The Leica SLR camera models came about as an answer to the growing popularity of the SLR cameras. Leica had been making their Leica M rangefinder camera since 1925, and in 1964 the world seemed to want SLR (Single Lens Reflex) cameras, and their answer was the Leicaflex (1964), an SLR camera that very much feels like a Leica M.
The beginning and the end of the Leica R cameras and lenses
The story of Leica SLR cameras, in retroperspective, is a sad and short period. It never really took off, and in the early 2000's Leica Camera AG simply announced they would stop making the Leica R cameas and lenses. The long awaited Leica R10 would never become reality. But ... thanks to adapters one would be able to use Leica R lenses on the Leica M digital cameras, was the promise (and it became reality with the Leica M240 (2014) that allowed to use any Leica R lenses on the Leica M240 with adapter (se my article, "The Leica R lenses catwalk").
The Leicaflex (1964) film camera top left, the Leica R8 film camera (1998) with DMR digital back (2004) top right, and the "new solution", the Leica M10 (2017) with electronic viewfinder and adapter to use R lenses.
Leica R: It was great as long as it lasted
The Leica R lenses was widely recognized is the best lenses in the world, so it's not that the Leica R system wasn't a success. It just wasn't a great system commercially. Apart all that was right for in the Leica R system, what was wrong in the Leica R system was that it was built as a defence against mainly Japanese capmera brands cannabilizing on the Leica M system by introducing larger, more advanced, but also faster SLR cameras. As such, it was never really Leica's invention, and it ended up being a patchwork of a great Leica M made into SLR, made into digital. See my video, "The Most Amazing Camera Ever".
Fair be fair, everything ever made in the Leica R syste was great in terms of photography. But not that great in marketing and sale.
"It will be great in the end ..."
"...and if it isn't great, it isn't the end" as the saying goes. That is true in the case of Leica SLR cameras, because in 2015 Leica Camera AG reinvented the SLR as the Leica SL, which is Single Lens cameras; a redefined SLR camera without the mirror.
The concept was precise and elegant, and based on the very high-end Leica S medium format system: Inventing a new system from zero with proportions and lens bayonets that would allow for any future lens size and type without comopromises. Built for digital photography, using electronic viewfinder, and still able to use any Leica lens since 1925 and onward.
The Leica SL (2015) digital camera with SL. Here shown with battery handgrib on the bottom, and Leica L to Leica M adapter and a 28mm f/5.6 Leica M lens.
The Leica SL (2015) became so popular, and was such a great idea, that Canon R, Nikon Z and everybody else in the camera industry copied the concept of a "mirrorless SLR" with new big lenses and the overall system camera concept. From everyone agreeing that the real camera was dying and being taken over by smartphones, Leica raised the "concept camera" from the dead and made it possible for the camera industry to once again experience a new booming market of selling cameras and lenses.
Leica made also the Leica T (2014) cameras and the Leica CL (2017) compact cameras that takes L lenses, but having a smaller APS-C sensor size. In 2022, Leica announced that they phase out APS-C cameras and will focus on full-frame cameras in the future.
Thorsten von Overgaard is a Danish born multiple award-winning AP photographer, known for his writings about photography and Leica cameras. He travels to more than 25 countries a year, photographing and teaching workshops which cater to Leica enthusiasts. Some photos are available as signed editions via galleries or online. For specific photography needs, contact Thorsten Overgaard via e-mail.