It may have been the greatest Super 8 camera of all time but did it have fatal flaws?
The Leicina Special (Spezial auf Deutsch) of 1972-1977 wasn’t Leica’s first official venture into the wonderful world of cinema—it was preceded by the nicely made but slow selling Leicina 8S and 8V of the early ‘60s that took regular 8mm film. Kodak released the new Super 8 cartridge in 1965 as a more convenient successor to regular 8, which required threading the film onto the take-up spool, running it through the camera twice (once in each direction), and then having it slit in half and spliced by the processor before projection. The new Super 8 cartridge offered true pop in instant loading, required no reloading, slitting or splicing, and provided a larger image format to boot. Though the width of the projected film for both formats measures 8mm (actually 7.90mm), Super 8 has smaller sprocket holes, and provides an image area of 4.01 x 5.79mm (23.2mm square), which is nearly 1.6 times as large as regular 8, and has the potential of yielding noticeably better image quality. Both formats had provision for a magnetic sound recording stripe outboard of the sprocket holes—more about that later.
Beautifully crafted and gorgeously finished in Wetzlar, Germany the Leicina Special was and is a masterpiece of elegant, straightforward electro-mechanical design and was intended as “the nucleus of a universal Super 8 camera system” aimed at serious enthusiasts, professional cinematographers, and scientists. Its defining feature is (what else?) a large, robust Leica M mount enabling the direct use of Leica M rangefinder lenses and (with adapters) Leica screw mount, Leica/Leicaflex SLR lenses, Arriflex lenses, M42 screw-mount lenses, and Minolta- and Canon-mount lenses (but not C-mount lenses as used on Bolex cameras and many others!)
However the optical crown jewel of the Leicina Special is undoubtedly the 15-element, 12-group Leicina 6-66mm f/1.8 Optivaron (made for Leitz by Schneider Kreuznach Optik), which provides power zoom, is acclaimed for its exquisite sharpness and rendition even wide open, and its ability to focus down to a frame-filling field 29 x 22mm of view of at its extreme close-up setting. The basic Special provides a follow-pointer CdS cell TTL metering system, but mounting the optional Leicinamatic with the Optivaron lens adds auto-exposure and lap dissolve capability. The standard compact walk-around prime lens was no slouch either—the 10mm f/1.8 Macro-Cinegon delivers exquisite sharpness over its entire focusing and aperture ranges and can get down to 12cm from the film plane. It’s no wonder that pro cinematographers of the day extolled the Leicina Special in glowing terms, insisting that it performed on a par with contemporary 16mm motion picture cameras.
While the Leicina Special is devoid of frills its build quality is clearly first rate and its comprehensive feature set is impressive. Its bright, high quality, flicker-free reflex finder provides 17x magnification, has a long eye relief distance of 18mm, and a large 4.2mm diameter exit pupil that enables eyeglass wearers to see the entire viewfinder field. The eyepiece has a +/- 3 diopter adjustment range and users had a choice of 3 focusing screens—a micro-prism screen, a split image screen with diagonally arrayed prism wedges for enhanced focusing precision with linear subjects, and an aerial image screen with crosshairs optimized for use with a microscope, endoscope, or extreme telephoto lenses. Precision click-stopped filming speeds of 18 fps, 25 fps, 54 fps (slow motion) and 9 fps (for time lapse or shooting in low light), are controlled by a tacho-alternator in combination with a variable gain amplifier to ensure correct and constant voltage, and the low moment of inertia of the power motor (with iron-less armature) provides uniform exposures for both moving scenes and single frames. A single frame counter on the left-hand side panel indicates the number of frames shot so you can determine the precise framing times of slow motion scenes, and there’s a provision for long time exposures, which are indicated by an LED that glows when the shutter is open. While the Leicina does not accept Super 8 Sound Cartridges, an optional ST1 electronic control unit with a cable that connects to the camera’s 9-pin socket enables automatic start-stop lip-sync sound filming using a separate tape recorder or virtually any separate sound recording device. After the film is processed the sound track can be precisely transferred to the sound recording stripe and then projected as a sound movie. The ST1 also enables continuously adjustable time-lapse scenes, remote release, electronic flash sync, and connecting an external power supply.
The Leicina Special is powered by 5 AA batteries contained an angled battery pack that clips onto the back of the camera, provides a convenient chin rest, and can be removed when the camera is powered by an external power supply, foe example when shooting in extreme cold weather conditions. All controls, including the electric shutter release, built-in battery tester footage counter, and viewfinder shutter to block stray light are robust, ergonomic, legible, and easy to operate. So what are the flaws in this magnificent machine you ask, and are any of them fatal?
Well for starters, the mostly plastic fold-down handgrip feels flimsy, especially compared to the rest of the camera, which is built like a tank. And while relatively few users have reported actual breakage, it’s definitely the weakest component in an otherwise indestructible camera. Indeed, some pros have opted for and suggested more robust aftermarket alternatives. The second “flaw” is that it this it doesn’t accept Super 8 Sound Cartridges, which is really more of a marketing decision than a flaw. According to my dear friend James Lager, the eminent Leica historian, who was working at Leica in Rockleigh, NJ at the time, he fielded numerous calls from potential Leicina Special buyers who asked if it took sound cartridges, and when he said no, it was a deal breaker. Why? Because for average consumers, even sophisticated ones, convenience almost always trumps quality. Undoubtedly you can achieve superior sound quality by syncing your Super 8 camera to a high-end recording device, then adding the sound track to the movie afterward. However the best Super 8 cameras that did accept sound cartridges and had built in sound recorders did a creditable job, performing well enough for most folks. It wasn’t the first time Leica “erred” on the side of ultimate quality and it won’t be the last.