Tuesday, April 13, 2021



By Heinz Richter

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 chapters in the history of the Leica.

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 features, 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 outdoor and indoor lighting.

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 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 cartridge’s image sensor to synchronize with the camera’s shutter, a unique sensor had to be developed. It’s this design that allows the cartridge to work properly in any camera at any frame rate up to 60 fps.

Obviously, there have been some improvements in sensor technology since Nolab announced their digital cartridge. Let’s hope it enters the market soon in an updated version.  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 of the original version:


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

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