Staying in the same hotel as the Chairman of the Board of Leica during Photokina has its benefits. After the Leica joint press event prior to the show opening, I was sitting in my hotel lobby and chatting on the phone with colleagues back home, discussing the news of the L-Mount Alliance and what it might mean for Leica and its partners. At that point we still didn’t understand the full scope of the Alliance or how it would impact Leica and Leica users.
I glanced up and saw Dr. Kaufmann approaching. I waved. He waved back. As he got closer, he called out, “Ah. Mr. Farkas. How are you?”
“I’m going to have call you back,” I muttered to my colleague and quickly hung up my phone.
“How did you like the event?” Dr. Kaufmann asked.
I told him how impressed I was with the showing earlier that morning, then added, “I do wonder about the new L-Mount Alliance though. Is it good for Leica?”
“Yes, absolutely. You will see how great this is for Leica. We’re very excited about the new alliance and what it could mean for the company.”
I asked if he might have some time to sit down and talk during the show, but, of course, his schedule was quite full. After a brief pause, he added, “How about breakfast? Thursday? Say, 9:30?”
And I did what anyone might in the same position. I accepted graciously and enthusiastically, figuring I could easily shift around whatever else I might have had planned already. It’s not every day that you get invited to a private breakfast meeting with someone as in demand as Dr. Kaufmann.
Thursday, 9:30 am – Breakfast
As Kaufmann sits down, he removes his suit jacket, revealing his usual Leica style: Silver red dot Leica cufflinks (I was wearing the same, incidentally) and Leica L2 chronograph with red face. He checks his watch, then winds it. “It’s still a prototype, not perfect yet.” He laughs. “That’s why we make prototypes, after all.”
Taking a cue from the watch joke, and appreciating just how busy he is, I decide to ease into our meeting, before delving into the L-mount alliance and other topics.
DF: How is Leitzpark working out?
AK: You were at the Leitzpark 3 opening in June, weren’t you?
Yes. Everything looked great. Is the campus fully complete?
Leitzpark 3 is still ongoing. We are working on setting up the Museum still. Of course everything takes much longer than you expect. Should be opening this coming summer with an exhibition, but we are still working out the details and deciding what that exhibit will look like.
[Editorial note: The first exhibit at the Ernst Leitz Museum, ‘Dr. Paul Wolff & Tritschler. Light and Shadow – Photographs from 1920 to 1950’ opened on June 28, 2019. Right on schedule. You can read more about it here.]
The first Leitz Café outside of Wetzlar opened just a few weeks ago in Bangkok, and there is interest in opening up a few more Leitz Hotels in Japan, so maybe we have something with the Leitz brand. (Laughs)
And we still look forward to Leitzpark 4, which will focus more on education and community building.
Can you tell me a bit about the L-mount alliance? How will this work for Leica?
As you saw from the press conference, the L-Mount Alliance is built around the Leica L-Mount, which we developed for mirrorless starting around 2010. We feel that this pushes Leica onto a global stage as these industry-leading companies chose to build around our mount technology.
So, you feel that the Alliance is beneficial for Leica?
And the other alliance members?
Naturally, they hope to benefit as well. We feel this is good for all involved.
Will certain aspects of the L-mount remain proprietary to Leica?
No. We share the technical specifications of the L-mount and everything that comes with it.
How did the Alliance come about?
Panasonic has been a long-time partner and approached us about using the L-mount for their full frame system. How the alliance would be organized was our concept.
Are you concerned about Sigma and Panasonic being partners in the Alliance but also competitors?
Of course, we’re still competitors who each make their own products and it is up to each company to implement the technology. But we see this alliance as unique in the camera world. Such an alliance is not heard of. But the mount is at the heart of the camera. And this is Leica technology.
Another example of this would be Sony. So, Sony is the biggest sensor manufacturer, but they also make cameras which compete with their industry customers who buy their sensors. Two separate hands. Different businesses.
So, you aren’t worried that your alliance partners are going to directly compete with the SL?
Sigma will offer a camera with a Foveon sensor with L mount, yes. Panasonic is already showing off their first cameras. But these aren’t necessarily for the Leica customer.
Have you seen the new Panasonic S1? I counted 21 buttons. Leica design philosophy is quite different. We are focused on just the essential elements of photography. Aperture, shutter, ISO. Additional options can be addressed in the menu, but we prefer the clean approach. You can see this in all of our camera designs.
The alliance members will also be competitors with lenses too, not just camera bodies.
Can you imagine Panasonic lenses on a Sigma
body? A Leica lens on a Panasonic? A Sigma lens on a Leica? Well, it’s
possible. Any combination is now possible. Of course, the sensor technology is
different. Just as Leica M lenses can be easily used on other systems, they
still look best when used on the M or an SL.
Are you saying that Leica L-Mount lenses will work better on a Leica SL body rather than, say a Panasonic S1 body?
Yes, performance might still be best with a Leica camera body. But it is up to the customer to decide what is best for him or her.
Now we have products at all price points and performance levels. If someone wants a Panasonic, they can get a Panasonic. If they want to use a Sigma lens on their Leica, they could. This is about customer choice and having an open standard. Like Android in the phone world, although this isn’t the perfect analogy as Android is a bit sloppy – many different variants, each slightly different. The L-mount alliance outlines technical criteria very specifically and the partners meet every six months to redefine any changes.
Do you think that the L-Mount Alliance sets up Leica as a technology leader, rather than a follower?
Leica is already a technology innovator. We created the first APS-C sensor compact camera with the X1 and the first large sensor camera with a DSLR sized body with the S2. Both in 2009. We created our first mirrorless with the T in 2014. Then in 2015 we introduced the SL, which is really, in my opinion, the first professional mirrorless camera on the market. We can see that only recently, companies like Nikon are doing the same. Sure, you can say that Sony was doing this as well, but the A7 wasn’t really designed as a professional camera system.
Not bad for a small company.
We even did the X-U, which is the first APS-C compact and dedicated underwater and adventure camera. This was a really good idea, but we didn’t do as much as we could on the marketing side to communicate it. This was never intended to be a huge seller, as we only sold 2500 cameras.
But the Q was wildly popular, no?
Yes. The Q paved the way for the SL. We needed to develop the technology for the Q first. And funny story, we only planned to sell 7500. We sold ten times that. The Q has been an incredible success for us.
Leica has just announced the S3 at Photokina. It seems that much of the market is going mirrorless, even in medium format. Is Leica considering a mirrorless S in the near future?
We will have a mirrored, DSLR-style S camera for at least the next 3-5 years. After that, we’ll see. The optical viewfinder has a 3D quality that an EVF lacks.
So, that sounds like a ‘yes’ on mirrorless S cameras in the future?
Internally, let’s say that we are split into two camps. We will keep an eye on mirrorless technology and will only move in this direction if, and when, it makes sense for the product. The S is our highest level camera system. The top quality. So, we will not compromise.
With the increase in resolution to 64MP on the S3, are the S lenses up to the task?
The S lenses have reserve, up to 80 or 100 MP, I believe. So, we still have room to go. From the beginning, they were designed with higher resolution in mind.
And the SL lenses? What about future camera bodies with higher resolution sensors?
The SL lenses could probably go to 60 or 80 MP. Again, same thinking from the beginning. Other companies will not have the lenses to resolve this level of detail. This is an area where our expertise in optical engineering really gives us an edge.
The APO-Summicron-SL range is growing, now with the addition of the 35mm, but roll-out seems to be a bit slow.
These new lenses are very difficult to manufacture on a production scale. The new APO-Summicron lenses are really pushing the limits of performance, with quite exacting tolerances.
So, they’re difficult to manufacture?
Sure, with prototypes anything is possible. A design is good until we try to produce it, then we hit obstacles. For example, the 75 Noctilux for M had to be redesigned three times during the industrialization process. The 90 SL had to be redesigned twice. And we are still facing small challenges. But, we will continue to address these. And in the end, the final product will be worth it.
What about your supply chain? Does that ever cause delays?
Supply is always an issue. We are the last European camera company left. Getting components which allow us to manufacture at the high level of tolerances we require remains a challenge.
Any thoughts on future SL development?
The SL is our technology platform. This is where we innovate and where we will continue to see innovation. Perhaps a future SL might incorporate design from the M10 and move in this direction. You can already see this influence on the CL.
A lot of people think the SL is too big, especially with the zooms. Any thoughts to address this?
The 24-90 zoom is quite big, yes, but offers really excellent performance. Going from 28 to 24 at the wide end made it much bigger, but we think it was worth it. For me, I’d like to see the Tri-Elmar reintroduced so it can be used on the SL. We saw already how useful 28/35/50 can be on the Q. This covers most of the range. Beyond that we can handle separately. The SL Summicrons will help as well in terms of lens size.
We also have the mirrorless CL. The CL is perfect for just throwing in your bag for a quick trip. It’s so compact and lightweight, but the performance is still real Leica quality. The TL lenses offer a great look, and of course, you can also use M or SL lenses.
What do you think about video? You’ve got quite a lot of brand recognition in the professional market due to the Leitz Cine lenses. The SL is quite capable for 4K video already, but have you given thought to moving further in that direction?
For Leica, we are primarily focused on still photography, but video is very important. You can see that Panasonic has committed to 8K by the 2020 Olympics, but is this really necessary? You can’t easily process this, or broadcast in this format. Many outlets are still using HD, not even 4K. The bandwidth requirements for 4K are still very high. So, maybe 8K is a bit premature.
Of course, Leitz Cine Wetzlar, formerly CW Sonderoptic, has been very successful. So, in this way, we are in the high-end video production market already.
And what about in the rest of the lineup? The M240 introduced video, but it was removed from the M10. Did customers just really not want the option for video on an M camera?
Video was actually not possible on the M10. Reducing the camera thickness by 3-4 mm posed incredible challenges with heat management. So, we omitted it. Perhaps we might see video capabilities in a future M camera.
Any other thoughts on M photography? Now that the M10 delivers that pure M experience in digital, where can it go from here?
The challenge with M and people my age is not one of focusing, but one of seeing a small rectangle. This is why so many use M lenses on the SL, so they can focus on the large, bright EVF. Maybe this gives an idea of what might be done in a future M.
The M10 ‘Edition Zagato’ was the first special edition we’ve seen of the M10. The camera is stunning. Do you have plans to work with Zagato for some other special edition cameras?
Yes, it’s very beautiful, but unfortunately I don’t have a Zagato M10 myself. They all went to customers. Customers come first. Yes, we will plan to do more projects with Andrea in the future. Zagato is the last independent design house in Italy. I really enjoy the process of working together.
I’ve noticed a big push in the market for more and more megapixels. How will Leica respond to this trend, after settling in for a good number of years on 24MP for the M and 37.5 MP for the S?
The camera industry is currently in another stage of the megapixel race. We don’t think this is really necessary for optimal image quality, but this is the direction that the market is headed. Will we make cameras with higher resolution? You can already see this with the Leica S3. Already, the S with 37.5 MP is quite good. But, the market demands more than 40 megapixels, so we offer this. For other systems, we’ll just have to see.
Ultimately, we have to have confidence in
what we create, in that it is the best way to do it. And not just be steered by
marketing. Too many companies do what they think is good for marketing alone.
We try to take a longer view.
If future Leica cameras do offer higher resolution sensors, will the Maestro processing architecture give the headroom to deliver similar performance?
We’re focused on many things simultaneously: sensor technology, processing technology, optical technology. All are important to our current and future products. Many people don’t realize how complicated some of this is. For example, the Maestro II chip has 6,000 pages of technical documentation. A lot of people think you can use any processor, but keep in mind that a laptop has a big battery and a lot of cooling. The camera is very small, with a small battery and no fan. We need processors that can work with our sensor data quickly while using very little battery power and without generating too much heat. That is what we have with Maestro. And within the Maestro family, we could see more powerful chips in future generations. Just as we did from the original Maestro in the S2 to the current Maestro II.
Any final thoughts?
Can’t complain with business. We are making money and continue to make the products which we believe in. Things are good at Leica.
This interview originally took place September 25, 2018 in Cologne, Germany as part of our on-location Photokina 2018 event coverage. For even more insight into the L-Mount Alliance, be sure to check out our interview with Stephan Schulz, head of professional products for Leica Camera.