Tuesday, February 26, 2013


It is often said that the Leica was the first 35mm camera.  However, that does require some qualification.  If we look at cameras from the prototype stage, the Leica was there almost from the very beginning.  While a fair amount is known about the Leica, any similar information is almost impossible to obtain about most other cameras.   Therefore it is a lot more accurate to look at cameras from the date they were actually introduced to the photographic market.  In this regard there are several cameras that preceded the Leica.

The credit to have established 35mm photography as we know it goes without a doubt to the Leica.  It was of a revolutionary design and practicality that eluded all the early 35mm cameras to the point that the only thing they had in common was the fact that they utilized 35mm motion picture film.

In their infancy motion picture cameras used a large variety of different films and types of perforation.  As a matter of fact, even photographic plates were used at one time.  These were carefully fastened in wooden frames, connected between two leather belts with grommets. which had the same function as the film perforation.  This was the invention of a Scottish gentleman.  The system worked, but it was very prone to failure and ultimately, while working in principle, was way ahead of its time.  This was at the middle of the 1800s, and we had to wait until the end of that century before practical motion pictures did reach the market.

Here the main credit goes to the Lumiere brothers in France and Thomas a. Edison in the US.  Both used perforated film material to assure proper handling of the film within the camera and projector.  However, while Edison used a small, enclosed viewing device, accessible to only a couple of people at a time, the Lumiere’s were the first to project film onto a large screen in a theater.

The 35mm film as we know it today came about upon the initiative of Edison and George Eastman of Kodak.  They both realized that the multitude of different film formats and perforation arrangements needed to be standardized.  They decided on the 35mm film format with perforation on both sides of the film and a motion picture image of 18mm x 24mm.

These films proved to be of a rather good quality, far better than the glass plate material available at the time for still photography.  Thus it should come as no surprise that some people rightly figured that the same film should be useful for standard still photography as well.  All that was necessary was a suitable camera.

Just as the film was spun off from motion pictures, the cameras used the same path.  Virtually all of the early 35mm still cameras were essentially no more than motion picture cameras, converted for single frame operation.  As a matter of fact, some even used unperforated 35mm film to allow for a larger image size.  In those cases the film was made with a paper backing like conventional roll film.  The cameras that did use standard 35mm film initially all utilized the 18mm x 24mm image size or something quite similar.

This shows the great farsighted ness of Oskar Barnack, the inventor of the Leica.  Even his prototype camera, the so called Ur-Leica did away with any of these conventions.  Rather than running the film vertically, like in all motion picture cameras, he decided to run the film horizontally.  This allowed for a twice as large 24mm x 36mm image size which was to become the standard of the industry.  In spite of the large image size, the camera was substantially smaller, which is another reason for the later success of the Leica.

Leica Prototype or Ur-Leica 1913

One of the earliest examples of a 35mm camera was the Tourist Multiple from 1913.  It was made by the Herbert & Huesgen, New Ideas Mfg. Co. in the US and was the first commercially produced 35mm camera ever.  The camera used a 50 foot magazine for the film which allowed 750 half frame 18mm x 24mm exposures to be made.

Tourist Multiple 1913

The Tourist Multipel was soon followed by the Simplex in 1914, made by Multi Speed of New York.  This camera too used the half frame format and utilized enough film for 800 exposures.

Simplex 1914

Needless to say, because of the great length of film, these cameras were rather large and heavy.  It wasn’t until 1915, when Levy Roth introduced the  Minigraph in Austria, that film length became a lot more manageable.  The Minigraph used film for 50 exposures in special cassettes.  But this camera too followed the motion picture cameras with its half frame format.

Minigraph 1915

Another camera with a 50 half frame capacity was the Le Phototank from 1922.  It was made by Victor Houssin in France.  Another camera from 1922 was the Sico, madeby Simons & Co in Switzerland.  The Sico took a different path by utilizing unperforated 35mm film.  This allowed for a much larger 30mm x 40mm negative size with a capacity of 25 exposures.  

Le Phototank 1922

Sico 1922

These cameras were followed in 1923 by the Sept.  It was made in France by Debrie.  The camera was equipped with a spring driven motor which essentially made it a motion picture camera with a still frame feature.  Even though the camera itself was relatively compact, it was very heavy and not very comfortable to use. 

Sept 1923

Thus it was not surprising that the Leica created quite a sensation when it was introduced at the Leipzig Spring Fair in 1925.  The camera was substantially smaller and lighter than anything seen before.  In addition the camera used the 24mm x 36mm full frame format which assured noticeably better results.  This was further enhanced by the outstanding performance of the 50mm f/3.5 Anastigmat lens. 

Leica 1 or Model A

The camera quickly gained acceptance by a wide range of photographers from professionals to amateurs.  Finally there was a camera that was easy to use and, because of its diminutive size, easy to carry.  It was this camera that put 35mm photography on the map, so to speak.  As a matter of fact, the Leica influenced photography to a much greater extent than any other camera before or after.  Photography as we know it today simply would not have happened without this camera.


  1. Is it not the case that these forerunners of the Leica would have eventually gotten smaller?

    1. Possibly, but that was prevented in kind by the success of the Leica once it reached the market. The farsightedness of Barnack's design is clearly shown by the fact that the Ur-Leica already incorporated most of the features that set the original Leica apart from virtually its entire competition, once it was introduced at the Leipzig spring Fair in 1925. Even at that time, other attempts to make a 35mm camera were still based on converted motion picture cameras. Even the Ansco Memo from 1927 did not deviate from that approach, two years after the official introduction of the Leica. Any of these cameras were not at all successful. The only companies outside of Leica that did market 35mm cameras shortly after the Leica used designs that were similar to that of the Leica, as for instance the Zeiss Contax, 1932, the Kodak Retina, 1934, Kine Exacta, 1936, and Agfa Karat, 1937.

    2. Even today, the Leica still has a definite size advantage. The current Leica M is the smallest full frame, full featured, digital system camera on the market, and among the so called large format cameras, the Leica S is again smaller than any of the competition.

  2. I never heard of any of these companies that were making 35mm cameras before the Leica. Are any of them still in business?

    1. No, they all disappeared, either already before the introduction of the Leica or soon thereafter. Even the companies that jumped in the bandwagon after the Leica are mostly gone. The most successful of those companies were Zeiss, Ihagee (Exacta), Kodak and Agfa. Today, the most successful company of those is Zeiss. Kodak is all but gone, and Ihagee and Agfa are history. However, there were other companies that got their start in 35mm photography after the Leica. The two most notable ones are Nikon and Canon, both of which copied the Leica, especially Canon. Nikon took a different approach by copying the Zeiss Contax, but they did equip their camera with a copy of the Leica shutter. Besides Nikon and Canon, several other Japanese companies copied the Leica also.