From Issue Three of the Gear Patrol Magazine.
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If there’s one enduring stereotype of German manufacturing, it’s precision: an unyielding attention to detail and flawless engineering. And, as the trope goes, it comes at the expense of what the Italians would call brio — what others might call a soul. On first impression, Leica’s factory in Wetzlar seems to vindicate the cliché. In the main warehouse, a robot buzzes up and down countless rows and columns of raw materials, arriving at a box of glass pucks or brass blanks with the efficiently abrupt deceleration you’d expect. Cross the hall into the main lens-assembly room, though, and things take a dramatic shift.
Leica employs skilled human experts rather than robots for more involved tasks like grinding and polishing raw glass. Up through the final assembly, they can make minute, on-the-spot judgment calls that no machine could replicate. This dance between perfect and personal is perhaps most apparent when the lens is being designed, according to Director of Operations Dr. Svetomir Stankovic. “Anyone can make a sharp lens,” Stankovic said. “Leica’s expertise is on things that are less measurable.” The result is certainly precise, and as close to flawless as one can get, but it’s also the sum of micro-variations, caring craftsmen and, certainly, a soul.
As a small testament to Leica’s imaging prowess, this story (along with many others throughout Issue Three) was shot on Leica’s medium-format S (Typ 007) and its absolutely astounding lenses — some of which you’ll see in their elemental components below.
The beginning of the production line begins with a robot picking from raw stock and organizing a “kit” that lens and camera technicians will draw from throughout the process
Left: Uncut, unpolished lens elements. The very base ingredient that arrives in wetzlar, these elements will be passed down the line and eventually end up in a Noctilux-M 50mm f/0.95, one of the most impressive lenses in Leica’s lineup (and one of the most expensive at $10,650). Right: 3 separate stages of polishing a Noctilux aspheric element
Man and machine. A device used to measure the smoothness of a lens surface (in fractions of microns) and the technician who runs it.
Though Leica has the latest state-of-the-art lens polishing machines for its complex aspherical lenses, for more traditional spherical lenses they stick with machines that are more than 20 years old and rely on the keen senses of expert employees.
Surprisingly, the exacting task of gluing two lens elements together (to make the achromatic portion of the lens) isn’t handled by a robot but rather an employee who’s been at Leica for 20 years.
An employee paints a black border on each lens element to help keep stray light from bouncing around inside the lens barrel.
An employee checks to assure an even application of an anti-reflective coating.
Lens elements in containers, the yellow bins indicate that the glass inside is so sensitive that it must be suspended in oil or an inert gas to avoid optics-ruining decomposition.
Noctilux-M lenses (about $120,000 worth), just waiting for a quick inspection and their final housing.
With a maximum aperture of f/0.95, the Leica Noctilux-M lens is the fastest lens ever made for 35mm photography and the perfect flagship for a company devoted to pushing the boundaries of optical design.
Read More in Our Magazine
A version of this story appears in Issue Three of the Gear Patrol Magazine, 320 pages of stories, reports, interviews and original photography from five distinct locations around the world. Subscribe Now: $39