Leica: Beauty in the hand of the beholder

A Leica camera is a powerful thing. One touch can change your life. Just ask the company’s director of production management, photography, Stefan Daniel and he’ll tell you.

Daniel was just 8 years old when he was first introduced to these classic cameras courtesy of his cousin, whose parents both worked at the Leitz factory - the pre-1986 name of the company behind the Leica brand. As part of Style Week on Pocket-lint, there really was no better man to talk to about what makes a gadget look great.

“I was always fascinated in taking pictures; always keen. I don’t know why; to express myself, to have something to show someone, to record stuff? The first time I touched a Leica, I was overwhelmed. It was the magic moment of the product itself. I’ve heard it happened to many with Leica and it also happened to me. I was so inspired that I thought ‘why not work for them?’”

Growing up Solms, Germany, where the company is based, it perhaps wasn’t quite the far out idea it might seem. Leitz had a superb reputation and naturally accounted for the employment of a large part of the community, and it was in 1984, at the age of 16, when Daniel made the decision to begin an apprenticeship in the precision mechanics division rather than attend university. It was a decision that would ultimately see him as the man responsible for the look, feel and inner workings of the Leica M cameras for the last 12 years and even their glassware two; everything from the Leica M7 onward.

“It’s my job to collection opinions,” he tells us happy to talk from his desk in Germany. “I collect what people like about the M6 and M8, for example, and write down a product concept. It’s total production management; everything from the idea - whether internal, external or from customer feedback - until the last piece is sold onto the market; the whole life cycle.”

It might seem like a far cry from the agonising tests of creating and ensuring that the working parts of a camera fit together perfectly, to exceptionally low tolerances, through thousands upon thousands of shutter releases, aperture changes and speed settings but, for Daniel, it’s the lessons behind the key to Leica’s design success.

“Engineering at this level gives you a feel for the materials. Filing, turning, grinding surfaces gives you a feel for internal workings and how materials fit together. They’re the basics for the further steps of design and we aim for quality.

“How something is built and how it’s worked down to its moving elements - exactly how the shutter dial clicks to make sure it feels good and that there’s no play at all - that is what we do. So when you pick up a Leica camera, it feels as if you have a precision instrument in your hand. I’m not a musician but I’m told that if you look at Fender guitars it’s the same as people say about them. They feel perfect.”

It’s small wonder that the manufacture times on some of the lenses can be up to 6 months. If you want the very best that money can buy, then there's a waiting list of over a year before some of the more select lenses can reach the hands of a consumer.

It's not in the construction itself though. With all the raw materials in front of an engineer, it might only take up to 6 hours to actually build a Leica M camera or lens but sourcing some of precise parts are where the bottlenecks can occur. For example, Leica has its own recipe for a certain type of glass that manufacturers will melt for them but for only two weeks each year. Miss the week by a day and there's a long time until the next one comes around.

Of course, all the wait on the customer’s side helps go towards that special feeling of owning a Leica camera, whether the company intends that to happen or not.

“Sure, it might make you feel exclusive but we feel we stretch it a little too far,” Daniel jokes. “We’ve added capacity, new employees and machines over the years but, still, the demand is overwhelming.”

So, what makes these cameras so desirable? According to Daniel, it goes even beyond the idea of merely function, more than the joy of this precision instrument. Its beauty comes across by simply holding it. Pick one up and many, like Daniel, mysteriously fall in love.

“We have a philosophy of high authenticity of materials. If something looks like metal, it is metal. If it’s plastic, then it’s a very high class plastic. Everything must be done properly. There must be an authenticity of materials so that when it’s in the customers hand, they don’t feel cheated.

“Take the shutter speed dial numbers. They’re not just painted on. They’re engraved and then filled in with our own paint. You can it feel in whole product even 20 years after when normal paint would have gone away on other cameras. It’s very, very expensive but worthwhile for authenticity.”

Start thinking about the solid blocks of brass that the top and bottom of the Leica M9 is milled from and it begins to make sense why this authenticity of materials equates to a camera that you’ll need a second mortgage to afford, and that's before you’ve bought a lens to go with it.

Even for those that will have never the pennies, though, nor a wealthy enough acquaintance to ever get to hold a Leica camera, there is an undeniable attraction. It goes beyond the ergonomics. It can even be love at first sight, let alone touch. The reason is because Leica cameras look classic; how photography ought to be which is rather odd considering that there was absolutely zero thought for aesthetics put into Leica when it was originally dreamed up.

“When Barnack conceived that first Leica, he didn’t think about industrial design. He just thought about what he needed to make it work. Put two rolls of film and a shutter and lens in between and you end up with the shape of a Leica M camera.

“Like all Leicas in 1930s, 40s and 50s, there was no industrial designer. It was made by engineers. That’s what the attraction is from. Not a fancy fashion designer making a finish for a camera like putting on a hat it. It speaks for itself. We always try to maintain that even though we have industrial designers these days. We’re careful not to over design.”

But with retro a big part of photography at the moment, both in camera design and in the photography itself, is there a fear from Daniel that Leicas will simply go out of fashion? Apparently not.

“I don’t think of our cameras as retro looks. We try to make timeless, not retro. Some manufacturers go retro with no attachment to the past. We just follow our heritage. Look at the M9. It’s a Leica M camera first and foremost. It’s not so much retro. It could be confused with retro but it’s not a retro object.”

Not retro then, “classic” seems to be the aesthetic watchword here even if the lines between the too styles can blur but, with a range that stretches back nearly 100 years, there’s plenty of models to admire all the same.

Daniel himself is a proud owner of 10-12 of them. He loses count as he tries to name them all but insists that he’s not a collector. Every one was bought to use even though these days 99 per cent of his photography is digital leaving his M3, M6, M5, R62 et al to fight for the one or two rolls of film he shoots each year. The pride of his non-collection? The Leicaflex SL2, the same that belonged to his cousin and took his heart all those years ago. One of the pre-war screwmount cameras would be next on his shopping list with the Leica IIIc or IIIf most likely.

Daniel’s only “mistake”, as he jokingly puts it, is his Leica R62 which he bought in silver rather than his preferred black finish but, of course, silver or black isn’t the only choice with Leica cameras even if it is the most usual. Every now and then, the company releases a limited edition device with runs of just 500 or so and price tags obviously through the roof. The olive green Leica M8.2 safari edition with matching Billingham bag or M7 Hermes edition finished in orange or taupe calf skin are two from recent history, but it’s the most recent of all that’s the one that Daniel likes best.

“The Titanium M9 is my favourite. That’s absolutely clear. It was just great fun working with Walther de’Silva and his team. The product itself is fantastic and it’s not just about the external design. It’s truly different. Much more than a limited edition.”

Yours for £20,000 (just look down the back of the sofa), the camera was a collaboration with the Volkswagen Group’s chief designer and his Audi design team who added scratch resistant sapphire crystal glass to the monitor, premium Audi car leather to the camera’s trim and even an LED guide line illumination through the viewfinder as well as the obvious construction of every single piece of visible metal from solid Titanium.

“I wasn’t so much in favour of working with a car designer to begin with but it turned out really great,” admits Daniel. “He understood the core values of the brand immediately.”

“We have worked with them on some designs since, so maybe there’ll be another limited edition with them one day, yes.”

It’s unlikely, of course, that we’ll see another titanium Leica any time soon but there are other materials that Daniel and his team would be interested in working with.

“Kevlar and carbon could be nice additions because they’re very lightweight, sturdy and solid. Also coating materials with PVD to make them hard like diamond could be done too.”

One could certainly see the appeal of a bullet proof camera for photojournalists, and just how much of this design focus spills over to the rest of Daniel’s lifestyle?

“It’s very important to me. Always. I would rather buy nothing than something that was no fun. I’ve never found that in a TV, so I’m not part of the flatscreen revolution. I still have an old tube.”

Like most designers you’ll find, the one area where Daniel can go to town collecting objects with almost no end of fun is with cars.

“I own four classic cars,” he confesses, caught out by Pocket-lint’s prediction on the matter.

“The first is the Jaguar E-Type which is the most beautiful car ever made. Then there’s my Triumph TR6 which, for me, is the archetypal roadster. It’s just great. Then I have two old Volvos - the 164 and then the 264. People say the 264 is the ugliest car ever built but I like it. Everything apart from the tyres and the steering wheels are square. Even the speedo is square.”

So, beauty in industrial design can be square, plastic, titanium or simply in something’s heritage but there is a formula, says, Daniel, to connecting them all; a way of making sure that whatever product you create is beautiful.

“Beauty is about the perfect combination of when you look at it, when you touch it and when you handle it. The camera with no buttons looks best but you just can’t use it, and you must expect that, as life gets more complicated, people will look to ease of use. So we have to concentrate on products they love to use as much as they like to hold and to look at them too. It’s not about engineer driven design, especially the interface, but more for simplicity.”

A tall order and something which, of course, comes to only those who can afford in the case of Leica, but there are other cameras out there which Daniel appreciates for their design direction which might be more achievable.

“I like the Fuji X100; not so much for the industrial design - that is a retro-look camera - but the viewfinder is excellent. The old Hasselblad U system machines are also beautiful. For actual production cameras though? That’s difficult for me. They’re not focused on the simplicity of photography. They’re a good example of that can be done with electronics but not about the needs of the photographer.”

All the same, it’s the latter group of cameras - DSLRs with high burst rates and hyper-granular exposure and control, and compacts with super-zoom lenses and a million scene modes - that fill the space and the hands of a growing population of photographers the world over. Will the world cease to be interested in what a pretty looking German camera with a back to basics manual approach can do or will Leica continue to fight the fight?

“Of course,” is Daniel’s breezy response.

“Market share for Leica is so small that there’ll always be a space for people who want to be different and not take photos like all the others. It’s the same as hi-fis compared to pianos and violins. The market is smaller but it will always be there. That’s how we see our cameras; like instruments. You need to know how to use them but, if you can, it’s better than playing a record.”

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