How the iPhone is Like the Leica of Today

Small, fast, and good enough

Key Takeaways

  • Rumors say Leica will sell a “cheap” M-series film camera this year.
  • The iPhone is the spiritual successor to the original Leica I.
  • Leicas are now so expensive that they’re pretty much just jewelry for nerds.
iPhone 12 pro max on an angle and on a black background

In 2021, Leica will sell a more affordable version of its M-series film cameras. 

That’s a smart move, because its digital cameras have become an absurd brand of nerd jewelry, and have been replaced, in both function and spirit, by the iPhone in your pocket. The iPhone camera today is everything the Leica I was back in 1925.

"No one buys Leica to take pictures," writes photographer and critic Ken Rockwell. "Leica is a lifestyle, not a brand. Our iPhones, Canons and Nikons take much better pictures than any Leica does. Leicas are baubles for men who like nice things, not for people who want to take great pictures."

Back in 1925, the Leica I was something of a revelation. It was much smaller than other cameras, because it used 35mm film. Photographers no longer needed to carry a huge apparatus with a tripod. Today, 35mm film is called "full frame," but back then, even large roll film was considered "miniature." Yet, despite this tiny "sensor," it changed the future of photography. Sound familiar?

The iPhone Camera

The iPhone’s camera is just incredible. It might not have the outright image quality of cameras with larger sensors (just like that original Leica), but it more than makes up for it by processing the photos as you take them with an absurdly powerful computer.

The iPhone and early Leica comparisons don’t stop there. It’s both more expensive and better built than other phones, and like the Leica I was easier to carry and use than conventional cameras of the time, the iPhone makes all regular cameras seem clunky and inconvenient in comparison.

iPhone 12 Pro Max promo image referring to the camera as "camerus maximus"

Meanwhile, today’s Leica is more of a lifestyle brand. In 2000, fashion brand Hermes bought a 31.5% stake in Leica (and sold it in 2006). A film camera from Leica will cost you more than $5,000, and one model doesn’t even have a light meter. And remember, this is just a box to hold a lens and a roll of film. If you want a digital Leica M, it’ll cost you $8K, and then you’ll have to buy a lens, which starts at $2,595).

Technology-wise, Leica makes beautiful, competent cameras, but they’re deliberately retro. For instance, you have to remove the entire base of the camera to change the battery, because it’s how you had to change a film. And some film models don’t even have a crank on the rewind knob, so you have to twist it with fingertips. 

These cameras cater to purists. And as we know, "purist" could just be another name for people who don’t like anything new.

Are iPhone Photos as Good as Leica Photos?

Yes and no. Just like the original 35mm Leicas couldn’t approach the image detail and quality of larger format film cameras, the iPhone’s tiny sensor can’t hold up to full-frame sensors. But it doesn’t matter. The opportunity and creativity unleashed by an always-ready camera more than makes up for any quality loss.

Think of some iconic photos from the 20th century. Would any of them have been less important, or less successful if they had been taken on an iPhone from today? Few of Robert Capa’s images were even sharp, including his photograph of a soldier taken during the Spanish Civil War. Henri Cartier Bresson, perhaps the photographer most associated with the Leica, relied on timing, composition, and a sense of whimsy for his images. None of those would be compromised by using an iPhone camera.

And as mentioned above, the computer in the iPhone lets you capture images that are impossible with a regular camera. Its Night Mode, for example, or the intelligent HDR, automatically exposes different parts of the image differently to get a better result.

Just like those early Leicas, the iPhone is busy disrupting photography, while the owners of $8,000 Leicas argue about the best way to rub the paint off the corners off the brass top plate to make it look used.

"Leicas haven't been about taking pictures since they went obsolete back in the 1960s," writes Rockwell, "but most of the price is paying for intangibles like bloodline and heritage."

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