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.
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.
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.
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
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 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
Front view of LEICA M6 electronic with experimental protorype Elmarit-M 1:2.8/28mm lens
Rear view of Leica M6 Electronic
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 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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