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Ilsa Bing in one of her settings for self portrait in mirror, 1931.


The Story Behind That Picture:
"Setting the 35mm standard"

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The Leica story: How film stock became 35mm film for still photography

 

By: Thorsten Overgaard. July 31, 2023.

 

How did 35mm flexible-base roll film, originally designed for motion pictures, become adapted for use in compact still cameras – and then go on to become the longtime standard for many decades?

In 1913, Oskar Barnack, the enthusiastic photographer, filmmaker, and employed inventor at Ernst Leitz Optische Werke in Wetzlar, Germany, designed motion-picture and projector products.

For this purpose, he sought a way to economically test film emulsions and lenses, and so decided to reproduce the standard 35mm colloid motion-picture film stock for still photography.

 

Leica ad in American Cinetographers magazine November 1931. (Photo courtesy of ASC Archive).
Leica ad in American Cinetographers magazine November 1931. (Photo courtesy of ASC Archive).

 

  The 35mm motion film format with built-in soundtrack.
  The 35mm motion film format with built-in soundtrack.
   

In his design, he turned the film on its side so that it would advance horizontally through the camera body and produce individual 24 x 36mm frames (the motion-picture standard at the time was a vertical film path of 18.7 x 24.9mm picture frames).

 

 

35mm flexible-base roll film with 18.7 x 24.9mm picture frames.35mm flexible-base roll film with 18.7 x 24.9mm picture frames.

 

Ernst Leitz and Oskar Barnack called the new camera the "Lilliput Camera" and sometimes "Barnack's Camera," and rather soon recognized its potential as a photographic device.

The first samples, now known as the "Ur-Leica," and the adoption of 35mm for still-camera use became the standard for Leitz's commercially available Leica camera models, and later for the still-photography industry at large as the "135" format as Kodak named it in 1934.

 

A 1930 ad for the Leica, positioning it as the "ideal camera for the amateur, the reporter, the tourist, and explorer." (Photo courtesy of Peter Karbe).
A 1930 ad for the Leica, positioning it as the "ideal camera for the amateur, the reporter, the tourist, and explorer." (Photo courtesy of Peter Karbe).

 

Dr. Paul Wolff was one of the early adopters of the Leica for still photography
Dr. Paul Wolff was one of the early adopters of the Leica for still photography. Read more about him here.

 

Part of the reason 35mm film could become the new standard, replacing the so-far standard of large formats still cameras, was the Leitz optical quality they had become known for since they made their first optical products in 1849. The first lens on a Leica was a 50mm lens designed by Leitz' employee Max Berek from a Cooke design that would cover the 24 x 36mm.

(Cooke design, or a "Cooke triplet," is a three-lens type of design that was invented in 1893 by Dennis Taylor and was the first that allowed the elimination of most of the optical distortion and aberration).

 

The 1921-1922 page of Max Berek's notebook where he designed the first Leica lens, the Leitz Elmax 50mm f/3.5. (Photo courtesy of Peter Karbe).
The 1921-1922 page of Max Berek's notebook where he designed the first Leica lens, the Leitz Elmax 50mm f/3.5. (Photo courtesy of Peter Karbe).

 

With great optical quality, it was possible to replicate the world in minute details onto a small negative. So, the optical quality, as well as the fast-improving quality of the film emulsion to record details, made up for the relatively small size of the Leica camera compared to the large format cameras of the time.

While clearly more expensive than other still cameras on the market at the time, the Leica combination of 35mm roll film, high-performance lenses, and compact design set it apart.

The obvious possibilities of the Leica convinced Ernst Leitz to build 31 beta test cameras in 1923. This model was an instant hit, and despite the economic distress of the time in Europe and the world, Ernst Leitz decided to roll out the brand-new camera type in 1925. And the rest is history.

 

Ernst Leitz and Oskar Barnack.
Ernst Leitz and Oskar Barnack.

 

 

 

 

The return of the motion film Leica

With the Leica M240 (2012) digital camera with "live view" and the Leitz Cine production starting to make cinema lenses, the Leica M could once again be seen as the "director's viewfinder," which is a way for the director of a movie to see what a lens will see before the shoot begins.

 

The Leitz Cine lenses on my Leica M240. © Thorsten Overgaard.
The Leitz Cine lenses on my Leica M240. © Thorsten Overgaard.

 

he Leica M10-P ASC 100 Edition

The Leica M10-P ASC 100 Edition (100 pcs made as a limited edition in 2019 to celebrate the 100 years of ASC/American Society of Cinematographers). This is a Leica M10-P camera that comes with an adapter for cinema PL mount lenses.

You can buy the adapter separately, and it will work on Leica M240, Leica M10, and Leica M11. The set is in a special color, numbered, and comes with a brass Leica M lens.

 

Cinematographer Guillamue Deffontaines using a 100mm Leitz Cine f/1.4 lens on a Leica M still camera at Cannes Film Festival. © Thorsten Overgaard.
Cinematographer Guillamue Deffontaines using a 100mm Leitz Cine f/1.4 lens on a Leica M still camera at Cannes Film Festival. © Thorsten Overgaard.

 

More to come

Bon voyage with it all. Sign up for the newsletter to stay in the know. As always, feel free to email me with suggestions, questions and ideas. And hope to see you in a workshop one day soon.

 

Thorsten Overgaard

 

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Thorsten von Overgaard
Thorsten Overgaard's Leica Article Index
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Leica 35mm Summicron-M ASPH f/2.0   Leica R4
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Leica 50mm Summicron-M f/2.0 "rigid" Series II   Leica 35mm Elmarit-R f/2.8
Leica 50mm APO-Summicron-M ASPH f/2.0   Leica 50mm Summicron-R f/2.0
Leica 50mm Elmar-M f/2.8 collapsible   Leica 60mm Macro-Elmarit f/2.8
Leica 75mm Noctilux-M ASPH f/1.25   Leica 80mm Summilux-R f/1.4
7artisans 75mm f/1.25   Leica 90mm Summicron-R f/2.0
Leica 75mm Summilux-M f/1.4   Leica 180mm R lenses
Leica 90mm Summilux-M ASPH f/1.5   Leica 250mm Telyt-R f/4.0
Leica 90mm APO-Summicron-M ASPH f/2.0   Leica 400mm Telyt-R f/6.8
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Above: Ilsa Bing in one of her settings for self portrait in mirror, 1931.

Thorsten Overgaard in Chicago by Nick Delany.
Thorsten Overgaard in Chicago by Nick Delany.

Thorsten von Overgaard is a Danish-American multiple award-winning photographer, known for his writings about photography and Leica cameras. He travels to more than 25 countries a year, photographing and teaching workshops to photographers. Some photos are available as signed editions via galleries or online. For specific photography needs, contact Thorsten Overgaard via email.

You can follow Thorsten Overgaard at his television channel magicoflight.tv.

Feel free to email to thorsten@overgaard.dk for questions, advice and ideas.

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