Leica Cameras in the 1930s: A decade of progress by William Fagan

20th January 2016

Deserted village, view towards Lough Tay taken with the Leica Standard and SCNOO combination illustrated in this article (photograph by William Fagan)

Leica Cameras in the 1930s: A decade of progress

January 20, 2016

by William Fagan

All camera pictures in this article by William Fagan, illustrating some of his own collection items

Michael’s recent article about his 1935 Black Leica III and my own posting of a photo of three of my black and nickel cameras from the 1930s have encouraged me to write more about Leica cameras in the 1930s. That decade saw huge strides in the design, production and sales of Leica cameras and I will try to illustrate some of those changes with items from my own modest collection.

This is largely addressed from a collector perspective. However, I actually use these cameras in the field along with my modern digital cameras. They are not as easy to use as modern cameras as they have no ‘idiot modes’; but, as objects, they are much nicer to hold and and to look at than modern cameras. And, of course, all of the lenses can be used via adaptors on the latest digital M models.

By the end of 1929 Leica had produced fewer than 29,000 of the original Model A and fewer than 1,000 of the Model B (Compur) . The Model A underwent frequent changes during its early years and von Einem¹ has identified ten variants of the camera. Indeed, one could make a life’s work out of collecting Leica’s very first production model.

Taken with a Leica screwmount camera using a Nooky Hesum close-up attachment (photograph by William Fagan)

In the 1930s and beyond Leica had a program of modifying earlier models to later specifications. It was, in a way, a bit like a mechanical version of today’s firmware upgrades. While Leica was regularly introducing new camera models in those years, rampant consumerism had yet to take off and one way of catching up with the posse was to send your camera back to Weztlar for mechanical upgrades. In those days people held onto ‘consumer durables’ for longer periods and so the upgrade program made perfect sense.

It is fitting, therefore, that I commence with a I Model A from 1930 that has been upgraded to a Leica Standard.

Leica I Model A modified to Standard

From a visual point of view it carries an Elmar with a 7 o’clock infinity stop instead of the previous 11 o’clock and the ‘hockey’ stick’ has been removed. It also has a narrower and extendible rewind knob. The camera carries a separate rangefinder not linked to the lens, in this case the horizontal HFOOK model which swivels to allow access to the speed dial.

The most important change would have been the installation of a standardised mount for interchangeable lenses on the camera stamped with a ‘0’ and with the same matching ‘0’ on the side of the lens . This indicated that the camera would work with all standardised lenses and vice versa with the lens. The interchangeable lens concept was introduced in 1930 with the I Model C (non standard). This allowed lenses to be changed but the camera and the lens had to be ‘matched’ and some lenses had serial numbers where some of the final digits on the camera’s serial number were included on the lens, usually on the side of the depth of field ring. The non standard Model C was soon dropped after only 2995 had been made, making it a rare and expensive collector’s item today. It was replaced by the I Model C Standardised which introduced the standardised lens mount, as described above.

The next photo shows the I Model C being used with a BEVOR close-up set.

Leica I Model C with BEVOR

The introduction of the standardised lens mount gave rise to the possibility of a true system camera. In this case, however, the BEVOR set is a bit of a throwback as it involves a close-up lens screwed into the front filter thread of the 50mm Elmar lens. The close up lens is one from the set of different strengths shown at the bottom of the photo, ELPIK, ELPRO and ELPET (the last was used in this case).

The stand is assembled like a Meccano set and the legs are pulled out to one of three marks, according to the lens being used. There is a table (shown on page 407 of Dennis Laney’s Leica Collector’s Guide) which gives the appropriate distance settings on the lens to give different fields of coverage with different close up lenses.

Leica’s close up equipment developed rapidly during the 1930s. I also have the later BAZOO set which involves the use of extension tubes and the introduction of a built in rangefinder gave other possibilities of which more later. The I Model C was the fore-runner of the Standard but it still had features of the I Model A such as the broader non-extendible rewind knob and the use of the 11 o’clock infinity stop. The perceived wisdom is that Leica introduced the 7 o’clock infinity stop in anticipation of the Model III which was then under development and which had a slow shutter speed dial in that position.

However, before the III was introduced, Leica brought out the II Model D in 1932 which is shown in this photo with some contemporary lenses.

Leica II Model D with lenses

The camera is black and nickel and all the lenses are nickel. This is the nicest colour scheme of all Leicas and, in my view, nothing that Leica produces today matches it. The II Model D was, of course, the first Leica with a built in rangefinder, coupled to the lens, which was revolutionary in such a small camera.

The II Model D is carrying the famous lightweight Mountain or ‘Berg’ Elmar which was designed to be light for climbers and general adventurers. It is a tiny 10.5cm lens with a maximum aperture of f/6.3 mounted on top of a conical tube. It has perhaps the smallest lens hood and cap of all Leica lenses. The cap reverses and the lens hood sits on top of that.

Also in the photo on the immediate right of the camera is a nickel 50mm Elmar and sitting on top of an early plum coloured (red boxes came later) Leica lens box is a nickel 3.5cm Elmar with the appropriate FLQOO lens hood in front. On the left is an early version of the 9cm f4 Elmar called the ‘Fat Elmar’ because of its portly shape. The ‘Thin Elmar’ will appear later.

All lens caps are shown as in other photos. There was quite a wide variety of lens caps around in those days, made with varying styles and with various materials. Finally on top of the camera is the VIDOM viewfinder which gives views from 3.5cm to 13.5cm. One interesting feature of the VIDOM is that the view is reversed from left to right, a feature which was ‘cured’ by the later VIOOH. The eagle eyed will have spotted that this is a black and chrome model of the VIDOM, but somewhere out there is a black and nickel one waiting for me to collect!

The introduction of the integrated rangefinder revolutionised Leica cameras and photography generally, but Leica continued to manufacture cameras without a built-in rangefinder such as this Standard (Model E) from 1938.

Leica Standard with SCNOO winder

The most noticeable item here is the SCNOO trigger wind, for fast film wind and shutter cocking, which was later followed by mechanical motor winders such as the MOOLY, but trigger winds are still around today in the form of the Leicavit. I have put a 3.5cm chrome Elmar on this and use scale focussing. The lens hood is the FOOKH and this one is slightly bent but works well.

The viewfinder is not from Leica but it is a modern Voigtländer device which looks perfectly ‘in period’. I also have the VIDOM, a VIOOH and a 1950s SBLOO which I could use but this is just right for the camera. Also out of period, I have an early 1950s 3.5cm LTM Summaron, which works superbly with this camera. This illustrates the interchangeability and inter-operability of parts and lenses for Leicas which continued for many years and, in some cases, right up to the present day.

I mentioned above the revolution of the integrated and coupled rangefinder and this continued into 1933 with the introduction of the familiar Leica III (Model F). Below are three chrome models of the III from left to right, a III in ‘bright’ chrome from 1933, a IIIb from 1937 or 1938 and a IIIa from 1938.

A group of Leica IIIs

The III (Model F) was more or less the same as the II with the same integrated and coupled rangefinder and top shutter speed of 1/500th as the II Model D, but it also had slow shutter speeds from 1 second to 1/20th of a second which could be set via a dial on the front plate.

It also carried a lever on the rangefinder window which would allow the user to adjust the diopter setting to suit their eyesight. In addition, the III had loops for attaching a carrying strap. The first batches were in black and nickel but in 1933 Leica introduced a chrome finish. Initially, the chrome models were produced for a short time in a bright chrome finish which is rare and fetches a premium today.

My 1933 model on the left of this photo was from the first chrome batch and it has the bright chrome finish which may not be obvious from the photo, but is very obvious in the metal . The bright finish model still looks like it had just been made yesterday and it wears much better than the usual chrome finish which was used for many years afterwards.

While I am on the subject of chrome, when chrome cameras were introduced they were more expensive than black enamel and nickel but the reverse is the case today as the latter finish is considered to be more desirable by collectors. In the 1933 UK Leica General Catalogue, the III with Summar set was £33. 13s 0d (£33.65), whereas in chrome the III and lens set was £34. 17s 0d (£34.65). This was not related to the bright chrome issue as the differential continued for some years afterwards.

More startling is the fact that the Summar in chrome was £13. 4s 0d (£13.20), whereas the Mountain Elmar in black and chrome was £9. 4s 0d (£9.20) and two shillings (ten pence) less for the one with nickel. Today a Mountain Elmar is generally valued by collectors at between three and four times the value of the Summar. Some of this is down to rarity, but there is also a desirability factor here. In my experience, the Summar is actually the better lens but both are good. The Summar, which was introduced at around the same time as the III, set a new standard in fast 50mm lenses for Leica at that time. The cameras on the left- and right-hand sides of the above photograph both carry Summars.

Taken with a Leica III and 5cm Summar (photograph by William Fagan)

Moving to the far right we come to the IIIa (originally called the Model G) in standard chrome which introduced a 1/1000th shutter speed. It also introduced a new denomination for Leica LTM models carrying a small letter after III. This was introduced in 1935 but still causes confusion today. Leica went through all the denominations from A, through B, C, D , E , F and G in the first 10 years of production from 1925 to 1935. They then introduced a small number after either I, II or III which lasted up to the end of the LTM run around 1960. The ones that cause the most confusion are the I Model C from 1930/31 and the Ic from the late 40s/early 50s and the distinction between the original III (Model F) introduced in 1933 and the much later IIIf from the 1950s. I hope that I have clarified this aspect of the nomenclature of LTM Leicas here.

The camera in the middle is the IIIb introduced in 1937/38, also with a 1/1000th top speed. It also brings the rangefinder and viewfinder windows at the back together for ease of use. Some people liked the new arrangement but others preferred to have widely separated windows. As a result of the two windows being brought close together, the diopter change lever had to be moved to under the rewind lever where it remained for the rest of the run of LTM models. The IIIb is carrying an Elmar mounted in a NOOKY close up attachment which works with the rangefinder. This is altogether more useful for close ups in the field than the BEVOR device shown earlier, which was largely only useful for indoor copying work. I also have a device called the NOOKY-HESUM which can used in a similar fashion with Summar, Summitar and Hektor lenses.

I have placed the IIIb in the middle, even though it is a later model than the IIIa, as it carries a lower serial number than the IIIa in the photo. This illustrates that Leica often continued to manufacture older and newer models together in parallel.

The next photo also shows another Leica IIIa , in this case from the first batch ever made in 1935, but the real interest is the box to the rear which came to me with the camera.

Leica IIIa and film box

One of the real delights of collecting is not just owning the cameras and lenses but the often surprising things that come with them. In this case I have a box which seems to have been originally supplied with a similar IIIa (not quite the same serial number, but nearly the same) which is designed to hold FILCA reloadable film cassettes and also the metal containers to hold them in compartments.

It also has, on the inside of the lid, some spaces for recording what the film cassettes contain by way of images and locations in which the images were taken. Somebody has written details in German of photos and locations in which they were taken in Germany and Great Britain in or around May and June 1935. I have deliberately left these out of focus as they are someone else’s private information, albeit from over 80 years ago.

I have quite a collection of FILCAs at this stage, including some of the very rare FILCA Cs, which Jim Lager said that he had never inspected in 30 years of searching when he wrote his Leica Accessories Book in 1998. I don’t actually use the FILCAs, but some of my FILCAs seem to contain some film. Who knows what they might contain. Definitely, a matter for further investigation.

Returning to the camera, it contains an unusual multi-sided speed dial with corners used to operate a VACU ‘ignition’ unit for flash which came with the camera. I am only noting this as the modification was probably made in the early 1950s and is, therefore, outside the scope of this article.

For the final item we return to a black camera, in this case a black III with chrome fittings from 1937 which is shown in a set.

Black Leica III set

Leica stopped making black and nickel cameras around 1936 or so, but for some years afterwards black models with chrome fittings could be ordered. This one is from 1937. The camera carries a chrome Elmar lens and on the right is the FISON hood for the lens. At the rear is the ESNAR case for the camera which has a smaller case for the FISON. On the left is a 9cm F4 Elmar in this case a ‘Thin Elmar’ in contrast to the ‘Fat Elmar’ shown before. To the far left is the FIKUS variable focal length (5-9-13.5cm) hood for use on the 9cm Elmar.

In period: Mid-1930s Brough Superior and sidecar shot at Brooklands Museum with a 1935 Leica III and f/3.5 5cm Elmar (photograph by Michael Evans)

That more or less concludes my run through the main developments in the 1930s, using my modest collection. I am conscious that I have left out a lot of items such as the MOOLY, the 250 FF, the 7.3cm Hektor, the Xenon, the 13.5cm lenses and the Thambar etc but I can update this article if and when such items arrive in my collection.

By 1939, notwithstanding the threat of war, Leica cameras could be said to have been a great success, with more than 311,000 units having been produced between the beginning of 1930 and the end of 1939. This was more than ten times the number of Leica cameras produced in the first five years of production.

The next big step forward was the Leica IIIc, with its one piece top cover, but that properly belongs to the 1940s.

1.Angela und Prof. Dr. Henning v.Einem, “Die 10 Varianten der klassischen Leica IA mit Elmar 1:3,5 F=50mm”, 3. erweiterte Auflage 2008 ↩︎