Wednesday, May 31, 2017


According to information available from Leica Camera AG, the total production capacity of lenses is up to 3,000 lenses per month or 36 thousand per year.

These are impressive figures, but how does this compare to other camera manufacturers?  Unfortunately such figures are hard to come by, but I have been able to obtain some information about Canon and Nikon.

Nikon recently announced that they have reached the mark of 70 million SLR lenses made since they were first introduced.  That announcement came only six months after they published the manufacture of 65 million lenses.  That means Nikon produced 5 million lenses in just 6 months or 10 million per year. 

For Canon no such data is available.  However, they did publish the total number of SLR cameras and lenses made since 1987.  These average out to 2.9 million lenses per year.  Current production of cameras and lenses is substantially higher than these average figures.  As a matter of fact, currently Canon makes more cameras and lenses than Nikon.

Taking the 10 million Nikon figure for total annual lens production, in comparison to Leica, they make almost 300 times the number of lenses per year.  That actually means that Nikon makes approximately the number of lenses in one day that Leica makes in a whole year.

All Leica lenses and cameras are individually assembled by hand with 
numerous tests and retests to assure complete adherence to the highest
tolerances in the industry,all with the total absence of of assembly lines
Photos by Marlies Amling and Heinz Richter

That is what mass production allows a manufacturer to do.  However, mass production inevitably has to incorporate certain shortcuts.  There is no way that Nikon or Canon or any other company that mass produces their lenses (and cameras) can even come close to the tolerance levels applied to Leica cameras and lenses.  Ultimately it is this that sets Leica apart from their competition, and this is also part of the reason why it is so difficult for Leica to increase their production numbers.

Leica is all too often criticized for their prices.  However, contrary to claims of being greedy or overcharging, these prices are the direct result of their production methods.  Their bench made production is totally devoid of any assembly line work.  All manufacturing and assembly steps are carried out by individuals in individual steps with multiple checks and rechecks.  Only that way can the tight tolerances be assured, and it is these tight tolerances that assure the increased performance that we expect from Leica equipment.  Unfortunately this is expensive.

That is further underlined by some of the more exotic Nikon and Canon lenses.  These simply do not sell in sufficiently large numbers to warrant mass production; they are made not unlike Leica lenses, however at the lower tolerance levels as set by Nikon and Canon.  

Canon EF 200-400 f/4L IS USM 1.4 lens and fitted case

Nikkor 800mm f/5.6E FL ED VR

One of those lenses is the Canon EF 200-400 f/4L IS USM 1.4x lens with a cost of $11,000 and $600 for the custom case.  Nikon introduced the Nikkor 800mm f/5.6E FL ED VR lens at a cost of over $16,000.  That puts either one of these lenses solidly in the price category that Leica is so often criticized for.

It is ironic that people so often ask for Leica equipment at “competitive” prices.  If Leica were to compromise their production methods to allow their equipment to be sold at lower prices, we would get equipment of performance levels as offered by other manufacturers.  I for one am glad that this isn’t the case.

As the old adage goes, you get what you pay for.  Leica is a very good example of that.

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  1. Kaisern Chen wrote:
    This is simply a rather subjective and candid conclusion drawn on vague understanding. There is time in history that Leica is a much bigger company than Nikon or Canon and produce larger number of lenses than its competitors in Japan and does that make the same conclusion? The lens production is base on demand and now because Leica has the 2nd factory up and running so they are able to produce more than before and does that suggest quality in comparison is in decline? And there are smaller China lens maker that produce even smaller number of lenses and also by hand assembly yet rather inexpensive and what does that implement? It is a result of each company position itself and plan for their business, if is what it is, they are not always do good jobs which is why they all gave their up and down in the past and likely so in the future. Leica has developed itself in what regarded a successful boutique scale of camera business it what Leica found itself comfortable, but they also want to grow for more success or they will not hold hands with Huawei. It's just business.

  2. I reject your claim of "... conclusion drawn on vague understanding." I used published figures, meant as a comparison, not an evaluation of the camera business in general.

    Of course there was a time when Leica was bigger than either Canon or Nikon, after all, they were the first in successfully marketing a 35mm camera and later camera system. That is the very reason why they were copied by so many other companies. But from the very onset, Leica set certain standards in precision for themselves which, to this day, are not matched by any other current company. Mass production is an approach that can keep costs down, but it is incapable to match the precision Leica's bench made process offers. That inevitably leads to lower production numbers and it is for that reason why I wrote the article. Needless to say, the relatively low production numbers of Leica goods make them substantially more susceptible to mistakes, as happened with the Leica M5 and as happened more recently by trying to hang on much too long to analog cameras.

    The example of small companies in China as a cost comparison is without merit because of the much lower labor costs in China. Besides, we do know very little about the precision and tolerances used for that equipment. While the new facility in Wetzlar has increased Leica's production capabilities, they have, for a long time, had two and even three facilities. (Wetzlar, Solms and previously Midland Ontario). The increased production capabilities cannot be equated with any loss in precision. That is entirely dependent on the tolerances the company has chosen for their products. As long as those are adhered to, and they are, Leica will have an edge over mass produced equipment. For that reason I see no problem with publishing comparative figures of total production numbers.

  3. Kaisern Chen answered:
    There are Alpa and a handful of other photographic instrument manufactures that are not less good than Leica, and arguably some may be better, which is why I see the conclusion is a candid one, subjective one, IMHO. There is nothing wrong to like and loyal to a certain brand, I use and also love Leica, but I just don't apply that others are worse. Many great photographs are made by tools that are not Leica, much more, it's just a simple fact.

    1. In no way did I imply that other cameras are not capable to produce excellent photographs. As always, it is the person behind the camera who determines that. But I have to maintain that mass production is not capable to match the tolerances set by Leica for themselves. You make several valid points, but please don't overlook the fact that my article was a simple comparison of Nikon and Canon production numbers vs. Leica.

  4. Vincent Phillips wrote:
    'Leica set certain standards in precision for themselves which, to this day, are not matched by any other current company'. Sorry, but that is simply not true. The only thing Leica champions is extreme cost for similer quality results that other lenses produce. Anyone who thinks they are getting massively better results for this cost is deluding themselves.

    1. You are sadly mistaken. Tolerances for Leica cameras and lenses are tighter than any of their competition across the board. For instance: 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.

    2. "Anyone who thinks they are getting massively better results for this cost is deluding themselves". I have never made a comment to that effect. Of course Leica equipment does not render massively better results. But it is a fact that from a certain point on, extraordinary measures need to be taken to increase performance. That, unfortunately, is very expensive. Thus it is the case for each individual to determine if these performance increases are worth the extra cost.

    3. Why do you even try Heinz? These people are just jealous. Whatever the reason they don't have any Leica stuff, they have to make excuses to elevate their own stuff to levels that do not exist.