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October 2017

why the Leica CRF is attractive

The discussion about the personality and the technical (or engineering) design of the Leica CRF is in this section. A reference to the Leica M3 is logical, because it is the original design from which all Leica CRF’s derive. The range from M2 to M-A is obvious, but the digital cameras from M8 to M10 are included too, because their outstanding characteristic is the coupled rangefinder and the manual focusing. A first aspect to analyze is the personality of the camera. It is strange to approach an instrument that is a tool for a technical process (produce photographs) as having a personality. I will look at the Leica camera from several perspectives: function, use and personality. These perspectives relate to a certain type and style of design. Any mechanical product results from a series of design steps. At first there is an idea for a new product or to improve an existing product. Then sketches and discussions focus on what materials to use and how to manufacture the parts. The final result depends on the materials that are available and on the quality of the manufacturing processes. Product design, as a process, is the synthesis of technical and industrial design. The creation of successful products that have a strong personality is the goal. This goal encompasses more than the classical rule that ‘form follows function’.
The technical (or engineering) design relates to the proper technical functioning of the product; the industrial design relates to the satisfaction afforded by the product: visual and tactile attributes, associations and historical pedigree. Engineering and design are equivalent terms. In Italian design and engineering is the same word: “la progettazione”; “il progetto” is the plan. The discussion of the engineering design of the Leica CRF focuses on terms of craftsmanship and handmade products. There is more to meet the eye in this respect. A special section explains what the manufacturing processes and the choice of materials mean for the quality and usability of the Leica CRF.
In this section the focus is on the elements of personality, all those aspects that separate the myth and facts of the Leica CRF, starting with the M3. The previous models, the L39 types, are left alone to become the objects of interest for collectors and historians. They are also objects for nostalgic persons who would say “they do not make them like this anymore”. In reality the L39 types, except the IIIf and IIIg, are manufactured with procedures fitting a cottage industry that would not count as precision manufacturing.

The personality of a product depends on aesthetic attributes, attributes of association, perceived attributes and emotional attributes. It is expression through manufacturing. A product is effective and pleasant to use when the way it works derives from its design: size, proportion, configuration to identify controls and what they do: a simple, easy-to-understand interface. The Leica M3 is a masterful example of this human-centered-interface. On the left side where the rewind knob is located, we find the film cassette. The transport lever is on the right side. Film transport is from left to right. Next to the transport lever is the shutter speed selection dial and the shutter release button. There is only one ocular to look through and the frame lines are clear. Under the finder window we find the frame selector lever. When handling the camera, the right hand touches all important functions, while the other hand provides the stability of the camera. Focusing and shutter release are a coordinated action with both hands. Every button or lever relates to one clear function. Framing, focusing and exposure are the all-important basic functions to make a successful photograph.

Products have a design life: a time span after which replacement is expected. The designer team of the Leica M3 never thought about a life span of more that twenty years for their product. Its design life now survives well into the 21C: the Leica M10 is very close in design and personality to the Leica M3. Without the menu controls on the back side of the camera body, every control and feature (shutter, rangefinder, aperture and distance setting) is identical and in the same location on the body.
The choice of materials is part of the personality of the Leica CRF. Surface treatment is another valued attribute that suggests impeccable perfection.Chrome plated or black painted steel alloy of the top and bottom covers suggests quality and attention to detail. Choice of metal emphasizes the engineered quality. The outer shell is covered with fine grained leather-like material. A coarse-grained vulcanized rubber compound is used for the M3.
Machined metal looks strong, its nature suggests it is being engineered. The designer can emphasize this property too much: compare the Leica SL or the Leica TL to the Leica M10 or M-A. The manufacturing technique of die-casting of aluminum alloys for soem body parts reinforces engineering quality.
These are all examples of the so-called ‘experience design’: the practice of designing products with a focus placed on the quality and enjoyment of the total (photographic) experience.
The Leica M3 is an industrial design: it assumes that photographers work as the design suggests. The Leica M10 is a human-centered-design: the design matches the capabilities and needs of the photographers.
Machines used to follow rather simple and rigid rules of operation. Look at the Leica III or M3. Distance setting is a one-way operation. Exposure setting combines shutter speed and aperture. When selected effectively, the negative is exposed as it should. The exposure method depends on the flexibility of the separate handheld exposure meter. Experience proposes small changes, based on experience. The rigidity of the machine may be a hindrance for effective use. Persons are imaginative and creative. The digital camera is in this sense a different instrument. The range of exposure methods of the Leica M10 can be adjusted to everybody’s satisfaction.

When we interact with a product, we need to discover how it works and what operations are possible. In this respect the M3 is the best: it is intuitive to understand, only one thing is possible (press the shutter, advance the film, rewind the roll). Without studying the manual the M10 is a mystery if you wish to know what is possible. After pressing the shutter release of the M3 or M-A most users can tell what happens inside the camera. When doing the same with the M10 no one (not even the reviewers of the product) can explain what happens inside.

Our brain interpretes the design of a camera on three different levels: visceral, behavioral and reflective.
Visceral responses are fast and subconscious. This is the level where style matters: appearances and touch drive the visceral response. On this level the shape and layout of the Leica CRF are important. Attraction is the main ingredient (I want this!). The behavioral level is where learned skills matter. For the designer this level has to do with the fact that every action expects a result: control is important. Handle the Leica CRF and the photographer feels in control of the instrument. On the reflective level responses are conscious. POsitine or negative feedback is possible when reflecting on the product, and combine it with its personality: you like the camera or you wish to avoid it. Well-designed products work well on all three levels and when everything is successfully combined, we feel pride and enjoyment. The extreme attitude is the frequently heard statement that some person loves his Leica.

One emotion, typical for the Leica CRF is the view through the finder: this induces a state of flow that is one with the task the photographer performs: it relates to the decisive moment of Cartier-Bresson. Actions and emotion are in synch. The actions of perform and perceive are on the visceral level. The actions of specify and interpret are on the behavioral level. Plan and compare (goal in relation to result) are actions on the reflective level. Expectations play an important part: when buying a Leica camera one expects excellent results. The user blames it onhimself when these results are not as expected.

The discussion about the strengths and weaknesses of the Leica CRF is not restricted to historians and collectors. They discuss the historical progress of features or the value of a camera because of its scarceness or unique features. The focus of the practical user and photographer is on utility and usability (function and form), but also on emotion and aesthetics. This element is always present, and expressed. It is the aspect that the Leica marketing department alwyas exploits. Most human behavior is subconscious, it relates to the visceral level of design. The visceral level of the brain relates to the automatic, pre-wired layer: all responses on this level are automatic and subconscious. The behavioral layer relates to processes that control the everyday behavior. It is important because it is the layer in the brain where the pleasure of using a fine tool and accomplish a task, originates. The reflective layer of the brain is where contemplation takes place. Many users of the Leica CRF will ignore the minor defects because it is so much fun to use the camera. Why does the use of this instrument gives so much pleasure? The visceral level reacts to the initial impact of the camera: appearance, touch and feel. The reflective layer evokes memories and relates to the personality of the camera. Both levels interact to produce a positive emotion and pride in the mastering of the tool and in its accomplishments. Some would argue that this style of analysis applies to products made by Canon, Nikon, Fuji and Zeiss too. This is true. But the personality of the Leica CRF differs from the one of the Canon or Nikon.

Physical feel and texture of the materials define the personality. When a reviewer remarks that the Leica has a solid feel and is made with engineering precision he is responding to the visceral level. The Leica CRF camera has the feel of smooth, polished metal and the knobs move precisely from position to position without backlash or dead zones. The Canon and Nikon have a body shell made of polymer and with knobs that shift positions without a distinct feeling. Digital Leica cameras have a release button and a speed setting dial that connects electro-mechanically to the interior mechanisms and lack the solid feeling of the film-loading cameras. Physical objects have weight, texture and surface. In design terms this is ‘tangibility’. The persons who designed the Leica M3 took photographers themselves or were immersed in the photographic culture of the day. They knew what a photographer demanded of the instrument. The shape of the Leica CRF camera results from required size, material selection and manufacturing process. Choosing a metal alloy reflects the mechanical heritage. The smoothness of operation reflects the required surface treatment which reflects the craftsmanship needed to finish the material to exact specifications. Aluminum and its alloys are often used for precision devices. Metals and alloys are clean and precise. Machined metal looks strong, its nature suggests it has been engineered, which is the activity of craftsmen. Polymers associate with cheap plastics, a wrong reputation, but one popular among camera owners.
The original Leica I was designed around the size and diameter of the film roll and with the materials that were then current for the machines in the Leitz factory. These materials were pressed and extruded alloys of steel and brass. The design of the shapes and dimensions of all parts had to match with the engineering and manufacturing capabilities. When the Leica M3 was on the drawing board, more new materials and new machine tools were available than before. The choice of material is not independent of the choice of the process by which the material is shaped or formed and also not independent of the aesthetic aspect. Industrial design theory in Germany around 1950 was influenced by the clean aesthetic of the Bauhaus, a kind of technical aesthetics that can be described as ‘form follows function’. This style is more complex: it is a balance of simplicity and aesthetics. Good design makes a product understandable. Any product has a personality, the Leica camera as well as the Nikon F or the Canon EOS range.
Materials have two overlapping roles: providing technical functionality and creating product personality. The Leica M3 had a chassis and an outer shell that were both made by die casting a metal alloy (aluminum) into the required shape. Top and bottom covers were made from zinc or brass with a chrome or painted layer. The choice for this method of manufacturing of these materials gives the designer more flexibility to create complex shapes with higher accuracy and to propose thinner walls where no stress is expected. In addition, this choice implies a simple manufacturing process: the first element of cost cutting so to speak!

Why pay $7000 for an instrument when $1000 will bring almost the same result. Leica users will point to the fact that optical performance and precision mechanics together produce photographs with a special quality and character.
The chain of reasoning is: the Leica CRF has a specific function: to make photographs. What associations does that function carry in this case? Creativity, refinement, sophisticated taste, a long production heritage, a long list of important photographers! This argumentation was valid when the Leica M6 was the preferred tool for many photographers. This is the mythical side of the personality. The instrument is as good and effective as the user. Winogrand used the Leica CRF and produced impressive photographs. The only photo-technical argument is the instantaneous response of the camera: there is no time lag between seeing something at some instant of time and recording it on film at that same moment. The quality of the lens is no issue: working with the style of most iconic street photographers accurate focusing and handheld stability is impossible. There is a large amount of chance involved.
This reasoning is part of the reflective layer and cannot provide the arguments that operate on the visceral and behavioral level. Design theory shows that on this level emotional and psychological processes are the most important. What these processes are or contribute to the final decision to admire, buy or use a specific camera type or model, is still a mystery. It is a mystery that Leitz and Leica have always used to promote their products. Design theory says we should look at the visceral level to understand why we like the Leica CRF camera.

manufacturing quality, part 1

The topic this time is the manufacturing quality of the film loading Leica CRF cameras from M3 to M-A. A totally different story has to be told about the modern so-called ‘digital’ Leica CRF cameras.
There is a persistent story among Leica collectors and users that the M4-2 is a watershed camera between the classical Wetzlar production and assembly procedures and the ‘cost-cutting’ techniques employed since the M4-2 and continuing to the M6 in all its variants and including the current MP and M7 models. There is no discussion yet about the M-A.
The differences observed in the two series (M3 to M4 and M4-2 to MP) are of two sorts: the change of material for some components and the infamous flare patch in the viewfinder due to a change in the construction of the view finder mechanism. The gears of the M3 were made of brass and the gears in later models were made of metal. There is a persistent story, specifically among collectors and historians that brass is the better choice. There is no explanation for this argument. There is also the story, partly true in this case, that the classical Wetzlar method employed much manual labour that gave the finishing touch during the final assembly because of their expertise with the soft hammer and the file to fit the components to extremely close tolerances and the the lavish amount of adjustment screws. The, let us call it, the Canada and Portugal methods follow a more modern method of selective assembly with a minimum of final adjustments.
What is the real story? Every small batch manufacturing process starts with the machining of parts and the assembly of these parts by human labour to a finished product.
Machining of parts to the required dimensions and accuracy depends on the combination of tools and material, on the experience of the operator and on the use of measurement tools to ensure that the machined products are made within specified tolerance ranges. The operator has to fix the metal part in the machine, adjust the tool, select the speed and cooling fluid and inspect the tool to see if it it still fit to work as required. Machining is expensive and time consuming. When labour is cheap, as was the case with the classical Wetzlar method, it makes sense to delegate the responsibility for the final quality to the assembly process. Here it is possible and even necessary to adjust and fine tune the components to a level that satisfies the demands for a precision engineered product.
When leitz shifted production to Midland, all original Wetzlar machines were moved to the Canada location. But most of the original workforce in Germany did not move to the new location. So new personnel had to be trained and some components were treated differently. So some blackening of gears was dropped as not necessary for the durability of the product. Here we see the same process as in the car industry. At first the parts were over dimensioned to make sure they do not break under load, and later it was established that too much metal was used. If we define accuracy as the ability to produce parts within specified dimensions, the blackening of some surfaces is not part of the quality requirement.
In the course of the evolution of machine processing, more accurate parts could be produced, even when using the same equipment. The original brass components had one problem: machining produces heat and the cooling of the parts distorts the dimensions that had to be rectified during final assembly. So new materials that do not deform during cooling were selected. With more accurately shaped parts the assembly process becomes easier and only selective assembly is required. This is more efficient and produces the same or even a better result. The M6 was made and assembled following this process: better machining and less work during assembly. Indeed the M6 has more non-metal parts (some would say ‘plastics’) and some changes of parts (the film counter is stamped and not engraved), but this does not contribute to the ultimate functioning of the camera as a photographic tool. It is an element of nostalgia to lament the disappearance of the classical production method. The functional view is to appreciate the tool as a precision instrument. There are many roads to perfection in manufacturing methods and collectors and historians would be well advised to stay in their field of expertise (finding exclusive models with unknown specs as example) and should not recounting myths about manufacturing methods they do not really understand.


the importance of manual labour

How important is the manual assembly in a production cycle?
Leica has always stressed the importance of the manual component in the production and assembly of its products. There is evidently a strong connection with the romantic idea of a craftsman in a cottage industry who carefully and with upmost concentration produces the parts of the final product and with great feeling adjusts the components as long as is necessary to function smooth-less and for a long period. There are enough descriptions on the internet that support this kind of image building. And Leica is not the only company to stress its reliance on manual labour for the assurance of ultimate quality.
Report after report in the manufacturing industry indicates that this view is a myth. CNC machinery and robotics are capable of producing parts and systems with tighter tolerances than manual labour can accomplish. The integration of the computer in the workflow for control and quality checks has had more impact on the final quality than human inspection. Of course there are instances where the expertise of a craftsperson can override the decision made by a computer. A good example is the case where the computer advised the machinist at the machine center to use a certain amount of coolant combined with a speed of the tool, where the craftsman noted that this was a wrong combination. Experience is important and computers are not perfect!
We should however not over estimate the importance of the human operator. One of the critical elements in the Leica rangefinder camera is the accuracy of the focus, a combination between the moving components in the finder, the shape of the curve at the end of the lens when it moves forwards or backwards and the roller mechanism in the camera body. The adjustment of the rangefinder in the camera body is done independent from any lens. It is assumed that the lens has its own adjustments to ensure full compatibility with the body mechanism. In reality this assumption is not correct, as can be seen from the many complaints by users who note that one lens focusses correctly and another one does not.
In the conventional way the rangefinder is adjusted by an operator looking through the finder at a target. The adjustment is done manually by focusing physically at three distances. The conditions of the operator are important: fatigue, unattentivenes and experience play a role. The current method employs a computer that simulates the three distances and the operator has to adjust what is projected on the computer screen, independent of the physical conditions of the operator.
CNC machinery in general is able to produce parts with a consistency and accuracy that surpasses that of the human operator at a classical machine. The complex shapes of some current Leica aspherical lens surfaces could not be produced without computer controlled machinery.
The original Leica camera was a product with a large number of gears, couplings, mechanical linkages and mechanical brakes to function as a transport mechanism, a rewind mechanism, a shutter release and timing mechanism and so on. It was organically built up form a bare chassis and the workman had to know the function of every part and every mechanism to assemble all parts in the correct sequence and adjust the parts to function durably and accurately. in this process manual labour was required.
In the modern digital Leica camera body there is a sequence of combining subassemblies, often produced by other companies. The linkages between subassemblies are mainly electronic or computational and not mechanical. So the level of manual adjustments is limited or computer assisted. The alignment of the sensor surface with the front bayonet ring is computer controlled and computer assisted. In the traditional mechanical camera the guide rails of the film guide are machined with a certain tolerance and the bayonet ring has to be adjusted with distance rings to the correct position.
There are many more aspects in the manufacturing processes between the traditional way and the current way, but you get the idea. There are no technical or procedural aspects in any manufacturing process that indicate that the manual assembly is inherently superior to a semi- automated process. The only argument that makes sense is that the low number of products, made in relatively small product runs does not justify (financially and economically) the deployment of dedicated machinery.
A critical assessment of the value and importance of manual labour in a modern manufacturing process might be needed to get a good grasp of what is its role.

Turnover figures
In a previous message I gave turnover figures of the Leica Company. Here are more data.
The documents from the Bundesanzeiger give financial data for the ACM Projektentwicklung GmbH and for the Leica AG Wetzlar/Solms.
There are also the results of the Leica Geschäftsberichte Solms*
All fiscal years run from 1 April to 31 March. Not all figures are available.

Leica AG——Turnover——System-cameras+lenses
2000/2001*——158————————66 of which 50 M-system


free pocket book

Here is my original Leica pocket book from 2010. It is free for everyone. Due to massive downloads the provider has charged additional money. Now I will follow another option. Send me your email and I will send you a link through 'wetransfer' for downloading the file. Somewhat more impractical but no more data load on the site. Enjoy