A to Z of Photography: Lenna and Leica

A to Z of Photography: Lenna and Leica

This week we move on to L in the A to Z of Photography and an image of Lenna that has impacted every photographer, along with the little red dot… yes, this article gives a brief overview of the history of Leica, a brand that has influenced everyone directly or indirectly through either their design or the photos shot with them.


Lena Söderberg, pronounced Lenna, is a Swedish model born in 1951 whose claim to fame is being the November 1972 Playmate of the Month in Playboy magazine. Photographed by stalwart Playboy photographer Dwight Hooker, this went on to sell over seven million copies and become the best selling single issue of Playboy. So, other than that it is a photograph, what on earth has this got to do with photography and why does it influence nearly every photographer today?

Lenna is what is called a standard test image. When developing image processing and compression algorithms in computer science it is critical to be able to visually and measurably compare their effectiveness. It allows you to determine both absolute effectiveness, as well as relative effectiveness in terms of how they compare to other algorithms. Whilst you can't say "my compression method is better than yours", you can say "using Lenna, my compression method is better than yours." The University of Southern California's Signal and Image Processing Institute (SIPI) hosts a library of common test images for a range of different purposes.

Given that Lenna is perhaps the single most used image in computer science history, why is it so appealing? To start with, it is obviously a human subject with skin tones which immediately makes it good for testing similar images. The light casts gentle tonal variations, which contrast with areas that have detail. As well as varying texture, there are also tonally flat regions, and shadows, along with a wide dynamic range.

Alexander Sawchuk was an Assistant Professor at SIPI and had had a colleague request a test image. Rather than use traditional stock images, they looked for an alternative and happened across an issue of Playboy that was in the lab. Unsurprisingly this is also the reason for criticism in use of the image — it plays to male stereotypes in computer science and rather than use a science led approach in selecting a test image they picked something that appealed to them. The Journal of Modern Optics have suggested three alternative images that have a similar feature space (a pirate, cameraman, and peppers), whilst many journals (including Nature Research) now refuse to accept articles that use it. Irrespective of its origins, Lenna has had a significant impact upon photographers in terms of both the cameras and software we use.


There is no brand in photography more emotive than Leica. The understated little red dot that adorns those gorgeously hewn blocks of metal that Apple pay homage to in their designs. Leica history goes back to the Optical Institute founded in 1849 in Wetzlar, Germany, to make optical instruments. However it wasn’t until 1913 that employee Oskar Barnack produced the first prototype for a camera known as the Ur-Leica that used 35mm film and, in so doing, invented a format of photography that dominated the industry through until the digital age (see some early photos here).

It wasn’t until 1924 that Leica went in to mass production of the Leica 1 with a fixed 50mm f/3.5 lens in a collapsible mount, a top mounted viewfinder, and shutter speeds of 1/25 to 1/500s. One Henri Cartier-Bresson acquired a Leica 1 around 1930 and it was this that gave him the anonymity, flexibility, portability, and quality to pursue the new style of photography he was developing.

However it was the introduction of two killer features in 1930 with the Leica II that turned photography, and particularly photo journalism upside down. These were the coupled rangefinder and interchangeable lens mount. In one fell swoop, there was now a pocketable camera that could take a range of lenses and included a focusing guide to enable rapid shooting. The fact that the camera and lenses were of the highest quality made the product irresistible. The Leica III was produced from 1933 in parallel and was used by Yevgeny Khaldei to take “Raising a Flag Over the Reichstag.”

In 1954 Leica cemented their reputation at the cutting edge of 35mm rangefinder design with the release of the Leica M3 which switched to a bayonet mount and coupled viewfinder-rangefinder that displayed bright framelines based upon the lens attached. The M2 ran alongside as a stripped-down M3, before the introduction of the M4 in 1967 which again improved upon the design and is perhaps considered to be the finest non-metered M camera. As the camera world moved on, Leica also introduced an SLR range in 1964 beginning with the Leicaflex however, in comparison to rapid Japanese developments, these struggled to compete and Leica found itself in financial difficulties because of this and the badly received (metered) M5. M4 production restarted and moved to Leica’s Canadian plant. The M4-2 that followed in 1977 had a simpler production process and saved Leica (followed by the M4-P in 1981). Paralleling this, Leica SLRs were developed in conjunction with Minolta (see next article) that introduced desperately needed in-camera electronic expertise.

The film based M6 and M7 have followed, but were then superseded by Leica’s rangefinder digital offerings that started with the M8 in 2006 and have largely followed an annual cycle of release. In 2015 Leica introduced the new L-mount for the Type 701, an APS-C mirrorless camera, and Type 601 a full frame model. As we reach the end of the 2010s, Leica has fully jumped into the full-frame mirrorless marketplace that has propelled Sony, Nikon, and Canon forward, with the announcement of the L-mount Alliance that includes Sigma and Panasonic, the first fruits of that labor being the Panasonic S1. If you are wondering whether to switch to full-frame mirrorless then there is a plethora of choice – just make sure you don’t pick the wrong one!

And the elephant in the room? The phenomenal cost of both the cameras and lenses. Yes, they are beautifully designed, beautifully crafted, and have an iconic brand status that is the equivalent of Apple or Porsche. The price is large unrelated to the actual cost of producing the camera. You buy one because it is Leica. The fact that they are amazing cameras is incidental. Rent one for a day and try it out – you might just end up becoming a customer.

Other Ls

Other Ls that didn't make the cut in this article include Lensbaby, Lowepro, leaf shutter, light painting, long exposure, low key, Lunch Atop a Skyscraper (image), Last Jew in Vinnitsa (image), Leap Into Freedom (image), David LaChapelle, land art, landscape, Dorothea Lange, Jacques Lartigue, La Gras (image), latent image, Annie Leibovitz, lens, David Levinthal, Helen Levitt, Life, light, light meter, lomography, La Lumiere, and luminosity.

A to Z Catchup

Alvarez-Bravo and Aperture

Bronica and Burtynsky

Central Park and Lewis Carroll

Daguerrotype and Frederick Douglass

Exposure and Harold Edgerton


Family of Man

Nan Goldin and the Golden Triangle

Hyper-lapse and Horst P. Horst

Image Stabilization and Into the Jaws of Death

JPEG and William Jackson

Yevgeny Khaldei and Kodak

Lead image a composite courtesy of Skitterphoto and brenkee via Pixabay used under Creative Commons and Wikipedia, in the Public Domain. Body images courtesy of Wikipedia and Kenny Luo via Unsplash, used under Creative Commons.

Mike Smith's picture

Mike Smith is a professional wedding and portrait photographer and writer based in London, UK.

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You can soon auction buy a display model of almost every camera they have built for a very large figure.

But get this .. this camera sold for almost 3 Million $$ ..

The ur-Leica was completed in March 1914, not 1913 as stated. Also, the cost of production does have a great bearing on product retail cost, there is a lot of hand-work done on M series cameras and all are thoroughly tested and individually certified, not just random samples like the mass produced brands. Yes they are expensive but it's not true to say that they are not commensurately expensive to produce.