There’s a particular kind of snobbery in the Leica world that’s not unfamiliar to fans of Japanese camera brands. For example, if you told a Fujifilm camera user that most of their lenses are made in the Philippines and not Japan, they’d probably look at them in a different way. But others would be fine with it because the quality is there. And such is similar with Leica. If a product was made in Canada or in Portugal, there’s often a bit of snobbery that’s associated with it being a lesser product. This is so much so the case that people will pay more for something made in Germany. But does it really matter?
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Is Leica Portugal a Joke?
One might think that the quality of a German-made product would be better due to marketing and the fact that Leica’s home is in Germany. In fact, this whole idea is joked about in a thread on L Camera Forum. “One speaks German and the other one can’t make up its mind whether it wants to speak French or English,” jokes one participant.
“It’s likely becuase of the homebase, there’s an assumption that there’s a higher quality standard of a ‘Made in Germany’ product,” says photographer Bill Manning, who needs no introductory to the analog film community. “However, that’s not necesasrily true. The lenses Leica previously made in Canada were of excellent and equal quality of those made in Germany.” And other experts tend to agree with Bill.
“Leica has a history of making products offsite,” says Photographer Brent Eysler, an expert in Leica products. “Some could even argue that the Mandler lenses made in Canada during the 70s and 80s were even better than the German ones at the time. And there’s no doubt that the M4-2 made in Canada saved Leica.” He continues to state that he feels that the Portugal endeavor is largely a cost-cutting measure so they’re not being instructed to build them up to the same standards that they do elsewhere.
In truth, a lot of very important Leica products were made in Portugal.
Clarifications from Leica
Leica’s own Stefan Daniel, Jesko v. Oeynhausen and Andrea Pacella all jointly provided answers to the Phoblographer’s questions on this subject. They provided the following list of products that were made in Portugal for Leica:
- Leica R3 (1976-1980)
- Leica R4 (1980-1985)
- Leica R5 (1985-1990)
- R8 (2000-2003)
- Leica Geovid Rangefinder Binoculars (1992-today)
- Leitz/Leica Trinovid
- Leica Ultravid and Noctivid Binoculars
- Televid Spotting Scopes (1975-today)
- Various Accessories (Motor drives, handgrips, viewfinders etc.).
“(the) Focus of the plant was and is the production of mechanical, optical and electronic components as well as finished goods,” the trio tell us. So not only has Portugal been important for around 50 years, but it’s also been the home of many key products. Still, lots of Leica products labeled as Made in Portugal are more affordable than those made in Germany.
For the photo segment, mechanical-, optical-, and electronic single parts as well as subassemblies are made there and shipped to our German factory. In Wetzlar, these components are completed with parts from Wetzlar production and other provenances in further production steps, final assembly, calibration, and quality inspection. (e.g. digital imaging electronic parts supplied by a German partner or mechanical parts from our sister company Weller Feinwerktechnik at Leitz-Park).Stefan Daniel, Jesko v. Oeynhausen and Andrea Pacella
Some of Leica’s newest products are made in Portugal. For the SL series, the new SL 50mm f2 and 35mm f2 Non-Apochromatic lenses are manufactured in Portugal. Besides missing the Apochromatic elements and surfaces, these lenses are also smaller. Leica’s own reps describe this to us as being similar to how the M-mount lenses are in that these are more affordable options but without the razzle and dazzle of the Apochromatic look.
“Leica Portugal has been chosen for capacity reasons and to be able to achieve a desirable price point for our customers, without compromising on quality,” the trio tells us. “These lenses combine very good optical quality in a compact size at a significantly lower price point than our ‘Made in Germany’ APO-Summicron-SL prime lenses.” Indeed, when we tested the Leica 35mm f2 Non-Apo, we were really amazed at the quality. It’s the reason why I didn’t purchase the Leica Q3.
The REal Differences?
In the gallery above, two images were shot on a Portugal-made Leica 35mm while the others are made on a German-made Leica 35mm. Can you tell the difference?
Considering just how the Portugal factor is with pricing and manufacturing, we wonder why Leica chose to not make more products there recently. During the Trump Era here in America, tariffs were put on Leica products in addition to all other German-made offerings. As a result, Leica ate the fees, and then raised prices when the tariffs lifted. So why weren’t they just all made in Portugal for a time?
“Some of the most popular M lenses were simultaneously ‘Made in Portugal’ in addition to the German production line to avoid a 25% price increase in the US Market (because of 25% Tariff on “Made in Germany” Optics),” the trio tells us. “The quality and specifications were identical. Considering the total output, it was not our intention to produce the same products in both facilities permanently, as this would have added extra complexity to our value chains making up for potential cost advantages in Portugal.”
We don’t have clarification on the statement around cost-advantage, but one could assume that Leica is referring to labor costs. For example, a journalist in America is paid far better than one in the UK.
As of November 11, 2023, Leica’s 50mm f1.4 ASPH lenses are offred in Silver and Black. The former is cheaper by around $100 while also being silver. In reality, if you’re buying a Leica product, then $100 dfference isn’t all that huge. But where it matters is with the used market. A lens made in Portugal won’t hold its value as well as a German-made lens despite them being made to the same standards.
In the end, it truly seems like the marketing campaigns done really win out if Leica is indeed being fully transparent about the details of products made in Portugal. Many years ago, we toured the Leica factories and could find lots of people working on repairing lenses. Those people have started to retire and hopefully will be replaced as needed by skillful experts in the craft. Otherwise, we hope that it’s done abroad as needed.