The Sweetest Taboo – The Unlikely Story of Leitz Minolta

The Sweetest Taboo – The Unlikely Story of Leitz Minolta

2800 1575 Josh Solomon

The 1970s were a great time for camera geeks. The decade brought us the apex of professional mechanical 35mm SLRs in the Nikon F2, and the beginning of the amateur 35mm SLR segment as we know it today, spearheaded by the Canon AE-1 and Pentax K1000. These cameras were well made (well, most of them were) and they sold in incredible quantities. One could argue that most of the world’s biggest camera manufacturers reached their peak of sales success and cultural relevance in the ‘70s. 

Well, unless we’re talking about Leica.

While Nikon, Canon, and Pentax were flying high in the decade of disco, Leica would rather forget the 1970s ever happened. This is the decade, after all, in which Leitz invented the auto-focus lens and then sold the patent to Minolta (Leitz said that their customers knew how to focus).

Leica of the 1970s (or more accurately, Leitz as the company was then known) was free falling towards the hard ground of bankruptcy. An unwillingness to keep up with a professional market that was shifting to the SLR format cost them dearly. Leitz tried to hold onto the rangefinder dream with the redesigned Leica M5 in 1971 but only succeeded in alienating their remaining fans and nearly running the company into the ground. Leitz also attempted to join the SLR gold rush by further developing the Leicaflex series of SLRs, but it was too little, too late. Astronomical manufacturing costs as well as a comparatively disappointing feature set prevented Leica from competing in the cutthroat professional SLR market.

It’s strange to think that a company as storied as Leitz could fall so far from grace, and stranger still to think that they would ask for help. But Leitz did both of those things. In 1972 Leitz entered into a cooperation agreement with Japanese camera and optics company Minolta, hoping that the two manufacturers could combine their strengths and improve their fortunes in the ultra-ultra-competitive world of camera making.

No Ordinary Love – The Birth of Leitz Minolta, the Leica CL, and the R-Series

The Leitz Minolta partnership was formed in part to solve Leitz’s SLR problem. The Leicaflexes of the 1960s were by all accounts stellar cameras, but also lagged significantly behind their competitors when it came to feature sets and lens variety. They were also incredibly expensive for both the consumer to buy and the manufacturer to produce, with Leitz losing money on each unit of the Leicaflex SL2 produced.

Enter the Minolta Camera Company. Minolta had already built a reputation for being a progressive camera company with a successful SLR line (the SRT series) and had a knack for introducing new technologies years ahead of anybody else (CLC metering – the predecessor to matrix metering). Partnering with such a progressive company made sense for the traditionally conservative Leitz, and looked like the answer to their SLR woes.

It would then seem strange that the first child of the partnership was not an SLR, but a rangefinder – the jointly designed but Minolta manufactured Leica CL. Released in 1973, the Leica CL was the antidote to the M5. Whereas the M5 was big and chunky, the CL was small and sleek. And whereas the M5 was meant for professional use, the CL was meant as a cost-effective consumer alternative to the Leica M-series.

The CL was released with two new M-mount lenses sold under Minolta’s Rokkor badging – the M-Rokkor 40mm f/2 and 90mm f/4. The M-Rokkor 40mm f/2 was a Minolta lens manufactured by Minolta in Japan while the M-Rokkor 90mm f/4 was a Leitz designed 90mm f/4 Elmar made in Wetzlar. Both offered performance equal to the best from either brand, and helped the Leica CL sell well, at least in comparison to the M5.

For all of its success, the Leica CL was a foreshadowing of the doom that would eventually befall the Leitz Minolta partnership. Though the CL was never meant to compete directly with the flagship Leica M camera (a point we stressed in our CL review), it was perceived by Leica shooters as an inferior product. The CL’s liberal use of plastic and electronics was antithetical to Leitz’s philosophy of stripped down mechanical excellence. This contributed to the CL’s unfair reputation as a sub-par Leica M-camera (a reputation that would haunt every camera made through the partnership).

After a brief entertainment of Leitz’s rangefinder fantasies, the SLR problem would be addressed in the cameras that followed immediately after the CL. For this round it would be Leitz that would help Minolta in developing their new electromechanical SLR, 1974s Minolta XE. Leitz contributed much to this camera, the greatest contribution being the uncommonly smooth electromechanical Leitz-Copal shutter. The XE became a much smoother, higher quality camera than the previous offerings from Minolta, thanks in large part to Leitz’s signature refinements.

While the XE was great in its own right, it can also be seen as a guinea pig for Leitz’s new soon-to-be flagship SLR line – the R-series. The Leica R-series was to be the successor to Leitz’s well-built but ill-fated Leicaflex series, and the answer to Leica’s prayers. Not only was the rebrand a renewal of Leitz’s efforts at making an SLR, but a statement of intent. By collaborating with SLR-savvy Minolta, Leitz intended to take over the SLR market that had almost killed off the company years earlier.

1976’s Leica R3 was about as definitive a comeback statement as a manufacturer could make. It combined the smoothness of the XE with an even sturdier build and a few extra features, namely an updated Leitz-Copal shutter mechanism, a spot/center-weighted meter to complement the normal averaging meter, and the all-important R-mount which could mount those famous Leitz lenses.

The new Leica R-mount played host to a slew of brand new Leitz-Minolta collaborations designed to complement the legendary Leica lenses developed for the Leicaflex. The Leica Elmarit-R 24mm f/2.8, 16mm f/2.8, and Vario-Elmar 70-210 f/4 would be based on Minolta’s own 24mm, 16mm, and 70-210mm MD mount lenses respectively. Like the M-Rokkors, these lenses performed up to Leitz’s signature standard of optical quality, no compromise or improvement needed.

Giving You The Best That I Got – Leitz Minolta’s Finest Cameras

Following the XE and R3, Leitz Minolta quickly went to work to update both brands’ SLR lineups – the Minolta X-series and Leica R-series. This came in the form of 1977’s Minolta XD. The XD signaled that the partnership had truly hit its stride. Not only was it compact and elegant, and built to a standard worthy of Leitz, but it also set the industry-wide technological standard in signature Minolta fashion. The XD holds the distinction of being the very first multimode 35mm SLR with both aperture-priority and shutter-priority auto-exposure modes, as well as a full manual override. It was a landmark achievement for the two manufacturers, and proved to be a popular and well-regarded camera in its day.

Like its predecessor the XE, the XD formed the basis for another Leica R-mount camera, 1980’s Leica R4. The R4 improved upon the original XD design by adding an AE-lock, an explicitly labeled program mode (it technically exists on the XD, but isn’t labeled), a spot metering mode, and the usual Leitz accoutrements of an updated shutter mechanism, mirror box, and tighter build. The R4 would go on to become the best selling camera of the entire R-series with 125,000 copies being sold worldwide. Things looked promising for Leitz, and it looked like they were going to finally get their piece of the SLR pie.

Leitz Minolta seemed to be on a hot streak in the early 1980s because the era also produced one of the finest M-mount rangefinders ever made – the Minolta CLE. The CLE introduced a bevy of new technologies to the aging rangefinder format, including TTL OTF (through the lens, off the film plane) metering, aperture priority autoexposure, and an LED metering display in the viewfinder. The release of the CLE also brought a new roster of M-Rokkor lenses with updated multicoated versions of the previous M-Rokkor 40mm f/2 and 90mm f/4 lenses, as well as a brand new 28mm f/2.8. These lenses formed the 28/40/90 Rokkor triumvirate that still forms one of the best and most versatile M-mount kits to date.

This camera, the CLE, is arguably the best camera to come out of the period of time in which the Leitz Minolta agreement existed. However, Leitz wasn’t involved in its development at all. The CLE is a purely Minolta creation, and its feature set wouldn’t be equaled by a Leitz-made camera for twenty-two years by the Leica M7 of 2002.

But as great as the R4 and the CLE were, they would ultimately be the best that Leitz-Minolta could do. The relationship began to suffer in the 1980s due to a sudden divergence in camera philosophy. This difference showed itself in Minolta’s X-700 in 1981, a camera which competed not with the all-metal professional to advanced amateur SLRs of the day, like the previous XE and XD had, but with consumer-oriented SLRs like the Canon AE-1, presumably to boost overall sales. Unlike its predecessors, the plastic fantastic X-700 would not receive the Leitz treatment, and neither would any subsequent Minolta SLR.

Forget Me Nots – The Final Leitz Minolta Cameras

The subsequent Leica R5 of 1986 would only improve upon the previous R4 by adding a 1/2000th of a second top shutter speed, a TTL flash mode, and improved weather sealing. Welcome improvements, but the R5 was now a noticeable step behind contemporary SLRs such as the Nikon FA and Olympus OM4-Ti, both of which introduced technologies like matrix metering, and multi-spot metering. Adding insult to injury, the R5 was significantly more expensive than either of those SLRs, which put it at a significant disadvantage in the marketplace.

Leitz responded in typical Leitz fashion, with reduction instead of expansion; simplification instead of complication. The Leica R6 of 1988 represented a return to the all-mechanical, minimalist sensibilities the brand was known for. The R6 was essentially a mechanical version of the R5, with naught but an all-mechanical shutter that topped out at 1/1000th of a second and a light meter. 

Leitz was back on brand, but suddenly found itself in an awkward position. Like the R5, the R6 was outclassed by its contemporaries; professional mechanical cameras like the Pentax LX and the advanced amateur mechanical cameras of the day like the Nikon FM2 and Olympus OM-3 were much more capable, not to mention cheaper, alternatives. Leitz tried to play catch-up by bumping the shutter speed up to 1/2000th of a second shutter speed with the R6.2, but just like the Leicaflex SL2 a decade prior, it was too little, too late.

The final R-series camera with Minolta DNA would be the Leica R7, released in 1992. The R7 saw the return of electronics to the R-series and introduced a digital display in the viewfinder, fully automated TTL flash metering, mirror lock-up, and a rather unique selective/integral metering system. It seemed that Leitz had finally caught up to the pack with the R7, but again they were caught flat-footed. The 1990s unleashed autofocus upon the world, and Leitz got caught with their pants down messing about with manual focus. The R7 faded out of existence, and though Minolta continued to manufacture lenses and accessories for Leica well into the 1990s, the later years of the decade brought an end to the Leitz Minolta collaboration.

In the years and decades following the breakup, Leitz would continue trying to develop upon their SLR system with the radically divergent R8 and R9. But they eventually gave up on the R-series altogether. They released a digital camera in 1996, but it cost $30,000 and the company only made 146 units. By 2004 and 2005, the brand was almost totally ruined.

Minolta meanwhile transitioned into the amateur and professional autofocus SLR market throughout the 1990s, produced some fantastic point-and-shoots and consumer-grade cameras, and did pretty damn well for themselves for another couple of decades. But, in one of the great tragedies of camera history, they failed to successfully transition to the ultra-competitive digital SLR market. Their parent company sold the consumer photography brand Minolta (then Konica-Minolta) to Sony in the early years of the new millennium.

Stronger Than Pride – The Legacy of Leitz Minolta

The legacy of Leitz Minolta is a complicated one to parse. On one hand, nearly every camera and lens made under the agreement still carries the undeserved stigma of being “not quite a Leica.” Mention the R-Series and the CL or CLE rangefinders in casual conversation with an older photo geek and you can expect the words “basically a Minolta” to be said with a hint of scorn. It doesn’t help that Leitz’s attempts at modernization, particularly the usage of more automation and plastic, were then and are still now looked down upon by the Leica faithful. It’s this catch-22 that seems to define Leica’s transitional past – modernize and risk upsetting the fan base (as happened with the Leica M5), or cling to tradition and be left in the dust (Leicaflex SL2, Leica R6). Leitz couldn’t win, and the only answer was to quit playing the SLR game entirely.

On the other hand, we are now left with a collection of truly great, but overlooked cameras. The Minolta XE and XD are two of the best Minolta SLRs ever made, and make great user bodies today. The pro-grade Leica R-series now sells for relatively cheap compared to typical Leica fare and they offer access to Leitz’s incredible and storied R-lenses. And the oft-maligned Leica CL and Minolta CLE remain some of the best M-cameras ever made, with some of the best glass ever made for the M-mount.

Was the Leitz Minolta collaboration a failure? We could argue, yes, since one company no longer exists and the other can’t hold a candle in sales volume to the dominant camera makers in the world (Sony, Fujifilm, Canon, Nikon). But we could also argue that it was a success. It lasted more than twenty years, even if Leitz never got the share of the SLR market they wanted and Minolta never got the recognition they deserved. History would argue that it’s a win for photo geeks – together these two great camera makers left behind a collection of incredible cameras and lenses for us to enjoy and remember, decades later.

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Josh Solomon

Josh Solomon is a freelance writer and touring bassist living in Los Angeles. He has an affinity for all things analog. When not onstage, you can find him roaming around Southern California shooting film and humming a tune.

All stories by:Josh Solomon
  • This is a great piece on the Leica/Minolta era. I own a Minolta XE-7 and XD. I use and love both of those cameras. The XD is over the top fabulous! I also own a Leica R5 (thanks to f/stop cameras) and a Leica R6. I really enjoy shooting the R-series Leica SLRs–they are an acquired taste for sure, but great cameras!

  • A really great and interesting article. I have two Minolta 600si film bodies I love and a few lenses. The 600si is a great camera for the way it makes it so easy to combine automatic and manual functions. No menu. But has auto focus with adjustable focus points, matrix metering, Does auto bracket. Auto focus can be set to single, auto, continuous just like a new DSLR or mirrorless. But the functions are all on individual switches that are intuitively laid out and supremely easy to use. I got one of these when my father passed away a few years ago. It was his last camera. I used it and just keep saying through the first roll, wow, wow, wow. And then when I got the photos back I said wow once more. These bodies now sell for 35 bucks on eBay. I liked my first one so much I bought a second.

    Now here is the classic irony. Sony bought Minolta as you indicted in 2006. I bought a Sony A7iii three months ago. A technically advanced camera with what has to be the worst controls and menu that is currently for sale. And yet they own Minolta. Don’t get me wrong, the Sony works very well, but is hard to use. My thought is they should look at their archive of Minolta cameras to see how easy controls and handling can be.

    • You should try a Sony A700, A900 or A77series camera they are Minolta collaborations and feel like Minolta Maxxum 7, 9 cameras!

      • I think this year I am going to work more at getting better at using what I have than buying new bodies that I have to learn. Seems like what I did all of last year was test either new films or new digital camera bodies. I had thought a bit about a used A99 but the price always stayed up a bit more than I want to pay and I am not sure that is such a great camera.

        • I’ve had an A99 since 2012, and I can assure you that it is a great camera. Unfortunately, with Precision Camera as their authorized repair service, it’s a real crapshoot if you should need it repaired. Mine failed, they returned it and it had the same problem; I returned it, they fixed the problem, and returned it with a new problem (disconnected mic for video), which I did not notice until I recorded my daughters’ orchestra concert and there was not sound when played back. I’m honestly afraid to send it to them again. Some have had good experiences with Precision, but I suspect most have not. It is one of the most poorly run businesses I’ve ever encountered. I’m going to bring it to a local repair shop to have the microphone reconnected.

  • Victor Villaseñor January 3, 2019 at 11:43 pm

    The XD series is, in my opinion, the most refined MF SLR by Minolta, even holding the XE next to it, it exudes quality and craftsmanship, while the X700 has more advanced metering and TTL, the XD/XE shutter is a couple of notches above the resr, right there with his R brethren, not to talk about it’s build quality.

  • One serious hobble to the partnership was the back of a common SLR lens mount. Imagine if Leica R cameras had the MD mount, or vice versa. Olympus and Panasonic have arguably both benefited from having the m 4/3 mount in common, and in the good/bad old days I don’t think Pentax suffered from M42 that was used by so many others. That’s what made the CL/CLE so great — having that M mount — all the criticisms of these cameras overlook the fact that whatever you think of them, they make excellent and cost effective second cameras. Cosina Voightlander has done pretty well from this strategy — their cameras and lenses don’t need to be the best am mount equipment out there, they just need to be good enough (very good) at excellent price points. Leica IMHO has never really understood this, that a good portion of their customer base are never going to ONLY use Leicas, but really value having one be part of a larger kit.

  • Not all the SL Leicaflex were well made. Around 1980, having been a Leica rangefinder fan since I was basically old enough to hold and focus one and a third generation Leica user, buying a Leicaflex to replace my Olympus OM2, which got broken when lent to a relative for an African Safari Trip (reversed over by a Land Rover), seemed a natural step. I bought a new and unused old stock SL2 from a London dealer. Within a few weeks the shutter failed. Both the dealer and I felt it was probably due to having sat around unused for a few years and sent it to Leica UK for repair. I won’t go through the long and boring story but over the new few months it went back to Leica UK a further 4 times and was still not satisfactory. I went and spoke to the Leica repair guru, Malcolm Taylor, then working for Derek Grossmark at Hove Cameras and who is currently servicing/repairing my Leica Reporter 250FF and motor drive IIIa. His comment was along the lines of “oh dear not another Friday SL2″and he recommended I ask the London dealer to exchange it for a different camera on the basis of being “non-merchantable goods”. I went back to the dealer and he changed it for a Contax RTS2, that is still working well in the hands of a friend as of today. The Zeiss Contax lenses were every bit the equal of the Leicaflex and later R prime lenses and for most of the life of the R range, the Zeiss zooms were better. I still prefer the one ring trombone zoom/focus system that Zeiss used compared with the two ring focus/zoom system, as used by Leica.

  • Great camera history article, love to read this kind of stories! I have both the Minolta XD-7 and the CLE and find them absolutely fantastic, but no Leica at all in my collection… And by the way, the fact that Sony acquired Minolta and all their camera technology from the past decades surely helped them to take a big share in the digital camera market, and the first “Alpha” camera was indeed a Minolta…

  • I remember when I was in high school the R9 had just come out and I wanted it so bad! I almost bought one when I got back into film back in 2013. I ended up with a Nikon f5 because I had a few good Nikon lenses but I have always loved the R lenses and cameras. Just so pricey in comparison to everything else. leica still sells R adapters for their cameras. my uncle had a leica r6.2 and was fortunate to be able to use it a few times before he traded it for a crap canon rebel. its a shame that the R series got discontinued. I feel leica finally got it right with the R9 but then dropped the ball. They even had a digital back for the FILM R9 witch I though was sooooo cool.

  • Wonderfull article. A buddy of mine had a SRT101 and that camera was boss. Now.. did you really need all those Sade references? Made my head spin.

  • I’m reading this two years after the post date and I think it’s one of the best articles I’ve read on Casual Photophile. Thank you Josh.

  • I had the Minolta CLE with all three lenses (and the flash) in the 90s. I’ve sold that set later that decade, and that’s the only sell ever I truly regret today.

  • Wonderful article!
    Proud owner of a Leica R5 in mint condition, with a gorgeous collection of lenses (28/2.8, 50/2, 90/2, and 135/2.8) in good to near-new condition.

    I never understood the Leica fanboys’ hate towards the R system.
    Sure, they introduced electronics and plastic, but the lenses are absolutely on par with the M lenses (many were designed by Mandler for both M and R mount) and the hype for rangefinders never quite reached me. I did love the X100 hybrid viewfinder, but I could never deal with a purely optical one…

  • Paul o’sullivan August 25, 2022 at 5:29 am

    Great article and well done on digging out the information on Minolta/Leitz partnership: it is not easy to find. Today’s rangefinder M-P M240,M10/M11 rangefinders and the EVF finder can offer a mirrorless-camera-like experience with Leica R lenses without using the rangefinder or optical viewfinder. having used a battery of old R lenses on my M-P, they are superb and a fraction of the price of the M optics. Even a hard to use Telyt 400mm f6.3/560mm f8 becomes useable on the rangefinder, as Leica left the traditional cable release on for use with the pistol grip.

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Josh Solomon

Josh Solomon is a freelance writer and touring bassist living in Los Angeles. He has an affinity for all things analog. When not onstage, you can find him roaming around Southern California shooting film and humming a tune.

All stories by:Josh Solomon