Take a look inside Leica’s factory in Wetzlar, Germany

Inside Leica’s factory in Wetzlar

Leica is one of the oldest names in photography, and has long been one of the most prestigious. Since the 1920s, Leica’s high-quality miniature Kameras have set a standard for mechanical precision arguably unmatched by any other manufacturer, and for decades, many of the world’s best photojournalists used Leica rangefinders to document the defining events of the 20th Century.

Almost 100 years after the introduction of the original Leica (a name formed by combining Leitz, the name of the parent company, with ‚Kamera‚) Leica Kamera AG is still going strong, and still based in its original hometown of Wetzlar, Germany.

Recently, I had the opportunity to visit Wetzlar to see for myself how Leica’s lenses are put together. Flip through the images above for a tour of the facility.

Inside Leica’s factory in Wetzlar

Leica was founded in Wetzlar, and has (mostly) been based there ever since. As such, the company has strong links with the town, the bars and cafes of which benefit from a steady stream of Leica fanatics that make the pilgrimage to the company’s birthplace.

I’m not sure what to call this piece – fan art, I suppose? – I found it in the window of an art gallery in Wetzlar’s town center. If you hurry, it might still be available for sale.

Inside Leica’s factory in Wetzlar

The main reception area in Leitz Park is half art gallery space and half showcase. Alongside regularly updated exhibitions, visitors can learn about the history of Leica Kameras, and when I was visiting, a temporary exhibition was focusing on some of the many other manufacturers that Leica – let’s say – influenced.

Inside Leica’s factory in Wetzlar

These might look like classic screw-mount Leica rangefinders, but in fact they’re products of some of the many brands that after World War II, copied the basic design with varying degrees of success. Some, like Canon and Taylor-Hobson’s well-engineered post-war copies, are excellent…

Inside Leica’s factory in Wetzlar

…while others, like this shamelessly inaccurate ‚Leica M3‘, which was definitely not made in Wetzlar, don’t have quite the same resale value.

Inside Leica’s factory in Wetzlar

So many Leica copies (mostly of the ubiquitous L39 screw-mount designs) exist that entire books have been written to catalogue them.

Inside Leica’s factory in Wetzlar

Oskar Barnack, on the other hand, was very much an original. A keen amateur filmmaker, he designed the original Leica ‚lilliput Kamera‚ around the 35mm cine-film format, originally with the intention of measuring cine-film film sensitivity, which varied widely at the time.

When he came up with the design in the early years of the 20th Century, Leitz was still a microscope manufacturer. But after he persuaded Mr Leitz to pursue the development of the Leica, everything changed.

Inside Leica’s factory in Wetzlar

And here it is. The original ‚Ur-Leica‘ of 1914 (actually a replica – the priceless original is in a vault somewhere, possibly under even worse lighting than this one). While obviously a very different device to the commercially produced rangefinders that came later, Barnack’s original Kamera established many of the essential principles that still guide the design of M-series Kameras today.

Inside Leica’s factory in Wetzlar

Through a series of doors at one side of the showroom, is the main assembly plant. Here, cakes of Raw glass (mostly Schott glass) are stacked, prior to the grinding, polishing and coating processes that will end with them being assembled into lenses.

Inside Leica’s factory in Wetzlar

Creating a lens is a lengthy, complex process. As they progress through the factory from cakes of raw glass to measured, polished elements, individual glass elements are painted with a protective black varnish, which is rinsed off before each stage. Only when they’ve undergone final polishing are the components transferred to a temperature and humidity-controlled environment for lacquering and coating.

This is a different approach to that which we’ve seen in other factories, (like Canon’s Utsunomiya plant for example) where virtually the entire process from raw glass to finished lens takes place in a highly controlled clean-room environment.

The logic behind Leica’s method is pretty simple: At least until final assembly, it’s much easier to keep the individual components of a lens clean via multiple cleaning processes as required, than it is to sterilize the entire environment in which they’re handled.

Inside Leica’s factory in Wetzlar

Where a more controlled environment is required, workers place protective coverings on their shoes, and don hair protection and lab coats. Cubbyholes for personal items are deliberately positioned at shin-height as a barrier in front of the doors. This serves to remind absent-minded employees that they need to put on protective clothing before entering the controlled area.

Simple, certainly, but more effective than any signage.

Inside Leica’s factory in Wetzlar

Here, aspherical elements await polishing.

Inside Leica’s factory in Wetzlar

Inside the factory are machines that Oskar Barnack could never have dreamed of. These days, polishing is automated, to ensure a surface accuracy unheard of in his lifetime, of within 0.01 microns. Shaping and polishing processes each take between 30-60 minutes for a single aspherical element.

Inside Leica’s factory in Wetzlar

Here, a ground and polished glass lens element for the CW 85mm cine lens is being measured by laser for surface accuracy.

Inside Leica’s factory in Wetzlar

Results of the measurements are fed in real time to a computer for analysis, to determine if the element requires any further reshaping.

Inside Leica’s factory in Wetzlar

A finished and coated element is inspected and hand-cleaned.

Inside Leica’s factory in Wetzlar

After polishing and coating, the elements are ready to be cemented into groups and turned into lenses. This diagram shows instructions for assembling what Leica calls a ‚lens head‘. This diagram illustrates the lens head for the M-mount 28mm F1.4 Summilux.

Inside Leica’s factory in Wetzlar

The edges of the glass are then carefully lacquered with black paint to reduce the risk of internal reflections in the finished lens. Again, this is done by hand.

Inside Leica’s factory in Wetzlar

Another schematic, showing another crucial part of every Leica lens – the focusing mechanism. This particular schematic refers to the 35mm F2.5 Summarit. Mating of the main components together is a manual process, even in this ‚budget‘ M-series lens.

Inside Leica’s factory in Wetzlar

This focusing mechanism should be half-price, because it’s been cut in half! Sorry, wrong article.

This bisected component serves as a reference model for technicians on the assembly line.

Inside Leica’s factory in Wetzlar

Here, finished and fully-circular focusing components of the 35mm F2.5 Summarit await checking and final assembly.

Inside Leica’s factory in Wetzlar

Manual checks are a feature of virtually every stage in the manufacturing process. Here, the mount assembly of an M-mount 90mm F4 is attached to a test Kamera (a rather sad-looking M6, one of several I spotted at various points on the assembly line) to make sure that the bits which are meant to click, click (and the bits that aren’t meant to, don’t).

Once the mount assembly passes this quick ‚real world‘ test it moves on to the next stage in assembly.

Inside Leica’s factory in Wetzlar

For high-end, high-precision lenses like the 90mm F2 APO, the human touch is essential. Highly experienced technicians manually evaluate the focusing mechanism of each lens, testing for smoothness, and shaving away tiny slivers of brass to make minute adjustments until they’re happy that each one feels perfect.

The final result of this laborious process is a manual focusing experience which feels smooth, luxurious, and exactly like someone spent a long time getting it just right.

Inside Leica’s factory in Wetzlar

After being checked, adjusted and checked some more, the components of several 90mm 2 APO lenses are placed in trays ahead of final assembly.

Inside Leica’s factory in Wetzlar

Before that can happen, individual components undergo an ultrasonic ‚deep clean‘.

Inside Leica’s factory in Wetzlar

And if they’re still dirty, there’s always the washing machine…

Just kidding. (I assume).

Inside Leica’s factory in Wetzlar

After assembly, each finished lens is checked to make sure that it meets Leica’s standards. If it doesn’t, it’s sent back to be taken apart, adjusted, checked and re-assembled.

Inside Leica’s factory in Wetzlar

Here, a 50mm Noctilux has been sent back down the line for disassembly and cleaning.

Inside Leica’s factory in Wetzlar

At the heart of each Noctilux is a large, eye-wateringly expensive aspherical element, which requires precise alignment in order to ensure the kind of performance that deep-pocketed photographers expect for $11,000.

Inside Leica’s factory in Wetzlar

After cleaning and re-assembly of the main internal components, the Noctilux is placed on a test bench so that the position of its large aspherical element can be adjusted.

Where the M’s are made: Inside Leica’s factory, in Wetzlar

The effect of each minute adjustment is checked in real-time on a computer monitor.

Inside Leica’s factory in Wetzlar

After these adjustments, the lens is tested again, to make sure that its MTF measurements are within design parameters before final reassembly.

Inside Leica’s factory in Wetzlar

Towards the end of the tour, I spied a very unusual looking lens sitting on a desk. It turned out to be a 50mm F1.4 Summilux ASPH destined for one of Leica’s ‚Jim Marshall‘ special edition Typ 246 Monochrom Kamera kits. That would make it one of only 50 such lenses in existence. I like the classic pre-asperical Summilux housing, but I’ll take mine in black, please.

Inside Leica’s factory in Wetzlar

The end of the line – or almost. This is the packing station, where finished lenses are dropped off to be packed up and paired with their paperwork.

Inside Leica’s factory in Wetzlar

Each lens is packed a little differently, with all of the steps and necessary extras detailed in ‚the Bible‘.

Inside Leica’s factory in Wetzlar

Six 50mm F1.4 Summilux ASPH lenses are delivered, each with four stickers, on which are printed the lens’s serial number. The stickers and lenses are bagged together to ensure there are no mixups.

Inside Leica’s factory in Wetzlar

Once the lens has been nestled into its leather case and packed inside the box, the stickers are transferred to the warrantee documents, and to the exterior packaging. Everything then gets checked one more time by the team in the packing room, and if it all matches up, the inspection document is signed and placed inside the box, ready for shipping.

Inside Leica’s factory in Wetzlar

This is as close I could get to the M10 assembly line. The chassis of the M10 is machined in Portugal, and a lot of the electronic components arrive in Wetzlar already assembled. Once those parts are mated together, Leica’s technicians perform all of the necessary image quality checking and calibration.

Once Leica has fulfilled the great many backorders for the M10, I have no doubt that special editions (and perhaps a Monochrom?) will start rolling off the production lines.

While Leica’s assembly lines are less automated than most other lens factories I’ve visited, the scale of manufacturing is correspondingly lower. Leica is, and has always been a Mittelstand – a medium-sized company – employing relatively few people. Compared to the likes of Canon and Nikon, Leica doesn’t sell that many Kameras and lenses per year, and I get the impression from speaking to senior executives that they’re fine with that.

While the production line for the SL-series lenses is apparently highly advanced (and off-limits for this tour) M-series lenses are still made in much the same way as they have always been. Of course these days, machines do some of the work. The testing instruments are far more precise. There are computers at most of the workstations – there are lasers, guys – but I suspect that a Leica employee who worked at the factory in the 1960s would find much that looked very similar if he or she visited Leitz Park today.

Notable was the atmosphere within the factory, which compared to other lens factories I’ve visited might best be described as ‚collegiate‘. Questions are shouted and answered across the assembly lines, street clothes are the norm, and a large box of Haribo gummy candy sits near the main doors, if case anyone needs a quick sugar fix.

Inside Leica’s factory in Wetzlar

It was a great privilege to be allowed to visit the Wetzlar facility, and hopefully, if you’ve ever been tempted to leave a snarky comment on DPReview asking why Leica’s Kameras and lenses are so expensive, you now have a better idea. The time spent in manufacturing and assembling each lens, and the huge amount of manual labor involved in even relatively simple parts of the process (and even for Leica’s lower-cost Summarit M-series lenses) is truly remarkable.

See more Kamera and lens
factory tours

On my way out, I visited the on-site outlet store (of course I did) where as I munched on some Haribo, this curious and very expensive Kamera caught my eye. Notice the mismatch between the description, and the number engraved on the front of the rangefinder housing. This is a prototype M9, disguised as an M8 for off-site real-world testing. ‚Erlkönig‘, by the way, is a codename, taken from the title of a characteristically scary and depressing poem by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (and later, as a choral work, one of Franz Schubert’s greatest hits). I won’t spoil it for you but suffice to say things don’t end well for the little boy in the forest…

As for the garish orange covering on a supposedly incognito prototype Kamera, well – if you were looking for proof of the elusive German sense of humor, I think you just found it.

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