Here is a brief history of Leica cameras. It is not comprehensive, and you will not see all models listed here. I highlight those models that, in my humble opinion, marked a defining moment in Leica camera history. As well, I add my own personal anecdotes.
1869. Ernst Leitz takes over “Optical Institute” and changes the company name to “Ernst Leitz”.
The year 1911 sees Oskar Barnack accepting a job at the Leitz Wetztlar Factory. As photographers, we all owe a lot to Oskar Barnack. Apparently, as a hiker suffering from asthma, he cannot carry the heavy folding cameras of the time anymore, and so he wants to design a small portable camera. In his spare time, he works on the portable camera. It takes 14 years and a number of prototypes, but eventually, the Leica I hits the consumer market in 1925, and it becomes the pre-cursor for all 35mm cameras.
1912. Prof. Max Berek joins Ernst Leitz Company, invents the Leitz lens system, and sets the standards for the legendary image quality Leica lenses will become renown for.1913. Oskar Barnack produces the "Ur-Leica" prototype, the first 35mm film camera. It has a retractable Mikro-Summar 42mm f/4.5 lens; the film at 24x36mm doubles the width of the common cinema film (18x24mm) and travels horizontally instead of vertically as in cinema cameras of the time; there are 36 exposures; shutter speeds are 1/20 sec. and 1/40 sec.; an accessory shoe on top of the camera allows an external framing viewfinder to be attached; and the shutter release button is surrounded by a knob that advances the film and cocks the shutter for the next shot.
1924. Ernst Leitz II decides it is time to bring Oskar Barnack’s 35mm camera to market. The Leica (Leitz Camera) brand is born.
1925. The first Leica camera, the Leica I(a), hits the market. It is the first commercial Leica, “mass-produced” at 179 units. It has a fixed 50mm F3.5 Elmar lens and a focal-plane shutter with shutter speeds from 1/20 sec. to 1/500 sec. The Leica 1(a) is an immediate success and 35mm film photography is born.
Interesting trivia: The camera is first named LECA (without the “I”) but but there is already a French L’eca camera brand. The lens is first named ELMAX (Ernst Leitz Max Berek) but another lens manufacturer already sells an ERMAX lens. The Leica 1a has a fixed lens, but the subsequent model Leica Ic has an interchangeable screw-mount lens that allows different lenses to be attached.
1954. The Leica M3 is introduced with the first interchangeable bayonet lens system. The distinctive M design starts to take form. Compared to its previous models with protruding knobs, dials and viewfinder, the M3 has clean lines: The optical viewfinder is combined with a rangefinder in one bright window within the body, a self-timer graces the front, a round frame counter on top discreetly displays the number of frames left, the rewind knob is recessed, and a rapid film advance lever juts out just enough at the back to be thumb-operated. The use of textured leather and brass as well as the Leica signature on top all add to its distinctive look and feel. The Leica M3 is the most successful M model, with over 220,000 units sold by the time production of the M3 ended in 1966.
Interesting trivia: The “M” stands for “Messsucher,” the German term for rangefinder.
1956. The Leica MP (M Professional) is marketed only to photojournalists (who were the professional photographers of the time). Taking the feedback of photojournalists in consideration, the Leica MP is based on the M3, but is built “tough” for the rigors of the field. It does not have a self-timer, but adds a Leicavit rapid winder.
(Not to be confused with the 2017 Leica M-P (Typ 240) Digital.)
1965. The Leicaflex SL is Leica’s second attempt at a SLR. In 1957, Asahi Penrax introduces the widely popular Pentax S3 which would go on to influence the design of all the other 35mm film SLR cameras to come. In 1959, Nikon introduces the Nikon F film SLR camera, and it quickly becomes the preferred camera of photojournalists and other professional photographers. To counteract the encroachment of the SLRs, Leica introduces its own Leicaflex (Standard) film SLR camera in 1964, but it is too complicated, too expensive, and it does not do well commercially. The Leicaflex SL (Selective Light), the first SLR camera with selective TTL metering, comes out in 1965, followed by the Leicaflex SL2 in 1974, both also not encountering much success.
(Not to be confused with the 2016 Leica SL (Typ 601) digital mirrorless camera.)
1971. Leica M5 with first built-in TTL (Through The Lens) exposure metering. It is big and heavy, and is also not a commercial success.
Leica is rapidly losing relevance in the face of a proliferation of cheaper and better point-and-shoot and SLR cameras from Japanese competitors. It is in serious decline and everyone is expecting that the Leica brand will soon be retired. It decides to collaborate with other companies, starting with Minolta now (and later with Fujifilm, and then with Panasonic).1973. The Leica CL is produced in collaboration with Minolta (LEITZ Minolta CL). The camera is beautiful, but does not meet with commercial success.
(Not to be confused with the 2017 Leica CL mirrorless camera.)
1976. Leica is facing an existentialist crisis, with its rangefinder M models increasingly overshadowed by the SLR cameras. In a second partnership with Minolta, they produce the Leica R3 film SLR, the first Leica SLR camera to offer automatic exposure. The Leica R3 is at last a commercial success, infusing new hope for the brand.
Minolta’s version is the XE (XE-1 in Europe, XE-7 in North America).
Personal anecdote: A cheaper model, the Minolta XE-5, is my all-time coup de coeur (as far as design is concerned).
1984. Leica M6 (Classic) — a legend is born. In my humble opinion, the Leica M6 Classic is probably the most exquisitely beautiful camera ever designed! From its proportions, its silver body and use of black textured leather, the vertical lines in the bright-line frame illumination window, the angled rewind crank, even the slightly angled frame preselector (it looks like a selftimer, but it’s not since the M6 unfortunately does not have a selftimer) all blend together in a uniquely beautiful camera. It’s not all mechanical though: Look through the large bright optical viewfinder and, instead of the traditional needle, you’ll see three LED lights to indicate over, under and correct exposure.
Leica introduces more 35mm film cameras — M rangefinder and R DSLR models, as well as point-and-shoot models.
In 1995, Panasonic starts using Leica lenses in some of its digital cameras.
As opposed to its previous partnering with Minolta to produce cameras together, Leica now decides on a new (and cheaper and less personnel intensive) strategy to private label popular digital cameras from other camera manufacturers, first from Fujifilm, then from Panasonic.
1998. Leica Digilux rebrands the Fujifilm Finepix 700.
2000. Leica Digilux Zoom rebrands the Fujifilm Finepix 1700 Zoom.
2000. Leica Digilux 4.3 rebrands the Fujifilm Finepix 4700 Zoom.
(Not to be confused with the 2003 Digilux 2 which is a rebranding of the Panasonic LC1.)2003. Leica Digilux 2, the “analog” digital camera. Instead of producing its own digital cameras, Leica basically private labels some very popular Panasonic digital models, though it makes sure to adhere to its own original “clean-line “design and add software customizations. The Leica Digilux 2 is the Leica-branded version of the Panasonic DMC-LC1. They both feature 5MP on a 2/3” (Type 1/2.3, 8.8 x 6.6 mm) sensor, and a 3.2x zoom 7-22.5mm (28-90mm equiv.) F2.0-F2.4 fixed lens.
With the Digilux 2, Leica starts to experiment with minimalist design which will culminate in the 2014 Leica T (Typ 701).
2006. Leica Digital M8. Finally, Leica decides to dip its toes into the digital world: It introduces the M8, its first digital M 35mm camera. It’s probably the best decision that Leica makes as it takes a tentative step to go digital and takes the risk of bringing its 35mm film analog cameras into the digital era. At first, no one is sure if the gamble will pay off, but each subsequent model improves on the previous one and slowly catches up to its competitors.
In 2006, Leica has a new majority owner, and Dr. Andreas Kaufmann assumes the helm of the floundering company. Nobody is expecting much to come out of this change at the top, but Dr. Kaufmann surprises everyone by implementing a plan and strategy that successfully revive the Leica brand and launch it into the future.
Leica continues to private label popular Panasonic fixed lens digital cameras: the C-Lux series are compact travel zooms with 1″ (Type 1 (3:2) 13.2 x 8.8 mm) sensor; the D-Lux series are enthusiast compact cameras with Four Thirds sensor; and, the V-Lux are “bridge” super-zoom cameras with 1″ (Type 1 (3:2) 13.2 x 8.8 mm) sensor.2008. Leica S2 is Leica’s first medium-format digital SLR with a Type 3.4 (45 x 30 mm) sensor.
2009. Leica X1 is Leica’s first compact digital camera not private labeled from Panasonic. It is a 12MP APS-C mirrorless camera with a 24mm (35mm equiv.) F2.8 fixed lens.
2012. Leica Digital M Monochrom. Leica introduces the full-frame digital M Monochrom, M-E (Typ 220) and M (Typ 240). The Leica S (Typ 006) medium-format DSLR uses a CMOS sensor.
On some nodels, Leica starts omitting the red dot, opting for more discreetness. The use of the “Typ” designation differs from other camera manufacturers’ use of “Mark.”
Interesting trivia: The timeless Leica red dot has not changed for almost a century now, famously (and humorously) depicted in a 2011 advertisement by Leica.
In 2012, Lisa Germany Holding GmbH acquires the remaining minority shares stock of Leica and takes the company private.
2013. The Leica C is based on the Panasonic LF1.
2014. To celebrate its 100th anniversary, Leica launches a new camera (and system) called the Leica T (Typ 701). This is an APS-C mirrorless camera using a new L mount and, in a departure from its classic M design, its body is hewn from a single block of aluminum in an even cleaner, minimalist design. Gone are the traditional Leica analog controls, replaced by touch screen controls. This is a surprising bold move for Leica and these design choices will be reflected in the forthcoming Leica SL full-frame mirrorless camera.
Interesting trivia: The L mount is first called the T mount, but it is renamed to the L mount when the Leica SL (Typ 601) digital is introduced in 2016 (see below).
2015. Leica Q (Typ 116) is a full-frame mirrorless camera with a 28mm F1.7 fixed lens.
2016. Leica SL (Typ 601) is Leica’s first full-frame mirrorless camera using the L mount. The L-mount now incorporates the previous T-mount (for the APS-C Leica T), in effect using one lens mount for both APS-C and full-frame sensor cameras. It takes courage for Leica to name its first full-frame mirrorless camera the SL, seeing how the 1965 Leicaflex SL film SLR was not a commercial success.
In 2018, Leica forms the L-Mount Alliance, licensing an upgraded version of the L-mount to Sigma and Panasonic for their respective digital mirrorless cameras.
Leica continues iterating on its existing models.
2022. The Leica M11 may still retains the distinctive M design. but it is a thoroughly modern digital full-frame mirrorless camera, featuring a 60MP BSI CMOS sensor, Triple Resolution technology that allows the camera to capture 60, 36, or 18 MP RAW or JPEG images using the full sensor area, 15 stops of dynamic range, a high resolution 2.3M-dot touchscreen display, 64GB of internal storage, and the battery is now accessed via a conventional battery compartment instead of needing to unscrew the Leica-traditional baseplate.
>> And now to the present: Leica Mirrorless Buyer’s Guide
If you have personal anecdotes about any Leica cameras that you think might be interesting to share with other readers, please send them to us.
– LEICA – A HISTORY OF SUCCESS
– National Museum of American History
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