Do They Actually Sprinkle Magic Dust on Leica Lenses?

This lens sells for $10,995 

Funny how the perception of a brand changes over time.  Leica became an iconic brand by being the first manufacturer to offer a 35mm system camera. Small and discreet, the perfect carry-around in your pocket camera. Zeiss, which was generally considered to make better optics, came onto the scene only shortly after Leica but produced the unreliable Contax I body (whose design had to jump through hoops to circumvent Leitz patents) as the means to use their excellent optics. As such, Leicas remained the camera of choice for professionals through the 50’s. But there’s more to it than just that. After the war, while the Zeiss factory was carted off to the Soviet Union by victorious eastern bloc troops, Leitz, by virtue of their location in the western bloc, remained to produce cameras. Due to such serendipity, Leitz kept the burgeoning post war photojournalist market to itself until the advent of the Nikon F.

As for the idea that Leitz has always produced the best optics, a quick review of the historical facts on the ground prove otherwise. Already in the 50’s, many working photographers sought out Nikkor optics in preference to what was available from Leitz. During Korea, David Douglas Duncan used a pair of Leica IIIc’s, one with a Nikkor 5cm F1.5 and the other with a Nikkor 13.5cm F4. 


While a whole generation of gearheads now swear, retroactively, by the traditional superiority of Leitz glass, there was nothing intrinsically superior about Leitz optics through the 50’s, although the Summicron 50mm f2, introduced in 1953 with the M3, is a fine lens, but early versions suffered from the same problems as many other post-war Leitz lenses, namely soft coatings and badly formulated lubricant which caused gassing, haze and mold. The best LTM lenses that you can still find these days tend to be Canon or Nikkor optics built in the 50’s, or, of course, the excellent modern LTM Voigtlander optics produced by Cosina since the late 90’s.

By the 60’s Leitz optics prevailed in the rangefinder market because Leitz was the only manufacturer still committed to building and marketing rangefinder cameras, which, by the mid 60’s had been eclipsed as professional tools by the rise of the SLR in the form of the Nikon F. Most other manufacturers, including Nikon and Canon, were now creating SLR optics, leaving Leitz as the only player in rangefinder optics.

In the 70’s, when I came of age photographically, people were just beginning to perceive Leitz lenses as superior to Zeiss, Nikkor or Canon lenses. But if you compare older examples – the vintage lenses collectors and enthusiasts clammer for today – , for example, 35mm lenses (Biogon versus Elmar) , 50mm (Sonnar versus Summar), or 180/200mm (f2.8 “Olympia” Sonnar versus f4.5 Telyt), it’s hard to understand this, except as an example of the success of subsequent Leitz marketing and retroactive causation. The 50mm Summicron Rigid didn’t hurt either.

 In the 70s Leitz made some fine cameras but also some very bad business decisions; German Leitz would have stopped rangefinder production had it not been for the management at Leica Midland in Canada. Thereafter some of the best Leica M optics (and R) came not from Germany but from Walter Mandler and his team. Mandlar had joined Leitz at Wetzlar in 1946, and, having moved thereafter to Leitz Midland, took advantage of Leitz’s new glass research lab to create some of Leitz’s finest optics.  On Mandler’s retirement the subsequent dismantling of Leitz Canada lens design shifted back to Wetzlar under Wolfgang Vollrath, who crafted improvements to Mandler’s designs. These post Midland lenses are great optics, but they are evolutionary, not revolutionary, dependant upon glass technology advances, well programmed computer optimisation and decreased manufacturing tolerances available to all manufacturers.  


Of course, current Leica lenses are uniformly excellent, the product of 60 years of developmental know-how since the first Summicron was produced. And, in the last 40 years, Leica has slowly, consciously morphed from a maker of exquisitely hand-crafted mechanical cameras to a producer of exceptional optics, with prices to match. And that’s ultimately the difference between a Leitz optic and a Nikkor or a Canon – the price, and what goes into that price. At the prices they sell their lenses, Leica can afford to make them exceptional. Nikon and Canon and Zeiss and Voigtlander and Ricoh could do the same but choose not to; it’s not as if Leica possesses some esoteric lens making skill that can’t be duplicated elsewhere at the right price point. A case in point is the Nikkor-S 50mm f1.4 offered by Nikon with the Millennium Nikon S3 in 2000. It is the same optical formula as the Olympic Nikkor of 1964, a Double-Gauss 7 elements in 5 groups except now made with modern coatings and the decreased tolerances offered by computerized production. Ultimately assembled by hand, checked and rechecked, it was an element of Nikon’s quixotic statement that it could produce cameras and optics every bit as good as any other manufacturer in the world…and it’s every bit as good as the Leica current Summicron ASPH, regardless of what any hardcore Leicaphile wants to tell you. These days you can buy one on Ebay from Japan, still in the box (with a brand new Millennium S3 attached for good measure), at about a 1/4th of the price of a Leica Summilux ASPH.