If you’re a camera equipment enthusiast, you’ve probably heard of the legendary Leica Camera Company—the signature red dot that will run you into the thousands of dollars for the most basic setup, and on into the tens of thousands for the good stuff. These are arguably the most widely-revered cameras on the market, and have been for the past 60 years, at least. In this video, Bloomberg TV takes us behind the scenes in the Leica factory in Solms, Germany, for insight into what makes these cameras so deserving of this attention:
The first Leica prototype, named the “Ur-Leica”, was built in 1913 by Oskar Barnack, an employee at the Ernst Leitz Optische Werke—a German Optics company which, up until that point, specialized in microscopes and binoculars. By 1925, it would become the first compact 35mm film camera on the market. Originally imagined as a lightweight camera for landscapes, its portability quickly endeared it to street and reportage photographers. It was only five more years before the screw-mount interchangeable lens system would revolutionize the brand.
The hallmark of Leica’s legacy has been the unparalleled sharpness of its lenses, even at the super-wide apertures the lenses offer (the widest rings in at f/0.95). This was essential when first developing small-negative photography, because the process of enlarging the image would degrade the quality vs. straight contact-printing, so it had to be absolutely perfect from the start. Thanks to their exceptionally strong design, these cameras have traveled to the farthest reaches of the earth, through the roughest conditions, and have brought us well more than their fair share of the iconic images that we now take for granted – images that might not have been possible if not for Barnack’s innovation.
Built on a foundation of the highest possible quality materials and construction, Leica has struggled in recent years to keep up with an increasingly disposable market. With high-end cameras coming down to consumer-level prices, and a “bigger-is-better” mindset prevailing in society, companies that offer top-quality products at a premium are pushed further to the fringe, as the quality of the machine itself comes second to how new the computer chip inside is.
In Leica’s story we can read the history of the old school of photography as it struggles to find a place in the rapidly-developing modern world, which seems to have shifted its values from the hard reality of strong equipment and chemical processes, to a reverence for the quick, the subjective, and the ever-changing.
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