Cameras still click as Leica plans to open new stores

Despite the growth of camera phones, German company is convinced that the iconic brand is here to stay


Few other brands have shaped and influenced the last 100 years of photography like German camera manufacturer Leica.

Its cameras have captured some of the most iconic images of all time including Cuban revolutionary leader Che Guevara, the Hindenberg airship disaster and VJ day celebrations in New York’s Times Square. The British queen is said to be a keen user, and the company holds the world record for the most expensive camera, a vintage Leica which sold in 2012 for $2.8 million.

In fact, it also holds the record for the most expensive digital camera the world has ever seen. The company made photography and auction history at Sotheby’s auction house last year, when a Leica camera designed exclusively for the charity RED, achieved a price of $1.8 million.

It was 100 years ago this year that Oskar Barnack invented and constructed the first still-picture camera and laid the foundation stone for the commercial success of Leica.

Suddenly, photographers no longer needed heavy tripods and exploding flashguns. They could step out of their studios, walk the streets and take photographs with this new mobile camera.

However, it wasn’t until 1925, following inevitable delays as a consequence of the first World War, that Leica finally set out to conquer the world of photography and founded the legend of the brand with a multitude of iconic pictures.

The company now manufactures in the region of 300,000 cameras per year, ranging in price from €500 to €20,000.

But will the multitude of smartphones, with ever-more powerful cameras, spell an end to the legendary brand? Leica CEO Alfred Schopf doesn’t think so. While Polaroid and Kodak have gotten in serious difficulty in recent years, the opposite has been the case for Leica. The company has nearly doubled its revenues in the last two years from €158 million to €300 million.

Schopf says there is no doubt smartphones have transformed photography, and that their cameras are approaching the quality of point-and-shoot cameras. But, he says, they have also led to a wider interest in photography, especially with the introduction of apps such as instagram.

“Never have more images been taken than now, due to smartphones. There are more than one billion smartphones in the world and more people are interested in photography from them. If we can convert just a tiny per cent to cameras that will be huge.”

“We have started doing wifi enabled cameras so people could upload photos to the web straight from their camera. They operate like a smartphone, in that they’re touchscreen,” he added.

As people become more interested in photography, some of them will want better camera features and better quality photos, and that is where Leica will come in he says.

“Photoshop etc can be very time consuming to fine tune the images. It is better to shoot the image right in the first place.”

However, while there will always be demand for top-of-the- range cameras, he does admit that smartphones have proved a challenge when it comes to lower-priced compact cameras.

Schopf, who was the German representative along with Leica chairman Andreas Kaufmann in the EY World Entrepreneur of the Year competition, says Leica may have invented the “selfie” or self-portrait.

A lot of people and countries have laid claim to inventing the selfie, but before Time magazine had written about it, before it made it into the Oxford English dictionary and before Snapchat became huge, Leica come up with the idea for a book containing self-portraits or selfies taken by people all over the world.

“I decided to do work on 99 years of Leica two years ago, as everyone else was celebrating 100 years. We got 500 selfies from teens to the elderly. We had the idea to get people to take photos of themselves, and send them in,” Schopf says.

He says the market has changed significantly over the years.

“In the past you had photo developers, now they are all gone. It took us a long time to convert certain range to digital. We had digital production since 1997 and worked with Panasonic since 2000, but we had a lot of difficulty finding a proper sensor solution.”

As for the future, he hopes to continue the brand’s worldwide expansion.

“We have 10 super stores worldwide. We will expand that to 30.”

And the secrets to Leica’s success? Handcrafted products, with ease of use and high optical quality, Schopf says.

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