Monday, October 5, 2015


If it were possible to make a perfect lens, one without any flaws, this article would be meaningless.  However, it is impossible to do so.  Each lens will display certain faults which are virtually impossible to overcome and, unfortunately, of these faults or aberrations there are many and all of them will cause the photographic image to deteriorate.  It is not my intention to go into the problems of lens design as such; instead I want to talk about what can be done to keep aberrations to a minimum, to make a lens sharper.

The easy answer is obvious; keep aberrations to a minimum, eliminate them as much as possible.  Every lens designer and manufacturer does this, within the parameters given to them.

The answer is actually quite easy, but very difficult to realize.  The key word is tolerances or precision.  The more precise a lens is designed and made, the closer it comes to an ideal, flawless lens, the better the lens will perform.

During my visit to Leica I was able to obtain a wealth of information about what they are doing to make lenses as good as possible.  That amounts to tolerances and a level of precision simply not available from other manufacturers. This takes place on two levels, the mechanical and optical precision.  For reasons of greater accuracy, Leica does no utilize any assembly lines.  Instead, all production and assembly steps are done on individual work stations, usually in clean rooms with the work station functioning by design as additional clean environments.

All production and assembly steps are done at individual work stations

The mechanical tolerances applied by Leica must conform to a minimum of 1/100 mm or 10 micrometers which equals less than 0.0004 inch for the accuracy of the lens mounts of both cameras and lenses, but also for the accuracy of the focusing mount of their lenses and for the rangefinder in the Leica M-type cameras.  Other manufacturers apply tolerance of about half of these measurements.  The reason for this is that the performance of several Leica lenses would be compromised if these tolerances would not be adhered to.  For the focusing mounts of all manual lenses, initial testing is done with a machine.  But the final test is up to an experienced individual who is trained to feel even the slightest imperfections in the smooth operation of the mount.  No machine is capable of doing that.

Work on lens and focusing mounts being performed

Adjustments for focusing mount being performed

The optical tolerances of Leica lenses go far beyond this.  This starts with the various types of glass being used to make a lens.  Leica used to make their optical glass in house, but that proved to be too expensive in more recent years.  Instead Leica now purchases their glass from companies like Schott and Hoya.  This includes proprietary designs like the so-called Apo glass which was first developed by Leica for the 50mm f/1 Noctilux. 

This Leica 900403 glass consists of no fewer than a dozen different ingredients, including the rare earth element lanthanum.  One kilogram of this glass costs almost 60 times as much as a common optical glass such as BK7.  Please keep in mind that this APO glass is twice as heavy as BK7.  Subsequently the volume of glass in a kilogram that can be turned into lens elements is only half as great, making the actual price ratio between these two optical glasses approximately 120-to-1

In many cases the factory receives the glass as pressings which roughly approximate the final shape of the lens.  Other glasses can only be obtained in blocks which must be sliced into sheets, cut into squares, cemented together and ground to from a stack of discs.  These work pieces are then cemented onto the appropriate grinding and polishing heads.  About 100,000 of these grinding heads must be on hand.  Until a few years ago, the grinding heads were made large enough to grind several lens elements simultaneously.  However, for reasons of greater precision, Leica grinds each lens element individually in modern machines which, in most cases, keep the glass stationary while the grinding head rotates.  Each grinding step is immediately accompanied by a check for proper tolerances before the element is passed on to the next step.

Lens Production - Production of Asphericals - Grinding

Various lens grinding machines

Tolerances differ substantially already with the raw glass.  Leica applies a standard of ±0.0002% for the accuracy of the refractive index.  This compares to the international standard of ±0.001% as applied by other lens manufacturers.  The accuracy of the Abbe number, the measure for dispersion, is ±0.2% for Leica compared to ±0.8% internationally.

Once the raw glass blanks have been received and tested for the proper accuracy of their properties, they are ground to their specified shapes.  For the manufacture of individual lens elements Leica allows production tolerance of no more than ¼ lambda or ¼ of the average wavelength of light which corresponds to approximately 500 nanometer or 0.0005mm for the accuracy of the lens surface.  In comparison, the tolerances applied by other lens manufacturers are ½ lambda or 0.001mm.  Similar tolerances are used for the thickness of the elements and proper centering along the optical axis.

As of late many manufacturers are offering lenses with aspherical surfaces which can greatly improve lens performance by virtually eliminating spherical aberration.  However, there are two distinctively different approaches in the manufacture of these elements.  An inexpensive method is to produce a “conventional” spherical element and sandwich it with a thin aspherical surface element.  These are made of precision molded acrylic.  However, this method, originally developed by Zeiss, was ultimately discarded by them because it could not approach their quality standards.  The main cause was the fact that even the clearest plastics, like acrylics, consist of very large molecules.  Light, when transmitting, literally will scatter off these molecules, causing the light to be diffused, which ultimately has adverse effects on lens performance.  Other companies use precision molding equipment where a glass blank is reheated until it becomes pliable and then is precision molded into the final shape of the lens element.  Some exotic types of glasses cannot be used with this method because the reheating and molding will cause the glass to deteriorate and thus make it useless.  The same applies to lens elements of larger diameters.  Leica uses an entirely different approach.  They use computer controlled automatic grinding and polishing of the glass elements which require the adherence to extremely tight tolerances.  Unfortunately such production methods can only be achieved at considerable expense.

Measurement for accurate thickness of the lens element

Each manufacturing and assembly step is immediately followed by a check

For the production of aspherical lens elements Leica applies tolerances which cannot exceed 0.03 micrometer or 0.00003mm.  To achieve such precision Leica employs special grinding machines where the lens element is rotating againt the grinding head, which is in form of a narrow rod.  This will grind only a small section of the entire surface of the lens element at a time.  A special grinding substance is also used which is partially magnetized.  This is done to allow for a more precise adherence of the grinding substance to the lens and grinding rod surface.  With all lens elements the grinding substance becomes ever finer from one step to the next until it is mostly water with a small amount of a very fine polishing compound.  Unfortunately I was not able to take specific photographs of the manufacture of aspherical lens elements.

The grinding compound for many lens elements must be continuously rotated to avoid deterioration

All individual lens elements, spherical and aspherical, do not approach their final surface configuration and thickness until the lens coating is applied.  Lens coating at Leica is not applied in the same manner for all elements.  Instead selective coating layers of different substances is applied in a manner that eliminates surface reflection as much as possible.

Grinding aspherical surfaces via this method is extremely time consuming.  As with all manufacturing steps at Leica, each individual step is immediately followed by a check.  If these checks show that deviations from the norm still exist, the step is either followed by additional work, or the lens element is discarded.  This often leads to no more than five aspherical lens elements being produced in a single day.

To increase lens production, Leica tried to outsource the manufacture of some aspherical lens elements to other companies like Schneider Kreuznach, for instance.  Unfortunately this proved to be a dead end.  The companies that were approached by Leica either were not able to work within the specified tolerances or they simply were not able to supply a sufficient number of elements to make such cooperation feasible.

Applying paint to the edges of the lens elements

Before lenses are assembled, each lens element is coated at the sides with black paint to avoid reflections.  This used to be done with a brush, but now a specially designed foam applicator is used instead.  The question is often asked why this isn't done by machine.  The simple answer is higher accuracy.  The general black coating is easily applied with just one step.  However the often sharp edge between the polished lens surface and the edge often requires as many of five additional applications to be perfect.  This can only be done by hand.

All of this makes Leica by far the foremost and most advanced manufacturer of aspherical lens elements in the world.


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  1. Tom Rogers wrote: Thanks for this; great to see photos too.

  2. Alan Starkie wrote: Very interesting - thanks

  3. Replies
    1. What about Zeiss? They used to make lenses and cameras very much the same way Leica does. But now they are farming it all out to other companies.

    2. I don't want to give the appearance of being anti Zeiss. To the contrary, they are one of the leading optical companies in the world. Their Microscopes for instance can be found in just about any research lab. Surgical microscopes, for instance, are one of their fields of expertise. As a matter of fact, they are the only company that is directly competing with Leica in these areas in terms of quality and performance. I recently visited a professor of biology at his offices at the University of Minnesota. I saw several Microscopes there from Leica as well as Zeiss. When Icommented how surprised I was the see these instruments available to students, he quickly stated that they were only research, that the students had to make due with lesser instruments from other manufacturers. He did mention names, but this is not the place for that. Unfortunately, cameras and lenses are no longer part of the uncompromising quality production at Zeiss any longer.

  4. Couldn't Leica increase they sales if they were to loosen their tolerances to some degree?

    1. Of course. If Leica prices were the same or similar to those of other companies, they sales would certainly increase. But then they would simply join the mass production crow of the camera industry. I am certain that will never happen. I rather see them maintain their quality and performance level.

  5. On you pictures I noticed that only few people are working. Couldn't they increase production if they hired more people?

    1. That question was addressed during my visit. The short answer is no. For the lens production Leica uses only very highly trained personnel. Since many of the machines work automatically, they have only one individual working on specific tasks at a time. for instance, when grinding a lens element, the same person will insert the glass blank into the machine to start the grinding process. Once the first step has been completed, including checking for accuracy, the same person then will put the lens element into the next machine to continue the grinding process. while the next machine is running, the same individual has time to put the next glass blank into the first machine. This process continues until the grinding phase of that particular lens element is completed. That of course can give the impression that ther is a lot of down time.

  6. Isn't Leica going overboard with their production methods and overly tight tolerances? Other manufacturers are making very good camera equipment also. I have never been able to see any differences in the picture quality.

    1. It is necessary to go to the great lengths as Leica does to gain a performance advantage, and that unfortunately is expensive. The gains in performance can not be shown in a computer monitor, their resolution isn't anywhere near enough to do so. Neither do these difference show with relatively small, high resolution prints. However, when very large prints are necessary, or if any given file requires considerable cropping, then, in side by side comparisons, these performance differences will become apparent. Other advantages that are gained is in the lens performance at maximum aperture. This is especially the case with very fast lenses. A good example id the 50mm f/0.95 Noctillux. Even at maximum aperture it will perform as well as many other 50mm lenses when stopped down to f/5.6 or even f/8. In the final analysis, it is up to the individual camera owner to determine if the extra cost of a Leica is worth the performance gains.

    2. That's what Germans do. Witness a Mercedes Benz car. A marvel of engineering, but never even close to being a top reliable car.

    3. What exactly is it that "German do"? What you post is an opinion, or do you have any proof to back up your claim?

  7. Thank you Heinz, this is fascinating information. Will you be posting about assembly? Regarding production standards, Leica's unique standing in the photographic community is exemplary, to regard high standards above the bottom line takes very special people that should be given the rightful recognition they deserve.

  8. I had hoped to be able to gain the same insight with Leica's camera production as I did with their lenses. Unfortunately that wasn't possible because of the new camera or cameras that will be introduced at "Das Wesent;iche" on October 20. There is a huge window which normally allows a great overview of the camera assembly. This was covered by a huge poster with a picture of what this usually looks like. It carried a note indication that they were working on new items. All questions regarding the new equipment were met with a polite smile, but nothing more. Of course I couldn't take any pictures. I do have some data for the camera tolerances which I mentioned in the above article already, but nothing beyond that. I have been in contact with Mr. Elbert Roland to obtain additional information and possibly some pictures. As soon as I have gathered enough material for an article, I will write and publish it.

  9. Corrections needed for some of your numbers;
    1 micron = 1e-6 meters while 1 millimeter = 1e-3 meters, so "minimum of 1/100 mm or 1 micron" needs correcting.

    Further down you should be referring to "thou" not microns; eg
    "cannot exceed 0.003 microns or 0.000075mm" should be 0.003 thousands of an inch or 0.000075mm (or 0.0000762 to be precise)

    1. Thanks for pointing out the mistakes regarding some of the measurements in the article. I have corrected them.