Leica  –  Vintage Camera Brand

Leica Brand Overview

Leica logo

Founded: 1849 — Wetzlar, German Confederation
  (modern day Germany)
Currently: Leica Camera AG

Leica Brand History

Leica Camera AG is a high-end camera and optical company founded in the German city of Wetzlar in 1849 as the Optisches Institut (Optical Institute) by Carl Kellner who had a well-earned reputation for producing extremely high quality microscopes. Kellner passed away shortly after founding the company and his former apprentice Friedrich Belthle had been running things for nearly a decade when a mechanically inclined young man named Ernst Leitz joined the Optisches Institut in 1864.

Leitz, who had left school at 15 years old, had spent the past six years in Switzerland working for watch companies where he had acquired and refined an impressive set of technical, logistics, and management skills. These skills went on to make such a profound impact at the company that Belthle made Leitz a partner just one short year later. In 1867, the company produced its one thousandth microscope, a milestone that was unfortunately closely followed by two tragedies: a marked drop in sales due to a failure to innovate and the death of Friedrich Belthle from illness.

After Belthle’s passing, Leitz assumed control of the company and renamed it the Ernst Leitz Optische Werke. Business boomed in the coming decades and by 1910, the company was known worldwide, standardized the eight hour work day, and provided health insurance for all one thousand or so of its employees who were now producing over 9,000 microscopes per year. This was around the same time that a brilliant engineer named Oskar Barnack came to work at Ernst Leitz Optische.

An avid photographer, Barnack longed for a lightweight, reliable alternative to the heavy, bulky cameras available at the time. He began working on developing a new camera that he could easily take with him on his travels. In 1913, Barnack finished his first draft: the Ur-Leica (“Ur” being a German prefix meaning “original” and “Leica” being a portmanteau of “Leitz” and “camera”) featuring a custom collapsible lens which would become the basis for the now legendary Leica Elmar range. The prototype was small enough to fit in one’s pocket and utilized Thomas Edison’s cinematic 35mm film, a miniature format that anyone was free to manufacture after its patent was invalidated just a decade prior. The Ur-Leica was revolutionary in both design and function but any plans of development or production were shelved as Europe erupted in the First World War the following year.

Like most of its peers, Ernst Leitz Optische Werke struggled to resume operations as a freshly defeated Germany entered a period of deep economic recession. Leitz passed away in 1920 and left the company to his son, Ernst Leitz II, who took the company public and rechristened it Ernst Leitz GmbH. A small batch of 31 “Leica A” models were produced in 1923 for testing and evaluation by trusted photographers. Two short years later, the company decided to take a big gamble and introduced the Leica (later called the Leica I) to the public at the 1925 Leipzig Spring Fair which was surprisingly met with instantaneous success. In 1930, the Leica I’s fixed 50mm f/3.5 lens was replaced by a 39mm thread mount (which quickly became known as LTM or Leica Thread Mount) for interchangeable lenses, opening up a whole new world of possibilities. A compact rangefinder assembly was soon added to aid focusing and the Leica II was born followed by the Leica III, which allowed for slower shutter speeds, a year later in 1933.

Meanwhile, in 1933, Germany had appointed a new chancellor: Adolf Hitler. Having been warned of Hitler’s political ideologies, Ernst Leitz II quickly started what would later be known as the “Leica Freedom Train”: strategic assignments of Jewish employees, associates, and friends to the company’s satellite offices abroad. The outward flow of Jewish refugees reached its peak in 1938 in reaction to Nazi violence and continued until Hitler closed Germany’s borders and started World War II by invading Poland. As the war progressed, Leitz was called on to produce cameras and other optical instruments for the Wehrmacht. Many company representatives including executive Alfred Turk and Ernst Leitz II’s own daughter Elsie were caught and imprisoned for helping Jews escape Nazi Germany in the years leading up to the Second World War. The full extent of the company’s secret anti-Nazi activities was not discovered by historians until many years later.

The Leitz factory in Wetzlar was spared during the war and so they were able to immediately resume developing variants of the Leica II and III such as the Leica IIf until 1954 when the groundbreaking Leica M3 was released. The M3 represented a significant technological leap forward with its improved rangefinder assembly, new “M mount” bayonet lens mount, and robust shutter and was the beginning of the Leica M series of rangefinders which is still in production today. In 1964, the company expanded into 35mm SLRs with the Leicaflex and entered into a partnership with Minolta in 1972 which produced classics such as the Leica CL, Leica R3, and Leica R4.

In 1986, Ernst Leitz GmbH decided to take advantage of its cameras’ reputation and renamed itself Leica GmbH. Nearly ten years later, Leica began supplying lenses to Panasonic for its digital cameras, an arrangement that carries on to this day. Leica’s camera division was soon spun off into its own company called Leica Camera AG which immediately acquired fellow Wetzlar-based company Minox GmbH, manufacturer of the famous Minox spy camera. However, controlling interest was wrestled back by a Minox executive and the company severed all ties with Leica in 2005. The following year, Leica acquired a 51% stake in the Zurich-based large format camera company Sinar but it didn’t completely take over the Swiss firm until 2018. Leica currently offers a wide range of products including both film and digital rangefinders, medium format DSLRs, instant cameras, and mirrorless digital cameras.

Interested in starting or growing your own collection of Leica cameras?
Check eBay to see what’s available.

McKeown, James M. and Joan C. McKeown’s Price Guide to Antique and Classic Cameras, 2001-2002. (Grantsburg, WI, USA: Centennial Photo Service, 2001), p 415-432.

“Leica: A History of Success” Leica Portugal, https://leica.pt/leica-a-history-of-success/

“Leica Camera,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leica_Camera

“Leitz (Optik),” Wikipedia, https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leitz_(Optik)

“Carl Kellner (optician),” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carl_Kellner_(optician)

“Friedrich Belthle,” Wikipedia, https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Friedrich_Belthle

“Oskar Barnack,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oskar_Barnack

“Leica Freedom Train,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leica_Freedom_Train

“Minox break free from Leica,” Digital Photography Review, https://www.dpreview.com/articles/2859813980/minox-leica

“Leica Camera AG integrates Sinar Photography in its own organisational structure,” Leica Camera AG, https://en.leica-camera.com/Company/Press-Centre/Press-Releases/2018-not-urgent-translatable/Press-Release-Leica-Camera-AG-integrates-Sinar-Photography-in-its-own-organisational-structure

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