The success story of the M-System starts with the Leica M-Lenses. A long line of legendary engineers like Max Berek and Oskar Barnack are responsible for their unique quality. Today Peter Karbe ensures that 150 years of Experience and Know-How gets transformed into new high performance M-Lenses. In our interview, he talks about the beginnings of his career, what sets apart the M-System and M-Lenses, and the most important factor behind the scenes – the people at Leica.
Mister Karbe, you are one of the crucial people in the development of the M-System and the M-Lenses. Where does your passion for optics come from?
I developed a passion for optics during my university studies. I have always been interested in numbers and mathematical / physical interrelationships. I was also influenced by my previous training as a photographer.
You are trained as a photographer?
Yes exactly, I underwent a formal training in a small town called Sundern in the Sauerland, Germany. In a small local photo store, specialized in labworks, still-life and portrait photography, I got in touch with the whole spectrum of what photography had to offer at that time.
Was the general interest in photography at that time comparable to today?
Photography as a career option was already very popular. I was lucky enough to begin my training just when the switch from manual to automatic photography happened. The whole topic of autofocus was on the rise, SLR photography was very popular. I personally used to work a lot with large format cameras and medium-format cameras back then. Therefore, I was able to get to know first-hand the photography of the analogue age and the slowness associated with it. You first took a picture, then you had to develop it – and was surprised if there was anything on it.
And how did that lead you to study photographic engineering?
When I finished my photography apprenticeship, I learned that there was a photo engineering course in Cologne. I immediately knew that this was what I wanted to do. Especially during my undergraduate studies, I was able to fully devote myself to my passion for physics and mathematics. One of my professors back then, a former employee of the Leitz company, motivated me to apply for a job there.
How was it working in an optical department at that time?
At the beginning of my career a few very experienced optical designer used to work there. Their teachings about the theoretical foundations that Max Berek had laid became an invaluable part of my life. Although computers were already used in the department back then, I initially did most of the work by hand – with the help of a calculator.
To what extent are these basics still useful when you calculate new M lenses?
The basics help to sharpen your view of the entire system. There are so many parameters that you have to control all at once. At the same time, the complexity of optical systems has increased significantly, because today we place much more demands on a lens than we used to. The right software helps us to optimize M-Lenses and allows us to produce a much greater variety than ever before.
When did your personal story with the M system begin?
When I switched from Leica Microsystems to Leica Camera in 1992, one of my first tasks was to calculate a special viewfinder for the M-System. That was the starting point for me to get in touch with the M-System on a deeper level. Before, I was used to working with SLR cameras. While I was developing this viewfinder, I immersed myself deeply in the M-System and began to recognize its advantages.
That doesn’t sound like love at first sight…
*Laughs* I think the affection for M-Cameras has to be earned. That means that as a photographer, you have to learn to look at a subject differently, because using a rangefinder means not looking directly through the lens. You have to get accustomed to the M-System at first – but at some point, you can’t imagine photography any other way.
What makes the M system so unique?
The M-System educates photographers. It’s like trying to write with a fountain pen. Using the fountain pen is not easy at the beginning. But once you’ve learned how to use it, you don’t want to write any other way. It is the same with the M. The M-System improves your photography, just like the fountain pen corrects your handwriting. And you can see that afterwards in the pictures.
Do you think the M system appeals to a certain type of photographer?
I don’t know if a certain type of photographer is needed for the M-System. But if you do get involved with it, it will allow you a special, very personal way of photography. And that may turn you into a certain type of photographer.
What role do M lenses play in this?
Due to the short focal lengths of the M-Lenses and the compactness of the M-System, you are less noticeable as a photographer in a scene and can get closer without disturbing it. This will automatically change your photographic perspective. Just look at Robert Lebeck’s “the saber of King Baudouin of Belgium is stolen in Leopoldville”. In his biography, Lebeck mentions that the focal length of his M-Lens forced him to take a different standpoint than all other photographers there. And that is the only reason why today, as a viewer, you have the impression that you are right in the middle of the action.
What is your biggest challenge when designing new M lenses?
Well, we have four different requirements for an M-Lens: compactness, lens speed, imaging performance and robustness. These four features are combined in each M-Lens, but sometimes involve contradicting design requirements. Lens speed and compactness, for example, are opposing. Because to design faster lenses, you need more lens elements, but more lens elements means larger optical systems. Such challenges force us to look for solutions that didn’t exist before.
That sounds like a complicated job, especially for production…
Absolutely. The performance must not only be there theoretically, but the M-Lens has to deliver it in practice. A lot of manual work is necessary for that, and a lot of know-how considering lenses and lens production. This is how we ensure the high level of performance, the low tolerances and, above all, the durability of the M-Lenses. It is a fact that you can still easily use lenses that were on the market 65 years ago. If that’s not proof of longevity, then I don’t know what is. We also don’t have assembly lines for the glass elements of our lenses as it requires special care to produce them. The glasses that are processed are very sensitive and must be handled with particular care. And this degree of care is simply not possible under time pressure.
What else sets the production of M lenses apart?
We draw from an enormous wealth of know-how, which has accumulated in a long history of over 150 years of optics development. In the past, the opticians here were referred to as “stiff collar opticians” because they were very particular when it came to their work. And I believe that our colleagues still set very high standards for themselves today. Their knowledge has a special depth and everyone feels committed to the best possible result. And that’s what its all about. The community of people working here is the main reason that makes it possible to produce optical systems of this quality.
How does manual labour contribute to the quality of M lenses?
Perfection in lenses doesn’t just mean that you have beautiful MTF curves or excellent aberration correction in their design. It also means that a lot of work has to be done in production so that this perfection ultimately reaches the customer. Lens construction is in itself a craft. And it takes a lot of skill and talent, and understanding of the material that you use. That is why we are very proud of what our colleagues are doing here.
One of the masterpieces of Leica is the Noctilux. What makes this lens so special?
Lens speed has always been a passion at Leica. With the latest Noctilux-M 1: 1.25 / 75mm ASPH, we have exhausted all of our technological possibilities. Apart from the latest aspherical lens and glass technology, we have also taken mechanical precision to its extreme. It is a system with a floating element, which means that we have to move two groups independently of one another in order to achieve good performance at close range. But most importantly, with the Noctilux-M 1: 1.25 / 75mm ASPH you no longer have to stop to get the best performance. It is part of our understanding of values that the lenses we deliver today are fully functional wide open. In this way, we offer the photographer every opportunity to make full use of the depth of field in his images – without compromise.
Where do you get your inspiration from, Mr. Karbe?
My inspiration partly comes from the fact that I take a lot of photos myself. Not in order to exhibit my images – but to try out where the strengths and weaknesses of our optical systems are. A lot of inspiration also comes from the feedback of our customers. We are always looking for solutions that enable us to meet their wishes and at the same time correspond to our values.
Does that mean Leica gets direct feedback from its customers?
Yes, thank God we are in close exchange with our customers and get direct, honest feedback from them. It doesn’t matter whether their comments are positive or negative. The positive reports naturally motivate us, which is great. But it’s especially the critical comments that help us in identifying and realizing new possibilities.