FUTURE/CRAFT: BACK TO BASICS

How Leica’s legendary M-System provides an analogue approach to digital photography, with the precision engineering and ergonomic design of its iconic rangefinder cameras

12 May, 2020

Founded in Germany in the early 20th century, Leica is one of the world’s most iconic camera brands, desired and revered by photographers across the globe. But what earned Leica this status and, a century later, continues to command so much respect from the photographic community?

The answer to this question can be traced back to the very first Leica camera – the Leica I, released in 1925. Oskar Barnack – an engineer at the Leitz company (later renamed Leica) – sought to design a camera that was more portable and practical than the heavy and bulky plate cameras, which were widely used at that time. In 1914, Barnack made the Leica-Ur prototype by taking 35mm film – at that time the preserve of movie making – and creating a compact still camera that fed the film through horizontally (rather than vertically, as it was in the movie cameras) to create a 24x36mm negative, which, to this day, remains the most popular format for film photography; and for the sensors on full frame digital cameras.


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The Leica-Ur 35mm camera prototype and its inventor, Oskar Barnack

 

But that was only half of the design challenge. To achieve the sharpness necessary to create a high-quality, enlarged image from such a small negative would also require the creation of a compact, fast and highly precise lens, specially designed to work with this new frame size. As established optic specialists, renowned for producing precision microscopes, the Leitz company was well positioned to rise to this challenge. Lens designer Max Berek created the 50mm f/3.5 Elmar lens that completed the Leica I camera and, essentially, laid the foundations for Leica’s now legendary lens system.

In an interview with Berek published in the Leica-Brevier journal in 1949, he explained that as the Leitz company, at the time, was not known as a camera maker, the design team knew the creation of an outstanding lens would be essential to the Leica I’s success: ‘It was perfectly clear to us that something so principally new and tradition-defying as this camera would only be accepted with the greatest reservation by most photographers… we had to try to prevent the possibility of being discredited right at the beginning. And that meant, especially, the creation of a high-quality lens.’

Berek also explained that the objective of the Leica I was to create a camera that could be used easily by amateur photographers to obtain good results: ‘We gave the Leica, for well-considered reasons, a normal lens with a speed of f/3.5. For the time, this was already unusually fast and still today it does justice to all tasks the amateur might ask of it for his pictures.’


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The Leica I camera on display; production of Leica’s M cameras takes place at its headquarters in Wetzlar, Germany

 

The Leica II, released in 1932, was upgraded to feature an integrated rangefinder that enabled faster and more precise focusing, as well as ensuring a quiet shutter action, which aids the photographer to be unobtrusive. The fundamental principles of a Leica camera –a winning combination of precision engineering and ergonomic design – were established, and it wasn’t long before the versatility of this portable image-maker was embraced and adopted by artists and documenters around the world. Liberated by this new, simple to use, lightweight and compact camera, photography suddenly evolved into something that could be employed much more spontaneously, heralding a new era for the art form. The renowned street photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson was an early adopter of Leica cameras – famously describing it as ‘the extension of [his] eye’ – and they also became a trusted piece of kit for photojournalists, resulting in many of the 20th century’s most iconic images being captured with Leica cameras.

In addition to outstanding lenses that deliver excellent contrast and resolution, another attribute that became synonymous with Lecia was a pleasing bokeh aesthetic – the blur quality, which applies the focus to a particular part of the image – characterised by the way its lenses render the out of focus points of light. The circular rendering, combined with exceptionally nuanced micro-contrast (tonal gradations), captured by a Leica lens produces a smooth – often referred to as ‘creamy’ – blur and was coined the ‘Leica Glow’. The unique quality of Leica’s bokeh affect, coupled with the exceptional sharpness of its lenses, became popular with many photographers, and the ‘Leica Look’ remains a popular aesthetic to this day.


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Production of the legendary M-System; finishing touches from the Leica production team

 

By the mid-20th century, Leica was well established as a successful and respected camera maker. And in 1954, the Leica M-System was launched (‘M’ standing for messsucher, German for rangefinder), which remains at the heart of Leica today. The first camera in the series, the Leica M3, featured a combined viewfinder/rangefinder and cemented Leica’s legacy as a lifetime investment camera system with its bayonet mount for interchangeable lenses. To this day, all Leica M cameras reference this initial design, and any Leica rangefinder is backwards compatible with all previous lenses built since 1954.

‘To evolve a lens also means to give it more power,’ explains Leica optics specialist Peter Karbe, who oversees the development of Leica’s M-System and lenses today. ‘But despite the higher imaging performance, the compact M-Lenses must not exceed a certain size – otherwise the entire system will no longer work.’


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Leica optics specialist Peter Karbe; the Leica Noctilux-M 75mm f/1.25 ASPH lens is a favourite for portraiture photography due to its shallow depth of field combined with exceptional imaging performance and a uniquely soft bokeh

 

Since the 1950s, Leica has been steadily and incrementally updating and perfecting its M-System cameras, lenses and accessories to serve the needs and desires of its users. Transitioning to digital, while retaining the fundamental Leica M principles of manual user controls, inobtrusive shutter action, compact and simplistic design, and backwards compatibility with lenses was a huge challenge for Leica, but a first foray was made in 2006 with the release of the Leica M8. This was succeeded in 2009 by the acclaimed Leica M9, which featured a full frame sensor and successfully fused digital functionalities and manual controls, combined with compact and lightweight portability far superior to any previously released digital camera.

However, despite incorporating a digital sensor, Leica’s commitment to stay faithful to simple-to-use manual dials, and keeping the photographer intuitively connected to focus and exposure settings, has remained its guiding principle throughout the design process. While other camera manufacturers have concentrated on improving autofocus functionality, Leica has gone to great lengths to keep its rangefinder system of cameras alive. Herein lies the key difference between the Leica M series and everything else on the market: for the past 100 years, Leica has been perfecting a system that enables the user to operate the camera manually, while other brands have been trying to create better systems that will do it for the photographer.

‘The M-System educates photographers,’ says Karbe. ‘It’s like trying to write with a fountain pen. It’s not easy at the beginning, but once you’ve learned how to use it, you don’t want to write any other way. The M-System improves your photography, just like the fountain pen corrects your handwriting. And you can see that afterwards in the pictures.’

The intuitive positioning of the M-System’s exposure dials affirms its dedication to the importance of manual operation and user control. The aperture dial steadfastly features on the lens, with the shutter speed dial next to the shutter release button. On the most recent edition – the Leica M10 – the perfect trio of exposure controls was realised with the addition of an ISO setting dial that allows the photographer to manually change the sensitivity of the sensor.


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The Leica M10

 

Despite the prolific adoption and continuous improvement of automated functions in photography, why do some photographers continue to favour manual controls? Despite the margins for error – and what can be a steep learning curve to become adept at using the manual settings – devotees argue the rangefinder ultimately gives more control. There’s no risk of autofocus overriding the photographer’s decision and, once the subject of focus has been identified, the photographer can concentrate on, and anticipate, the compositional elements of the frame to press the shutter button at, what was coined by Cartier-Bresson as, the ‘decisive moment’.

It’s this combination of control and simplicity that summarises what Leica users love: greater precision and creative freedom with an emphasis on composition, and capturing ambience and emotion. Leica’s exceptional design and engineering also comes into play, of course. Every element of its equipment is carefully crafted to be as precise and ergonomic as possible, to ensure the capacity for technical perfection is attainable while keeping the photographer in the driving seat and allowing them to hone their own skills.

‘The fast M-Lenses make it possible to use depth of field as a special design tool,’ explains Karbe. ‘The photographer learns how to set accents, direct the viewer’s gaze and thus tell stories without using words.’ Once familiar with the Leica as a tool, the photographer – free from the distractions of complexities – is better able to concentrate on their surroundings to capture moments as they see and feel them, reacting less technically and more intuitively. ‘M-Photographers have a different perspective,’ says Karbe. ‘You have to get accustomed to the M-System at first – but, at some point, you can’t imagine photography any other way.’


BUILDING THE LEICA M10

Learn more about Leica’s fascinating history, the legendary M-System and its latest models at uk.leica-camera.com