Wednesday, September 5, 2018


I once again visited Leica this summer and I was treated to an unexpected privilege; I was allowed into the actual production areas of both the cameras and lenses to take photographs and to ask questions.  I specifically wanted to get more data on what sets Leica apart from their competitors.  All the major camera and lens manufacturers are capable of making equipment of the highest possible quality, yet when taking overall performance into consideration, Leica cameras and lenses are the ones that usually stand out.  That of course brings up the question “why?”  The main reason generally given is that Leica is the only major manufacturer that does not mass produce any of their cameras and lenses.  Mass production, as good as it has become, is simply incapable to generate the overall quality that Leica can produce with their approach.

Part of the production area for the Leica SL and Leica TL2

Batches of the Leica TL2

During my visits to Leica I was able to obtain a wealth of information about what Leica is doing differently.  The main factor are the tolerances they apply. These amount 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 not utilize any assembly lines.  Instead, all production and assembly steps are done on individual workstations, in clean rooms with the work station functioning by design as additional clean environments.

Typical work station

Leica M10 sensors ready for assembly

Adjusting the sensor on a Leica M10

Installing sensors in the Leica CL

The mechanical tolerances applied by Leica must conform to a minimum of 1/100 mm or 10 micrometers which equals less than 0.00039 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.  The same tolerances used to be applied to the accuracy of the focal plane in the Leica analog cameras.  These needed to be increased substantially for the positioning of digital sensors since, unlike with film, sensors are totally flat.  Other manufacturers apply tolerances 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 by 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 focusing mount.  No machine is capable of doing that.

Adjustments to the focusing movement being performed

Items that do not meet the Leica quality standard are being set aside to be adjusted or discarded

Yes, Leica still makes analog cameras

Working on a Leica Q

Checking and adjusting Leica TL2

Batch of Leica SL bodies

The basic camera body configuration of future cameras is done with a 3D printer

Yes, metal work is still being performed at Leica in Wetzlar

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, all of which 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 perform as well as possible.

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 once again tolerances or precision.  The more precise a lens is designed and made, the closer it comes to an ideal, flawless lens, and the better the lens will perform.

Grinding of spherical lens elements

The optical tolerances of Leica lenses go far beyond the mechanical ones.  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 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

Grinding and polishing of aspherical lens elements

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.  Each grinding step is immediately accompanied by a check for proper tolerances before the element is passed on to the next step.

Checking for lens element surface accuracy.

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 minimum 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.  However, with some lens elements this accuracy is set for 0.0001mm or 0.1 μm (micrometer).  In comparison, the tolerances applied by other lens manufacturers are ½ lambda or 0.001mm or 1 μm .  Similar tolerances are used for the thickness of the elements and proper centering along the optical axis.

For some lens elements Leica uses rather exotic types of optical glasses whose surface will deteriorate when not in their finished stage.  To prevent this, the individual lens surfaces are coated with a special black paint which is later removed to finish the lens element.

Checking for proper centering of element groups.
This instrument sits on a huge block of granite to avoid vibrations.
It is so sensitive that touching the granite surface ever so softly
added enough vibration to render the instrument useless.

Cementing of lens elements

Many lens elements are coated with a protective paint which has to be removed before further assembly

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 slightly 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. Subsequently, this precision molding process forces the lens designer to compromise to a certain degree because better suited glasses cannot be utilized.  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.

For the production of aspherical lens elements Leica applies tolerances which cannot exceed 0.01 micrometer or 0.00001mm.  Leica uses computer-controlled (CCP) and magneto-rheological (MRF) precision grinding and polishing to finalize the surface of its aspheric lenses. This process requires the use of a magnetic-sensitive fluid (MR fluid or MRF) whose viscosity changes in milliseconds when subjected to a magnetic field.  MRF delivers high-performance surfaces previously unattainable with standard polishing techniques.  This grinding compound must be continuously agitated during storage to avoid deterioration.

The stream of magnetized grinding compound is clearly visible coming from the nozzle on the left

The magnetized grinding and polishing compounds must be constantly agitated to prevent deterioration

Unlike with other manufacturers, at Leica 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.  The Leica coating process enables the reduction of light reflection to 0.4%.

Preparing lens elements for coating

Cleaning of lens elements before coating

Lens coating machine

Back of lens coating machine

Each lens element is checked to assure proper coating

Grinding aspherical surfaces via the method used at Leica 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.

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.

Applying paint to the edges of a lens element

During our visit at Leica, our guide pointed out that a new person was being trained to apply the black coating to the edges of various lens elements.  This was being done without any time constraints.  The person was asked to take as much time as necessary to be perfectly comfortable to do the job, even if it would take a year or longer.

Even after mounting into lens subassemblies the lenses are once again checked and adjusted in a milling machine

Laser based interferometer to check alignment

To increase lens production, Leica tried to outsource the manufacture of some aspherical lens elements to other companies.  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.

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

There are a couple of additional steps in the manufacture of Leica lenses which are virtually ignored by other manufacturers.  It is a known fact that regardless of how precise one tries to make each individual lens, there will always be slight fluctuation in performance from one lens to another.  To minimize these fluctuations Leica tests each individual lens element after the completion of all manufacturing steps to determine its actual focal length and along with it the fluctuations from the ideal.  If these do not fall within the rather stringent parameters set by Leica, these elements are usually discarded.  The other ones are marked to indicate the deviations.  Then, during assembly of the optical components, these figures are used to even out the differences with the result that there are considerably less fluctuation in performance from one lens to another.


Counter to common belief, even Leica binoculars are being worked on in Wetzlar

Finally, there are some additional steps when it comes to the Leica rangefinder lenses.  In order to work with utmost focusing accuracy in conjunction with the mechanical Leica rangefinder, the actual focal length of each lens is measured very accurately.  Older Leica lenses were even engraved with these figures.  For instance, my 90mm f/2.8 Elmarit has the figure 05 engraved to the right of the infinity mark on the focusing scale while my 135mm f/2.8 elmarit reads 55.  If my memory serves me correctly, this means that the 90mm is actually a 89.5mm lens while the 135mm in reality is a 135.5mm lens.  The focusing cam of all Leica rangefinder lenses is then ground by hand to reflect the actual focal length of the lens to make rangefinder focusing as accurate as possible. Unfortunately the extra precision that goes into every Leica lens is also quite expensive.  But it proves once again, you get what you pay for.

For other articles on this blog please click on Blog Archive in the column to the right

To comment or to read comments please scroll past the ads below.

All ads present items of interest to Leica owners.



Buy vintage Leica cameras from 
America's premier Leica specialist 


Click on image to enlarge
Please make payment via PayPal to GMP Photography

Click on image to enlarge
Please make payment via PayPal to GMP Photography

Click on image to enlarge
Please make payment via PayPal to GMP Photography


  1. Conrad Brookman wrotw:
    Thanks for this article - I have seen brief videos and articles regarding Leica camera manufacture in the past but it's so interesting to see the processes involved in making these photographic instruments - I could watch and read about it every day and not get tired of it!

    1. It is absolutely amazing to see the care that goes into each piece of Leica equipment. Unfortunately, my article can only give an overlook. You have to be there to and actually experience it.

  2. Are you saying that companies like Nikon or Canon cannot make cameras and lenses with the same precision as Leica?

    1. Not at all. Of course they could, however, they don't. Having made the decision to mass produce most of their goods prevents them from using tight tolerances as Leica does.

  3. I am glad you published this article. I wish Leica would toot their horn more in this respect because it points out quite clearly what Leica does to have their equipment work as well as it does. It is also a good explanation why their prices are usually higher than their competition. As you stated at the end, you get what you pay for.

    1. That is further underlined by the fact that some of the more exotic Nikon and Canon lenses, which don't sell in large enough numbers to warrant mass production, the prices quickly elevate into Leica price territory.