LEICA

Alternative views on the Leica world by Erwin Puts

The Leitz Wetzlar product history


In the 1920s the Leitz company had a wide product portfolio, consisting of all kinds of optical systems (lenses) microscopes, binoculars, cameras and a broad assortment of scientific-optical measurement instruments. All of these products were designed and manufactured in Wetzlar. More than 5000 (the peak was 7000) workers were involved in the production of these instruments. A camera was also considered an instrument.
After the war the scientific instruments were slowly phased out and the company profiled itself with the microscopes and the cameras, still and movie, and the lenses. The portfolio was quite broad but focused on photography, cinematography and viewing. Projectors and even darkroom equipment were included. At the end of the 20th century the microscope and optical-scientific division was integrated in a separate company and the camera division was on its own with a much reduced portfolio, consisting of the iconic M-system, the ailing R-system, a lacklustre range of compact cameras, made by Japanese companies and a sprinkling of digital cameras, also made by Japanese companies.
Now located in the Wetzlar Park, the Leica company is again on an expansionist tour. A wide range of digital cameras, the compact ones from Panasonic and many of the high-end cameras clearly inspired by equivalent Sony products, has been supplemented by a range of cinematographic lenses, (even a new Leicina is being suggested), a Fuji-made Instant camera and Huawei smart phones. The Wetzlar Park gets a movie theatre, a hotel and a Max Berek lab for artificial intelligence and more of this type of research. The lab personnel is partly from the research centres of Huawei in Europe and China.
The new lenses for the T and SL camera systems are, to say the least, inspired by Panasonic designs and the performance goal is inspired by the Zeiss lens range. Zeiss has increased the 40 lp/mm goal from the classical 40 - 50% at a new level (70%) and this is also the target for the new Leica lenses for the digital cameras. The S-lenses were the first with this new level of performance, but had moderate apertures.
The good point of these new targets is the increased level of detail that is possible with potential new sensors of smaller pixel pitch and higher amount of pixels per square mm.
The bad point is the narrow focus depth and related circle of confusion. At wider apertures these lenses show a steep sharpness gradient and a very narrow sharpness plane. Very accurate focusing is required to exploit the feature of heightened sharpness and contrast. Zeiss has the easier task because the focusing is manual and the operator therefore responsible for the result. Leica has opted for autofocus and this requires a fast and accurate AF mechanism. This is not easy to design and manufacture and may explain the slow introduction of the lenses on the SL-roadmap.
The new levels of performance and the trend to 40 Mp sensors in small-format cameras may be fine for the marketing department and for photographers who are conscious of the prestige of this trend. The big question however is how the quality of the images will and can be increased. Handheld photography with the new large and heavy lenses (see the new 1.4/50 mm lens for the SL) is difficult and vibration reduction may be required to exploit the new options. There is however the possibility that the technique sets the limits and defines the content of the pictures. The street photographers have produced a large amount of identical pictures showing blind beggars, barber shop porches and empty or populated benches in parks, or sleepy persons in subways.