Introduction: The Leica S2

Introduction

With the new S2 camera system, Leica has boldly entered the world of professional imaging at the very top.  The Leica S2 is a tool designed for professional photographers, optimized to churn out big, clear files.  Unlike other cameras in photography’s upper reaches, though, the S2 immediately feels like something familiar, in many ways more closely related to modern 35mm DSLRs than to oblong 645 format cameras.

To put our test camera to work, I set up a number of demanding location shoots, studio shoots, shoots with natural light and with strobes, shoots using computer tethering, and shoots using both CF and SD cards.  Through it all, the big Leica has been a joy to use, proving to be flexible and highly capable.  It pulls design inspiration from both the medium format and 35mm worlds and is truly something new.  With the new S system, Leica has put together a compelling and inspiring set of tools.

Features

At the heart of the Leica S2 is a 37.5 MP CCD sensor measuring 30 by 45mm and delivering images in the 35mm-standard 2×3 ratio.  Though shorter, the sensor is very close in width to 6×4.5-ratio sensors in the Hasselblad H4D-40 (reviewed here), Pentax 645D, Leaf Aptus II-8, and upcoming Phase One IQ140.  The S2 body is rubberized metal with a striking simplicity and mounts Leica’s new line of S-mount lenses.  The camera can operate either a focal plane or lens-based leaf shutters, allowing the advantages of both worlds: shutter speeds from 8-1/4000 s and strobe sync speed up to 1/500 s.

The S2 can record both DNG Raw files and/or JPGs to either or both of its CF and SD card slots.  It is also designed for easy computer tethering using a well-designed, though proprietary USB 2.0 cable.  The camera’s autofocus is a single central point that allows single or continuous servo focusing.  Its viewfinder is a big, bright prism design providing a wide, 645-like field of view.

The camera body has two screens for user feedback, a 3-inch LCD rear screen and unique stamp-sized color OLED panel on top.  The user interface includes a large shutter speed dial, rear control wheel that can be both rolled and clicked, and an AE-lock button that switches to AF when the camera is set to manual focus.  The LCD screen is surrounded with four buttons that call up customizable settings with a long press (things like ISO, drive mode, and exposure compensation) and work the thumb wheel to navigate the camera’s concise menu system.  Other controls include an aperture preview button and selection for CS leaf shutters or the camera body’s focal plan shutter.

The robust Leica S2 feels extremely solid and luxurious and is weather sealed to resist the elements of location shooting.  It feels bigger than any 35mm camera, especially with the optional battery grip attached, but is very comfortable, with a deep contour for right thumb and lots of textured, grippy, button-free surface to hold.  I especially like the ergonomics when using the battery grip.  The grip includes additional controls for vertical shooting.  The assembled S2 is, in my opinion, photography’s best build quality.  The only notable weak point is the selection of plastic lens hoods.  While they are effective, reversible, and save weight (which is nice) they are prone to breaking and feel underwhelming for optics of this level.

The battery is a proprietary lithium design that fits firmly into the camera body and releases with a smartly-designed lever.  Consistent with Leica’s economy of design, the bottom of the battery is flush with the camera body, no cover is needed.  Also, when it comes time for charging, a compact wall wart plugs directly into the lithium pack, no dock needed.  During testing, I was very impressed with the S2’s battery life, which is certainly one design element more in the 35mm camp than the 645.

Function

As the design suggests, shooting the Leica S2 is an experience somewhere between 35mm and 645 photography.  The body is comfortable to hold, nicely weighty without being a burden.  It offers quick feedback and access to settings without feeling computer-driven or overly digital.  It is, I think, the most refreshingly uncomplicated photographic tool I’ve used in a long time.  It is easy to hold steady and comfortable for all-day shooting, a remarkable achievement for a camera with a 45 mm-wide sensor.

When holding the S2, the large shutter speed dial falls not too far from the position of the front control wheels of many other DSLRs.  It makes for easy exposure adjustments while shooting.  The control ranges from 8 s to 1/4000 s and has 1/3-stop detentes between the marked settings.  Settings are shown on the top OLED screen and in the viewfinder and the control includes a Bulb mode and Auto mode.

The rear control dial controls aperture while shooting.  It turns with firm precision and switches between manual and automatic aperture control when pressed (it doubles as a button).  Uniquely, and because the camera doesn’t have a familiar exposure mode control, exposure mode is a result of setting individual controls instead of setting one big one.  Place both the shutter speed ring and aperture wheel in Auto, and the camera is in Program mode (a “P” appears on the top screen).  Switch to a shutter speed setting and the camera is in Shutter Speed Priority, and vise-versa with the aperture control wheel.  It’s smart and easy, and works well.

Speaking of the top screen, it is an informative and direct display, nicely free of cryptic icons, instead listing key exposure and shooting information concisely and with functional style.  On our two test cameras, though, the screen was difficult to read, and nearly impossible to see in sunlight.  It seems too small and inadequately contrasty for clear feedback in a wide range of light.

In contrast to the top screen, the rear LCD screen is excellent.  Compared to other medium format cameras, it is the first camera LCD I’d consider letting a client see.  It is decisively more useful, in determining image focus and color, than the screens of recently reviewed Hasselblads and Mamiyas.  It also has a nice neutrality, not boosting contrast and saturation (leading to disappointment later) like some 35mm DSLRs.

Navigating images, including zoom level and file info, is made less intuitive by the camera’s scarcity of input devices.  With a little practice, though, it becomes acceptably quick.  Immediately following capture, the camera grinds for a couple seconds on the latest file, leaving menus and zoom unavailable.  It is useful, though, that the camera can be set to show a full-screen preview of the latest capture while the process is running.

The camera has useful menus that are functionally designed for clarity and organization.  They aren’t pretty, but work well and distract little.  I’d like to the ability to add copyright information to EXIF data, an oddly missing feature on a professional camera.  It’s especially useful considering the S2 is capable of generating JPGs that might go straight to clients to proofing (most medium format systems are limited to RAW files, which will inevitably pass through some sort of post processing).

I typically shoot almost always in Manual Exposure Mode (old habit, I guess) but enjoyed letting the S2 pick aperture and shutter speed settings.  It does a good job and allows for various exposure area settings (spot, center, and average metering).  We had the S2 set up so a long press on the lower-right LCD button brought up an exposure compensation scale, with adjustments made using the thumb wheel.

The lower-left LCD button was set up as a short cut to an ISO menu, allowing settings from 80-1250 and an auto option.  The S2 is the first camera I’ve used with its own scale of ISO numbers (and aperture settings for that matter).  You might get a kick out of seeing numbers like ISO 160 or aperture f2.5.

Leica has a history of quick-operating and discrete cameras.  The S2 is as close to both as medium format has ever come.  Aside from a prominent, white “L E I C A” on its brow, the camera is cool and covert for a 40 MP mega camera.  It’s wonderfully utilitarian and un-flashy.  On “high” volume, its mutable autofocus tone is barely audible.  The shutter has a smooth, unassuming sound.  As the loudest such control in contemporary photography, however, the clacking rear control wheel and clicky LCD buttons are somewhat out of character.

Leica has a history of quick-operating and discrete cameras.  The S2 is as close to both as medium format has ever come… the camera is cool and covert for a 40 MP mega camera.

Speaking of the the camera’s few quibbles, from time to time, I changed shutter and aperture settings inadvertently.  It was an irritant when working with strobes or in the studio, where going above 1/125 s kills the strobe light for non-CS lenses (1/125 s is the strobe sync limit of the camera body’s focal plane shutter).  Compared to 645-format cameras, which typically make it one step more difficult to change exposure settings, the Leica S2 feels more eager, which is great most of the time.  During a natural light portrait shoot, for example, it was liberating to move with my subject, rolling wheels to account for the direction of light, and never having to look down at the camera.

One way in which the camera does not vary from traditional 645-format photography is in the area of autofocus.  The Leica S2 has a single central point, like the Hasselblad H4D.  Mamiya offers three with the Mamiya/Phase One 645DF, Pentax offers 11 with the 645D, and most high end 35mm cameras offer at least 30.  Multi point vs. single point autofocus is a topic I’ve discussed in depth before, most recently during my On Location review of the H4D-40.  Hasselblad has long defended the single-point choice as more accurate, fast, and professional, claiming off-center AF sites to be less of all those things.  Also, cameras that capture the incredible resolution of the Leica S2 or H4D-40, and with the shallow depth of focus delivered by the large format, must be very very good with autofocus.

So how good is the autofocus of the Leica S2?  I’ll bring a full field-tested report during part two: On Location with The Lieca S2.  Check back in two weeks!  We’ll also discuss tethered shooting with the S2, which includes the handy ability to shoot directly to Adobe Lightroom.

I’ll also save the in-depth image quality discussion for the dedicated article it deserves, but can say the Leica is capable of creating stunning medium format files, with depth of focus, detail, and color clarity to match.  Among medium format competitors, it is particularly strong in the area of color, more Leaf than Hasselblad, with a natural punch that I really like.  The camera’s files are free of over-neutrality, with natural saturation and contrast that make files look good, even right out of camera.  It has good auto white balance and surprisingly clean files, in terms of noise, right up to its top setting, ISO 1250.  In terms of ISO performance, it is very good for the medium format.

Leica S2 Market Position

Currently, The Leica S2 sells for $23,000, body only (a $28,000 version adds sturdier LCD/OLED glass and a “Platinum Service Package”).  The system’s standard Summarit-S 70mm f/2.5 ASPH lens costs $5,000, $6,000 in CS form.  Photographers are therefore considering a minimum investment of $28,000.

Hasselblad’s H4D-40 (reviewed here) currently costs about $20,000 with a lens.  The S2 is closer in price to Hasselblad’s 50 MP H4D-50 that costs $30,000 with a lens.  From Mamiya, photographers would be comparing the 33 MP, $21,000 DM33 or 56 MP, $32,000 DM56, both with re-branded Leaf Aptus-II backs.

Phase One has recently announced the S2’s newest medium format competition, the IQ digital back series, including the “entry level” IQ140, a 40 MP version that will be close to the S2 in price, resolution, and sensor size and mount to the Phase One/Mamiya 645DF camera body.  Uniquely, the new IQ series include LCD touch screens that borrow heavily from the Apple iPhone interface (Phase One is even using the description “retina display”).

There are also more affordable medium format options, the Hasselblad H4D-31 and the Pentax 645D are worth a look and, combined, cost less than the S2/70mm combination.

Systems at this level are much too complex for simple comparisons, and each has its own portfolio of strengths and applications.  The Leica S2, though, is pretty unique.  It’s likely to appeal to portrait and fashion photographers who need both high resolution and flexible capture and a quick camera.  It is also a nice fit for landscape shooters who will benefit by a relatively compact design and a weather-sealed camera.  It’s a more travel-friendly and robust camera than any listed above, which is a sure selling point for documentary and travel work requiring the camera’s distinctly more-than-35mm imaging abilities.

The S2 has some limitations when compared to less expensive high-end 35mm cameras.  It doesn’t shoot video or offer live view.  It won’t shoot multiple frames per second or grab grainy images in the dark using outrageously high ISO.  Compared to cameras from Canon, Nikon, Sony, Olympus, or Pentax, the Leica S2 is a very simple photographer’s camera, capable of delivering image quality on a higher level and rewarding careful and practiced use.

Selling Points

The Leica S2 is a remarkable and historically significant camera.  The company is charging a premium, to be certain, but is blazing new ground that will, we can hope, have influence on other camera makers.  The camera delivers medium format image quality, courtesy of a 45mm-wide sensor and killer set of lenses and does so in an easy-to-use, fun-to-shoot body.  The body, ergonomics, control interface, and optional vertical grip are sure selling points.  The camera also offers stable and reinforced computer tethering, capture to SD or CF cards, great battery life, flexible DNG/JPG file output, and useful weather-sealing.  It’s a luxuriously well-made camera with uniquely simple and direct controls and image quality output to compete with the industry’s best.

Considerations

As a new, built-from-the-ground-up system, Leica is still in the process of adding lenses and accessories.  Many competitors have a clear head start.  Leica is also in the process of building rental options, an important consideration for professionals.  Compared to traditional 645 systems, the camera’s lack of a detachable back means no view camera option or waist-level finder, and limited interchangeable parts.  The Mamiya DM33 digital back we reviewed last month, by contrast, can be mounted to a Mamiya RZ camera, Phase One 645DF camera, or a number of tech cameras.

Leica, however, appears to be invested in and committed to the S-system, and I expect it to grow into one of photography’s premier product lines.  Leica has already offered regular firmware and software updates (even firmware updates for lenses).  I’d also like to see the company publish a clear “buy-back” or “upgrade” option to keep professionals using the latest and greatest and to affirm their investment in the company.  Leica has already done so on a small scale, initially offering photographers non-CS lenses and an upgrade to CS lenses when available for only the difference in sales cost (which equates to something like a free equipment loan).


Conclusion

The Leica S2 is a remarkable camera, setting a new precedent for simple and direct ergonomics and controls, especially noteworthy considering the camera’s enormous sensor, 16-bit capture, and world class optical performance.  It offers photographers medium format image quality from a comfortable camera body built with new economy of design and without film-era baggage.

It’s an expensive system and depends on Leica’s continued support in the form of new lenses and accessories, accessible upgrades, rental support, etc.  If it gains traction, the Leica S2 stands a very good chance of earning a spot on the time line of photographic history (something Leica has done before).

In two upcoming articles, we’ll discuss the experience of shooting on location with the Leica S2 and take a close look at the camera’s image quality.

On Location with the Leica S2

Image Quality and the Leica S2 (coming soon!)

Product Page Links, Samy’s Camera

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Price check, order info, Leica S2 at Samy’s Camera

Leica 70mm f/2.5 ASPH Summarit-S Lens

Leica 70mm f/2.5 ASPH Summarit-S CS Lens

Leica 180mm f/3.5 APO Tele-Elmar-S Lens

Leica 180mm f/3.5 APO Tele-Elmar-S CS Lens

Leica 120mm f/3.5 APO Macro Summarit-S Lens

Leica 120mm f/3.5 APO Macro Summarit-S CS Lens

Leica 35mm f/2.5 ASPH Summarit-S Lens

Leica 35mm f/2.5 ASPH Summarit-S CS Lens

Image Slideshow
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by Matt Beardsley – all photography, unless otherwise noted, by Matt Beardsley (online portfolio here).

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