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Champions of Design: Leica

This German opticals brand's high-quality compact cameras have become highly prized modern collectables.

In 1849 Carl Kellner founded the Wetzlar Optical Institute in Germany, working on the development of lenses and microscopes; he died six years later, at the age of only 29.

In 1864, precision mechanic Ernst Leitz teamed up with Kellner's widow, and her second husband, as a business partner. Five years later, he took sole control, renaming the firm Ernst Leitz Optical Industry. The Leica brand name is an abbreviation of 'Leitz Camera'.

The company continued to manufacture microscopes throughout the latter years of the 19th century, reaching the impressive milestone of 10,000 in 1887. However, at the turn of the 1900s development of a new product was under way: by 1907, the business had embarked on production of Leica binoculars.

The real breakthrough for Leica, however, came in 1914, thanks to the efforts of the optical engineer and designer Oskar Barnack (pictured below left). He invented the revolutionary 'Ur-Leica' small-format 35mm film camera, setting the tone for an impressive portfolio of cameras in the decades that followed.

Leica cameras have maintained a distinct style, albeit with a form that has evolved and been streamlined over time.

At their heart, their success has been predicated on the company's deep knowledge and development of lenses.

It is the quality of these that lies behind what the company calls 'the legend and the high ideals of the Leica brand'. Each is precision-engineered to act as the perfect medium to capture the best photographs for its time.

A wealth of cameras followed the 'Ur-Leica'. In 1930, Leica launched its first version with a screw mount and three interchangeable lenses; two years later the Leica II, with built-in coupled rangefinder, was unveiled. However, it was the Leica M3, with bayonet mount and combined viewfinder/rangefinder, that ushered in a new era in photography in 1954.

The Leica technicians' primary focus is on the needs of the people who will use their optical products. All the functions and changes made to Leica products over the years have been done so in an attempt to provide truly relevant functions.

As well as producing highly practical equipment, Leica also prides itself on producing reliable and durable products. The company states that even 'under extreme conditions such as severe temperature fluctuation or impacts, our products meet or exceed the highest expectations'.

Although most Leica products are built for pure technical functionality, some have been made with particular attention paid to the aesthetic of the design. Such products include the Leica X2 Paul Smith (above), where tasteful flashes of vibrant colour have been added to a sleek camera structure.

A pioneer of modern optical equipment, Leica has earned its reputation for high-quality products and become a favourite of camera enthusiasts and design aficionados alike.



By Andy Knowles, chairman, JKR

As the inventor of the compact camera, facilitating the growing demand for uncomposed images to supply a burgeoning mass media, Leica turned its expertise in lens manufacture into a lucrative new market. And as a pioneer of the modernist movement, it happily married its engineering prowess to the restrained form-follows-function style of the Bauhaus.

Talk to a Leica owner today and they quickly tell you that no other camera nestles so comfortably in the hand, nor operates so unobtrusively, nor enjoys such precision of focus - which is what continues to make it so popular for street photography among purists.

Had Leica been British, you can be sure that it would have been sold or closed years ago, unable to survive the tsunami of low-priced Asian competitors. Had it been Japanese, it would have lost all trace of its individual character to the compound-curves and excess of features demanded by the ever-falling prices, ruthless competition and incessant innovation that characterise the modern market.

Leica is German, however: the nation that reminds us daily of the virtue of integrity in manufactured goods. While its over-engineered durability brings little repeat business, it delivers such uncomplicated pleasure in use that it can command double the price of Japanese cameras incorporating a Leica lens. Cutting-edge it might not be, but the Red Dot, me Leica.


1849: The Wetzlar Optical Institute was founded by Carl Kellner. He worked to develop lenses and microscopes.

1865: Ernst Leitz joined as a partner. The company was named after him (Ernst Leitz Optical Industry). Leica is an abbreviation of 'Leitz Camera'.

1907: Leica binoculars were first produced.

1913-14: The optical engineer and designer, Oskar Barnack, invented the 'Ur-Leica' 35mm film camera.

1930: A Leica was produced with a screw mount and three interchangeable lenses.

1954: The Leica M3 with bayonet mount and combined viewfinder/rangefinder was launched, ushering in a new era of photography.

1998: Leica launched its first digital compact camera, the Leica Digilux.

2006: The company produced the first digital rangefinder camera - the Leica M8.

2009: Leica produced the M9, the world's smallest 35mm full-frame digital rangefinder camera.

2012: Leica announced plans to produce the X2 compact digital camera in silver and black editions.

View more Champions of Design


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