On Location with The Leica S2
As a new player in photography’s highest bracket, the Leica S2 is a compelling option for high end and professional photographers. It promises to take the spectacular image quality virtues of medium format digital photography and make it much more accessible in a wonderfully simple, intuitive, and travel-friendly package, not to mention a brand new line of lenses from one of the optical world’s finest. Even compared to the pricey products of companies like Hasselblad, Mamiya, Leaf, and Phase One, however, Leica is charging a premium. But, as international fashion photographer and recent Leica S2 convert, Chiun-Kai Shih (aka “Chunky”) told us in an interview last week (read it, here), it just feels like a 35mm in your hands and is so chic.
It’s not just Chunky; the camera is finding a following for the ways in which it differs from established systems. Built from the ground up as a digital body, it is the first camera with a medium format sized sensor to throw off the chunky design basics of medium format film cameras (the S2 CCD measures 30×45 mm, or shorter but just as wide as most current cropped-sensor 645 cameras). Compared even to high-end 35mm cameras, it makes a bold design statement with a strikingly uncomplicated interface.
In our first article on the S2, we took a close look at the camera’s design and competition (here, Introduction: The Leica S2). In part three, we’ll take a close look at the $23,000 camera’s image quality. Today, though, we’ll talk about the good times of actually taking the chic new camera out in the field.
Read on for part 2, On Location with the Leica S2:
On Location with The Leica S2
It’s a comfortable camera to use, immediately. Often, when being introduced to more traditional medium format systems, photographers will be warned by which parts to not hold the camera. For example, the battery grip on an H camera has been known to pop off or the prism finder on an RZ is not made to support the camera’s weight. No such NO STEP zones on the S2, it’s one smooth expanse of rubberized metal with ample room for both hands and with no loose parts to jettison.
Design Highlights – The controls of the Leica have quickly became second nature. It’s easier to learn than practically any other DSLR on the market. I love the viewfinder which, while not the world’s most informative, offers a bright, sprawling view of the scene and basic data in clear brevity. A plus-shaped crosshairs at center frame makes placing the autofocus point directly where it needs to be a no-brainer. The S2 packs dual card slots, one CF and one SD. I enjoyed using SD cards directly with a MacBook Pro for field proofing and using both slots for shooting DNGs and JPGs simultaneously (during one studio shoot, we ran on-the-spot proof prints from a Canon photo printer with an SD slot, reviewed here). The camera is very well built. with metal, glass, and rubber working together for something that feels permanent, not digital. And, best of all, the big German gun puts out very pretty files.
Controls – It has an on-0ff switch with two “on” positions, one for leaf shutters and one for the camera body’s focal plane shutter. Photographers familiar with systems like the Mamiya RZ or Hasselblad H will appreciate the high flash sync speed of Leica’s leaf shutters (called CS or “Central Shutter” lenses). Unlike those cameras, though, the S2 offers the advantage of camera body mounted focal plane shutters too: a wide range of shutter speed options (topping out, in this case, at 1/4000 s). I look forward to future tests with CS lenses as they become available in the U.S.
The body has a traditional-looking shutter speed wheel that, in a brilliant and un-convential way, falls where the front control wheel on many cameras would be. The wheel has 1/3 stop detentes between marked whole stops as well as an “A” setting for automatically-controlled shutter speed (Shutter Priority or Program Mode, depending on the camera’s aperture setting). The rear control wheel is a firm-clicking aperture control that falls in a very familiar place. Uniquely, it can be pressed as well as turned, to switch between automatic and manual aperture control.
Besides the two wheels, the camera offers an AE-lock button and aperture preview button. By customize-able default, the AE-button swaps to an AF button when the camera is set to manual focus, allowing shooters to focus manually with an easily accessible auto override. (And, as we’ll soon discuss, that became my favorite focus setting on the Leica).
…the camera has proved to be very reliable and easy to use, with consistent results and excellent shooting comfort. It is extremely well made, sturdy, and feels reassuringly like a tool made for rugged all-day use every day…
The S2’s rear LCD screen is surrounded with four large buttons that, in addition to navigating the camera’s menus, can be set to control various camera settings with a long push. The camera’s top right LCD button engages image playback. Our demo camera was set up with the other buttons controlling ISO, drive mode, and exposure compensation. The keys are held for a second or two to bring up options that are adjusted with the thumb wheel and selected with a thumb wheel press. In the field, the interface works well. It reminds me of the Hot Buttons on Pentax digital cameras. It becomes second nature to quickly set things like ISO, and it’s nice to avoid twisting the camera for a look at the top screen, where such functions are often relegated.
The interface works very well with only the small quibble that navigating images, once zoomed, is initially less intuitive than four-way rockers found on many cameras. Navigation works with the thumb wheel switching between X and Y axises when the top left LCD button is held. Pressing the thumb wheel switches between navigation and zoom level.
The interface is clean and intuitive for navigating menus and camera options. It’s a nicely succinct set of options that maintains the camera’s overall dedication to design simplicity, economy of design, and profession output. Breadth and depth of the menu system is more Hasselblad/Imacon or Phase One than it is Leaf, Nikon, Canon, or Pentax, which is to say: short and sweet, with just what you need for recording photos. As a whole, in fact, the camera feels as non-digital as any (digital) camera I’ve used. It feels purposeful and uncomplicated, which, during testing, was encouragement to focus on my subjects. The S2 fulfills its marketing promise: “the photographer can now focus on taking pictures rather than on the technology.”
During my testing, the camera proved to be very reliable and easy to use, with consistent results and excellent shooting comfort. It is extremely well made, sturdy, and feels reassuringly like a tool made for rugged all-day use every day, more so than any camera at any price point.
Autofocus and the S2 Lenses
Autofocus - How good is the autofocus of the Leica S2? It has a cross-hairs at center frame that makes placing the point on an eye or landscape element precise, more precise than with many competitors. It grabs focus with consistent and spot-on accuracy, with reasonable speed, and can make quick sense of a variety of textures, motion, contrast, and light level. Before the H4D and 645DF, it would have been medium format’s best; now, it is right on par with competitors, and perhaps gives up a bit of ground to Hasselblad’s True Focus system. Compared to Nikon or Canon, the S2 is very precise and inclined more to accuracy than speed, though, like all medium format cameras, it feels slow and basic. Photographers moving up from a D3X or 5DII will have to adjust.
As mentioned above, the camera’s manual focus setting, by default, allows AF intervention with a press of the AE-L button. It’s a smart setting I used frequently, letting the camera snap off frames with no delay once focus is achieved. Conversely, when in autofocus mode, just grab the focus ring to override the AF (photographers used to 35mm gear might have to practice the old manual focus skills!)
Leica’s Newest Glass - The lenses of the S2 system are as strikingly free of buttons and switches as is the S2 camera body, and just as beautifully-made. Like lenses of Hasselblad’s H series, The S system lenses have only a focus ring, and a ring that doesn’t turn with AF, but overrides AF lock with a turn. Clean, modern, and ultra-smooth, they are very comfortable and wonderfully easy to use. The lens barrels can be comfortably held and offer an attractive glass-windowed distance scale. I’m really impressed with the sharpness, color rendering, and low distortion of the 35mm, 70mm, and 120mm that I was able to test. The size of the lenses is a good ergonomic and balance match to the S2 body, especially, in my hands, with the S2’s optional battery grip installed. With interchangeable systems, lenses are the more lasting investment compared to digital camera bodies, and with the S-system, photographers will be confidently buying into a very high quality kit.
Available Lenses – The S system, as currently described on Leica’s Website, includes four lenses, available with or without CS leaf shutters: 35mm f2.5, 70mm f2.5, 120mm f2.5, and a 180mm f3.5. Though it’s a good range and likely to meet the need of many shooters, it’s a work in progress, with no third-party or used options. (Adapters for Hasselblad V lenses and others are schedule to become available this month.) As described during the camera’s initial announcements, Leica has plans to introduce a 24mm and a unique (to medium format) 30mm tilt-shift lens (Hasselblad offers a tilt shift adapter that works with an impressively wide range of lens, but that also multiplies focal length). Leica has also shown prototypes of a 100 mm lens and a 30-90 mm zoom lens.
One minor issue: I’d like to see Leica rethink the hoods of these new lenses. The velvety-lined box-shaped plastic hoods provide excellent shade to front elements and add minimal weight to the overall system (which is a nice photographer-friendly consideration). Two of the three demo lenses, however, were showing drastic signs of wear, including cracks and finicky, worn-out connections. The statuesque camera body and lens barrel is a beautiful combination, sculpted in brass, rubber, and glass, calling for more design and materials attention paid to the hoods. The system lens caps are smarter, with strategically placed rubber for fingertip grip and a familiar spring-loaded closing mechanism.
As when capturing on chips in other very high resolution cameras, it takes practice and attention to technique to take full advantage of the Leica S2’s 37.5 MP CCD sensor. Barely perceptible camera shake and variation in focus can spell the difference between astonishing detail and a slight fuzz. Indeed, to take full advantage of this degree of detail may well take tools and tricks familiar to medium format shooters but forgotten by photographers used to snappy and relatively low-resolution 35mm gear, tools like mirror lock up, heavy tripods, and studio strobes. The S2’s autofocus and lenses are certainly up to the challenge and delivered stunningly crisp images from every test shoot.
Tethered Studio Shooting and the Leica S2
Though other reviewers have taken issue the with Leica’s computer interface, tethering is one aspect of the S2 I consider to be a strength and a selling point for the system. The camera uses a USB connection with a proprietary plug on the camera end. It’s a tough, metal plug that fits in snuggly and locks in place with a retracting collar. (Though I didn’t try it, Leica reps have been known to lift the camera by the USB cord.) The camera’s connection has a little cushioning to allow the plug to flex and the assembly has a nicely tough feel to it. For a photo of the plug, see our introduction to the Leica S2, here.
When compared to the Firewire 800 plug on cameras like the Leaf Aptus II-7 back we reviewed last month (on the Mamiya RZ33, reviewed here), the USB connection is a beat slower to transfer files. It’s quick though, especially with the S2’s new lossless DNG compression enabled, and offers the interesting advantage of direct tethering to Adobe Lightroom (which, by the way, Leica includes with the camera). Using Lightroom’s tethered capture option, files are imported, processed according to a chosen preset, organized by folder, and previewed on screen in just a few seconds, and it’s a very stable connection. The camera’s DNG files work well in Lightroom or Capture One and, unlike most medium format digital files, are not proprietary. Considering the vast software head start of Adobe and Phase One, and the challenges faced by Hasselblad with the Phocus software, Leica has made a smart decision to digitally design the S2 to partner well with Lightroom’s established toolset. Though the lenses have as little distortion as any I’ve seen, I’d like to see support for lens corrections and camera calibration added in Lightroom.
Editor’s Note: Phase One has recently introduced photography’s first USB 3 with the upcoming IQ series of digital backs (introduced, here). Leica may well be planning to start slightly behind to end up ahead by committing to USB and not firewire. Perhaps we’ll someday see a USB 3.0 upgrade from Leica.
Initial Image Quality Observations
Part three of our S2 review will be dedicated in full to the camera’s image quality, but in the meantime, it’s worth noting that the camera puts out some excellent files. I especially like Leica’s approach to color and contrast. The camera hits a great balance of saturation and smooth tonal transitions, looking both very natural and bold. The files are extremely flexible for post processing and handle generous doses of sharpening, contrast, color adjustment, and saturation.
Photographers using the Leica S2 will be pleased with results, especially when shooting the camera with medium format technique, which is to say carefully composed and lit photos with a well-steadied camera. Check back soon for our in-depth analysis.
The Leica S2 is a comfortable and very well-made camera that is consistently well engineered for quick operating and minimal distraction while shooting. It has smart and simplified controls, both physically and digitally and delivers a uniquely un-complicated experience, especially considering its very high resolution capture. By my testing, the camera performs every aspect of professional imaging very well, including precise autofocus, exposure, color balance, and computer tethering. The S2 has very good battery life, useful weather-sealing, and offers an expanding line of accessories, including a comfortable and wiggle-free vertical battery grip and world class lenses. Its files are big, flexible, and ideally balanced in terms of saturation and contrast. Combined with the three S system lenses we used for testing (the 35mm, the 70mm and the 120mm) the camera captures stunningly sharp detail.
Of course there are less expensive options on the market, though none that have the Leica S2’s blend of comfortable, easy operation and high resolution. Also, more traditionally-designed digital back and camera body combos offer the advantage to separate components, for sensor cleaning or use on view cameras. Photographers considering investing in a system like the S2 now have Phase One’s newest line of digital backs to consider (see our recent introduction of the IQ180, here). The IQ back keeps the traditional box-on-box medium format formula, and an aging camera body at that, but adds the interface and resolution of Apple’s iPhone, as well as up to 80 MP of resolution that can be quartered using the company’s Sensor+ technology (the 80 MP version makes the S2 look like a bargain, but the 40 MP version due late this spring, the IQ140 is competitively priced). Phase One/Mamiya also offers the only other hybrid leaf shutter/focal plan shutter system on the market.
The Leica S2, with unmatched build quality, weather-sealing, smart interface design, an expanding line of very good lenses, and medium format resolution, is hard to beat for the location shooter demanding top-tier image quality. I very much enjoyed shooting it in the studio and on location. It is comfortable, intuitive, and puts out files with great color, contrast, and detail. For photographers considering a medium format capture system, Leica should find a spot on the short list, and, more likely than not, it’ll be the list’s most chic shooter!
Part Three: Image Quality and the Leica S2 (Coming soon)
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Images 2-5, of the diver, are variations of the same file, displaying color processed and traditionally-processed versions, as well as roughly 100% crops of both (the traditionally-processed version has been heavily sharpened in NIK CEP and Lightroom, the un-processed crop is un-sharpened). Image 14, a late twilight photo of San Francisco’s sky line, was taken by Chris Bjuland. In the images are: musician, August Lee Collins, Oakland CA; commercial diver, Chris Moyer, San Francisco, CA; musician, Eric Gilbert, Berkeley, CA; and Joey and Matthew Beardsley (author’s sons).
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by Matt Beardsley – all photography, unless otherwise noted, by Matt Beardsley