A Look At How Leica Lenses Are Made

Ever wonder why Leica lenses cost so much? Among the many reasons are two big ones: the lenses are all handmade, and are produced in very small batches. Joe Minihane of Humans Invent has a great interview with Leica’s Director of Product Management, Stefan Daniel, who shares some interesting facts about how their manufacturing process works:

First of all, we do our production in batches, not in serial production. So, we do batches of 50 or 100 lenses and that requires a lot of work by hand. You cannot automate production of a single lens element, or the lacquering of the rim of a lens for only 50 lenses. It doesn’t make any sense. So we use hand work because it’s more efficient. Also, in doing it by hand, our skilled people know exactly what they’re doing and they can assure perfect quality. Doing it by machine, you have to do control checks afterwards and maybe that’s not getting the result that everybody wants.

Something else you might not know is that material used in lens production is also a bottleneck. The special glass that’s melted for Leica lenses is only supplied once or twice a year, limiting the number of lenses that can be assembled.

Pursuit of perfection: Hand-crafting a Leica lens [Humans Invent]

P.S. Also be sure to check out this video that offers a behind-the-scenes look at the production facilities.

  • Amadeus Hellequin

    Scarcity = Value.

    Some people would buy a nice watch or a new car when they become wealthy. I’d buy a couple of Leica systems & the Noctilux lens.

  • 11

    made like a jewel, costs like jewel, and …. used like jewel :p

  • Henning Nilsen

    Not always the case.

    I shoot leica and mine see plenty of abuse and use. Sure some want to incase them and never use them for anything els than show their photographic e-peen, but theres plenty of people who use them as the tools they were designed to be.

  • Fabrice Bacchella

    I don’t buy the story where people make perfect lens. Every humain make mistake and so control quality is needed anyway. Machine are much more regular.

  • 11

    I totally understand, no offense. I sure love the images produced by leica. But, I love my canon results more.

  • brandon

    so they do many things by hand because they don’t see it as economical to automate some processes when they aren’t really making that many. at least they aren’t trying to tell me that some dude painting the edge of the glass can’t be automated. hmmm. they only get their glas once or twice a year. hmmm. i call BS. clearly there are in the market position they want to be in, making the number of items they want to make. otherwise they should get to it, get more glass, make items in larger numbers, automate. sell many more widgets per year. it’s not that they can’t, they just don’t want to. that’s fine, but don’t pretend hand production is somehow better. i mean, we all know Intel handmakes each xeon chip in small batches, because automation is no good.

  • fahrertuer

    I call BS on the glass supply as well.
    But they seem to have done their math and they can get more profits with selling just a few hundred lenses a year than selling thousands…

  • Kiefer Printy

    why does this story come up every month?

  • wickerprints

    Because certain people want to remind you why they take objectively better photographs than you do, simply because they can afford to buy handmade luxury lenses; and in doing so, they justify to themselves their worth because they feel they need to prove themselves in other ways when they cannot prove themselves in those ways that actually matter.

  • Nathan Caulford

    Maybe machine doctors next?

  • scotty

    Automation is a essentially trade-off between fixed cost and variable cost. Given the scale of their productions (the world needs like, what, 100 Noctilux per year?), it doesn’t make sense for them to invest a few hundred millions dollars in the machinery, plus a few major variations, and numerous minor adjustments for each line of lens. When you are in this position, the supplier aren’t melting you 10 glasses per month, since it takes time for them to customize their production lines to make the kind of glass Leica asked for. I dealt with a scientific instrument company and one of our client has a very particular requirements for its parts. It’s only few millimeters and a different metal alloy compared to what we make for other clients. But due to that difference, we can only run their batch once every year. Oh did I mention that it costs a cool $200K to calibrate our usual process to make it? That alone takes 2 weeks.

    In addition, to automate effectively you need to make certain compromises to make the production process more homogeneous. This can either lead to the optical quality degradation, or longer R&D time to figure out how to fit the Noctilux on the Elmarit production line. Leica isn’t known for making compromises. Zeiss accepts it, like using a Bigon design for all their f2.8 from 21mm to 35mm, with vignette distortions, etc, being part of the unique look of the lens.. Voigtlander is exceptional at that, you get 80% of the Leica quality in 20% of the cost.

    Stefan Daniel isn’t a marketing guy. His background is engineering and he knows what it takes to deliver the Leica quality while keep the cost in reasonable check.

  • Korios

    All Leica lenses made by Leica are handmade; “Leica” lenses made by Panasonic for Lumix are clearly not handmade.