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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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?
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.
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.
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. 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.
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.