First Impressions, the (Awesome) Leica S2
Over lunch last Tuesday, I enjoyed spending a couple hours with Leica rep Victor Naranjo and the compelling new Leica S2 digital camera. And — while there is nothing wrong with traditional digital medium format cameras like the Hasselblad H4D series or P+ series from Phase One — the Leica S2 is a whole new approach to Big Digital and instantly makes the digital back on film camera paradigm seem dated. The S2 is hefty, refined, and strikingly simple.
Victor described the S2 as a big brother to my Nikon D3 and it’s an accurate ergonomic description of the Leica. The big, rubberized-metal DSLR is big, but feels familiar, more an evolutionary cousin of a Canon 1Ds or Nikon D3 series camera than a Mamiya DM or Hasselblad H4D. It’s an intriguing camera that is certain to be a powerful new tool for a wide range of photographers.
[Read on for my first impressions of shooting the S2 and a few example images..]
Where Are All the Buttons?
In defiant contrast to the prevailing trend, the purposeful German camera has absolutely no more buttons or switches than necessary. Imagine, a digital camera with no 4-way rocker! The Leica S2 is minimal all the way, and it works. Some controls are so refreshingly simple, it’s funny. For example, the camera has no exposure mode dial, just a single control wheel and a big old school shutter speed dial. Though customizable, Victor had our S2 set to adjust ISO with a long press of one of the four buttons surrounding the LCD screen. And, as far as exposure is concerned, what else is there?
What is not clear from product photos or even the S2 Users Manual I plowed through on a plane a few weeks ago is the ergonomic brilliance of the shutter speed wheel. It falls nearly where a front control wheel would be on most other digital cameras and turns with a photographer’s index finger every bit as easily with the camera at eye level. Also, despite the simplified printed markings, there are actually detents at familiar 1/3 stop intervals around the wheel and the viewfinder shows actual settings, as does the camera’s top OLED screen. Having only seen photos, I was pleasantly surprised that the big wheel can be operated in a very modern way and, as a result, the missing front control wheel is not missed at all.
The rear control wheel is left to control aperture settings, and does so in a familiar way. Uniquely, the wheel can also be pressed, a control function used in navigating menus and also in switching between manual and automatic setting of the aperture. So, though there is no exposure mode dial, aperture and shutter settings are easy to control and can be independently set for automatic control. With either one set for automatic control, the camera is in Aperture Priority or Shutter Priority. With both set to automatic control, the camera is in Program Mode.
Surfing the Menus
The Leica S2 has two screens and both are nicely designed for efficiency and clear communication. The top “OLED” offers a concise summary, in color, of shooting parameters. It’s a handy reference for shutter speed, aperture setting and exposure mode. Unfortunately, our test camera’s top screen was malfunctioning and only dimly visible. Indoors, though, the screen proved a handy quick reference. The top screen of the competing Hasselblad H4D is arguably the most informative in the imaging world, offering actual written text, histograms, and computer-like access to most camera settings. The Leica top screen, by contrast, is simple and attractive, engineered for clarity and not for an encyclopedic range of info. Hopefully, a future S2 copy will allow a better analysis of its usefulness.
With few buttons and a top screen reserved for shooting info, the S2 relies heavily on its rear LCD and four corresponding navigation buttons in the Phase One P series tradition. Thankfully, it’s a beautiful screen, bright, clear, and honest. After today’s test, I would feel comfortable relying on the screen for verifying capture in the field, which is not necessarily the case among the Leica’s medium format competition. For the sake of menu surfing, it’s quite good. Menus are designed for quick navigation and legibility, not for looking pretty. The rear control wheel allows scrolling and selecting, while the varying functions of the four buttons are always clearly indicated. I’m certain operation becomes fluid with time and suspect the time spent learning will prove short.
I’m curious, though, how long it would take me to master the process of zooming into and navigating images. With any 40 MP camera, it is essential to check accurate focus at close zoom. As anyone experienced with medium format knows, a crisp three-inch file may look like it was shot from a speeding train as a forty inch print. Once in Play mode, a photographer clicks the rear control wheel to switch it from scrolling through files to scrolling into a selected file. Once zoomed in, click the wheel again to switch to sliding side to side through an image. Hold down the upper-left LCD button to scroll up and down with the rear control wheel. I can’t think of a better way to explore images given the paucity of input mechanics, but I wonder if one little Canon-style joystick wouldn’t speed things along without totally polluting the camera’s design purity.
Speaking of speed, I am astonished at the speed with which images pop up on screen. Zooming deeply into the Leica’s monster files is as fluid as my D3’s hasty exploration of snaps one quarter the size. I’m used to being a little patient while an H4D churns out a workable preview of a behemoth 3FR file. The Leica must have unprecedented processing power, because it’s fast: flip flip flip, no problem. It’s another way, besides the body design, that the camera feels more like a very high end 35mm than a 645 DSLR.
Setting up the S2 to shoot is easy enough. ISO and white balance can be set in familiar ways, ways familiar, that is, to both 645 and 35mm shooters. Unlike Hasselblad, the Leica has both auto white balance and auto ISO. Like Hasselblad, photographers are better off measuring a manual white balance, and it’s easy to do. The S2 allows Kelvin white balance setting and ISO range from 80-1250.
Shooting with the Leica S2
The S2 is a dream to shoot. It feels as nimble as a Nikon D3 and just as comfortable in the hands. It manages medium format files without the irregularities of medium format ergonomics. It has only a single central autofocus point, but it is quick, quiet, and spot-on. The 70mm f2.5 lens on our test camera is a nice balance and a smooth operator, like a minimalist cross between a Zeiss and an H-series lens. With the optional battery grip in place, the substantial camera body is a nice handful with subtle and well-placed contours for thumb and fingers. It’s immediately more comfortable than any medium format camera and feels luxuriously worthy of the mega sensor and potent internal processing. With the battery grip attached, which I find preferable, it is undeniably larger than a D3 or 1Ds and certainly looks like something more serious.
Like that of more serious cameras from Mamiya or a Hasselblad, the Leica’s viewfinder shames comparatively cramped 35mm viewfinders. It is bright and clear with key information arrayed subtly in olive green across the bottom. The undersized exposure scale is small compared to competitors and confirms the camera’s inclination to downplay all things digital (buttons, for example). It’s an adjustment, but not bothersome. More than any other camera I’ve used recently, the Leica S2 feels engineered to be a lesser player in a photo shoot, minimally distraction between photographer and subject. Unlike all digital medium format cameras I’ve used, the Leica S2’s viewfinder relates somewhat directly to the captured image. Leica states a modest 96% field. All but the most monster-sized digital backs have a significant crop factor, most, these days, are indicated in the viewfinder with a box, a box that falls well within the full coverage of Mamiya, Phase One, or Hasselblad viewfinders. It’s one interesting artifact of Leica’s from-scratch design. No quirks to be explained by a decade-removed 120 film heritage here.
I’m impressed with the smoothly dampened mirror action. The camera is quieter than the notable snap of the D3, with a sophisticated rolling sound. The velvety damping, as a first impression anyway, allows slightly slower hand-held shutter speeds needed by big box 645 cameras. It may well prove to need mirror lock-up less frequently. The camera’s size and weight are a nice balance for steady shooting. The battery grip ads a redundant vertical shutter release and rear control wheel as well as an extra battery. The S2 shoots at a relaxed 1.5 images per second, certainly one design element from its medium format genes.
Leica’s Market Position
So, where is this exotic new camera’s position in the marketplace? Below is a little informal class of roughly 40 MP competition (shown with estimated current pricing and links to product info pages):
Phase One P40+ ~ $21,000 (lens included)
Pentax 645D ~ $10,000 (body only)
Mamiya DM40 ~ $21,000-$23,000 (lens included)
Leica S2 ~ $23,000-$28,000 (body only)
In this class, the S2 is priced with a noticeable premium, splitting the difference between these and 50+ MP cameras like the Hasselblad H4D-50 ($29,000). When compared to high-end 35mm DSLRs like the Nikon D3X, Canon 1Ds Mark III, or Leica’s own M9, the S2 is priced far beyond competition. Also, there are more affordable options in the medium format world, notably, the new $14,000 Hasselblad H4D-31.
As a built-from-the-ground-up new camera system, it’s difficult to say if Leica will eventually compete with the wide flexility of gear, pricing, and file size output offered from the established Phase One/Mamiya and Hasselblad lines. Based on marketing materials, Leica seems to be targeting high end fashion and landscape photography, particularly pushing location work. Based on the camera’s design, it is certainly likely to appeal to location photographers, and perhaps less to studio shooters who will miss Fire Wire tethering and the highly computerized and mechanical flexibility of Hasselblad or Phase One (a flexibility that comes with a compromise in intuitive operation, to be certain).
Among medium format competition, the Leica S2 offers unique options for image output. The option to shoot JPG or to shoot DNG and JPG simultaneously to two different cards (one SD one Compact Flash) is handy. Also, as a beefy, weather-sealed camera, the S2 feels like something I’d be more comfortable shooting regularly outside. I see the Leica S2 being a very nice fit for work like my own, editorial and corporate portrait work and events, though at nearly triple the price of a Nikon D3X, or for roughly the same price as a Nikon D3X and a Hasselblad H4D-31 with a lens, it’s a hard sell. It would certainly have to justify the price boost with a marvelous increase in image quality. With that…
Initial Image Quality Observations
Note: the images in this post are exported from Lightroom with minimal processing and no adjustments (despite temptation to demonstrate the dynamic reach of the S2 files with vibrance, exposure, contrast, etc.) They are 1400 px sRGB JPGs, crops — when provided — are roughly 100%, and all files have Lightroom’s standard export sharpening for “screen”. Click any file to see a larger view in a new window.
During our brief test, I shot mostly compressed DNG files that range in file size from 37 to 46 MB. As we had it set up, the camera’s uncompressed DNG files consistently occupy 75 or 76 MB on the hard drive. It is interesting to note the camera’s 4 by 6 image ratio, a familiar aspect for 35mm shooters, but a distinct difference from the more square images of 645 cameras. The files measure 7,504 by 4,984 pixels, or 37.4 MP. I believe it’s a good size for a wide range of print applications and should certainly prove to be adequate for many years to come. If, as I suspect, this is a high ground where image size has plateaued for a few years, the camera could arguably serve a studio for a long time (imagine shooting one digital camera for a decade, it’d be like the film days!) 50 and 60 MP cameras by today’s standards, seem to have only specialized applications.
All that is to say that the files are crisp and clean, with totally unfiltered clarity in detail. Combined with the Summarit-S 70mm f2.5 ASPH, the camera captures files that look both pure, free of distortion, equally lit across the frame; and that have a satisfying brilliance, contrast, and pop. I’ve only had the chance to snap a few tourist-style images of Oakland’s China Town, but am inclined to think the S2 is engineered to natively render more contrast and saturation than the Hasselblad H4D-40 I had in the studio recently. By comparison, the Hasselblad delivers sharpness and purity, with a preference for neutrality and a straight tone curve. When analyzing files straight from camera, the Leica S2 has more “pop” without noticeably sacrificing shadow detail. Once the editing starts, the files have deep information in both highlights and shadows, with trunk loads of image data reserved for post processing. The files have remarkable flexibility for adjustments to exposure and saturation. The Leica S2 uses the grand palate of dynamic range inherent in medium format digital, and makes it look good.
It is certainly worth noting, also, that the camera does so via Adobe DNG files, not a native RAW format. There is no need (or option) for proprietary RAW conversion software. The camera therefore faces both the challenge of delivering optical purity the old-fashion way (without profiled lens correction or a post-camera moire fix) and also the speed of a one stop process (it’s a nonstop flight from camera card to Lightroom). Perhaps waiting until now to enter the medium format market has allowed Leica to arrive without the medium format baggage of complex work flow; indeed besides the trim body and familiar ergonomics, the S2 handles like a 35mm DSLR digitally as well. It might be, however, that the streamlined flow has ditched some important function. Can, for example, Lightroom handle medium format moire? Hasselblad’s Phocus software can punch it out with the flick of a slider, Leica claims to detect and suppress it in camera.
I look forward to more in-depth testing, but the camera clearly creates files to at least compete with 30 and 40 MP big box medium format and has appreciably more graceful handling. It’s much too early to say, but my initial big clean files with beautiful color, focus, sharpness, and tonality point towards an amazing new tool for photographers, and one that’s uniquely fun to use too.
Yet To Be Determined
Besides moire, I have other questions to be addressed in future tests. Perhaps some are minor, but the Leica S2 is a major investment. Can a USB interface keep pace with big S2 files with the camera tethered? How nimble is the ultra-minimal button layout in the field; will I be poking around in menus while a client stands waiting? To what extent and with what effect can the camera be customized or fine tuned for a specific application? How is the camera’s battery life? And of critical importance with a camera of this resolution, how flexible and accurate is the camera’s autofocus in day to day shooting?
When considering medium format cameras, it’s also worthwhile to understand each company’s support network. How soon will wide-spread rental gear be available? Can Leica respond quickly with repairs and will they offer an upgrade plan or buy-back program to compete with companies like Phase One?
All interesting to consider. In the meantime, the Leica S2 is perhaps photography’s most intriguing camera, a true blend of 35mm’s comfortable and purposeful ergonomics and 645’s stunning image quality and optical purity. Leica is asking top dollar, but delivering the world’s most luxurious camera. I look forward to future shoots and to really exploring the potential of the S2!