Tuesday, December 31, 2019


By Heinz Richter

Many Leica enthusiasts are familiar with the history of the Leica camera.  However, the history of the company goes back much further, almost as far as the history of photography itself.  But few are aware of the fact that Leica made a camera that preceded the famous Ur-Leica or Leica prototype from 1913.  That was…


Much has been written about how the Leica came into existence with the first prototype, the Ur-Leica from 1913. However, the beginnings of 35mm photography as we know it today began at the Leitz company a few years before that.

The year was 1908 when Emil Mechau, a master mechanic, began work at Leitz. He had been working on a special motion picture projector design that eliminated the flicker of the common projectors at that time. His design replaced the typical frame by frame film transport by a claw with a prism which allowed a continuous, smooth running speed of the film. However, Zeiss in Jena, Mechau’s employer, showed no interest in his design and Emil Mechau contacted Leitz in Wetzlar. Leitz apparently was more farsighted and Mechau decided to move to Wetzlar.

In 1910 it became apparent that Leitz was in need of a master machinist in the microscope research department. Emil Mechau thought immediately of his friend Oskar Barnack at Zeiss and suggested him to the Leitz management. Leitz contacted Barnack on short order, but he was hesitant. Though he seemed dissatisfied with his work in Jena, he answered, “Surely it is not desirable for a company to hire a young employee who still has to familiarize himself with the new tasks and whose health compels him to take a leave of absence of one or two months every year, not to mention the fact that the costs of such cures would be too high for me as a private person.” The answer impressed Ernst Leitz and he decided to hire him in spite of his disclaimers. His assurances prevailed and on January 1, 1911, Barnack arrived in Wetzlar.

Barnack's letter to Leitz

As a master machinist one of Barnack’s first tasks was to design diamond lathes for the lens polishing department. Soon he started work on an all aluminum movie camera, a radical departure from the heavy wooden models of the time. This venture resulted from the company’s need for films to test Emil Mechau’s projector and Leitz did not see fit to buy a camera from another company.

Barnack himself made a number of movies with his new device and samples of his work still exist. Members of the LHSA (Leica Historical Society of America) had the pleasure to view several of these movies during their annual meeting in Minneapolis in 1980.

Barnack working with his motion picture camera

One of the problems of shooting movie film at the time was determining proper exposure. Photoelectric meters were not yet available and the camera operator always ran the risk of losing the whole 200 foot roll to improper lens settings. Barnack decided to build a small exposure testing device that would use short sections of movie stock.

Barnack’s “lightmeter” was equipped with a Zeiss Kino Tessar lens and had a fixed exposure time of 1/40 second, the common motion picture shutter speed. The quality of the results surprised him; in the motion picture film he had finally found a fine enough grain structure to yield good enlargements and he recalled his old idea of making a small negative camera. He decided to give the problem a good try and, in 1913, he finished his first real still camera. This camera, commonly referred to as the Ur-Leica, was the beginning of 35mm photography as we know it today, yet it might never have come into existence without the Barnack motion picture camera. Thus this camera deserves recognition as having been the impetus for Barnack to become the father of modern 35mm photography and the Leica.

The camera became part of the collection of cameras at Leitz. Unfortunately it was heavily damaged in a fire and it was left in its poor condition for many years.

It wasn’t until the mid 70s that anything was to be done about its poor condition.

I recently was contacted by a reader of this blog, Wilf James. He wrote:

“Thanks for your reply to my question about Barnack's movie camera that I posted today.

For many years (beginning in 1974) I worked for Derek Grossmark of Hove Camera Company who also published many of the early books on the history of the Leica camera. Grossmark started Hove Foto Books by publishing reprints of user manuals of early Leica cameras. The first major book was 'Leica The First Fifty Years by Gianni Rogliatti' as I am sure you are aware. My wife at the time was also involved in helping with the manuscript which had been translated from Italian, she has a credit in the first edition to that effect (Eileen James). It was the first time that someone had tried to publish a history of the the Leica camera. Many other books followed!”

Wilf James at Hove Camera in the mid 70s

At that time the foremost expert on the repair and restoration of Leica cameras was Malcolm Taylor. He and I worked together for a number of years before he left Hove Camera Company to set up his own business. Sometime between 1976 / 78 after he had visited Wetzlar a number of times he was asked to do the restoration work on Barnack's movie camera. This was completely separate from his employment with Derek Grossmark. He did the work in the evenings and quite often I was in the darkroom next to his workshop as he did the restoration work. After the work was completed Malcolm and I took the cine camera down to the beach area of the town of Brighton in southern England, which was only a short walk from the camera store, and I shot a number of frames trying to recreate a similar image to the one with Oscar Barnack operating his cine camera. I'm not sure I quite managed recreate the image but somewhere in my negative archives are those shots created 35 years ago.”

The pictures shown here have never been published anywhere other than on the LEICA Barnack Berek Blog.

Malcolm Taylor with the restored Barnack cine camera at Brighton Beach

Wilf James later purchased Hove Camera from Derek Grossmark and was the owner of the company until he sold it several years ago. Wilf currently lives in France, running World Photo Adventure. www.worldphotoadventure.com

Wilf was very helpful in contacting Malcolm Taylor and getting his permission for me to call him to get more information about the Barnack cine camera.

As Wilf mentioned in one of his emails, Malcolm Taylor had visited the Leitz company sometimes in the latter part of the 1970s. It was at that time that Ernst Leitz III asked him to try to restore the Barnack cine camera. This turned out to be substantially more complicated than he ever imagined.



The restored camera in Malcolm Taylor's workshop

There are no technical drawings or other information about this camera at all. All Taylor had to work with was the camera, nothing else. He explained that he carefully began to disassemble the camera, keeping exact records of the various parts and their location within the camera. As he explained, he tried to get “into Barnack’s head,” trying to think as he did to get a better understanding of how the camera worked.


 The inner mechanism of the camera

Besides trying to figure out the operation of the camera, it was extremely difficult to work on the camera. Because of the fire, parts were so badly damaged that removing them easily caused additional damage. For instance, in some cases removing screws resulted often in the screws disintegrating, or the screw holes losing all of their threads.

Malcolm Taylor was very careful to keep the camera in as much of its original design as possible. This resulted in a lot of very detailed work. In cases where it was possible, he restored the deteriorated threads or, when impossible, enlarged and rethreaded many of the screw holes. This required also larger screws to be installed. In these cases he manufactured the larger screws, but was careful to keep the heads of the screws in their original size to assure that the outward appearance of the camera did not change.

He also found that Barnack had used paper shims in several places to keep the necessary tolerances.  To keep the camera as close to its original condition as possible, he replaced these deteriorated shims with new ones, of a similar paper stock.

The original film magazine of the camera was totally destroyed. Taylor had to make an entirely new one. Here he used some old pictures of the camera to manufacture a new magazine as close to the original as possible.

 The new film magazine

Since Malcolm Taylor was only able to work on the camera outside his duties at Hove camera, it took a long time to finish the work. He doesn’t remember exactly how long, but the result is that Barnack’s cine camera is in good working condition once again. 

To this day he is in awe of the design of the camera, and he feels very fortunate to essentially have become an extension of Barnack’s genius. As a matter of fact, this extended beyond the cine camera when Ernst Leitz III asked him to work on the Ur-Leica as well. For instance, he explained that the winding knob of the camera is not original. Taylor replaced it with a new one he manufactured. But that is a story for another time…

These days Malcolm Taylor is enjoying his retirement in the England countryside.

 Please note the Ur-Leica replica over Malcolm Taylor's shoulder

Special thanks to Wilf James for making the previously never published pictures of Barnack's camera available.

This was not to be the only motion picture camera Leica made.  In the 60s Leica entered the motion picture market with their first 8mm camera, called the Leicina.  Several models followed, including models in the Super 8 format.  The Leica motion picture cameras were all quite sophisticated, but none was as advanced as the…


These days, when we can take video clips even with a cell phone, and when many digital cameras allow to be used as video cameras as well, it is easy to forget what preceded this technology.  Yet in the old home movie days, a few cameras stood out from the crowd as incredibly sophisticated examples.

One such camera was the Leicina Special, arguably the most sophisticated Super 8 camera ever made.  When Leitz announced many years ago that they were discontinuing the Leicina Special, they ended one of the lesser known areas in the history of the Leitz/Leica companies.

As we know from photographic history, the Leica owns its existence to the research that Oskar Barnack did with an all metal motion picture camera in the early 1900s.

With the advent of 8mm amateur movies, Leitz entered this market with a camera of their own.  The basic concept of the early Leicina cameras was steadily improved upon.  The initially fixed lenses were replaced by zoom lenses, separate light metering was replaced by through the lens metering, and electronics took over more and more of the functions of the camera.  Finally there was the Leicina Special, one of the most advanced Super 8 cameras of all time.  Incorporating many of the Leicina Super RT 1, it was Leitz’s final try to gain sales on the home movie market.  Unfortunately success was denied.  The less elaborate and less expensive competition won.

But what a camera was lost!

The system core was an electronically controlled camera body.  It incorporated a through-the- lens metering system.  Unlike most other Super 8 cameras, the ASA film speeds were not automatically keyed in, but had to be set manually.  This offered the possibility of an exposure override, like pushing films or the creative use of over or under exposure.  The bright, flicker free viewfinder offered three interchangeable focusing screens.  At the turn of a knob, one had the choice of micro prism focusing, split image focusing, and a real image with cross hairs.  The meter readout was located above the extremely bright viewfinder image.  Two release knobs, located on top and in the folding hand grip, activated running speeds of 9, 18, and 25 frames per second.  Separate switches also offered single frame and a slow motion speed of 54 frames per second.  This could be activated by pushing the slow motion button on top of the camera, in order to switch from whatever other speed was in use.  By simply pressing and turning the knob, 54 fps were activated permanently.  All speeds were governed electronically to assure perfect frame frequencies, which was particularly important for time laps photography and sound coupling.

For lap dissolve photography, a one-button control was all that needed depressing.  Activating the switch at the end of a scene would the automatically start a complete fade-out, visible in the viewfinder, and automatic film rewind, at the end of which the camera would simply stop.  Starting a new scene at some time later would then automatically start with an automatic fade-in, even if the camera had been shut off.  This, however, required the Leicina automatic control unit.  More about that later.

The viewfinder offered a built-in diopter control from -3 to +3.  It also had a shutter blind, in order to avoid erroneous exposure during copy or similar types of work, where the eyepiece is not shaded by the head.  The extremely large exit pupil of the viewfinder made it possible even for eye glass wearers to quickly observe the entire viewfinder image.

The elongated body shape offered an extremely easy handling of the camera.  With one hand on the hand grip, the other on top of the camera, and the forehead against the rubber pad in the back of the camera, the camera offered an extremely sturdy three point support, even during hand-holding.  It didn’t make any difference if one was right or left handed, since all controls were positioned such that they could easily be reached with either hand.  The rubber pad in the back of the camera also contained the easily interchangeable battery pack, which supplied power to all functions of the camera.

A small dial on the side of the camera changed the built-in filters between daylight and incandescent light.

Unlike most other cameras before, the Leicina Special offered interchangeable lenses.  It was the only Super 8 camera on the market that did not utilize the relatively small C-mount.  Instead it made use of the much sturdier Leica M mount.  The lens to film plane distance was the same as in the Leica M cameras, meaning that all the Leica M lenses could be used on the camera as well.  In addition, there were adapters for Leica reflex lenses, Pentax/Praktica type screw mount lenses, Minolta bayonet lenses and the Ariflex type motion picture lenses.  All lenses offered through-the-lens exposure control via match needle operation.  The possibility of the accessory lenses offered astounding possibilities in the telephoto range.  Considering that the normal focal length of a Super 8 camera is approximately ¼ of that of a 35mm camera, this means that even a 50mm lens is already the equivalent of a 200mm lens on a 35mm camera.  Coupling the 800mm Telyt with the 2x extender would mean the equivalent of a 6,400mm f/12.6 lens in 35mm.  The possibilities are mind boggling.

 Leicina Special, shown here with 90mm f/2 Summicron M and 50mm f/1.4 Summilux M

Specifically for the Leicina Special, Leitz offered two lenses, the 10mm f/1.8 Macro Cinegon, and the 6-66 f/1.8 Optivaron, manufactured by Schneider in Kreuznach, Germany.  Both the Macro Cinegon and the Optivaron had to be used with the same match needle exposure control.  But the Optivaron could either be converted to or bought with the Leicinamatic control unit.  This had various functions.  From a number of electronic contacts on the front of the camera the Leicinamatic was coupled to the power supply of the camera.  It contained two motors, one of which was for the power zoom.  It could be infinitely varied from a 1.5 to 6 second full 6-66 zoom range.  Manual zooming was fully maintained without the necessity to switch over from one to the other.  The second motor effectuated the automatic exposure control.  Unlike conventional movie cameras, where usually two v-shaped diaphragm blades are attached directly to the meter movement, the servo motor in the Leicinamatic would receive information directly from the meter, in turn varying the lens opening by actually turning the diaphragm ring.  Thus the lens could utilize a standard, multi bladed diaphragm, which has proven to render better image quality.  A small switch could easily change between automatic and manual exposure control.

The Optivaron also offered macro focusing features, making it possible to focus as close as the surface of the front element of the lens.  Since the focal length used influenced the macro focusing, the zoom lever could be used for focusing, allowing the possibility of power focusing in the macro range.

Due to the acceptability of all the various lens mounts listed before, this also included a large number of accessories like bellows, microscope adapters, even an endoscope.

One of the most useful accessories was the Leicina electronic control unit.  It could be used for the current supply and connection to external energy sources like a car battery, house currant etc.  But it also functioned as a superb timer offering the possibility of automatic time lapse photography.  Single frame exposures could be taken at rates from one frame per 0.15 sec. to one frame per 6 minutes.  Furthermore, the length of a scene could be automatically governed within a range of 0.2 to 10 seconds.  This feature could also be combined with the interval timer.  The electronic control unit had an electronic flash outlet, which offered the possibility of connecting any electronic flash to the camera.

Leicina Special with 6-66mm Optivaron and Leicinamatic

Leicina Special with 50mm f/1.4 Summilux M

Via the electronic control unit, the camera could also place timing impulses of alternately one frame or one every four frames to a tape recorder.  This offered professional quality sound synch, otherwise found only in professional type motion picture camera of 16 or 35mm.

The extremely large base of the elongated camera bottom offered an oversized platform to attach to a tripod, making the Leicina substantially sturdier on a tripod than any other 8mm camera.

In the interest of time and space, I could only give a description of the main features of the camera.  Hopefully, it helped to make the reader aware of what an incredible instrument this camera really was.  The convenience of use is unmatched by any other 8mm camera ever made.  The only improvement that I would have liked to see was a mirror type shutter, similar to the one used in Beaulieu cameras, in order to offer full light transmission to the film as well as the viewfinder.  The beam splitter in the Leicina, while mechanically more reliable, did present a light loss of  approximately 20% to the film, by splitting 10% of the light off to the light metering system and 10% to the viewfinder.  Other than that, the camera presented a truly professional approach to the Super 8 camera system.

The camera may have been certain overkill.  The resulting relatively high price limited the market substantially, and even the closest competitor to the Leicina, the French Beaulieu, had to revert to less expensive, Japanese made compromise cameras, in order to keep the entire line profitable.  Since this is a practice that Leitz refused to follow, it surely had a lot to do with the decision to discontinue any further participation in the field of motion picture cameras.  Meanwhile, anyone owning a Leicina Special at the time was indeed a lucky fellow.

However, as much as yesterday’s technology this is, compared to modern digital motion picture cameras, the Leicina might not be quite ready for existence in museums only.  I recently came across an article describing the development of a digital super 8 cartridge.  The Nolab Digital Super 8 Cartridge will allow any Super 8 camera to be converted to allow digital recording, thus allowing for the Leicina Special to become a very viable digital motion picture camera.

Nolab 2
Nolab digital Super 8 cartridge

 Nolab 4
Nolab cartridge inserted in Nizo Super 8 camera

Designer Hayes Urban had the following to say about the device:

At the heart of the Nolab Digital Super 8 Cartridge is a tiny but powerful 5 megapixel image sensor similar to the one in your smartphone. Combined with a custom glass objective lens, the sensor focuses on a ground glass image plane pressed against the camera’s film gate. By using a 5 megapixel sensor we can capture 720p HD footage at the native Super 8 aspect ratio of 4:3.

Processors integrated into the image sensor are able to  process and encode the footage in real time to a removable SD card. Optionally the same processors can apply one of two predefined Film Look color correction filters to the footage. That sounds simple enough, To allow the Nolab cartridges image sensor to synchronize with the cameras shutter, a unique sensor had to be developed. Its this design that allows the cartridge to work properly in any camera at any frame rate up to 60 fps.

Let’s hope this enters the market soon.  It would definitely allow many good Super 8 cameras to be saved form oblivion.  The Leicina Special definitely very much deserves it.

 Here are the basic specs:


720p HD video capture in 4:3 format
Frame rate automatically adjusts to camera settings (up to 60 fps)
Integrated Film Look options
Unlimited storage via removable SD card
Battery and recording status light


Image Sensor: 5 megapixel Omni Vision OV5600 series
Video Encoding: 720p HD H.264 (4:3)
Memory: Removable high capacity SD card
Connections: One mini USB port (primarily for charging)
Battery: Rechargeable LiPo battery providing up to 3 hours of continuous recording
Housing: Machined aluminum, color anodized and laser etched
Height: 70mm
Width: 75mm
Depth: 24mm
Weight: 160 g

Will we ever see the Nolab cartridge on the market - we have to wait and see.  In view of the fact that even conventional digital camera are now capable of recording video images, even in high definition, this seems doubtful.  On the other hand, the Nolab digital cartridge would be a welcome addition to high end Super 8 cameras like the Leicina Special.






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