The UK launch for the “Midi Format” Leica S2 last November was very busy, with a mixture of the technical press and hardened Leicanistas all salivating at the prospect of finally getting their hands on a camera that had come as a complete surprise when it was announced a year earlier. I felt privileged to be the first journalist to try it out, getting three hours to form some first impressions, and I fell in love at first sight.
Now that I’ve had the chance to really investigate it on an extended loan, I can offer a more balanced judgement. It has both hidden strengths and weaknesses.
On the one hand it’s a very unusual camera because it pioneers a completely new format. At 30×45mm it retains the much-loved Leica 3×2 ratio, itself a refreshing change from the dumpy 6×7 format. Its fully integrated body design employs a highly sensitive 37.5 megapixel sensor with 6µ pixel wells, designed by Kodak with Leica specifically for the S2. But having the sensor entombed in the body seems to preclude any chance of higher resolutions in the future – although at 7500×5000 pixels, the image size is probably big enough. In fact, the sensor almost exactly replicates the “ultimate” sensor I postulated about in a paper written for Leaf back in 1995.
With this bulk and these sensor dimensions the S2 is clearly not built like a conventional DSLR, and yet it’s very good at doing what they do. In particular, it was a delight to use for environmental portraits.
In my first look at it last year (BJP, 25 November), I wrote that the “S2 is shaped like a traditional 35mm SLR that has been on a short course of steroids”, adding that the new format offers a capture area nearly 60% larger than current Canons or Nikons, and only 26% smaller than sensors available in the Hasselblad (36×48mm). That was accurate, but it didn’t really convey the S2’s feel. The ergonomics are excellent, and although chunky, the camera fits right in with the concept of a hand-held, go-anywhere medium format DSLR camera.
The surfaces are tactile and “sticky” enough for a solid grip, and manual focusing movements on the lens are so sweet they should probably be taxed. Turning it sideways for vertical shots works just fine too. The S2 is noticeably heavy though, and last time I said a neck strap would be essential. This time Leica kindly provided one and it was a godsend.
At the launch at Leica’s new studio above its store in Mayfair, the S2 proved its worthiness for studio portraiture, fashion and advertising work, where flash will reveal the true quality of its lenses. The file size (an eight-bit RGB TIFF is ±107MB) makes it ideal for such work and the rate of fire (1.5 raw images per second) is adequate. It doesn’t approach the giddy height of nine or 10 raw frames per second possible with a Canon EOS 1D Mk IV or a Nikon D3, but surely few photographers require 10×107MB of images per second?
From the Leica Digital Module–R to the M8, the M9 and now the S2, Leica has championed Adobe’s .dng format, an “open” cross-platform standard that retains all the information captured by a sensor and which can be read by all mainstream processing software. Regular readers will know how much I deplore proprietary camera file formats and it is entirely due to Thomas Knoll’s irritation with early Canon software that Adobe Camera Raw got written in the first place, and which later became the basis of Lightroom, that most seamless of workflow solutions.
With both a Compact Flash and an SD card slot, Leica is to be commended for adopting the Adobe file format, which converts the raw data from the sensor in-camera, whilst simultaneously writing very high quality JPEGs to the second card. This allows you share your JPEGs to get approvals, for example, while keeping the raws to get the highest possible quality during post-processing.
The use of the .dng file format makes it simple to shoot tethered, straight from the S2 camera to a computer running Adobe Lightroom. Using Leica’s own software package, Image Shuttle, pictures appear in the Lightroom window approximately two seconds after capture. Image Shuttle also allows full control of the camera from the keyboard.
I have to declare an interest here. My first serious pictures were taken with a Leica 3f, which I bought when I was 18 with money hard earned on a holiday job assisting Harvey Harrison, a veteran film cameraman. Since then I have owned (and had stolen) a pair of 8×40 Leitz binoculars, enjoyed an extended flirtation with an M6 and reviewed the Leica Modul-R digital back, which I thought was wonderful, but flawed. If my career had veered towards photojournalism, not luxury travel and gourmet food, I would have used Leicas. The sheer quality of the engineering and finish mark out everything Leica makes. The S2 is no exception. Whatever you think of the cost of a Leica – especially this one – you are buying something that will last a very long time.
The S2 camera was loaned to me with the standard 70mm f/2.5 lens and the 180mm f/3.4 tele – the only two lenses currently available. Two other lenses are in production at the moment, a 35mm f/2.5 and a 120mm f/2.5 For the near future, Leica promises a 35mm tilt-and-shift.
The S2 lenses are remarkable for three things. First is their fast aperture across the range, with most boasting a prime aperture of f/2.5. Second, some will shortly be available with leaf shutters, offering higher shutter speeds for flash synchronisation (1/500s as against ¹⁄125s with the metal bladed, Leica-designed focal plane shutter). Select the flash synchro function on the camera body, either “FPS” (focal plane) or “CS” (for Compur), and the S2 body will detect whether a bladed shutter is fitted to the lens in use and warn accordingly. When these lenses arrive they will make life much easier for anyone working with flash outdoors or in bright ambient conditions. And third and most importantly, the whole range of lenses has been optimised for the Kodak sensor.
In terms of sheer resolution, stopping down doesn’t make much difference to sharpness with the 70mm. It was extremely sharp at full aperture and that was the end of it. Ian Farrell, a freelance photographer based in Cambridge who has worked with Leica during the launch of the S2, tells me that the company has made a full length studio shot where it’s possible to see the subject’s contact lenses.
The 180mm proved to be an excellent portrait lens used with studio flash, but I had
trouble holding it steady at modest speeds. The extremely smooth shutter and mirror action helped though, and I suspect that the 120mm f/2.5 will prove to be an absolute honey for environmental portraits, especially at or near its full aperture.
Autofocus is fast and very accurate. However, the single AF target area is minute. If the camera is not aimed exactly at the point where focus is required then it just does what it does, focusing on an ear instead of an eye or the background space between two heads. An autofocus lock is located right next to the ocular, with the button convenient to the right thumb, but multi-point AF targets are way off in the future.
The focusing screen itself is so bright and fine-grained that manual focusing is very straightforward. Live view would make a big difference in the studio and once experienced soon becomes the critical focusing method of choice. Digital capture is utterly unforgiving and the Leica lens quality is so high that the very least hint of missed focusing will certainly show up at 100%.
A generous three-inch TFT screen, whose 460,000 pixels display 16-bit colour, covers much of the back of the S2, flanked by four rocker tabs that access most (but not all) of menu-driven functions such as white balance, ISO settings, card formatting and so on. To the right of the top cover an analogue dial sets shutter speeds for manual exposure modes. A thumb wheel just to the rear of this dial is turned and/or pressed inwards to confirm menu settings (and much else besides). A rubber covered panel on the left of the body houses the USB 2 connection socket for tethered shooting. To the right a hinged cover gives access to dual slots that accept CF and/or SD cards.
It took a while to get used to it but I came to like the double action of the control wheel, which is turned to scroll through menus then pressed inwards to make a selection or confirm a choice. The same wheel is used to scroll through images on the rear LCD, and once an image is selected it is magnified by turning the wheel further. Colour (recorded in Adobe RGB) is excellent straight off the chip, though I found the auto white balance settings very twitchy. Preset white balances proved accurate, but since the .dng raw file format preserves all the data, rebalancing wonky interpretations was simple.
Even at the maximum sensitivity of ISO 1250 of the Kodak sensor, both noise and Moiré are extremely well suppressed by the S2’s high speed Maestro processing chip. There seems to be no need or provision for chromatic aberration corrections, because the 70mm and 180mm lenses that I used apparently don’t have any such nasty habits.
In terms of the choice of focal lengths, the S2 is trudging gamely into the foothills, with only four lenses announced, only two of which are currently available. The infant Leica S2 system lags far behind Hasselblad and Phase One/Mamiya (with more than 10 focal lengths each) and is completely out of sight of Canon and Nikon systems with more than 60 focal lengths each (never mind the third-party offerings from Zeiss, Sigma, Tamron and others). The next lenses due are the 35mm f/2.5 and the 120mm f/2.5, with the tilt-and-shift muted for later on. The 35mm f/2.5 is really needed right now for any kind of working outfit.
For the photographer shooting only weddings and portraiture, 70mm and 180mm might just be enough. The results themselves are exceptional, matching the superb mechanical build of the camera.
Roll on the advent of the next focal lengths, which will make the golden promise of this system into a viable solution for those who care about, and can afford, the ultimate image quality. Right now, as the saying goes “one swallow does not a summer make”.
Leica S2 pricing
Leica S2 - £16,740
Leica S2-P - £19,980
70mm f/2.5 SUMMARIT-S £3,375
180mm f/3.5 Apo-Tele-ELMAR-S £4,752
35mm f/2.5 SUMMARIT-S £3,780
120mm f/2.5 Apo-MACRO-Summarit £4,752
Pro charger (twin battery charging unit) £270
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