-millimeter roll film could simply be rewound after each picture. Leitz-Werke in Wetzlar sold 900 units in its first year.

The camera sparked a true mass movement in the years that followed, becoming the weapon of modern photojournalism, unleashing photographers – and their images.

The revolution began in June 1924, when Ernst Leitz II, the head of Leitz-Werke, summoned his managers in Wetzlar (Germany). Previously, the 1700 employees of the optics specialist, founded in 1869, had primarily made microscopes, but the economic situation was shaky.

Leica a camera print advertise, San Francisco
Leica A camera, print advertise

Source: ©Nesser/ CC BY-SA 2.0

The question now was whether the corporation should take a chance and produce a never-before-seen technology, a Lilliput camera. Oskar Barnack, the chief of the experimental department, had created it.

“Ich entscheide hiermit: Es wird riskiert” (I herewith decide: We’ll risk it). Ernst Leitz II

Ernst Leitz II ended a longstanding discussion with his closest colleagues concerning the introduction of a “tiny film camera.” It was the most important business decision he had ever made.

His “Yes” to serial manufacture of the Leica and hence the development of a new photography system would shape the photo industry for the next three-quarters of a century.

  • In the years that followed, the camera triggered a veritable mass movement: the apparatus became the tool of modern photojournalism, liberating photographers — and their pictures.
Leica A camera model 1927
Leica Model Ia (1927), number 5193, Leitz Elmar F=50mm, 1:3.5

©Kameraprojekt Graz 2015 / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

Milestone in photography

Oskar Barnack built the first 35 mm camera in 1914 as a snapshot camera to make exploration tours with the camera easier. It was an everyday companion due to its convenient format.

Leica A camera model 1927 backside
Leica A camera model 1927 backside

Source: © Kameraprojekt Graz 2015 / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

Ernst Leitz II traveled to the United States the same year. He was able to “keep an eye on everything” with the first 35 mm camera, subsequently known as the Ur-Leica, which he used to photograph everything he saw on his journey.

Impressed with the Ur-Leica, Oskar Barnack decided to take up this 35mm camera in 1920 and further develop it with Max Berek, who created the matching lens. The first Leica 35 mm camera was born on this historic day.

Ernst Leitz II made his decision to bring the camera into serial production despite the bad economy, problematic budget, and technical concerns. This was a big risk in a period of huge unemployment and a lack of experience in the construction of a camera that had 190 unique parts.

Leica A camera model 1927 top view with dials
Leica A camera model 1927 top view with dials

Source: © Kameraprojekt Graz 2015 / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

However, this courage was rewarded with success: a whole new photography system was created. The Leica replaced the frequently heavy and clumsy plate cameras for static single images, and it wowed with its lightweight and convenient size.

The small Leica camera instantly became a top seller, and the new way of taking snapshots revolutionized photography.

Who are the people behind the famous Leica?

Ernst Leitz II, 1871-1956

In 1920, he became the only owner of the well-known Leitz optical company. Before that, he worked as an apprentice precision mechanic and learned about business at his father’s company.

BW Portrait of Ernst Leitz II
Portrait of Ernst Leitz II

At first, he was focused on the development of new kinds of microscopes. He gained a worldwide breakthrough with the 35 mm camera, produced by his employee, Oskar Barnack with interchangeable lenses designed by Max Berek.

Oskar Barnack, 1879–1936

Oskar Barnack – the Father of 35mm Photography. Barnack worked as a precision mechanic for Ernst Leitz. He is credited with inventing the 35 mm camera. Beginning in 1914, he photographed extensively with the prototype he created, eventually known as the Ur-Leica.

BW portrait of Oskar Barnack
Portrait of Oskar Barnack
  • Inventor of the world-famous “Ur-Leica” camera back in 1913.
  • Inventor of the 35mm full frame camera.
  • Inventor of the full-frame 24 × 36mm film format.
  • And of course, creator of photography as we know it today.

Leitz produced a small run of handmade 10 Leicas as early as 1914. With its light aluminum chassis, this camera is regarded as the predecessor of modern 35 mm cameras. A new patent application was also filed in the same year.

The original Leica already had variable shutter exposure times as well as a link between film transport and focal plane shutter.

Unlike typical cameras of the time, which did not have separate transport and shutter functions, the film used by the Leica could expose 36 photographs in succession.

Wetzlar Germany, place where Barnak took the first picture withthe Leica
Wetzlar Germany, place where Barnak took the first picture withthe Leica

Source: © Kiefer / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 2.0

Oskar Barnack was reportedly impressed with the Ur-photographs Leica’s and saw the possibility for a new design of portable still frame camera capable of capturing “twice large” 24mm x 36mm images. .

The camera’s tiny size meant it would be portable and, when combined with a good lens, capable of producing extremely detailed photographs that would enlarge nicely.

Despite the large potential of a modern still camera, it would not be mass-produced for nearly 10 years.

To acquire good picture quality for the necessary enlargement of 35 mm negatives, his colleague Max Berek designed a lens with a high resolving power, which became the standard lens for the Leica, with a focal length of 50 millimeters and a relative aperture of 1:3.5. The Leica was introduced in 1930 with interchangeable lenses (telephoto/wide-angle)

The Leica A was built from 1925 to 1930

The premiere of the Leica Model A at the Leipzig Trade Exibition in Germany. Leica sold 1,000 cameras in the first year (and had already produced 800 by the day of the presentation).

In only 5 years, between 1925 and 1930, Ernst Leitz GmbH manufactured a record number of 56.538 cameras.

 The Leica A was immediately a large success and was, furthermore, responsible for making 35mm film photography so famous.

The Leica model A was the mother of all subsequent Leica film cameras for the next 30 years.

.What made the Leica A such a success?

  • Full frame camera 35 mm with film format: 24x36mm
  • Small compact lightweight camera body
  • Fast shutter speed from 1/25th up to 1/500th
  • Collapsing 50mm f3.5 sharp prime lens
  • Fast-focusing abilities
  • 50mm viewfinder
  • Appealing Leica design
  • Easy and quick film reload
  • Film roll for 36 photos or more
  • Automated picture frame counter
  • Accessory shoe for extras
  • Weight 420 grams

Since its creation in 1839, the camera has evolved to meet a wide range of demands, from aerial photography to underwater photography and all in between.

Cameras enable hobbyists and professional photographers alike to capture the world around them.

Old Leica print advertisement, New York
Old Leica print advertisement, New York

Fascination Leica cameras

The hearts of photographers and collectors race. Owning a genuine Leica was and still is considered something very special.

When Oskar Barnack created the world’s first 35 mm camera with his “Ur-Leica” in 1913, he established the groundwork for a photographic revolution – and a century later, the cameras of the traditional brand continue to captivate.

What separates a Leica camera from the competition?

This is a challenging issue for Leica enthusiasts to answer in a single line. Some of them go into an almost ecstatic euphoria. A Leica is distinguished by a number of characteristics.

  • Leica cameras are loved for their timeless elegance, excellent German craftsmanship, and particular charm, which can quickly bind forever. It is commonly stated that once you acquire a Leica, you can’t get away from it.
  • Its success story began in 1913, when Oskar Barnack, chief of microscope design at Ernst Leitz, worked on a 35 mm camera that used film as a negative in his leisure time. What was mocked at the time is now regarded as a technological milestone in photography.
  • The first commercial Leica camera became the prototype and standard for all 35mm cameras and is the most copied product ever.
Leica range of quality lenses
Leica range of quality lenses

High-quality lenses from Leica

The Leica brand is synonymous with high-quality lenses as well as high-end cameras. Even before the first Leica, the Wetzlar-based Leitz business was a prominent specialist in the manufacturing of outstanding microscopes, and in glass processing and precise mechanics.

Today, this incredible engineering ability might fetch several thousand euros – simply for the lens.

More about Leica:
3 Photographers and the Leica M-D
The Leica Experiment
Oskar Barnack – the Father of 35mm Photography
Leica Celebrates 100 Years
Leica M11 – first impressions and event invitation
Camera that snapped Che Guevara sells for over £15K
Final Review of the Leica Q, 3.5 years in the making
The Leica M9 for Sports?


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By Furoore team member Michael
Furoore Team is here to assist you in capturing the most significant moments in your life. To create exciting photographs, discover photography guides, find unique photo ideas, and limitless image inspiration.

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