Why the Leica camera is a prime example of good design with Richard DeVaul


If you’re a certain age, you may remember a time when part of your vacation budget included the cost of buying and developing movies. Others of the younger generation may remember when the digital camera got the better of you and you were no longer inhibited by the typical 24 to 36 shots of the 35mm format (although you ever managed to get those photos printed was questionable .) Today, having the opportunity to capture a moment and let anyone and everyone view it is even easier thanks to the advent of smartphone camera functionality and social media.

During the 20th century, the camera industry experienced a spectacular boom, which, according to Statista, peaked in 2010 when more than 121 million new cameras were produced. However, just eight years later, there had been a catastrophic decline, with the number dropping 84 percent to 19 million. Kodak was the premier film photography company for much of the industry’s growth, but by 2012 the company had filed for bankruptcy as it was unable to compete in the digital photography world it helped shape.

Unlike Kodak and other camera brands that have suffered similar fates, Leica has not only managed to survive in an increasingly digital world, but to thrive. Even today, when practically everyone walks around with an excellent camera in their pockets and the camera industry is shrinking ever faster, Leica with its strong connection between functional design and tradition has weathered the storm and maintained its reputation as the world’s best lens manufacturer. With the M series, cameras have achieved a status that is comparable to that of a Rolex or Rolls Royce.

Innovation professional and photography enthusiast Richard DeVaul believes that the secret of Leica’s success lies in design. As the owner of the Leica M10 rangefinder himself, he said about the camera:

“It’s one of the most elegant pieces of functional technology I’ve ever used. And much of the design is literally the same as it was in the 1960s. It has a modern digital sensor and a few other things, but I think it’s a great example of really mature technology. “

DeVaul’s career spanned more than twenty years work on innovation in large and small companies. From small teams in startups to Fortune 100 companies like Apple and X Development (formerly Google X), DeVaul’s path has led him to gain unique insights into the importance of design in innovation and why it drives success and failure The many companies like Leica that are working to survive in an ever faster developing world can make a difference. In the following, we examine with him Leica’s historical focus on design and how good design influences innovation overall.

The history of the Leica camera

Leica was founded in 1849 by the German optician Enrst Leitz and was originally a manufacturer of glasses and telescopes. Fifty years later, at the beginning of the 20th century, employee Oskar Barnack realized that the company’s lenses could be used to build a fast, lightweight, portable camera that would match the bulky and difficult-to-transport models made for the Day were typical, could compete. An optician and photographer himself, Barnack was looking for a camera that could be used for landscape photography, especially on mountain hikes when lugging around heavy equipment was impractical at best. Equipped with a Leitz Anastigmat 50 mm f / 3.5 lens, he built a photo camera for 35 mm pinhole film called the Ur-Leica in 1914 and in 1925 the refined and improved version of Barnack’s camera went under the name Leica I. in series .

A combination of “Leitz” and “Camera”, the Leica I was the first commercially available 35mm photo camera, and when the Leica II came on the market with detachable and interchangeable lenses, professional photographers realized that the camera was theirs Offers freedom, shoot them dynamically in exceptionally high quality. These attributes are believed to have sparked the growth of photojournalism in the 20th century. From the U.S. Navy sailor stealing a kiss from a stranger in Times Square after the end of World War II, to Che Guevara’s iconic portrait painted, printed, digitized, embroidered, tattooed, screen-printed, modeled or on almost everyone Outlined surface was imaginable, too Napalm girl, the Pulitzer Prize-winning photo that is said to have helped end the Vietnam War shortly thereafter. All of these images were taken with Leica’s signature lenses.

Combine essential design with calculated innovation

Leica’s design to this day has remained the Bauhaus style that was popular at the time the original rangefinder was launched: keeping everything essential while ensuring that it holds up against advancing technology and innovation. Although Barnack’s camera has slowly been updated over the decades to become Leica’s current M-series, which now includes cameras in traditional 35mm film format and digital versions, the simple design has meant that the cameras are never at risk were to be out of date. This focus on simplicity has kept it from falling victim to the bells and whistles that many other high-end cameras have today: The Leica is reduced to the core elements a photographer needs.

Leica’s dedication to making a quality product has enabled them to create cameras that other brands cannot match. The Leica M series consists of over 1,000 individual parts, which are put together with the highest precision by highly trained technicians. Much of the assembly is done by hand, a feat beyond the reach of many others in the camera industry that rely on mass production to generate revenue. In addition, the Leica lens, with its roots in lens production, is said to be unparalleled. Leica lens glass is ground and polished to create an aspherical lens that has a complex shape and surface that is ideal for optics. It is so sharp that it hardly needs to be sharpened after production. Made in a sterile environment with no potential contamination, they are subjected to an ultrasonic bath to remove any debris and are closely examined for dust and other cosmetic issues. The sensitivity of this glass means that it can be damaged by any contact and even by exposure to air, so it has to be shipped in a special soft paper.

“When I was at Apple and XI, I was working on the computer photography stuff,” DeVaul said. “And it’s really amazing how much of what we think is a great picture is actually the result of software analysis compared to a lens … at least on a smartphone like the iPhone 12. My old Leica camera is very different. Basically it’s just incredibly beautiful optical technology. “

While the focus on attention to detail in manufacturing is a proven feature of Leica, that doesn’t mean they haven’t evolved with the increasingly digital world. In fact, many of the innovations in the camera industry come from Leica, not just in terms of megapixels, but also from reducing the core elements a photographer needs and making cameras that other brands may not be able to because their are mass-produced. A prime example of this is the Leica M Monochrom, the world’s first digital black and white camera. With a normal camera, the black-and-white mode works by applying a filter to a color photo, but the Leica special model only takes photos in black and white, which is reminiscent of the heyday of film cameras, but with all the functionality that a digital camera of the 21st century is expected.

The relationship between design and innovation

DeVaul says that “design is often misunderstood when you make things beautiful after all the hard work is done. Nothing is further from the truth. Design is the process by which the potential value of solving a problem is realized in practice. ”According to DeVaul, the idea of ​​innovation has become a marketing buzzword. True innovation consists in breaking the existing order of things, destroying the status quo, as Barnack did with the original Leica a century ago. A great innovator harnesses the power of great design and DeVaul says that winning is from innovation usually it comes down to who can iterate and learn most effectively, not who is most creative or brings up the most radical ideas. Kodak invented the first standalone digital camera in 1975, but ended up lacking the foresight to iterate on the technologies they helped develop. Conversely, Leica has found a way to rely on their original innovative design that repeats itself but never deviates from what sets it apart within the camera industry.

Designers “are the people who fundamentally understand a problem very deeply,” says DeVaul, and the Leica designers understand that, thanks to smartphone technology, photography is becoming an increasingly accessible art form, but there are still those who deal with it wish to combine the fundamentals of photography and will appreciate the brand’s commitment to unmatched quality. Leica has an incredible design and uses technology to meet these design needs and develop products that don’t necessarily follow the trend but go their own way. Perhaps, fittingly, Leica put it best: “Classics are works that are immune to the passing whims of the present. They are never rewritten, but reinterpreted on the basis of a changed world. “

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