Thursday, October 9, 2014

THE FASCINATING WORLD OF PROTOTYPE LEICA CAMERAS


No camera in history has influenced photography as we know it as much as the Leica has.  Not only was it the Leica that established 35mm photography as a viable, professional photographic format, it also allowed the creation of a totally different style of photography, a style that allowed to shoot virtually instantaneously and thus capture true to life photographs like never before.  Photo journalism as we know it would never have happened without the Leica.  Not only that, but the Leica also gave other manufacturers the impetus to design, build and market competing cameras.

Subsequently much has been written about the Leica company and its products over the years.  Many people are familiar with the original prototype Leicas, the UR-Leica and the preproduction models which preceded the first Leica that reached the market.  However, little is known about the development of cameras that Leica built and tried, which never did make it to the market.  Anyone who ever visited the Leica museum will have noticed a variety of Leica Versuchsmodelle (test cameras), which present a fascinating insight of the Leica cameras beyond what is generally known.

Preceding even the original prototype Leica, the Ur-Leica, was a motion picture camera that Oskar Barnack built.  It ultimately gave the impetus for Barnack to design the-Ur Leica.



Oskar Barnack's motion picture camera

The Ur-Leica, the camera that started it all

An experimental camera, the so-called Prototype3

Another, virtually unknown camera is a prototype which was described in the Book “Barnacks Erste Leica” (Barnack’s First Leica), written by Dr. Günter Kisselbach.  I did get permission from Dr. Kisselbach to use some of the pictures from the book.  The camera belonged to his father Theo Kisselbach who obtained it from Oskar Barnack.  It is similar in its layout and design to the preproduction Leicas, the so-called 0-Series cameras which ultimately led to the production of the first Leica in 1925.





These cameras go back almost to the the days when the very first days when the Leica reached the photographic camera market.  Oskar Barnack, ever looking for improvement, was the first to try different approaches and variations of his initial creations.

Almost as soon as photography was invented, as soon as the first pictures were made, people looked beyond the flat, two dimensional pictures, to create more lifelike pictures.  This lead to stereo photography soon after the basic photographic processes had been invented.

Thus it is not surprising that Oskar Barnack looked at stereo photography as well.  He designed a stereo Leica in 1935 which essentially was a stretched version of an existing Leica with two lenses, the Doppel Leica (double Leica).  Besides the two lenses, the camera also had two shutters which were released simultaneously when the shutter release was depressed.  The film advance was modified such that after each exposure the film was advanced two frames.  The two lenses were 35mm lenses with the viewfinder positioned exactly between the two.

 
Doppel Leica (double Leica) for stereo photography

Another one of Barnack’s experimental cameras, also made in the 1930s, is a panorama camera.  The lens was connected to the camera with a bellows and a clockwork mechanism allowed the lens to pivot about its axis.

 

Panorama Leica



Experimental camera body

At approximately the same time as the Panorama Leica, another experimental body was designed with a two-lens turret which allowed two lenses to be mounted simultaneously and to be easily switched from one to the other by simply turning the turret.

 
Leica Turret

Another camera of that time was the Leica 250 which allowed being loaded with film for 250 exposures.  This camera is relatively well known since it was marketed for a short time.  It also included an electric motor for more rapid film advance.  Another prototype of this camera does exist with a tall body design which features a completely flat top plate with only the shutter release, shutter speed dial and an accessory shoe attached.  Why this departure from the standard model was made is unknown.

 
Marketed version of Leica 250 with attached motor

 
Leica 250 tall body

The Leica 250 was accompanied in 1934 by another, long roll prototype, the Leica 75.  It was built to investigate if there was enough interest on the camera market for a camera with an extended length of film for 75 exposures.  The camera was based on the Leica IIIa and was the only Leica ever besides the 250 that had cassette to cassette film advance.

 
Leica 75

Another camera designed at the same time period was a Leica II with an opening back to facilitate easier loading.  This design too never reached the market and an opening back was not to be seen until the introduction of the Leica M3.

 
Leica II with opening back

In the early 1950, so called half frame cameras gained a certain popularity and Leica explored the market with the Leica 72, a half frame version of the Leica IIIa with a negative size of 18mm x 24mm.  A few of these cameras were made in Wetzlar, but the vast majority of the cameras sold were made in the Leitz facility in Midland, Ontario.

Since a half frame design takes up less space, Leitz designed two cameras specifically for the half frame format.  This resulted in the Leica Box from the early 1950s.  Even more streamlined was the Leica H from 1959.  This was a beautifully made camera with automatic exposure control.  The most notable feature was a folding lens, very much like on the Minox EL.  It allowed the lens to be folded into the camera body when not in use.  Even though it was never confirmed, it is thought that the Leica H design resulted in the development of another camera at Leica, a design that was later transferred to Minox in Giessen, only 20 miles from Wetzlar

 
Marketed version of Leica 72 with viewfinder mask

 
Leica Box

 
Leica H

In the early 1950s Leitz developed an even smaller camera for use with 16mm motion picture film.  This camera was designed to use a special cassette for the film to allow instant loading, not unlike the Kodak 126 and 110 Instamatic film cartridges.  It is interesting to note that this development took place before Kodak introduced the 126 Instamatic.

  
Leica Cassetta 16mm (?) cartridge camera, body only

Further development of this principle resulted in a camera that came the closest to being marketed by Leitz.   Initially it was planned to introduce the camera at the 1974 Photokina in Cologne, but further market research indicated that it was an inappropriate camera for Leitz.  The camera was the Leica 110, utilizing the Kodak 110 film.  Even sales literature had been printed and Leitz, together with Agfa even developed a 110 slide projector which was marketed by both companies for a short time.  The Leica 110 was without a doubt one of the most sophisticated and best performing 110 camera, and a number of people still question the last minute decision not to market the camera.  Slides taken with the camera on Kodachrome 25 were of an absolutely fascinating quality.

 
Leica 110 chrome

 
Leica 110 black

 
Pradovit Color 110 projector

How serious Leitz was about the 110 format is further shown by a technical drawing from a patent filed for a 110 zoom SLR camera.  It is unknown if any experimental models were ever made, but it is an interesting design for sure.

 
Leica 110 Zoom SLR

Besides the original Leica prototype, the Ur-Leica, one of the most significant developments in the history of Leica was the Leica M3.  It came about from the need to have easier interchangeable lenses with a viewfinder that allowed the use of most Leica lenses without the need for auxiliary viewfinders.  Obviously, this camera did not come about overnight.  It was the culmination of a long development process.  One of the earliest moves in this direction was the Leica IV.  While still relying on the standard Leica screw mount, the camera did have a built-in viewfinder/rangefinder with interchangeable segments that allowed switching between different focal lengths.

 
Leica IV

 
Leica IV with removed viewfinder module

 
Leica IV technical drawing

WestLicht of Vienna, Austria recently sold a prototype labelled as a Leica M6 electronic which was ultimately replaced by the Leica M6 as we know it.  It was designed by Peter Loseries and the prototypes were made in 1981.  The camera was based on the Leica R4 body.  The pentaprism and the mirror box were removed and replaced by the Leica M rangefinder.  It also included the angled rewind knob of the Leica M4.  The camera maintained the shutter of the R4 as well as most of the electronics.  This resulted in an M Leica with TTL metering and automatic exposure control.  This was achieved by placing the sensor of the light meter on an arm which would swing out of the way prior to making any exposure, reminiscent of the Leica M5.  The camera would also accept the data back and the motor drives of the R4.  The so-called “M6 electronic” was finished in late 1981 and only four complete prototypes were ever produced.

LEICA M6 with an electronic shutter, 1981 prototype
LEICA M6 with an electronic shutter, 1981 prototype

Front view of LEICA M6 electronic with ELMARIT-M 1:2.8/28mm lens incoporrated with an electronic shutter, 1981 prototype model
Front view of LEICA M6 electronic with experimental protorype Elmarit-M 1:2.8/28mm lens 

LEICA M4-style design in a LEICA M6 Prototype camera, 1981
 Rear view of Leica M6 Electronic

Emarit-M 1:2.8/28mm mounted on a LEICA M6 prototype camera in 1981
Leica M6 electrinic with experimental prototype Elmarit-M 1:2.8/28mm lens  and attached Leica R4 motor

Base plate, LEICA M6 prototype body with electronic shutter, 1981
Base plate, LEICA M6 prototype body with connection for the Leica R4 motor

Special thanks to Peter Coeln of WestLicht for giving permission to use his photographs of the “M6 electronic” on these pages.

Not all Leica prototypes were actually made by Leica.  One such camera is the Leica M2-250, a standard M2 converted to accept film for 250 exposures.  The camera was made by Norman Goldberg.  He had established Camcraft, an independent workshop which specialized in repairs and custom modifications to professional photographic equipment. In 1966 he became a technical consultant to Popular Photography, devising a lens testing program for them and creating their testing laboratory, and in 1972 he joined the staff of the magazine. He retired in 1987 after working for Popular Photography for 22 years.

While running Camcraft, he became the first Leica authorized service facility for Leica cameras in the US.  Goldberg is perhaps best known as the creator of the Camcraft N-5 electric motor drive for the Leica M2 and MP. However, he has also several other inventions for Leicas and other cameras to his credit.  For instance, the clip he designed to permit wearing an M Leica on the belt was widely used, and he also offered modifications of the Visoflex, utilizing either a prism or a pellicle mirror.  He also designed and built a considerable amount of testing equipment to test cameras and lenses, including the equipment used at Popular Photography, and he held numerous patents.

 
 Camcraft N-5 motor with power supply

 
Camcraft N-5 motor attached to Leica M2

The first camcraft N-5 motor was introduced in 1961.  After several modifications to the original design, the final version was made by TPI (Technical Photomation Instruments) of Los Angeles.  Eventually Leitz bought the patents and the rights to the motor.  Over the years they made over a thousand units of what was often called the NY Motor.  It was sold for the M2-M and later for the M4-M.

With the motor in place, 36 exposures could go very fast, and the need to change to a new roll of film was ever present.  This lead to thoughts of a larger capacity of film and Goldberg began to design a 250 exposure conversion of a Leica M2 which incorporated the successful N-5 motor.  The modifications are based on a standard Leicavit rapid advance.  They included larger film compartments at both the supply and take up side of the camera which were attached to the camera and the Leicavit.  The manual film advance of the Leicavit was replaced by the N-5 motor.  Power was supplied via a cord, connected to a separate power supply which contained the batteries.  Only one of the M2-250 cameras is in existence, making it also one of the rarest Leicas.





M2-250 original design sketch by Norman Goldberg


These are only a few experimental cameras that we know of, a lot more has been and is going on at Leitz/Leica that we don’t know about.  But it is a fascinating insight into the history Leica. 

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6 comments:

  1. I am surprised to see that they put so much effort into 110 cameras. Isn't that counter to their overall performance oriented philosophy?

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  2. Not at all. We must remember that the Leica came about as a very small, yet very well performing camera, and by doing so, was nothing short of a sensation in 1925. It was at that time that Leitz coined the phrase "small camera, big picture." Thus I don't find it surprising at all that they put a lot of effort into developing high end 110 cameras. If better films had been available, these might have been quite successful. another reason for aborting this project might have been the fact that Kodak was demanding considerable royalties from anyone that was using their system.

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    Replies
    1. Why did Leica go with the Kodak 110 system instead of their own drop-in loading system? Your article mentioned that they developed that in the 1950s already.

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    2. Drop-in film loading was developed by several companies. Fro instance. at around the same time Kodak came out with their 126 Instamatic cartridges. Agfa developed the substantially superior Rapid rapid loading system. But Kodak, being the giant they were at that time, was able to convince the entire photographic world that 126 was the way to go. Agfa marketed the Rapid system for a while, but it never got any traction with other manufacturers. Then, when Kodak came out with the 110 format, the rest of the photographic world jumped on that bandwagon rather quickly. That finally came to an end when Kodak once again tried this with their disc system. The rest of the photo industry finally went their own way, and the Kodak disc system ultimately was a dismal failure, as was the APS sytem. It was looked upon as a stop gap measure by Kodak to stem the wave of the upcoming digital photography. I have never understood the APS system. Its advantages could just as easily been incorporated into standard 35mm film which would have had a better chance of survival, for a while anyway. That time, as it turned out, was the beginning of the ultimate demise of Eastman Kodak.

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    3. Are you saying that the APS system put Kodak out of business?

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    4. No, what I am saying is that is was the beginning of the end. A large percentage of Kodak's revenues were generated by film sales. With the advent of digital photography they developed the APS system as a measure to compete with digital photography. It made processing and especially printing substantially easier than ever before by having a translucent layer on top of the emulsion which contained information about the individual photographs, in terms of color temperature, exposure, etc. which was then automatically evaluated by automated printing machines which ultimately allowed for easier and more accurate printing. However, as I see it, Kodak made two major mistakes. For one thing these machines had to be purchased by any lab that wanted to be able to service the APS films. Since APS was a new negative size, existing machines could not be updated and the new processors had to be added as complete units. If memory serves me right, the cost was about 150 thousand dollars per machine. Why they didn't incorporate all of these new features with standard 35mm film is an enigma. But the bigger mistake made by Kodak was to underestimate the threat from digital photography. The market changed from analog (film) to digital within an amazingly short time. When Kodak finally entered the digital market, they never obtained any leadership position at all, even though they manufactured sensors and digital cameras of their own. By that time competition from other manufacturers was too great and Kodak, until the end of the company as we knew it, was not so much a competitor than a "me too" player. I don't want to sound overly critical of Kodak here, because they certainly were not the only ones caught by the digital revolution. Virtually all of the well known companies of the analog age are all but gone today.

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