In the latest episode of Leica Tech Talk, Peter Karbe, Head of Optical Development, and Stefan Janssen, Product Manager for Lenses, told us how Leica lenses are conceived, designed, and developed. It was a spirited chat that explored where the product ideas come from and how they make Leica lenses unique.
Peter Karbe is a true Lensmeister, responsible for developing many of your favorite Leica optics, and he brings decades of knowledge and experience to share. Stefan Janssen is a fresh face for many Leica fans, starting with Leica in 2016. Stefan helps decide the direction of Leica lens development by establishing the initial brief for the lens design targets, performance goals, physical size, and so forth. There may be no two people on Earth better suited to educate us on Leica lenses.
1. Passion for photography and cinematography is at the core of both Peter & Stefan
After giving us a brief synopsis of what they do for the company, Stefan and Peter shared some of the photography that excites and motivates them. Stefan highlighted not just documentary-style photography but also cinematography being a big influence, and the way stories are given a unique voice by the chosen color palette, creative points of view, and the technology used to deliver them. Peter on the other hand spoke of his love for fine art photography and using our lenses to capture his everyday world, including landscapes taken on solitary walks through nearby forests or close-up macro shots in his garden – embracing the natural world all around him. A unifying factor from both of our guests was how photography and cinematography motived their respective crafts. What better way to push yourself to see the fruits of your labor than to shoot and tell stories with the very products you help create?
2. They help test prototypes themselves, not only for performance but for “feel”
Speaking of witnessing the end results of one’s labor, we asked who gets to test early prototype lenses and what that experience is like. Both gentlemen acknowledged that getting the first prototypes of a product long in development is like Christmas arriving early, and like many of us you want to get your turn with the new “toy” before sharing it. While it wasn’t surprising that they both put in their time with prototype products, what struck me was how they spoke of what they look for in the testing. It goes beyond ensuring the performance matches what was spelled out on the spec sheet. They put extensive time and effort into ensuring the feel of the lens is just right. For the new APO-Summicron-M 35 f/2 ASPH. lens, it was this attention to detail that ensured the turning radius of the focus ring matched all other M lenses up until the point where this one can turn further and focus closer. They put extra emphasis on ensuring a Leica lens feels like a Leica lens, even when new engineering feats are put into them. The lenses are then further tested by a variety of users around the globe to gain insights from photographers and cinematographers alike.
3. New ideas for lenses often come directly from Leica owners and their feedback
If we were tasked with coming up with ideas for new Leica lenses, it might be all too tempting for many of us to tap into our wildest imagination and reach for the craziest and most dramatic concepts. It is easy to think of the perfect lens, but building it is another story. One point from our interview that was very enlightening was how often ideas for new lenses come direct from the inspired wishes and passionate feedback of everyday Leica owners, channeling the technical acumen and creative visions of such a dedicated user base. The new APO-Summicron-M initially started its early days as a concept built on direct feedback from surveys given to Leica customers, where a demand for such a lens was determined to be very strong, starting that lens on its multi-year path to development. What was even more encouraging, and frankly a bit fun, was to hear that Stefan watched our episode 2 of Leica Tech Talk The Classics Never Die for fresh ideas on older lenses. We asked our audience what other vintage lenses they would love to see reissued, and when the chat lit up with comments Stefan instantly had a pool of qualified ideas to take future inspiration from.
4. Leica lenses were always futureproof – but the digital image workflow helped further
Peter mentioned how “The design of the Leica lenses were futureproof from the beginning.” This is why today we can use a lens from the 1950s or even older on a 40 megapixel M10-R and witness such impressive results. We can thank the original lens design targets, with standards that were set so high older lenses can be used on today’s highest resolution Leica cameras. What has furthered this development along is our digital imaging chain, which has less loss of detail on the journey from the captured image to a printed picture. With the analog image chain, more optics and steps in the process – such as enlargement or scanning – results in a drop in performance from the original image captured by the camera lens. Today, there is a near-lossless image chain after the picture is taken – both when using new lenses or old lenses on the camera. The rising tide lifts all boats, or in this case the rising technology lifts all lenses.
5. There are fundamental differences separating the Q2’s lens design from an M lens
Spurred on by a great question from our audience, Peter helped us understand what goes into the design of a lens like the Summilux 28 f/1.7 ASPH. that is built into the Q2/Q2 Monochrom and how different it is from a system lens. The biggest factor comes down to size and distance. The rear element of the Q2’s lens is afforded more space to be larger and closer to the sensor than the rear element of any M lens. This just would not be possible with a system camera that needs to mount all kinds of lenses and also house a focal plane shutter in front of the sensor. The central shutter system of the Q2 helps liberate more of that precious internal volume, though it also creates demands of its own – the lens elements cannot be so large that it negatively affects the fast shutter times required. So, there is still a push and pull of benefits and sacrifices to be made even in the closed loop of a compact camera, though for system cameras like the M its compatibility with a wide array of lenses is paramount.
We could have spoken with Peter Karbe and Stefan Janssen for hours on end and still learned new things, but it was great to spend the time we had and learn so much more about Leica lenses and the development process.