Home Cameras/Lenses Leica Leica I Model A: First review of the new 1930 model

Leica I Model A: First review of the new 1930 model

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October 1929 and “Cyclops”, the technical editor of The Miniature Photographer, gets his hands on the latest 1930 Leica

The Miniature Photographer has been asked by E. Leitz Optische Werke to review the latest version of its tiny marvel of technology, the Leica I Model A miniature camera. This LEItz CAmera is a worthy successor to the original pre-Great War design by Herr Barnack. The 1930 model is, without doubt, the finest camera for the miniature photographer.

Mrs Cyclops and I drove down to Brooklands Race circuit in Weybridge to take the new Leica for a spin and to find out just why this particular miniature camera is causing such a ripple in photographic circles.

Because the Leica uses 35mm cinematograph film, you can feed enough stock into a little steel cassette to allow up to 36 pictures to be taken without having to stop and reload! It is also very advanced, with automatic features such as a knob that advances the film by exactly one frame at a time and cocks the shutter simultaneously.

The latest Leica has a fast f/3.5 5cm lens which is conveniently fixed to the chassis to ensure accurate focus and perfect harmony between lens and mechanics. The lens collapses into the body so that the camera can fit inside any gentleman’s pocket. Here at The Miniature Photographer, we don’t mollycoddle our test cameras and the Leica has been put through its paces and no mistake…

It is hard to imagine that it is just six years since Herr Leitz himself took the momentous decision to forge ahead with the miniature camera. After nearly ten years of discussion within the old-established optics company, he gave his support to the new venture in the summer of 1924: “I hereby decide, we will take the risk.” Now, in 1929, miniature photography is all the rage and the Leica offers a winning formula. It was a prescient decision by Herr Leitz and I feel sure that the brand will succeed as miniature photography develops over the coming decades.

Designed by Herr Barnack and Herr Berek at the company’s factory in Wetzlar, Germany, this wonder of miniaturisation is a major advance in photography. Quite apart from the ingenious film advance and shutter cocking mechanism, the Model A has a host of modern aids to good photography.

Our local bus, which Mrs Cyclops uses almost every day, seen through the lens of the Leica I

Minor miracle

The fast 5 cm f/3.5 Elmar lens is a minor wonder in itself, so small is it when retracted into the body. It is perfectly matched to the chassis, incidentally, and is fixed firmly in place so you do not have to fuss over different focal lengths. Yet progress never stops at Firma Leitz. Already I hear rumours that a brand new version with interchangeable lenses could be announced later next year. I am told that the lens will screw into the body so you can remove it and select an appropriate alternative focal length or maximum aperture to meet every photographic challenge. There is even talk of introducing a viewfinder-style window that will permit focus to be achieved with great precision. It seems incredible, but one may be able to move one’s eye rapidly from viewfinder to focus-finder and this will undoubtedly lead to much faster and more accurate composition.

Pratt’s petrol pump at Brooklands, another example of modern technology aiding mankind. Note the superb resolution of the outstanding Elmar lens. One can actually read figures on the pump dial.

The Elmar lens of the Leica I extends for use simply by pulling out the front section and twisting it to the right to lock in place. This is important: If you fail to extend it fully your pictures will be out of focus. But at rest, with the lens retracted, the entire camera is small enough to fit in the pocket of a greatcoat, ready for instant action when the opportunity presents itself.

Focus is simplicity itself with the Model I. Just estimate the distance and dial in the setting on the lens. This image of Messrs L.B.B’s repair garage was taken from the balcony of the Brooklands club house where Mrs Cyclops and I had just shared two bottles of Chateau Latour 1923. As you can see, focus is perfect

On the front of the Elmar lens is a handy adjustment slider to set the aperture, ranging from the superfast f/3.5 through to f/18 for sunny days and a maximum depth of field. It is very easy to hold the camera in the left hand and slide the aperture control with the nail of one’s right thumb. Not at all fiddly. Next to the camera body, there is an “automatic” focusing device which is clearly marked from 1m (39 inches) to infinity. Wherever one points the guideline on the distance scale, the lens is automatically focused on that range. Ingenious.

A tab, which aids focus movement, is normally locked at the infinity position (11 o’clock) thanks to an innovative metal spring which some enthusiasts have taken to calling a “hockey stick.” I cannot imagine a better arrangement. Pressing in the sprung stick releases the focus tab and you can then accurately set the focus against the scale simply by viewing your subject and guessing the distance. What could be simpler?

Shutter speed

An impeccable and very convenient control layout on the Leica. On the left is the speed adjustment, allowing exposures down to as short as 1/500s. Remarkable. On the far right is the film advance computer which, when correctly adjusted, shows how many frames have been exposed. With 36 exposures at one’s disposal, it is very easy to lose track of progress. Between these two controls lies the very comfortable, domed shutter release and a handy lever to release the film when you wish to rewind it into the cassette for processing. It is hard to imagine an improvement on this control panel

Of course, aperture and focus are only two of the three vital elements of a good picture. The third, and this is very important, is the shutter speed.

On the Leica I, shutter speed is set by means of a dial mounted on a small podium fixed to the top plate. Here you can choose any shutter speed from a lightning-fast 1/500s, through 1/200s, 1/100s, 1/60s, 1/40s, 1/30s, 1/20s down to Z when you have a bit of Zeit on your hands.

To calculate which of these settings you need in conjunction with the aperture you have already set one needs to decide on exposure time. To do this you typically suck your right index finger and hold it up to the wind. I have become adept at this in the past week or so. Event Mrs Cyclops has also become quiet adept.

On the top plate, next to the shutter-speed dial, is a release lever to enable the film to be wound back into the cassette. Alongside is the beautifully balanced shutter release button with a comfortable domed head. To the right of these controls is the exciting and revolutionary combined shutter cocking and film winding knob which I have mentioned earlier in this review. This is helpfully inscribed with an arrow to show the right direction for advance.

Turning the knob clockwise winds on the film and cocks the shutter, thus eliminating any possibility of double exposure. Below this marvel lies a useful engraved scale which indicates how many frames you have left in your cassette. After loading a film, one must programme this computational device by moving the scale (using one or other of the two raised pimples) so that the zero lines up with an arrow inscribed in the top plate. This intelligent and pioneering system clicks along, frame by frame, so you always know exactly where you are. What will they think of next?

Viewfinder

Completing the array on the top plate of the Leica is the film rewind knob which you need use only when a roll has been fully exposed. To rewind the film, one presses the release lever and turns the knob until resistance ceases. Next to this knob is a handy viewfinder which allows one to see exactly what one is framing, although some visual adjustment is recommended when focusing close to a subject. This is called “parallax compensation” and one soon becomes conversant with the parameters in order to ensure a perfectly framed close-up image. That said, Mrs Cyclops finds this challenging.

This integral finder is a great boon, although composition can be rendered more convenient by sliding a larger viewfinder into the adjacent accessory adapter. These Germans think of everything.

A depiction of the River Thames in London captured by the 1930 Leica I Model A

Having wound on your film, set your aperture, decided on exposure time, calculated the distance to the subject and framed the scene you are ready to go. Press the precise and beautifully weighted shutter release and Barnack’s your uncle. I am astounded that miniature photography can be made so simple and with such a high degree of automation. In fact, it is very hard to see what possible improvements the team at Wetzlar team could make to this camera in order to render it more usable. We have truly reached the pinnacle of miniature photography. It is a far cry from my Kodak Vest Pocket camera which has given such sterling service over several seasons on the beach at Blackpool.

As an instrument, the new Model I is a delight to hold. It fits the hand perfectly and throughout epitomises the new trend to more compact cameras. Many enthusiasts still prefer the old methods, cleaving to wood and bellows and believing that a bigger film or a glass plate means better pictures. But for sheer convenience without losing the ability to make large prints by means of enlargement equipment, this Leica I is truly sans pareil.

Film loading

The Leica with its unitary body and lightfast bottom plate offers the best and safest method of film loading ever devised. I know some photographers complain that loading film in the Leica is counter-intuitive and difficult, but I soon mastered the technique, unlike Mrs Cyclops. Some even suggest there should be a sort of door at the back of the camera to make film loading simpler. Believe me, this is totally unnecessary and would inevitably lead to light seepage and foggy negatives.

 Loading a film is simplicity itself. After trimming the leader with your scissors, simply offer up film cassette and rewind spool and slide the film into the rear slot. It can take as little as ten minutes. Loading a film is simplicity itself. First, it is necessary to trim your film so that it has a half-width leader of about four inches. When you have wielded the scissors, pull out the receiving spool and thread the end of the film into the clip.

First, though, it is necessary to trim the film so that it has a half-width leader of about four inches. When you have wielded the scissors, pull out the receiving spool and thread the film into the spring clip. Then grasp the film cassette and spool with both hands and introduce the trimmed length of film into the slot to the rear of the camera, pushing down cassette and spool at the same time.

The process is amazingly easy and I was able to change a film cassette in little more than ten minutes while out in the field! It helps, of course, to pre-trim your films before setting out for the day and, if it is raining, an umbrella is a useful accessory.

The famous Members’ Bridge spanning the 1907 banked circuit near to the finishing straight

There really is only one disadvantage in owning a Leica and that is the 25-guinea price. Leicas are exceedingly expensive cameras, thanks to the precision build, the thoughtful automation and attention to detail that every buyer expects. If one says it quickly, twenty-six pounds five shillings. does not sound excessive. Yet, by camera standards, it is an enormous sum affordable only by the most affluent miniature photographer. It is your Technical Editor’s dream one day to be able to afford one of these masterpieces.

Your Technical Editor’s Kodak VP cost only three and sixpence in 1918, just to put things in perspective. The 25-guinea cost of this Leica represents all of one-tenth of his annual salary from The Miniature Photographer. I have no doubt, despite this, that your money is well invested because Leica cameras will hold their value better than most. Indeed, this is perhaps the only camera you will ever need and you will be able to pass it down to your children for another lifetime of faultless service.

See also….

This article is an amended version of a longer review which was published in January 2016

Leica “The Ultimate Camera” lauded in advertising

1935 Leica III back on track after 80 years

Leica Cameras in the 1930s: A decade of progress

Leica III: A black GAS attack strikes after 80 years

9 COMMENTS

  1. Thanks Mike, or should it be Mr and Mrs Cyclops? I had forgotten about this article. The Leica I Model A is on my list of favourite Leicas along with the II Model D and the M3. If it were not for the success of ‘Das Kleine Photo-Wunder’, as it was called in early advertisements, we would not have Leica cameras to play around with today. There were actually 10 variants of the I Model A with Elmar and before that there were the rare, and very expensive today, variants with the Leitz Anastigmat and Elmax lenses. I’m not sure how many Elmar variants are covered in my collection, perhaps 6 or 7. The book by Angela von Einem which lists the variants is only available in German and I only have some photocopied pages from the book, so I have to translate (Google Translate in my case) and then figure out what I have.

    The highlighting of the features in the article above are spot on. The self capping shutter and the combined film advance and shutter cocking together with the pocketable (trousers had decent pockets back then) size were revolutionary back then. The very earliest ones with ratchet wind required the shutter button to be pressed down while the film was being rewound, but that was soon changed to allow a straightforward rewind. The other eccentric early feature was in respect of the FISON hood for the 50mm Elmar which originally had a square front opening which had to be readjusted after every focus adjustment as the front element of the Elmar rotated as focus was adjusted.

    Accessory rangefinders could be used, but one had to remember to transfer the distance numbers to the lens. Up to about serial number 40,000 the lens had no depth of field markings and so there was a steep learning curve for aspiring miniaturists to master the new ‘kleine photo-wunder’. Wetting your finger and sticking it in the air as practised by Mr and Mrs Cyclops was one way of measuring exposure. Some early exposure meters were around at that time, but remember that standardised film speeds, as we know them today, did not exist. There were not even film boxes with the Sunny 16 rule on them as film came in tins and had to be bulk loaded into the brass FILCA film cassettes which we discussed here some weeks ago.

    Still, the users of the I Model A learnt about the basics of photography very quickly, indeed they had to. Using the I Model A is very liberating particularly if you can settle exposure and then just use the distance scale on the lens. It is probably as quick to use as any modern camera, particularly if you can use an aperture of f8 or above. All you have to do is to wind, frame and shoot. The 50mm Elmar will produce remarkably sharp images. Mike, you may recall the fun we had here 3 years ago when I put up an article with the same images taken both with a I Model A from 1926 and an M10 from 2017.

    One final point, Mike. Is the I Model A photographed above nickel plated? I have a nickel plated one from 1928 in my collection. That would not have been its original state and I suspect that it happened many years after the camera was originally sold. My other ones generally have most of their black paint still, except for one that is completely brass. The one above looks to me like it has some kind of coating such as nickel or maybe chrome.

    William

    • Yes, it is nickel plated. I think we discussed this when I bought it some years ago. We decided it had had some post-production prettifying. But now you mention it, I will give it a thorough inspection.

    • Leica prices doubled after WWII when supplies started to flow again. I have a pre-war London catalogue used by a Dublin dealer which shows the post war prices written in pencil over the pre-war prices. From then on the only way for prices were up. The latest Leica SL offer with 500 quid off here and there for extras would have been mind-boggling to our parents. The house I mainly grew up in cost £2,000 in 1951 and was sold for £330,000 in 1999 when my parents moved into a care home and would fetch perhaps 900,000 or more Euros today. Yes, we are better off today but price comparisons over time are difficult to assess fully. Most of us are better off than our parents were. My father would never have been able to afford a Leica, but he bought a Super Baldina for about £9 in 1940 and the Bill of Sale for that has appeared twice on Macfilos.

      William

      • My first two-bedroom flat in Baron’s Court, London, cost £12,000. But at that time a terraced house in my home town of Wigan – 200 miles north of London – could be had for around £1,500. A smart. modern semi-detached house in the north would have cost around £3,000 at the time. When I bought my first flat, the £12,000 purchase price produced a few gasps of incredulity when I travelled north. A working man was lucky to earn £750 a year in those days, even in London, so that puts the £12k into perspective.

        As you say, it is easy to get confused with inflation and cost of living. We are definitely much better off these days in terms of material possessions — our iPhones, computers, cars, cameras. But we are less affluent in not being able to afford anything that involves the human hand. Labour costs have gone through the roof while technology has become much more affordable. Fifty years ago, cleaners, gardeners and plumbers were very affordable. Now only the rich can afford them!

        • We could start a whole ‘when I were young’ thread on this. Life is, of course, about more than material possessions and entertainment and in many ways we are not better off than our parents. Measuring actual quality of life is indeed a difficult thing. I remember during the late 1950s it being a matter of comment around the parish that the local doctor had actually gone to Spain on holidays with his family. Oh the luxury of that! Many families back then did not go anywhere on holidays, not because they could not afford one, but because it was not an appropriate thing for people like to them to do. We sometimes went to Wicklow for a month’s holiday. It was about an hour’s drive away and we were always glad if my father’s ancient Morris Oxford did not break down on the way. Then there were the days on drives out in the car when a thruppenny bar of Cadbury’s chocolate would be divided between 5 of us. But were we as happy as today’s kids with smartphones and iPads in the back of the car? Of course we were, as we did not know about anything else and we might spend the whole week looking forward to that one fifth of a bar of chocolate. This was before we had a TV and when we used to listen to ‘Take It From Here’ or the ‘Navy Lark’ on the ‘wireless’ or a programme on Radio Eireann which featured Irish dancing where you could hear the Irish dancers’ feet banging on a dance floor. There were Leicas around in those days, including the one belonging to Nevill Johnson the English painter who came to live Dublin and who in 1952 persuaded the Irish Arts Council to fund the purchase of a Leica so that he could photograph the people of Dublin, which he did to great effect. Different days indeed.

          William

  2. Ah I remember renting a room in Barons Court in the early 1970’s when I was working as a young engineer at the Barbican but for the sake of the discussion on inflation unfortunately I do not remember the rent. I do however remember a few years later looking at houses in wilds of East Anglia at not much more than £3000 (one stand pipe in the kitchen and an earth closest out the back) – wish I had made a purchase then …

    • I suspect a room in Barons Court would have been about £3 a week. The flat I bought had been rented by me for £28 a month and that had two bedrooms, the works!

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