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Leica reinvented photography 105 years ago – now Huawei wants to do the same

CNA Lifestyle visited Leica's HQ in Germany to discover how its collaboration with Huawei's P30 Series hopes to free photography the way handheld cameras first did in 1914.

Leica reinvented photography 105 years ago – now Huawei wants to do the same

Alfred Eisenstaedt’s iconic picture of a sailor kissing a nurse in New York on V-J Day was famously shot on a Leica camera. (Photo: Alfred Eisenstaedt/YouTube)

If you're a photo buff, one place to add to your bucket list of places to visit would be Leica HQ, birthplace of what many purists consider to be the best cameras in the world.

Located in Wetzlar about 60km from Frankfurt, Germany, this is where Ernst Leitz, the company that went on to become Leica Camera AG, was founded. This €60-million (S$91 million) "new home" was unveiled in 2014 to mark the brand's centennial that year.

(Photo: Tracy Lee)

Designed by architecture firm gruber + kleine-kraneburg, the ultra-modern complex, which sprawls across 27,000sqm over several buildings, is designed to pay homage to Leica's roots and provide rich insights into the fascinating world of photography, while also housing 750 staff who work in R&D, administration, customer care, and production for its most premium product lines.

Its visitor centre, which is open to the public, translates the Leica story into a tangible experience for brand enthusiasts and photo buffs.

(Photo: Tracy Lee)


Admission is free, and there's plenty to see such as openly visible production areas, displays of various Leica cameras, interactive showcases of camera manufacture, inspiring photographic exhibits, and the buildings' stunning architecture itself, which reflect design elements inspired by camera lenses, apertures, binoculars, and camera film. A retail space, a restaurant and a cafe are also on site.

(Photo: Tracy Lee)

The guided tour (€3.50 a person) opens up more vistas, such as access to the rooftop for panoramic views of the surroundings, deeper peeks inside the Leica factory, and intimate commentary about Leica's history. 

For Leica, it has always been about the Bauhaus principle of 'Form Follows Function', premium quality, the art of photography, and concentrating on the essential.

For example, during our visit, CNA Lifestyle learned that in 1914, Ernst Leitz staffer Oskar Barnack invented and built the first still-picture camera for 35mm cine film with a negative format of 24mm by 36mm. 

The bulky and tripod-mounted cameras in use at the time meant that most snapshots tended to feature subjects formally arranged in stiff poses. The Leica 35-mm camera, however, fitted into the palm of the hand. Nicknamed Lilliput, it used a film roll instead of individual film plates, allowing photographers to take multiple photos without reloading film after every single shot, or needing to be in a dark room.

A look at one of Leica's lenses. (Photo: Tracy Lee)

Its diminutive dimensions allowed lensmen unparalleled portability and freedom of movement, thus paving the way for some of the most iconic shots in the world of photography.

Even today, Alfred Eisenstaedt’s 1945 picture of a sailor kissing a nurse in New York still courts controversy. Nick Ut's 1972 shot of a naked Vietnamese girl screaming as she flees a napalm bomb, is widely credited as being pivotal in ending the Vietnam War.

These, and many other iconic photos, such as portraits of Che Guevara and Mohamed Ali, are all on display at Leica Camera AG. All were, of course, shot using Leica cameras. 


Just as photography entered a new era with portable cameras small and portable, Huawei's new P30 Series is taking camera smartphones to a new level, by equipping them with DSLR-like and extreme low-light capabilities.

The Chinese smartphone manufacturer has used camera lenses co-engineered with Leica in its P- and Mate series phones since 2017.

An exploded view of the P30 Pro's lens. (Photo: Huawei)

It is a collaboration that seems to have paid off, earning Huawei recognition as a manufacturer of some of the best camera smartphones available. It sold 20 million units of its P20 Series, and expects to achieve similar sales figures for its P30 Series, according to Huawei Consumer Business Group's Chief Executive Officer Richard Yu.

"Even though technology has changed a lot in the past 100 years, Leica has not changed its tradition of offering premium quality in terms of its products and photograph images," said Li Changzhu, Vice President Of Smartphone Product Line, Huawei CBG. "For Leica, it has always been about the Bauhaus principle of 'Form Follows Function', premium quality, the art of photography, and concentrating on the essential."

The Bauhaus principle was developed in the 1920s and 30s, challenging the frilly conventions of fine art and design of the time, advocating instead, a return to craftsmanship and simple, rational solutions. It remains a dominant design philosophy today.

A breakdown of the P30 Pro's periscope lens. (Photo: Huawei)

"Aside from collaborating with Leica on optical design and post-processing relating to image quality, we feel that just as Leica cameras revolutionised photography 105 years ago, Huawei has revolutionised smartphone photography. 

"Smartphone photography has a special intimacy because subjects don't feel alerted or threatened. They're good tools to consumers to exhaust their imaginations; to create art anywhere, anytime. Everyone can be an artist," said Li.

READ: China's Huawei posts higher profit as smartphone sales hit record

To encourage this democratic artistry, the company's Next Image campaign offers smartphone photography courses online and offline, holding masterclasses pitched at professional photographers and videographers, and organising roadshows and exhibitions.

Since 2017, it has also organised an annual Next Image competition, open to anyone who meets one condition: That the images are captured on a Huawei smartphone.

According to Li, the first competition drew 150,000 entries, while the second one drew 400,000 entries from 130 countries. At the end, 5,000 images are selected to be exhibited at the Paris Photo, considered one of the world's most important photographic exhibitions. 

The judges for this year's competition include award-winning photographer Steve McCurry, who shot the haunting image of the green-eyed Afghan girl, which was used on the cover of National Geographic magazine, and Liu Heung Shing, Pulitzer-prize winning photographer and founder of Shanghai Center Of Photography. 

More information available here.

CNA Lifestyle was in Wetzlar at the invitation of Huawei.

Source: CNA/pw