It had taken just shy of a century to pass, since the moment Joseph Nicéphore Niépce took the first ever photograph -
a view from a window of his house in Chalons-sur-Saône - for this seminal moment in photography to occur. By the
early 20th Century, cameras were still almost invariably cumbersome, heavy and unwieldy, whilst Barnack -
who suffered from asthma - wanted to take his camera with him everywhere he went and capture images
He achieved his goal by adapting 35mm cinematic film for still-camera use, a game-changing a masterstroke (the single
line in his workshop journal alluding to his triumph - “Lilliput camera for cine-film completed” - seems almost
comically modest). Barnack’s prototype, the Ur-Leica, was introduced to the market as Leica I at the 1925 spring
fair in Leipzig - but he wasn’t done yet.
Having bestowed upon budding photographers freedom to capture moments spontaneously, dynamically, and in extremely
high quality, he then developed a coupled rangefinder with interchangeable lenses, vastly increasing what
photographers could capture, with clarity, within their surrounds. The third iteration of his invention introduced a
separate slow speed dial, taking shutter speeds down to one second.
The German brand’s story since then is one of linear improvement, with nary a blip or a wasted second from Leica’s
tireless R&D department. Breakthrough after breakthrough has come, milestone after milestone been laid: from
Visoflex technology (which brought out all new opportunities for macro-photography) to the bayonet mount (enabling
faster changing of lenses) to, more recently, mind-boggling innovations such as the ContentMapper, an airborne
imaging sensor for large-scale geospatial mapping projects.
Today Leica is celebrated for, amongst other facets of its engineering prowess, the quality of its lenses. “Optics,”
Dr Andreas Kaufmann, chairman of the supervisory board of Leica Camera AG, tells The Rake, “is all about how to
capture light and how to paint with light”, and the passion, precision, innovation and expertise - built up over a
century and a half - that goes into the hand-making of Leica lenses today is unsurpassed.
The obsessive attention to mathematically underpinned detail here speaks for itself: around 100 different types of
glass are selected for the production of around 360 different lens elements; stray light around the lens is
eliminated by precision coating and meticulous barrel construction; glass surfaces are treated with high-performance
anti-reflex coatings, formulated especially for each glass type using geometrical calculations; aspherical surfaces
minimise aberrations; even the water used in the jet-cutting of the glass is PH tested to ensure micro-perfection in
the results. “Our R&D department of 180 people - software guys, artificial intelligence guys, censor guys,
processor guys, and so on - is like witnessing witchcraft,” laughs Kaufmann.
There’s more than just the hardware, though, to a brand whose cameras have captured iconic images including Robert
Capa’s The Falling Soldier, Cartier-Bresson’s Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare and V-J Day in Times Square by Alfred
Eisenstaedt. “What’s a camera without the person behind it?” asks Karin Rehn-Kaufmann who, as Art Director &
Chief Representative of Leica Galleries International, is custodian of the vast repository of creative endevour
carried out using Leica cameras and presides over initiatives such as the annual Leica Oskar Barnack Awards. “Part
of our mission is to take so much care of anyone who has a love for photography,” she says. “A camera is not just
for taking pictures - it’s an instrument that should help people learn how to look at life.”
It is also an instrument which should, in stark contrast to the smartphones stuffed into our pockets, offer maximum
creative autonomy to the user. Over, again, to Dr Andreas Kaufmann: “If you want life’s moments to become a little
bit longer lasting, then you should want to do this with a camera with which you can collaborate with the laws of
No wonder the commemorative plaque which sits on that cobbled street in Central Wetzlar, where Oskar Barnack first
held aloft his prototype hand-held camera, is a place of pilgrimage for those who truly understand the scientific,
as well as the emotional, dynamics of photo-reportage.