Autumn 2018 saw the launch of two new full-frame systems and one full-frame alliance. A month or so after Canon and Nikon launched their RF and Z mount systems respectively, Leica, Sigma and Panasonic announced that they would be partnering to develop new cameras and lenses around a shared standard: the L-mount.

The so-called L mount alliance was announced at the Photokina tradeshow in Cologne, Germany. We were there, and the following interview is an edited transcript of a group interview conducted with Stephen Schultz and Dr. Andreas Kaufmann of Leica, Junichiro Kitagawa of Panasonic, and Kazuto Yamaki of Sigma. The following interview contains questions from various members of the photo press, and has been edited for clarity and flow.

Since the announcement of the alliance, have you been approached by any other companies interested in licensing the L mount?

Leica: Not yet. But it’s only been a short time since we made the announcement. Leica has been collaborating with Panasonic since 2001, and three years ago we met with Yamaki-san [of Sigma], and since then we’ve been [developing our partnership].

How will you make this work? Three different companies, three different backgrounds…

Leica: We are going to have regular meetings in order to keep the standard up to date, and to ensure that all products work smoothly and seamlessly with each other. We share a long history of collaboration with Panasonic, and we have had very close connections on a development level for many years. This is not new for us.

Sigma: Since the beginning of Four Thirds we’ve been working with Panasonic on the development of the Four Thirds and Micro Four Thirds systems.

'Collaboration is necessary to make sure that all three companies are making products at the same level' - Leica

Is there a timeline mapped out for future product development within the L mount standard?

Sigma: We have agreed to work on products using the same platform, but regarding products from each of the three companies, we’re working independently. We’re not exchanging [that kind of] information. Each company is working on its own roadmap. We have our own strategy and our own customers, so we’re just trying to bring high quality products to the market at the right price.

Leica: It’s a little bit like Android, the mobile standard. We make our own [separate] products but we use the same standard. Collaboration is necessary to make sure that all three companies are making products at the same level, for the [shared] standard. And that’s it.

We work in an alliance at a high level, but Leica is the licensor of the L mount standard. We developed the L mount brand: it's a Leica brand, and Sigma and Panasonic are licensees. But in our daily work, we are all part of this alliance.

Panasonic: Each companies has its own responsibilities and its own obligations. To [preserve] the standard is really important.

'Technically the L mount is a very good standard. A wide lens mount diameter and a short flange back - there are no technical drawbacks' - Sigma

What made the L mount the preferred choice of mount for Sigma and Panasonic?

Sigma: Technically the L mount is a very good standard. A wide lens mount diameter and a short flange back: there are no technical drawbacks. At the beginning we were planning to develop our own full frame mirrorless system, but we concluded eventually that it was more beneficial to our customers to enter a partnership. The customer can use a wider variety of cameras and lenses.

Panasonic: Panasonic's customer coverage [at present] is maybe more high-level amateurs, not professionals. The new [customer segment] of videographers appreciates what we’ve introduced for movie making, but still there are customer segments that we cannot reach. So the L mount gives us a chance to challenge in these top-end segments. I hope that the L mount gives us a chance to complete our lineup, [by] supporting our current Micro Four Thirds business.

The GH5S is a video-focused Micro Four Thirds camera which has been received by a constituent of video professionals, but Panasonic does not offer a full-frame rival to Sony's a7S-series. Could the company fill this gap with a future L-mount camera?

How much room for future growth is built into the L mount standard?

Leica: Regarding functionality, we think that the standard will cover everything that we can anticipate, at the moment. We think that the standard is sufficient [for the foreseeable future]. The mount was developed very thoroughly in order to have enough space to make the biggest and fastest lenses for full frame, while also being as compact as possible to make attractive APS-C cameras as well. We think this is a big benefit of the L mount.

The flange back distance could be shorter, but if someone wants to make a professional L mount video camera for example, its better to have a little more room, for filters [built into the camera body] and so on. With 20mm, that’s fine. If you go closer, it becomes very difficult.

Do Sigma and Panasonic see the L mount as an APS-C mount as well? Are you planning on developing APS-C lenses for L?

Sigma: Yes, we have a plan to develop APS-C lenses for L mount, but the main focus is full-frame.

Panasonic: No. We will only develop [L mount products] for full-frame sensors.

The forthcoming Panasonic Lumix DC-S1/R are advanced mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras, built around the full-frame L mount standard. The S1R (pictured) will be Panasonic's high-resolution stills flagship when it's released next spring.

Do you see the Panasonic Lumix DC S1 and S1R as companion cameras to the Leica SL or as competitive cameras?

Leica: They're an addition to the market, and they're also competition. We’re three independent companies. From our point of view, [the S1/R] will bring customers into the L mount system. A Leica price-point will always be a Leica price point. That has to do with how we do things, and how we develop products. So if someone wants to [shoot with] a different body, but using Leica lenses, we’re OK with that.

Is any money changing hands, or are you just bound by a common agreement?

Leica: We cannot comment on that, but think of it as a very friendly agreement.

As licensor, does Leica maintain any kind of design approval over lens designs from Sigma and Panasonic for the L mount?

Leica: We host all of the information relating to the L mount standard, but there is no more exchange than that. Regarding products that we may [all, separately] be developing, it’s actually not allowed [due to anti-trust legislation]. Leica does not have design approval.

'This alliance is like marriage. The previous arrangement [with Olympus] was more like we were just living together' - Panasonic

One thing that we saw happen in the Micro Four Thirds market it is that over time there was a divergence between Panasonic and Olympus technologies. Will this alliance avoid that kind of issue?

Leica: We plan to have regular committees to define the standard, and to get common agreements about changes and updates to the technology, in order to avoid that situation.

Panasonic: The difference, maybe, is that this alliance is like marriage. The previous arrangement [with Olympus] was more like we were just living together. So the obligation [now] is a little more high-level.

Are the L mount partners working on a unified solution for service?

Panasonic: At the very least we have to exchange all of the necessary information, in advance. And if a situation arises in future [where a customer requires service to L mount products of two brands] we need to find a way of responding. For example if [in future] a customer brings a Panasonic camera to one of our service centers with a Leica lens, we need to work out how to deal with things like that.

'When it comes to products, there’s a distinct firewall between the three companies' - Sigma

Leica: Let’s see what the future may bring. Leica has a unique business model, and maybe we can add some [insight] based on our experiences, but it hasn’t been discussed yet. But by creating a shared technical platform, that’s a great step in this industry. Because normally this industry works more like several little ‘boxes’ [of separate technologies].

Panasonic: In 2020, on the 24th of July the Tokyo Olympic Games will open. And there we will see many professionals and advanced amateur photographers, and I hope that we will see many L mount products [being used]. So we will need to provide service facilities for professional photographers from all over the world. We’re starting now to think about how we will do that.

The Leica SL is still going strong, several years after announcement. Even in its dotage however, it is still priced out of reach for most photographers. The addition of cameras from Panasonic and Leica should make the L mount standard more accessible.

Are you each developing your own sensors, separately from one another?

Leica: From the point of view of the alliance, again, we’re completely different companies. This will continue and we’re not going to disclose where we get components from, and I suspect that Panasonic and Sigma won’t either.

Sigma: When it comes to products, there’s a distinct firewall between the three companies but we work together as a technical committee just to maintain compatibility between products.

Leica: The standard needs to provide for seamless compatibility between products from all three manufacturers. For Leica, our business model is very different [to other manufacturers]. We own most of our distribution, and also retail. It’s a different concept. Here, [with the L mount alliance] we’re talking about a technical platform.

Sigma is one of many third party lens manufacturers. What made Sigma your choice of partner?

Leica: It’s a great company. And it’s family owned. That means that certain decisions can be reached in a very effective way.

Editors' note: Barnaby Britton

The L-mount isn't a new system, but the addition of two new manufacturers to the standard is potentially very significant. Leica's L-mount cameras have been good products for the most part, but as Dr Kaufmann said, 'a Leica price-point will always be a Leica price-point'. And as such, cameras like the Leica SL and TL/CL are completely ignored by the vast majority of the camera-buying public, who don't understand why they cost so much. While entirely understandable, this is a shame, if only because many of Leica's L-mount lenses are so good.

It seems unlikely that Panasonic's upcoming Lumix S1 and S1R will be cheap, but it's a safe bet that in terms of price per line of spec, they'll be a hell of a lot more reasonably priced than anything Leica will come out with in the near future. It's anyone's guess what Canon and Nikon will do next with their new RF and Z mounts, but for now it looks like the S1R could be the most 'pro' of all the new crop of full-frame mirrorless cameras when it becomes available next spring. It could, in fact end up being one of the most compelling options in the entire full-frame space.

I bet that Panasonic is itching to knock Sony off its perch as king of full-frame mirrorless video

The lower-resolution Lumix S1 looks set to be more of an all-rounder, which we're expecting to offer a very compelling video feature set. And speaking of video, Stephan Schultz's passing comment about a hypothetical 'professional L mount video camera' is intriguing. I doubt whether Leica would ever attempt such a thing (although you never know, with Leica) but I bet that Panasonic is itching to fill the troublesome hole in its product lineup between cameras like the GH5/S and cinema-focused offerings like the Varicam - and knock Sony off its perch as king of full-frame mirrorless video in the process.

That hole, between consumer video and professional cine cameras, is where we expect to see a lot of growth over the next few years since it represents the growing emerging production market. Given Panasonic's history in video, this fertile 'middle market' seems to represent an obvious opportunity for the company.

More products means more competition, which is almost always good for consumers

Sigma meanwhile, although best known as a lens manufacturer, has been quietly developing a range of quirky, high-quality cameras for years. The move away from its SA mount might prove painful for a small number of loyal Merillites, but I suspect it will prove to be a very smart move in the long run. More products means more competition, which is almost always good for consumers. Arguably, friendly competition - where manufacturers compete for the same customers with rival but cross-compatible products - is even better, assuming it's sustainable for the manufacturers involved.

One of the questions raised in the group interview session was whether the three companies in the L mount alliance will work to avoid the kind of technological divergence which we saw emerge over time between Panasonic and Olympus's rival Micro Four Thirds systems. Mr Kitagawa of Panasonic replied with an unusually candid metaphor about cohabitation versus marriage. The new alliance, it seems, is more serious than his company's previous partnership with Olympus. I hope it works out.