From 1914 to now, Leica’s definitive history is Xiaomi’s photography trump card - Hindustan Times

From 1914 to now, Leica’s definitive history is Xiaomi’s photography trump card

Feb 27, 2024 09:05 AM IST

In an era where artificial intelligence is being used extensively to define photography results in phones, Leica and Xiaomi are on the same page – optical hardware basics over artificially boosting photo results

New York, the world’s first street photo from a compact camera, by Ernst Leitz II in 1914. The Hindenburg, by Dr Paul Wolff, at the mast at the Rhein Main airport in 1936. The VJ day photo of a solider kissing a girl at New York’s Times square, captured by Alfred Aisenstaedt in 1945. Che Guevera’s portrait in Havanna in 1960. The Napalm attack in Vietnam in 1972, by Nick Ut. A car parked on a beach in England, by Gianni Bernego Gardin in 1977. All moments you must have seen in books, movies or videos, because after all, they are iconic moments of our history. Little may you have realised, all were photographed using Leica cameras. It is that irresistible, fascinating reminder of the times past, that defines an aura at Leica’s home turf in Wetzlar, Germany.

Xiaomi phones with Leica cameras. (Vishal Mathur / HT Photo)
Xiaomi phones with Leica cameras. (Vishal Mathur / HT Photo)

As HT got a chance to visit the Leica Gallery Wetzlar and the Ernst Leitz Museum, it becomes immediately clear they aren’t just a simplistic window to cameras over the years. They have our history as the centrepiece, a photography era that began with the UR-Leica in 1914, the world’s first pocketable digital camera. It continues to define where we’re headed, particularly with smartphone cameras. It is this expertise and largely unmatched know-how, which tech giant Xiaomi is relying on, to distinguish photography performance of their flagship Android phones, in a market that’s more competitive than ever.

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“Leica has a long history in camera making. Of course, we lived through various generations of stuff from analog cameras having images on plates to the first digital camera. I think Leica always managed to adapt very well in the given timeframe, or to the given technology in that time,” says Julian Burczyk, Head of Product Management Mobile at Leica Camera AG, in a conversation with HT.

The basics of approach haven’t changed, as Leica increasingly focuses on the smartphone world. “I think we also manage that for the smartphone world. Leica can very bring the feeling and assessment of quality to be up to date, or state of the art technology that is available on the market at the moment,” Burczyk adds. This is the sort of foundation that builds the photography experience for Xiaomi’s latest flagship phones, the Xiaomi 14 Ultra and indeed the India-bound Xiaomi 14.

Leica puts photography at the very centre of everything they do. Little does one realise immediately, but the architecture of Leica camera factory in Wetzlar is inspired by a negative film reel. The museum gets its influence from a camera viewfinder. Through different eras and transitions, including begrudgingly finding a balance for existence during the Nazi regime, to overcoming financial troubles in the early 2000s under the leadership of Andreas Kaufmann who is now on the supervisory board, the company has just reported revenues of 485 million euros in results this month, up from 444 million euros in the previous year.

Even as we have adopted smartphone cameras, there are a multitude of approaches we as consumers get to see. Smartphone brands put differing weightage to factors that can define the results we as consumers see after we’ve tapped the shutter button. Artificial intelligence is often found to be playing a role, to different degrees.

The contours of Leica and Xiaomi’s partnership are very clear. “A good picture needs the best lens and optics. We work together for the photo output from the device, and it is up to Xiaomi to pick the components that may work best with our approach” says Kay Plaetke, Strategy & Business Development Manager Mobile at Leica Camera AG. Leica has a baseline for specifications that must be ticked off before a Xiaomi flagship phone can boast about “co-engineered with Leica”.

The German camera legacy isn’t new to the world of smartphones. They’ve worked with other phone makers before, and in an exclusive for the Japanese market, have developed the Leitz Phone 2 with the Sharp Corporation.

Artificial intelligence versus hard work

Leica attempts to give Xiaomi a holistic vision, which includes not just software-based image processing, but also extensive shooting modes and add-ons for tweaking photos. For instance, in the portrait mode of the Xiaomi 14, you can choose to replicate the results typical with a 50mm, 75mm and 90mm focal lengths. For the optical hardware to be able to do that, and not have artificially intelligent software try to mimic those results, is key. The results speak for themselves. At the heart of this approach to constantly improving the basics, are Leica’s Summilux optical lens and a 1-inch sensor.

One thing Xiaomi is clear about – their phone cameras will keep the use of AI to a minimum. While it cannot be completely ignored. “It’s an aggregation of data through the transformer model that is churning out visuals, and you are losing out that authenticity and sometimes the soul of a photo,” points out Anuj Sharma, Chief Marketing Officer for Xiaomi India.

It is the reliable, old-school way of extracting the maximum detailing and realism from photos as close as possible to the actual scene. Nothing really surpasses good hardware as the foundation. Yet, it is a tougher path to walk, requiring often painstaking effort to get everything working optimally. Intuition and experience, count.

“This must be worked on together. Not only the outputs, but you must have the best components and that’s something we can develop on and research. We work for a long time before launching a device and from the beginning of a development, talking about what is the best combination sensor, chipsets, and camera that we bring to achieve our goals,” says Plaetke, while speaking with HT.

When asked about how the Leica and Xiaomi partnership intends to approach artificial intelligence to define photography, they make it clear that the strategy for now is to wait and watch. “AI has a big future, that’s very clear. We need to be careful that the content people are creating is still their content. We need to see what the future holds for that technology,” says Burczyk.

“One interesting thing is that while a consumer may demand for a feature. For instance, Leica launched an analog camera last year, and no one expected it to sell as well as it did and most consumers perhaps didn’t even know they wanted it, points out Sandeep Sarma, Associate Director for Marketing at Xiaomi. According to Leica, they sold as many as 10 times more film cameras in 2023, than they did in 2015 – that’s 5,000 units including Leica M6 and the M-P models, compared with 500 units less than 10 years ago.

That isn’t Leica only tryst with holding on to the simpler basics of technology from the past. They’ve experimented with a camera without a display for what Burrczyk says “brings back the pleasure of photography” and also monochrome only cameras.

What about AI in Leica’s own cameras. The company confirms to us that none of their cameras use AI to improve or tweak the picture quality. There is some level of AI in the cameras, but those algorithms are for controlling perspective and variable aperture.

Past, as a window to the future

There are two people who are, arguably, pivotal to not just inventing cameras as we know them, but to an era of photography that’s led us to where we are with digital cameras, full frame cameras and smartphones. Ernst Leitz II, who founded Leica Camera AG, was ultimately successful after many attempts, in hiring engineer and photographer Oskar Barnack to come work for his company. Though the primary objective wasn’t cameras, Barnack’s passion led us to 1914.

It was then that Barnack handed Leitz what he called a ‘Liliput-Kamera” (it later came to be known as the UR-Leica, or series 0), as Leitz embarked on a sea voyage to the United States. The first-of-its-kind compact camera could be kept in a coat or trouser pocket, for discreet photography. Cameras till then were bulky, needed tripods and glass plates. That is how we got the ‘Ernest Leitz II New York, 1914’ photo, the first of a series of iconic moments.

Special edition cameras have played a crucial role for Leica over the years. They are often, made and sold in limited numbers. There are highlights that cannot be missed – the 2018 Leica M10 Edition Zagato made with Italian coachbuilders Zagato, the 2015 Leica M-P Edition Safari, 2015 Leica M-P Set „Correspondent“ by Lenny Kravitz for Kravitz Design and the 2019_Leica M MONOCHROM „Signature“ by Andy Summers, who you may recognise as the guitarist of The Police.

“Either it’s in combination to work together with an artist or a celebrity. This gives Leica a new audience It’s a very important pillar of our strategy and our philosophy, to be exclusive for the customer. Therefore, we keep continuing doing special editions,” says Burrczyk.

Cameras, phones and physics

HT asked the Leica team about the physics at play, and when does it become difficult to compensate for those limits. Burrczyk tells is that “camera makers found their way into smartphones, as much as the physics allow.” This is where it becomes important to stress that digital cameras will likely continue to have an advantage over smartphones, for complex shooting scenarios. “Of course, we cannot beat physics. We cannot make anything smaller than it really. One inch is one inch and full frame is full frame. We can try to artificially create that, but that’s not our philosophy. We do not trick around things,” he says, on point.

“It is miniaturisation in a way, because of the perspective that Leica also brings to the table. Even while you’re going smaller, there is still the process of how to improve things and that’s what we are working on,” says Xiaomi’s Sarma, making it clear that physics doesn’t mean they’ll stop trying. “We’re trying to push the entire photographic game on smartphones. This partnership is going to yield great results already has and will continue to improve over the next few years,” he adds.

Xiaomi doesn’t reveal the duration of their partnership with Leica, but with the results of the Xiaomi 14 Ultra and the Xiaomi 14 anything to go by, we may be in for a few photography surprises in the years to come. Ones, where physics will just have to take a back seat.

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    Vishal Mathur is Technology Editor for Hindustan Times. When not making sense of technology, he often searches for an elusive analog space in a digital world.

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