Inside the Leica camera company in Germany

The brutality of war laid bare in Napalm Girl, the joy of a nation expressed in the VJ-Day Kiss, the fight for freedom in the stare of Che Guevera.

Many of the images that shaped the cultural and political history of the 20th century were taken on a Leica camera. It's one of the oldest and most prestigious names in the business and anyone with even a passing interest in photography should put Leica's headquarters in Germany on their travel to-do list.

Leica headquarters in Germany.
An exhibition of 36 iconic images that are today renowned around the world. Photo credit: Newshub

I recently visited Leica as a guest of Huawei as the two work together on smartphone camera lenses. Their most recent collaboration is the P30 series.

Its headquarters can be found just 50 minutes from Frankfurt aiport in a town called Wetzlar (which is a great place to take photos).

I knew I was in the right place as soon as I arrived. The main building is shaped liked a film reel with a floor to ceiling glass facade that is custom made to be convex and concave where necessary. When viewed from above, the building also looks like a lens.

Leica headquarters in Germany.
Leica Camera AG headquarters complex at the Leitz Park in Wetzlar, Germany Photo credit: Newshub

Leica's story is a fascinating one. Small format photography as we know it today - also known as 35 mm - was born in this town more than 100 years ago, when an employee of the Leitz Werke created the first 'Lilliput camera', officially known as the ur-Leica. His name was Oliver Barnack.

It was originally built as a light meter to measure the exact exposure time for Barnack’s larger movie camera, but Barnack realised what he held in his hands. His first still photo was of Eisenmarkt in Wetzlar in 1913.

The Eisenmarkt  in Wetzlar.
L) Eisenmarkt in Wetzlar shot on the first Lilllput camera. R) A photo of the same building taken in 2019. Photo credit: Newshub.

A second prototype of the ur-Leica in 1914 followed and the small handheld camera, one of the first to use 35mm film, finally went into production in 1925, following a long delay caused by World War One. 

Barnack's second prototype of the ur-camera in 1914 is on display in the Leica facility.
Barnack's second prototype of the ur-camera in 1914 is on display in the Leica facility. Photo credit: Newshub.

Before Barnack’s creation, photography was still limited by long exposure times on big glass plates using wooden box cameras on tripods.

The Leica became popular because it could fit in a pocket easily and expose images almost immediately. It was the first 'field camera'.

With a 35-50mm lens, it wasn't built for long shots, more for capturing the human condition. It's no wonder it quickly became a favourite with photo journalists the world over.  

V-J Day in Times Square is a photograph by Alfred Eisenstaedt that portrays a US Navy sailor grabbing and kissing a stranger.
V-J Day in Times Square is a photograph by Alfred Eisenstaedt that portrays a US Navy sailor grabbing and kissing a stranger. It was taken on a Leica.

The Leica showroom houses many of the Leica cameras over the decades representing both the analogue and digital eras, along lenses, microscopes and binoculars.

Leica cameras are hand-made in Germany. Eight assembly lines produce 500 cameras a day mixing high tech processes with a tradition of hand precision.

Visitors are able to see the state-of-the-art camera manufacturing facility through a long hallway lined with windows. 

A worker is viewed by hundreds of visitors daily through as special window as she goes about her painstaking work.
Through a lens: This worker is viewed by hundreds of visitors daily through as special window as she goes about her painstaking work. Photo credit: Newshub.

Interactive touch screens provide additional information about the manufacturing process while tour guides help visitors appreciate the meticulous handcraftsmanship that still goes into the making of every Leica camera that leaves the facility.

That's as far as most people can go because a special air filtering system keeps the rooms dust free.

Many of the people that work at Leica have been with the company for decades.
Many of the people that work at Leica have been with the company for decades. Photo credit: Newshub

Leica might be the home of high-end cameras, but it hasn't shied away from the digital revolution in photography, as proved by its collaboration with Huawei.

"Professional cameras are still our core business and we won't drop it but our DNA is in optics, because as you know Leica or before that Leitz, started out with microscopes. So we are providing our DNA, our knowledge to Huawei," said Michel Röder, senior manager global corporate communications at Leica.

Leica isn't just known for cameras. There are also microscopes, binoculars and rifle scopes.
Leica isn't just known for cameras. There are also microscopes, binoculars and rifle scopes. Photo credit: Newshub

The companies have collaborated since 2016, when the P9 smartphone featured a dual lens camera. A triple lens followed and now a quad lens set-up on this year's Huawei P30 Pro.

Leica says it and Huawei work together on everything from optical design to image data processing to the mechanical construction of the camera module to the graphic user interface.

This photo by Mary Gelman is on the wall in the Leica. showroom as part of a series of photos that won a Leica award.
This photo by Mary Gelman is on the wall in the Leica. showroom as part of a series of photos that won a Leica award. Photo credit: Newshub.
There are plenty of photography exhibitions on display in the Leica showroom.
There are plenty of photography exhibitions on display in the Leica showroom. Photo credit: Newshub.

"We have a philosophy behind our images, said Röder.

"We call it the Leica look. That's the special way we render colours, how we display our bokeh, the contrasts, how we hand the skin colours, the natural rendition of that and we tried to provide this to the users of Huawei smartphones as well."

But Leica doesn't believe the smartphone camera revolution will spell an end to  professional cameras. 

A shot of the church in Wetzlar taken on a P30 Pro which has co-engineered Leica lenses.
A shot of the church in Wetzlar taken on a P30 Pro which has co-engineered Leica lenses. Photo credit: Newshub.

"We think that for every image there's the right tool. I'm pretty sure you won't see any sports photographers for example sitting on the sideline of a football field and taking the picture with a smartphone. It's simply wouldn't work. You have certain technical requirements, let's say focal length for example, shutter speed, sensor size that can't be met by today's smartphones.

"Our collaboration is a fantastic opportunity to introduce our brand and our products to a target audience we would never have reached before."

Emma Brannam visited the Leica factory in Germany as a guest of Huawei to mark the launch of the P30 series.

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