Leica Camera AG, a German optics company, manufactures Leica cameras. The predecessor of the company, formerly known as Ernst Leitz GmbH, is now three companies: Leica Camera AG, Leica Geosystems AG, and Leica Microsystems GmbH, which manufacture cameras, geosurvey equipment, and microscopes, respectively. Leica Microsystems AG owns the Leica brand and licences the sister companies to use it.
The name Leica is a combination of the first three letters of Ernst Leitz surname and the first two from the word camera; lei-ca. The first 35mm film Leica prototypes were built by Oskar Barnack at Ernst Leitz Optische Werke, Wetzlar, in 1913. Intended as a compact camera for landscape photography, particularly during mountain trips, the Leica was the first practical 35 mm camera that used standard cinema 35 mm film. The Leica transports the film horizontally, extending the frame size to 24×36 mm, with a 2:3 aspect ratio, instead of the 18×24 mm of cinema cameras which transport the film vertically.
The Leica went through several iterations, and in 1923 Barnack convinced his boss, Ernst Leitz II, to make a pre-production series of 31 cameras for the factory and outside photographers to test. Though the prototypes received a mixed reception, Ernst Leitz decided in 1924 to produce the camera. It was an immediate success when introduced at the 1925 Leipzig Spring Fair as the Leica I (for Leitz camera). The focal plane shutter had a range from 1/20 to 1/500 second, in addition to a Z for Zeit (time) position.
Barnack conceived the Leica as a small camera that produced a small negative. To make big photos by enlargement, (the "small negative, large picture" concept) required that the camera have high quality lenses that could create sharp negatives. Barnack tried a Zeiss Tessar on his early prototype camera, but because the Tessar was designed for the 18×24mm cine format, it inadequately covered the Leica's 24×36mm negative. Barnack resorted to a Leitz Summar lens for the prototype, but to achieve resolution necessary for satisfactory enlargement, the 24x36mm format needed a lens designed specially for it. The first Leica lens was a 50 mm f/3.5 design based on the Cooke triplet of 1893, adapted by Max Berek at Leitz. The lens had five elements in three groups—the third group being three cemented elements—and was initially called the Leitz Anastigmat. Unlike other triplets, the Leitz Anastigmat had the diaphragm between the first and second elements. When the Leica launched, this lens was renamed the ELMAX, for E Leitz and MAX Berek. By 1925, the Leitz laboratories had produced glasses with improved optical properties, and Professor Berek designed an improved version of the ELMAX called the ELMAR that had four elements in three groups. The third group was simplified to two cemented elements, which was easier and cheaper to make. Professor Berek had two dogs, Hektor and Rex. The first of these, Hektor, gave his name to a series of Leica lenses, and the name of the second appeared in the SummaREX.
In 1930 came the Leica I Schraubgewinde with an exchangeable lens system based on a 39mm diameter screw thread, often referred to as " Leica Thread Mount" or LTM. In addition to the 50mm normal lens, a 35mm wide angle and a 135 mm telephoto lens were initially available. In the mid-1930s, a legendary soft-focus lens, the Thambar 90mm f/2.2 was designed, and made in small numbers between 1935 and 1949, no more than 3000 units. It is a rare collector's item today.
The Leica II came in 1932, with a built in rangefinder coupled to the lens focusing mechanism. This model had a separate viewfinder (showing a reduced image) and rangefinder. In 1932 the flange to filmplane was standarised to 28.8mm, first implemented on Leica model C, and the Leica Standard the following year.
The Leica III added slow shutter speeds down to 1 second, and the model IIIa added the 1/1000 second shutter speed. The IIIa was the last model made before Barnack’s death, and therefore the last model for which he was wholly responsible. Leitz continued to refine the original design through to 1957. The final version, the IIIg, included a large viewfinder with several framelines. These models all had a functional combination of circular dials and square windows.
Early Leica cameras bear the initials D.R.P., which stands for Deutsches Reichspatent, the name for German patents before May 1945. This is probably a reference to German patent No. 384071 "Rollfilmkamera" granted to Ernst Leitz, Optische Werke in Wetzlar, on 3 November 1923.
The company had always had progressive labor policies which encouraged the retention of skilled workers, many of whom were Jewish. Ernst Leitz II, who took over the company in 1920, responded to the election of Hitler in 1933 by helping Jews to leave Germany, by "assigning" hundreds (even if they were not actually employees) to overseas sales offices where they were helped to find jobs. The effort intensified after Kristallnacht in 1938, until the borders were closed in September 1939. The extent of what came to be called the "Leica Freedom Train" only became public after his death well after the war.
After the war, Leitz continued to produce the late versions of the Leica II and the Leica III through the 1950s. However, in 1954, Leitz unveiled the Leica M3 introducing the new Leica M mount, a bayonet type lens mount. The new camera also combined the rangefinder and viewfinder into one large, bright viewfinder with a brighter double image in the center. This system also introduced a system of parallax compensation and a new rubberized, reliable, focal-plane shutter. Leica continues to refine this model (the latest versions being the M7 and MP, both of which have frames for 28, 35, 50, 75, 90, and 135 mm lenses, which show automatically upon mounting).
Post-war models bear the initials DBP, standing for Deutsches Bundespatent (Federal German Patent), instead of the DRP found on pre-war models. A number of camera companies built models based on the Leica rangefinder design. These include the Leotax, Nicca and early Canon models in Japan, the Kardon in USA, the Reid in England and the FED and Zorki in the USSR.
Until at least the mid-1950s, Leitz offered factory upgrades of earlier Leica cameras to bring them to the current model's specifications. The upgraded cameras retained their original serial numbers.
Single-lens reflex cameras
From 1964, Leica produced a series of single-lens reflex cameras, beginning with the Leicaflex, followed by the Leicaflex SL, the Leicaflex SL2, and then the R series from R3 to R7, made in collaboration with the Minolta Corporation. The Leica R8 was entirely designed and manufactured by Leica. The final model was the Leica R9, which could be fitted with the Digital Module back. Leica was slow to produce an auto-exposure model, and never made a Leica R model that supported auto-focusing. Leica's U.S. official website announced (25 March 2009) that the R-series has been discontinued. The reason given was that "new camera developments have significantly affected the sales of Leica R cameras and lenses resulting in a dramatic decrease in the number sold. Sadly, therefore, there is no longer an economic basis on which to keep the Leica R-System in the Leica production programme."
Conceptually bridging the Rangefinder Leicas and the SLR Leicas was the Leica Visoflex System, a mirror reflex box that attached to the lens mount of Leica rangefinders (separate versions were made for the screwmount and M series bodies) and accepted lenses made especially for the Visoflex System. Rather than using the camera’s rangefinder, focusing was accomplished via a groundglass screen. A coupling released both mirror and shutter to make the exposure. Camera rangefinders are inherently limited in their ability to accurately focus long focal-length lenses and the mirror reflex box permitted much longer length lenses. Throughout its history, Leitz has been responsible for numerous optical innovations, such as aspherical production lenses, multicoated lenses, and rare earth lenses.
The earliest Leica reflex housing was the PLOOT (Leitz's five letter code for its products), announced in 1935, along with the 200mm f/4.5 Telyt Lens. This date is significant because that it places Leica among the 35mm SLR pioneers. Moreover, until the 1964 introduction of the Leicaflex, the PLOOT and Visoflex were Leica’s only SLR offerings. A redesigned PLOOT was introduced by Leica in 1951 as the Visoflex I. This was followed by a much more compact Visoflex II in 1960 (which was the only Visoflex version available in both LTM (screwmount) and M-bayonet) and the Visoflex III with instant-return mirror in 1964. Leica lenses for the Visoflex system included focal lengths of 65, 180 (rare), 200, 280, 400, 560, and 800mm. In addition, the optical groups of many rangefinder lenses could be removed, and attached to the Visoflex via a system of adapters. The Visoflex system was discontinued in 1984.
Leica offered a wide range of accessories. For instance, LTM (screwmount) lenses were easily usable on M cameras via an adapter. Similarly Visoflex lenses could be used on the Leicaflex and R cameras with an adapter. Furthermore, certain LTM and M rangefinder lenses featured removable optical groups that could mount via adapters on the Visoflex system, thus making them usable as rangefinder or SLR lenses for Visoflex-equipped Screwmount and M rangefinder cameras, as well as being usable on Leicaflex and R cameras. Leica also offered focusing systems, such as the Focorapid and Televit, that could replace certain lenses’ helicoid mounts for sports and natural-life telephotography.
In 1986, the Leitz company changed its name to Leica (LEItz CAmera), due to the strength of the Leica brand. At this time, Leica moved its factory from Wetzlar to the nearby town of Solms. In 1996 Leica Camera separated from the Leica Group and became a publicly held company. In 1998 the Leica group split into two independent units: Leica Microsystems and Leica Geosystems.
In May 2014 Leica Camera AG finished building a new factory at Am Leitz Park 1 in the new industrial part of Wetzlar and moved back to the city where it started.
On November 26, 2013, Leica Camera AG announced the conclusion of a takeover process of the Swiss Sinar Photography AG. Both companies agreed not to disclose the details of the merger. Sinar Photography AG possesses product portfolio of large format 4" x 5" to 8" x 10" etc. cameras, lenses and shutter systems. Leica Camera AG announced the take over on their Facebook page.
The Blackstone Group purchased a 44% stake in 2011.
The Leica is particularly associated with street photography, especially in the mid-to-late 20th century, being used by such noted photographers as Henri Cartier-Bresson, Elliott Erwitt, Robert Frank, Bruce Gilden, Bruce Davidson, Inge Morath, Martine Franck, Sebastião Salgado, Alex Webb, Joel Meyerowitz, Garry Winogrand, Mark Cohen and Ralph Gibson.
It was also used by wartime photojournalists such as Larry Burrows.
Leica also makes a line of cine lenses used on cinematic projects. In February 2015 their design team was awarded an Academy Scientific and Engineering Award for the optical and mechanical design of the Leica Summilux-C lenses.
Role in antique trade
Leica cameras, lenses, accessories and sales literature are collectibles. There are dozens of Leica books and collector’s guides, notably the three-volume Leica, an Illustrated History by James L. Lager. Early or rare cameras and accessories can reach very high prices on the market. For instance, an anonymous buyer won a bidding battle for a rare 1923 Leica camera that sold for 2.6 million euros ($2.8 million) at an auction in Vienna. Notably, Leica cameras sporting military markings carry very high premiums; this started a market for refurbished Soviet copies with fake markings.
Leica and Panasonic
Leica-branded lenses are used on many Panasonic (Matsushita) digital cameras (Lumix) and video recorders since 1995. Panasonic/Leica models were the first to incorporate optical image stabilization in their digital cameras.