What comes to mind when you hear the name Leica? I posed this question to about two dozen professional photographers and they enthusiastically responded: "prestige," "precision," "craftsmanship," "envy," "excellence," "perfection," "tool of the masters," and even "lust." To this glorious praise I would add: quintessential.
There is no shortage of precision camera manufacturers on the market, yet this German brand, founded in 1849, maintains a revered place in the minds of photographers. Considering the changing camera marketplace, where photography is being redefined by hundreds of apps that can turn a smartphone into a working darkroom, how does a legacy brand like Leica stay on top?
Leica recently announced a co-branding alliance with Magnum.
"We provide the customer with a product so they can take the highest quality pictures," says Christian Erhardt, Vice President of Marketing Photographic Division at Leica Camera Inc., based in the U.S. "People have a tendency to focus on megapixels, but what you need is the best lens. Without a great lens, you can only do so much."
[Photo by Dennis Stock/MAGNUM. Portrait of French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, a founding member of Magnum Photos, on the roof of the Magnum offices, in Manhattan, on West 57th Street, 1961.]
More than any other brand, Leica is synonymous with the history of photography, especially photojournalism. Legends like Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Capa used the camera exclusively. Its compact body and "soft trigger" allow the photographer to be "in the moment," yet unobtrusive.
The Leica camera and brand focuses on the optical experience, design, and technology equally, says Erhardt. The camera is exalted for its simplicity. Accented by its red dot symbol and script logotype, the classic M series rangefinder camera is an exquisite balance of old and new. It competes vigorously in today’s war for megapixel dominance in a lovable retro and durable body. Photographer Doug Menuez says, "It’s also an excellent weapon when swung properly."
Another thing separates this brand from their competitors: price. Be very serious about your photography before investing in a Leica. Pro cameras start at around $4,000. The M9 Titanium, by Walter de'Silva, Chief Designer of the Audi Design Team, will cost you a neat $50,000. (No rush, it’s sold out.) It's hard to imagine a Nikon or Pentax ever commanding that price.
Panasonic's makes cameras virtually identical to Leica’s compacts, at $300 less.
Models in Panasonic's Lumix line are virtually identical to Leica’s compact digital cameras, but come at a substantially lower price. But it appears that customers are willing to pay more for the "little red dot." Celebrated photographer Rodney Smith loves his M6, which he compares to a Patek Philippe watch for its beautiful engineering, high precision, and complete reliability. He says simply, "It’s worth every penny."
Even with all of this worship by the "M series" purists, the company encourages playful expressions of the iconic brand, such as special collaborations with companies like Hermes. Although Leica doesn't rely on traditional advertising, Leica expertly amplifies its brand message through various marketing channels including virtual and physical photo galleries, distributors' promotions, films, and their website. They stay close to the top-tier photographic community. To promote their newer S2 model SLR, Leica has dedicated a portion of their website to documenting photo shoots captured by the S series cameras that the megapixel-hungry applauds for its range and depth.
Leica recently announced a co-branding alliance with Magnum, the legendary photo agency founded in part by Cartier-Bresson and Capa. This symbiotic relationship has existed for decades. Now, the companies are working together for independent storytelling. "Leica is a company, a brand, a legacy, a collection of dedicated people producing products to capture images at the absolute highest quality possible," says Jonathan Roquemore, head of Brand and External Relations for Magnum. "This partnership is about showing great, dedicated, and compassionate photography."
Leica stays close to the top-tier photographic community.
This new alliance will explore what the media environment for photojournalism looks like today. The companies intend to create a platform for Magnum photographers to tell in-depth documentary stories that both Leica and Magnum will publish, while offering a beta exchange to test equipment and gather feedback that informs Leica’s product development.
[An image from the LEICA S2 shoot from photographer Maik Scharfscheer]
How will Leica continue to command such loyalty? Leica’s Erhardt says simply, "It’s all about the experience. We want to allow our customers to interact with our products and our brand as they wish." Award winning photojournalist David Burnett had this to say when I asked him what he thinks of the brand: "The name Leica is nearly onomatopoeic; when you say it, it mimics the sound of a wonderful Leica rangefinder camera just at that precise moment (when you’re lucky) that a vision needs to be captured."
It’s also the sound of a finely tuned brand built on timeless quality and innovation that keeps Leica at the forefront of image making today.