Medium Format Redefined
In mid-August, 2009, I was invited to join a small group of journalist on a visit with Leica at their headquarters in Solms, Germany. The purpose was to preview two new cameras, the M9 and S2 – the X1 was a last minute surprise. We were able to spend time shooting with the S2 and M9 and also had unprecedented access to Leica's executives, product development team, and engineers over a three day period.
We were each given an S2 camera body and access to a selection of lenses for a full day. We spent the morning at a commercial studio with a model, and the afternoon hiking around the countryside and a nearby castle shooting whatever we wished.
Because the S2 at that point was still some 5–6 weeks from shipping there were still changes due for the firmware, and so it isn't possible to be definitive about every aspect of the camera and lens' performance.
Over the three days Leica was extremely forthcoming about all of their new products. We met with a wide range of executives, including the CEO, department heads, product managers, design engineers, and project leaders.
One of the other photographer / journalists on the trip to Leica was Sean Reid of Reid Reviews. I urge you to visit Sean's site and read his perspective on this camera. His is a subscription site, but his camera and lens reviews are among the best in the business, written by a working photographer rather than a technologist.
My S2 system review is featured below.
Why The S2?
A medium format digital Leica! Who'd of thunk?
Leica's forte for the past 75+ years has been the 35mm rangefinder camera, and the new Leica M9 is the current pinnacle of that evolutionary process.
But for many decades Leica has also made the R series SLR. Many photographers loved these beasts, especially because of the superb R series lenses, which brought much of Leica's M series glass excellence to the single lens reflex.
In 2005 Leica produced the DMR module which turned the R8 and R9 into a 10 Megapixel DSLR. It made an already big camera even bigger, and wasn't state of the art image-quality-wise, even then. But if you owned a bag full of Leica R glass and had an R8 or R9 body, it was one solution.
Whatever strengths the R series had, and it had many, it lacked autofocus, and this alone was enough to make it an also-ran in the competative marketplace, especially against the Canon and Nikon juggernauts. Those two companies make more cameras in a day that Leica makes in a year, and there was no way that a small company like Leica could or even can now compete in the 35mm DSLR arena.
With this as background, a few years ago Leica decided that rather than try and go head-to-head with the big two in their own back yard, they would bring their expertise to bear on the medium format digital market instead.
By the way – there is a very convincing looking image of a Leica R10 floating around the net. I can tell you definitively though that it is a fake. At this time there are absolutely no plans for any more R cameras from Leica. They are putting their DSLR eggs in the S2 basket.
The template, if you will, for the S2 is the Mamiya ZD camera – a self-contained MF DSLR. But that's about as far as the comparison should go, because the S2 owes nothing to the ZD in terms of design or capability.
The basics of the S2's design brief are as follows...
- A 37.5 Megapixel Kodak CCD sensor measuring 30X45mm. This offers a 3:2 aspect ratio, the same as 35mm.
- A 6 micron pixel pitch, the same as the Phase One P65+'s sensor
- 1.5 frames / second shooting rate (impressive for a sensor of this size)
- Autofocus lenses
- Dual shutter system; a focal plane shutter and also a range of lenses with leaf shutters (CS)
- 16 bit files – DNG format raws and in-camera JPGs (according to Leica true 16 bit, not 14 bit padded to fill a 16 bit space)
- ISO 100 – 1600
- Weather sealed construction – both body and lenses
- Ships with full Adobe Lightroom 2.4
No one doubts Leica's expertise in designing and building both cameras and lenses. They are a world leader in both disciplines. When it comes to the digital side of the equation though Leica has had to rely on other companies for expertise. This has included Phase One in the past, and now, with the M9, Jenoptik.
But, with the S2 project Leica has developed all of the expertise required for the digital side in-house. With Fujitsu as the foundry they have designed and produced their own camera ASIC, the Maestro chip, which provides all of the high speed processing required for pulling the analog data off the sensor and transferring it to the memory card as a raw file or JPG. The Maestro chip is Leica equivalent of the Canon Digic 4, Nikon EXPEED, or Sony Bionz.
The S2 body is a joy to handle. Remarkably, it houses a sensor that is 56% larger than full frame 35mm but in a body that is actually smaller and lighter than a Canon 1Ds MKIII or Nikon D3x.
There is an elegant simplicity to the S2's body. The top panel has just a shutter speed dial, a shutter release and a small status LCD. Well, actually it's an OLED, and is a remarkable bit of eye candy. It is the brightest and clearest screen that I've ever seen in medium to low light levels. Unfortunately in direct sunlight it washes out and becomes almost unreadable, forcing one to shade it with ones body or hand. Leica is aware of the issue and is looking at how it might be improved.
The rear of the camera again is a model of simplicity and elegance. At the top left there is a power switch which also selects either the focal plane shutter or, if a CS lens is attached, the lens' leaf shutter, ideal for high speed sync when using flash.
The camera's large LCD is good, but not great. Apparently it was specified a couple of years ago and was state-of-the-art then. But, there are now somewhat better screens available. This is the advantage that companies like Canon and Sony have. They have their own internal component suppliers and know what's coming down the pike a lot sooner than their smaller customers.
Be that as it may, the S2's screen is better than that on the Phase One P series backs, and should not present any real difficulty in any light.
Leica has produced what may be the most simple and elegant user interface seen on any digital camera. Taking a page from Phase One's playbook, the S2 has four large button surrounding the rear LCD. These are soft keys and can provide almost any function, depending on how the camera or the user wishes to program them.
For example, the top left button always shows a main menu with a short press, and the top right always shows playback with a short press. The keys can otherwise be easily programmed by the user to provide just about any function.
There are also four settable user profiles, which allows the camera's settings and controls to be user defined. If you make, say, the bottom right button single press call up the User Profile menu then setting the camera to just about any personalized configuration is just two button presses away. Nice!
There is a thumb scroll wheel in the usual position at the top right of the body. It also has a press-in function for making selections. The combination of soft keys and the scrolling wheel only takes a short while to become used to. After a couple of hours I had programmed the camera to be just the way I wanted it (doing this on the fly, and literally as I was shooting in the studio and walking the countryside). Any experienced photographer sitting down with the user manual (there was no manual yet at the time we were testing the S2), will be easily able to "get" and configure the camera in short order.
I've always been a big fan of the simplicity of the Phase One four button soft key approach, and with the S2 Leica has elevated this design paradigm to the next level. Japanese camera makers should really give second thought to their over-buttoned camera bodies and multi-level menu designs. Some recent cameras have more than 40 separate buttons, knobs, switches and levers.
The CS Lens Issue
The first four available lenses, the Summarit-S 35mm f/2.5 ASPH, Summarit-S 70mm f/2.5 ASPH, APO-Macro-Summarit-S 120mm f/2.5 , and APO-Elmar-S 180mm f/3.5 will each be available in both focal plane shutter models and CS models (Central Shutter).
The CS lenses will cost between $1,000 and $1,500 more than the non-CS lenses. They are otherwise identical. This seems entirely reasonable with regard to price.
My only concern is that the CS lenses will not be available until later in the year. This means that anyone wanting to buy an S2 system at launch in September / October will have to buy the non-CS lenses. Not an issue, unless one is a Pro doing studio or location work with flash, where between the lens shutters are preferable. In that case it makes no sense buying the non-CS lenses only to have to take a bath on them when the CS versions come out in some months.
For anyone not needing CS glass this is a non-issue, but needs to be considered by those that do.
The Next Lenses
Announced for the CS system but not yet scheduled for release are five more lenses; an Elmarit-S 24mm f/2.8 ASPH, Vario-Elmar-S 30-90mm f/3.5 ASPH, APO-Tele-Elmar-S 350mm f/3.5, Elmar-S 30mm f/3.5 Tilt-Shift, and Elmarit-S 100mm f/3.5 ASPH.
By the time that all seven lenses are shipping, with four more in CS configuration, the Leica S2 will have a lens compliment that is second to none in terms of range. As for optical quality, if Leica's century-long history as one of the world's great lens makers, the S2's published MTF charts, and my own initial testing are any indications, these may be among the finest photographic lenses ever made.
Click the above image to play a brief video showing a studio
shoot and image evaluation done in Germany in August.
During the one day that I was able to shoot with the S2 I produced about 375 frames. Because the cameras that we used were pre-production, and still some 6 – 8 weeks away from finalization, Leica was concerned that we would discover image quality or operational issues that would not be representative of the final cameras.
The needn't have worried. We were warned that while ISO 100 and 200 were of production quality, higher ISOs weren't, and therefore we restricted our shooting to these speeds. Other than that I saw very little in my files that wasn't exemplary.
But, respecting Leica's concerns about the cameras not being of final quality I will not do any detailed presentation or analysis of image quality. This will have to wait till roughly late September or early October when I can work with a final production camera. At that time I'll also be able to do comparisons with other backs and cameras.
All of this aside, I can tell you that the files that I shot thus far are exceptional, as are the prints which I made when I returned to my studio after the trip. Resolution, colour accuracy (notwithstanding the lack of camera profiles), contrast, and lack of noise are as good if not better than anything that I've seen before from any camera or back with a similar sized sensor.
As soon as I have an opportunity to do more rigorous testing and some competitive comparisons you'll be the first to know.
Here is one example, which I shot in a studio, that will give you some idea of what this sensor and lens combination is capable of. The crop below is at 100%. Only basic processing and minimal capture sharpening have been applied.
NB: Don't confuse the model's mascara and make-up with digital artifacts.
Look at the eyeball.
DNG and Lightroom
The M9, the S2 and the X1 each record their raw files in DNG format. This is a huge plus as it allows the files (at last in theory) to be processed in any raw processing program that one wishes. It also ensures, going forward, that photographers have unrestricted access to their original files and are not at the mercy of a manufacturer orphaning a proprietary file, as has already happened with some companies.
Leica provides with each of these cameras access to a free copy of Adobe Lightroom 2.4. This means that Adobe's Camera Raw for Photoshop will similarly process these files.
As this is being written Lightroom does not ship with custom profiles for the M9, S2, or X1, but since Adobe frequently updates their raw processors for new cameras it is only a matter of a while until these are available. In the meantime one can make ones own using Adobe's free Profile Editor or simply use Lightroom's Camera Calibration tab controls to create a custom colour preset that can be automatically added to all files on import.
Leica is to be commended for supporting open standards in the form of DNG, and for providing a full-featured copy of Lightroom with each camera.
There have been some early reports that Phase One will restrict access to Leica S2 files from within C1. I have queried this directly with the CEO of Phase One and have been told unequivocally that this is not the case, and that Leica S2 files will not by blocked in any way for processing in Capture One.
Of course if you're not expert in Lightroom, this could mean having to learn a new program. To ease the pain you may wish to purchase a 7.5 hours live video tutorial which Jeff Schewe and Michael Reichmann have produced that provides in-depth training on every aspect of this comprehensive editing, cataloging, presentation and printing program.
The announced U.S. prices for the bodies, lenses and extended support packages are as follows. They speak for themselves.
Bodies: (Oct 09)
S2 Camera Body - $22,995
S2-P Body with Sapphire LCD Cover Glass and Platinum Service Package - $27,995
Multi Function Handgrip S - $1,295 (Jan 10)
Battery Charger (spare/extra) - $399
Service Packages for Bodies:
S-Body Premium Service - $1,495
S-Body Platinum Service - $3,795
Summarit-S 70mm f/2.5 ASPH - $4,495 (Oct 09)
Summarit-S 70mm f/2.5 ASPH CS - $5,995 (Nov 09)
APO-Tele-Elmar-S 180mm f/3.5 - $6,495 (Oct 09)
APO-Tele-Elmar-S 180mm f/3.5 CS - $7,495 (Nov 09)
APO-Macro-Summarit-S 120mm f/2.5 - $6,495 (Nov 09)
APO-Macro-Summarit-S 120mm f/2.5 - $7,495 (Nov 09)
Summarit-S 35mm f/2.5 ASPH - $5,295 (Dec 09)
Summarit-S 35mm f/2.5 ASPH CS - $5,995 (Dec 09)
Service Packages for Lenses:
S-Lens Premium Service - $495
S-Lens Platinum Service - $995
If there is anything controversial about the S2 system it is the prices, especially as we are in (or just coming out of) one of the worst global economic downturns in a lifetime.
But, to give it perspective let's look at what the competition offers. A Hasselblad H3DII 39MP is currently selling for $22,000 with 80mm lens, essentially the same price as an S2 body. A Phase One P40+ with body and 80mm lens is also about $22,000, again comparably priced. So while the S2 may seem to be super premium priced, and it is compared to a top-of-the-line full-frame Canon or Nikon, when compared to its real competition from Phase One and Hasselblad it is only somewhat more expensive.
Lenses are another matter. There is no question that Leica's S series lenses are more expensive than those from Hasselblad and Phase One / Mamiya. What a surprise!
It's The Lenses Stupid
Anyone who has been a photographer for more than a decade doesn't need to be told about Leica glass. M and R series lenses have always been regarded as among the finest available. Expensive, yes! But if one can afford them they are simply stunning in their resolution, contrast, freedom from aberration, and mechanical excellence. Simply put, Leica lenses are almost always about as good as human beings are able to design and make, outside of course of having a NASA sized budget.
Based on my time interviewing the Leica lens designers, touring the Solms plant, and shooting with two of the new S2 lenses, the 70mm and 180mm, I have no doubts whatever that the S line of lenses not only will equal previous Leica optics, but may in fact surpass them.
These are the first medium format lenses from Leica and the first autofocus lenses from that company. They are the beginning of a new generation of optics, and Leica knows that they have to be exceptional.
In one interview Peter Karge, Leica's Director of Optical Development, was asked if the S lenses were sensor limited. The answer was "No". The S lenses are designed to exceed the resolving power of the S2's 6 micron photo sites, and in fact we were told that they were designed to out-resolve even a next generation 5 micron sensor.
So – are the CS lenses expensive? To be sure. But in my view, they are well worth the money for someone looking for the finest MF lenses one can buy. Are they better than Phase / Mamiya lenses, particularly the new D series? How about Hasselblad's HC lenses?
I can't say. It will take an optical bench comparison to really tell. But I have worked with Rodenstock digital lenses and Schneider Digitars on various technical cameras, using a P45+ and a P65+, and two things are clear. The first is that even without a side-by-side comparison the Leica S glass appears to offer comparable resolution and contrast to that of these specialized lenses. Secondly, the fact that they are autofocus, and are available in either focal plane or leaf configurations, gives them a real practical advantage.
Now, before anyone starts jumping up and down in defense of their favourite Hasselblad or Mamiya lenses, let me add the following. In a chat with one of Leica's senior lens designers he volunteered that he was impressed with Mamiya / Phase One lenses, especially the new D series designed with Phase One. Does he think that Leica's S lenses are superior? Well, of course he would. But with high-end optics we are dealing with subtle differences, and so while most of us will lust after S series lenses, it isn't as if we're currently shooting with the bottom of Coke bottles.
As an aside – I have been writing for the past year or so about how, with very high resolution sensors, it is necessary that one uses the utmost technique in order to be able to extract what these sensors have to offer in terms of resolution. That means a heavy tripod and head, precise focus, the use of mirror lock-up or high shutter speeds, optimum apertures and every other trick at ones disposal.
The same can be said for ultra-high resolution optics such as S series Leica lenses. If you use them casually, you'll get casual results. Use them with precision and they will sing.
There are quite a few well thought-out and executed features to be mentioned.
The Eyepiece and Prism
The eyepiece and viewfinder are large and bright. The view is very large, has excellent eye relief when wearing glasses, has a rubber surround, and features a precision diopter adjustment. There is no eyepiece shutter.
The camera has two card slots; SD and CF. The camera can be programmed to shoot JPGs to one and DNG raws to the other, or to each card in sequence. Unfortunately it can't write raws to both cards at the same time, as a backup, because that would slow down the shooting rate by too much.
As mentioned previously the camera's power switch has two ON positions, Focal Plan and Central Shutter. All that's needed to switch between the two types of lenses is to turn the camera on to the appropriate position. If there is a focal plane lens attached and the switch is accidentally turned to the CS position nothing untoward happens, the camera simply shoots using the built-in shutter. Want to shoot a CS lens with the FP shutter, just flip the switch.
Self Timer and Mirror Lock-Up
There is a self timer (of course) settable to either 2 seconds or 10 seconds. When the self timer is activated the mirror locks up first – just the way it's supposed to. Of course one of the soft keys can be set to mirror lock up if one wishes, though having it on the 2 second self timer works fine in most situations and saves a soft key position for something else.
Memo to Canon:
I know that designing a camera with mirror lock-up on a button, or on a soft key, or as part of the self timer function, must be really, really difficult, because after all these years and countless new camera models you still haven't been able to figure out how to do it.
May I humbly suggest that you send a fact-finding mission to Solms, Germany, to figure out how Leica has done it? It really can't be that difficult a technology to master. (Ps: The Schnitzel and Pils in the nearby town of Wetzlar is really good, and worth the trip, even if you can't figure out how to implement mirror lock up on a single button).
The camera uses a typical Lithium Ion battery and comes with a two battery smart-charger. Leica is claiming over 400 exposures on a charge. I usually take such claims with a large grain of salt, because real-world usage is often as much as half of what is claimed.
I was therefore amazed when after shooting over 375 frames in one day, by the time sun had set I still had one quarter battery life showing on the meter. This is exemplary performance, and far better than what I've typically gotten from my Phase One P series backs.
The battery release is an elegant design. Flip a lever and the battery pops out, but it doesn't fall on the floor. There's a safety interlock, and all one has to do is push it back in slightly and it then safely pops into ones hand. Sweet.
The usual viewfinder read-outs are provided on a bright and clear viewfinder display. But, one of my only disappointments with the S2 is that there is no ISO display in the viewfinder.
Anything that forces me to take my eye away from the viewfinder is a distraction from the job of composing and shooting. I and other reviewers ranted about this years ago, and for the most part manufacturers listened and now most pro-level cameras show ISO in the viewfinder. That the S2 does not is a real disappointment.
Auto exposure / Autofocus
Both auto exposure and autofocus appeared to work very well. Neither stood out as being either problematic or exceptional. Compared to either an H series Hasselblad or Phase 645 camera (or at least my memory of each of them at the time) I wasn't aware of much difference in speed or accuracy. I will have to place several cameras side by side to really take the measure of them when it comes to these two capabilities. Stay tuned.
This is where the Leica S2 really sings. The S2's lenses are Leica's first foray into autofocus, and they have done a very fine job with it. But, when one manually focuses these lenses, unlike with almost any other AF lens from any maker, the feel of the S glass' focus ring is exceptional. They turn as smoothly and with as much "weight" as if they were original manual focus designs. They are simply a pleasure to handle.
My preferred way of working, especially with any camera with more than about 20MP, where even the tiniest focusing errors are visible in large prints, is to have the camera set to manual focus, and then activate autofocus on a rear thumb button. Leica seems to have read my mind on this, because when you switch the camera to manual focus this is the way that it operates.
I don't know if one is planned, but I would recommend to Leica that they produce a 3X eyepiece magnifier for the S2, similar to the one for the Phase / Mamiya 645. On that camera it swings upward and out of the way when not needed and makes critical manual focusing that much easier.
In addition to sRGB and Adobe RGB colour spaces the Leica S2 adds ECI RGB V.2. Haven't heard of it? You will. It's a new wide gamut colour space, increasingly important in the European pre-press industry and likely to become more important in the U.S. as it will soon be adopted by Adobe.
As mentioned, the S2 has slots for both SD and CF cards, and the camera can be set to shoot JPGs to one and raws to the other, or simply raws or jpgs to each in sequence.
The camera seems to format cards very quickly, but I didn't see a low-level format command. Also, while the camera starts up very quickly (almost instantly) it takes a second or two for it to recognize a card. I expect that this was simply a pre-production issue and will disappear in final cameras.
There is an optional vertical grip, which we saw in prototype form but did not use. I think that this is a must for anyone shooting hand held. It makes vertical shooting much more comfortable, and doesn't add hugely to the camera's bulk or weight. It contains a second battery and the camera first uses it, then when exhausted switches to the internal battery.
Attachment and detachment is – dare I use the word again – elegant. There is a quick release mechanism that is about as clever a design as I've ever seen.
Since the S2 handles much like a large DSLR rather than a medium format camera, I was quite curious to see how it would fare hand-held, especially at longer shutter speeds. The larger mirror of a camera with a sensor this size typically means more vibration and therefore a lessor ability to hand hold at low to moderate shutter speeds, especially since neither this nor any medium format camera has image stabilization.
Leica S2 with APO-Elmar-S 180mm f/3.5 @ ISO 200
Exposure – 1/30 second @ f/3.5 hand held
Above is a slightly cropped (for esthetic reasons) shot, which as you can see was taken at a 1/30 second, hand held with the 180mm lens. Below is a 100% crop. While resolution isn't as high as it would be tripod mounted with MLU, it's more than acceptable, even for a largish print.
Though not every long lens shot with a slow shutter speed will be this good, it seems that Leica has done an excellent job with mirror and shutter damping on the S2.
Body vs. Back
We've seen that a Leica S2 body is priced comparably to a Phase One P45+ or Hasselblad H3DII 39 including 80mm lens. We've seen that S series lenses are premium priced, but if one is shopping in this price range and looking for ultimate quality these are likely worth the premium.
But a core issue remains when comparing the S2 to one of its competitors from Hasselblad or Phase One, and that is the pros and cons of a separate back and body vs. a single integrated body approach.
Of course DSLRs are integrated cameras, so other than having a larger and therefore higher resolution sensor, what's the difference?
One difference is that with a separate MF back one can attach it to a technical camera. For those shooting architecture this is almost a must, though the forthcoming Elmar-S 30mm f/3.5 Tilt-Shift may make this less of an issue. Also, with a technical camera one can use those amazing Rodenstock and Schneider digital optimized lenses, though with Leica's S lenses I think one will be hard pressed to find any big advantage there any longer.
Which brings us to back-up bodies. With an S2 a back-up body is going to cost another $23,000. With Phase One another body is about $4,000. (I'm not sure about the situation with Hasselblad, as the company now only seems to be selling bodies and backs together as a matched set. An older used H1 or H2 body would seem to be the solution here if the back can be made to work with it, something I am told is not possible without factory programming with an H3.)
Also, with a separate digital back if it's the back that goes south one can always have along a relatively inexpensive film back and a 5 pack of 220 film to get you though the day. Nothing like this is possible with the Leica S2. Backup has to take the form of a separate camera of a different type, which means another set of lenses.
Of course with a 35mm DSLR the cost of a back-up body is somewhat less than with the S2, and there is always a consumer grade body as a backup, often for just a thousand or two, that can use the same set of lenses.
In a studio setting, especially when shooting in a major city, a spare body can be couriered over same day from ones dealer, or if one has the Leica Premium support package Fedexed the following day to most domestic locations. But when working in remote locations or abroad the backup options when using an integrated body such as the S2 will likely become problematic.
I don't regard this issue as a deal breaker, rather just as something that a potential purchaser needs to consider depending on their particular shooting requirements.
The Bottom Line – For Now
No definitive evaluation can be made of something as complex as a new camera system in a single day. It can take weeks, even months to get the full measure of a sophisticated system such as this.
But, understanding that people want to know as quickly as possible how something as exciting as the S2 handles and performs, this report has attempted to provide a feel for what the camera is like and to allow for a first glimpse of image quality.
As soon as a full production S2 is available I hope to be able to have one for more comprehensive field testing and comparison. This should be in late September or early October, and since I have a shoot scheduled then in Algonquin Park I expect to be able to put a production S2 though its paces at that time, as well as to do side-by-side comparisons with other MF systems.
The Leica S2, is, I believe, going to be a cornerstone product for Leica. The company will likely rise or fall based on its success. Leica's investment in both money and manpower to bring the S2 to fruition has been huge. I don't know if they have bet the ranch on the S2, but if not, close enough. Based on my brief time with the camera I can say that it's hard to imagine how anyone could have done a better job of bringing a specialized pro camera system like this to market. Now it's up to the marketplace to decide if the feature set and price are on target.
As for me – will I be buying an S2 system for my own use? The answer is no, but not because I don't think the S2 and its lenses are an incredible system. If I was in the market for a new medium format camera the S2 would definitely be very high on my list of contenders. But, the reality is that I already own a Phase One P65+, Phase 645 body, and a half dozen Mamiya / Phase lenses, and a second MF system simply isn't needed. Also, after buying an M9 this month my piggy bank is making a rattling sound when shaken.
In the meantime, if a very high quality medium format camera using legendary Leica glass is something that intrigues you, and you have the means to scratch that itch, I am confident that the Leica S2 will not disappoint even the fussiest photographer.