Invaluable Guide to Vintage Leica Cameras

Leica II Mod.D Luxus, 1932, no.98248 Leica II Mod.D Luxus, 1932, no.98248. Sold for €312,000 via WestLicht (May 2014).

Vintage Leica cameras are still today considered some of the finest cameras money can buy, thanks to their expert craftsmanship. More knowledgeable photography fans will also point to their key role in revolutionizing the camera industry and setting a new standard for the field of compact 35 mm-film photography. Thanks to this combination, old Leica cameras continue to sell well in the auction market.

This article focuses its lens on the history and legacy of the vintage Leica camera. It also showcases some of Leica’s most desirable models and their prices to help you look for the next Leica for your collection.

German Genius

The brilliance of Leica cameras began in the company of Ernst Leitz, which first began production in central Germany in 1869. At that time, Leitz’s operation specialized in all types of lenses, from microscopes to eyeglasses. By the end of the century, though, the pressure was on to develop designs for the field of photography, which was growing in popularity as companies like Eastman Kodak began to debut compact cameras.

Leitz’s company debuted its first experimental compact camera in 1913 with Oskar Barnack’s “UR Leica”. The UR is a German prefix that denotes that something is “original” or “primitive”. This inaugural Leica was revolutionary in its ability to capture still photography with features that prevented the risk of double exposures. It also changed the game in the camera industry as it was the first mass-marketed 35 mm film camera model. This reduced the bulk of the camera, making it more portable and easy to operate.UR Leica copy No.5.

“UR” Leica copy No.5. Sold for kr4,400 via LP Foto Auktioner (March 2009).

From that point onwards, Leica camera design accelerated quickly. From the introduction of state-of-the-art lens technology in the 1920s to the 1996 release of the brand’s first digital model, the Leica S1, Leica continued to set the pace of camera evolution. What consistently set them apart from their competitors was the sheer quality achieved by their engineering. Their work to refine lenses and add convenient features over the years, like rangefinders and parallax compensation, made them Leica cameras popular among professionals and amateurs alike. The images it was possible to create using with old Leica cameras were so remarkable that the brand counts famed photographers like Henri Cartier-Bresson as loyal advocates.

Thus, while “Leica” did not officially become the camera company’s name until the mid-1980s (previously operating under the name Leitz), the Leica brand was already well established as a frontrunner in the photography field. While the brand continues to produce new models – the 2009 X1, for example, was the brand’s best compact digital camera yet – it is the old Leica cameras that often get collectors excited. Let’s take a closer look at some of these most coveted models.

Early Vintage Leica Cameras

Following the introduction in 1925 of the “Leica I”, the brand’s cameras rapidly developed to feature cutting-edge advances. The Leica I (C) of the 1930s, for example, was one of the first cameras brought to market with interchangeable lenses. Two years later, the brand introduced the Leica II, which broke new ground by incorporating an innovative rangefinder feature that would become a mainstay of camera design for years to come. Its successor, the Leica III, paired this novelty with a remarkably versatile shutter speed range.

 Later Vintage Leica Cameras

Following World War II, Leitz’s Leica cameras continued to evolve. The popular M series, for instance, debuted in 1954 and provided a new m-mount for photographers to change their lenses more easily. Of all the designs in this series, the Leica M3 was one of the most successful as it also featured new film advancing technology. Super savvy vintage Leica camera collectors might seek out the variation on the M3 known as the MP, which debuted in 1956. These rare models – roughly 400 were reportedly made – add to the features of the M3 a Leicavit fast film winder, which allowed photographers to quickly snap several frames per second.

Looking For Authentic Vintage Leica Cameras

Navigating the vintage Leica camera market can present challenges given the many models the brand produced. Moreover, the incredible popularity of vintage Leica cameras led to international emulators whose cameras, like the Russian VOOMP Pioneer, echoed the streamlined shape of Leica designs to confuse consumers. 

There are two important indicators that can ensure that your vintage camera is part of the Leica legacy: 

  1. Vintage Leica Camera Initial Indicator

In addition to the scrolling cursive script of “Leica” that appears next to or near the main dial, most vintage Leica cameras will also come with the imprint of the initials D.R.P. or D.B.P. These initials, usually just below the brand name, reflect the Leica patent. They can also be used to date your camera to either before or after World War II: while most prewar models feature D.R.P. (short for “Deutsches Reichspatent”), postwar cameras typically include D.B.P. (the acronym for “Deutsches Bundespatent”).

2. Vintage Leica Camera Serial Numbers

Near the name and initials noted above is a serial number that identifies the make and model of the vintage Leica camera.  These numbers, which began at 100 for the first 1923 Leica I and broke into the seven digits in 1960, can be crucial in both identifying your camera and guaranteeing its authenticity.

Developing Your Vintage Leica Camera Collection

Leica’s strong reputation as a leading producer of camera technology has been maintained for more than a century. This prowess has been spurred by Leica’s fearless pursuit of photography perfection from their very first model. Testifying to this dedication are the examples of old Leica cameras at today’s auctions that can still take spectacular snaps and that can add to your carefully curated collection of exceptional vintage cameras.