When Steve Jobs introduced Apple’s iPhone4, he said, ‘It’s like a beautiful old Leica camera’. The phrase was no doubt chosen because where design is concerned, Leica is shorthand for form, function, simplicity and, yes, beauty.
Today, if someone uses the generic term ‘Leica’, what they are almost certainly referring to is the Leica M series. Launched in 1954, the first Leica M camera was the M3, and this, with its pared-down looks and compact, portable versatility, perfectly embodies the qualities that have been the foundation of Leica’s success ever since.
Lovers of the M are many and include not only legendary photographers like William Klein, Garry Winogrand and Henri Cartier-Bresson (the pioneering street
photographer who used a standard M3, no doubt appreciative of the discretion it afforded), but also car designers like Andrea Zagato and Walter de Silva of Audi and VW. De Silva even created a special Leica, the M9 Titan, as a collaborative project, as did Jonathan Ive, Apple’s former Chief Design Officer, who in partnership with his friend and business partner, designer Marc Newson, developed a one-off camera to be auctioned for charity – the Leica M (Red).
The M has forged its reputation as the epitome of the firm’s contribution to the art and practice of photography, which was the introduction of compact cameras to replace the huge kit that preceded these. A precision engineer and keen amateur photographer at the Leitz company (as Leica was originally called) named Oskar Barnack developed the idea of a ‘small film camera’, which he designed so that a small negative could produce a large print. As an asthmatic, he struggled with the cumbersome plate cameras of the day, and came up with the idea of using cine film stock (35mm). The 36 frames of a standard roll of film even derive from the distance of his outstretched arms, which he used as a measure of how much film to fit into a cartridge for his new small camera.
Of course, some half a century later photography went digital. But Leica responded to this shift by preserving the key aspects of its cameras: the manageable size and simplicity. And the quality of the images – captured through the precision lenses that are made at the company’s HQ in Germany, and which still require a lot of hand-work. And of course, the quality of the images captured through the precision lenses, many of which are made at the company’s HQ in Wetzlar, Germany, and still require a lot of hand-work.
Last week the firm launched the latest in the M series, the M11. A side-by-side comparison between this and the original M3 reveals that despite the changes in technology required to move from analogue to digital, there is an astonishing resemblance, and the size variation is a matter of mere millimetres.
However, the new Leica M11 is a very different animal from the original, as you would expect, and also an evolution of the M10, M10-P and M10-R that preceded it. With a 60MP BSI CMOS sensor, a lighter weight body, plus a more accessible battery and a USB-C socket, the M11 feels like a good blend of new tech and established M functionality. It is undoubtedly a sophisticated tool, with excellent electronics, optics and mechanics, but Leicas have always prided themselves on being intuitive to operate. Indeed, all the M11’s many settings are operated by only three buttons on its rear. With minimal understanding of the basics of ISO, shutter speed, aperture and focus, Leica says users will ‘find its manual operation barely more challenging than taking pictures with a smartphone’.
The Leica M11 from £7,500 for the camera body; leica.com