Twenty grand is a lot of money. By today’s prices that will buy you a brand-new Mini Cooper, a deposit on a house, or even a university education.
With £20,000 you can buy a lot of camera kit, too: a pair of Nikon D3X bodies with 14-24mm f/2.8, 24-70mm f/2.8 and 70-200mm f/2.8 lenses plus an Apple MacBook Pro, 27-inch screen and the whole Adobe Creative Suite doesn’t come to that much.
But what if you could also spend this princely sum on just one camera body and a standard lens. Would you?
That’s about what the Leica S2 costs when paired with with its standard lens, the Summarit 70mm f/2.5. The Leica S2 is a medium-format camera, meaning its sensor is bigger than you’d find in a full-frame DSLR – 56% bigger in this case.
There are many other medium-format cameras on the market of course (all of them expensive), but when Leica came to the table with the S2 it wanted to offer something different.
The trouble with medium-format cameras is their size and weight. The famous Mamiya RB and RZ series of cameras, as well as Hasselblad’s legendary V-system, have been professional workhorses for years, but you wouldn’t want to sling one over your shoulder and use it to shoot travel photography in an Indian marketplace.
The Leica S2 is different, being smaller than the aforementioned Nikon D3x and any of the Canon EOS-1D series cameras, despite housing a 45x30mm, 37.5-megapixel sensor.
Other medium-format manufacturers have also made efforts to make their cameras more portable and better handling: Hasselblad’s H system is currently in its fourth iteration with the H4D series, and Mamiya has seen its 645 AFD III camera become more user friendly under the company’s new owners Phase One.
Pentax has also arrived with its 645D medium-format camera, bristling with user-friendly automated features.
Versus the competition
When compared to the competition, the Leica S2 is the most integrated system of all (some medium format camera have two sets of controls and batteries – one for the camera and the other for the digital back), and has the advantage of being built new from the ground up – no legacy lens designs here to compromise performance.
As with other Leica digital cameras, the company decided to use DNG as the S2’s raw file format, which, on balance, was a good decision. This enables users to process the S2’s raw files through any version of Adobe Camera Raw they like, as well as to shoot straight into Adobe Lightroom (tethered or by memory card).
In fact, Leica supplies a copy of Lightroom as standard with the camera. DNG is also read by Phase One’s Capture One software and Hasselbald’s Phocus, so owners of these packages don’t have to learn a new set of tricks.
Thanks to a Leica-produced application called Image Shuttle, users can shoot tethered straight into Capture One by making use of hot folders. This approach to digital workflow makes this the most flexible medium-format camera out there when it comes to software.
When looking down the specification of a camera like this, many mid-range or entry level photographers may wonder what all the fuss is about. Currently fashionable features, like HD video, scene modes and picture styles are nowhere to be seen.
Leica is aiming squarely at the top end of the professional market with this one, with features like a dual-shutter system.
With compatible lenses, this allows you to select the camera’s built-in focal plane shutter for speeds of 8secs to 1/4000sec with flash sync at 1/125sec, or the lens’ built-in leaf shutter for flash sync all the way up to 1/500sec.
As we will see, though, the S2 is not designed to compete with Canon and Nikon’s professional cameras, and is certainly not meant to be a panacea, replacing all of your needs with just one camera body.
The Leica S2’s styling is minimalist. On the top plate an old-school shutter speed dial is flanked by a 21st century OLED colour display showing exposure information.
On the rear a 3-inch 470,000-dot viewscreen is surrounded by four black label-less soft-key buttons that change their function according to what is show on screen at the time.
The idea, according to Leica, is to avoid the confusing mass of controls seen on the back of many DSLRs and give the photographer a less distracting tool to shoot with.
There is one control wheel, which falls naturally under the thumb when you pick up the camera.
This dual-purpose control can be rotated to change aperture, scroll down menu screens and browse through images, and also pressed to select menu options and automate aperture selection, thereby putting the camera in either shutter-priority or program mode.
The minimalist approach to design is a welcome one, although it may be a bit too minimalist in places. A joystick or four-way control wouldn’t go a miss, and perhaps the soft keys could illuminate to show their function, as seen on Wacom’s Intuos4 range of graphics tablets.
The menus themselves look a bit dated and could benefit from a slightly more elegant design. But these grumbles aside the Leica S2 is a joy to shoot with compared with other medium-format cameras.
The grip is perfect for most hands, and an optional booster grip provides controls for vertical shooting as well as space for an extra battery. The viewfinder is superb – in fact, I can’t think of a camera on the market today that has anything as good.
Build quality is exactly what you’d expect from Leica: the magnesium chassis gives a solid reassuring feel, and the controls are damped just enough to feel silky smooth.
The use of colour on the top plate OLED screen is clever too, with just the right amount of information being displayed without things becoming over complicated.
In answer to the rather flippant question posed at the start of this article: what your £20,000 buys you is image quality, and lots of it.
All medium-format cameras are capable of capturing high levels of resolution, and the Leica is no different. Pixel-peeping on screen reveals images to be packed with fine-detail, and completely free of the artefacts you’d see in conventional DSLR images at 100 per cent.
Some of this is down to the lack of antialiasing filter in front of the sensor, which all cropped-sensor and full-frame DSLRs have, but there are other medium-format advantages too.
A larger sensor means there is space for more pixels, bigger pixels and more space between pixels. This gives increased resolution as well as increased dynamic range.
The use of 16-bit electronics (as opposed to 14-bit in conventional DSLRs) means better tonal gradation and colour reproduction too. If you’ve never seen a file from a digital medium-format camera before then you should try to at your local camera dealer: the quality really is like nothing you’ll have seen before.
The secret to the Leica S2’s performance also lies in its optics; all the pixels in the world won’t give you good image quality if the image projected into them is lacking in resolution. Leica has always been known for its expertise in lens design, so it’s no surprise that the four currently available S-system lenses are stunners.
A 35mm f/2.8 (equivalent angle of view to a 28mm lens on a full-frame camera) is accompanied by a 70mm f/2.5 standard lens (equiv. 50mm), a 120mm f/2.8 macro (equiv. 85mm) and a 180mm f/3.5 telephoto.
As well as being very sharp, even wide open, these optics show very little distortion, generate good levels of contrast and colour saturation and are ridiculously resistant to flare.
In terms of image quality alone, the Leica S2 body is not much different from any other medium-format camera, but the lens quality is something very special. The internet rumour mill predicts more focal lengths too, from ultra-wide angle optics to perspective-control lenses and even a zoom.
Leica, unsurprisingly, is tight lipped about what might be in store for the S-system in the future; although if we were giving them some advice it would be to prioritize a more conventional wideangle above the more exotic focal lengths.
Something that approximates to the same field of view as a 35mm lens on a full-frame camera would fill an obvious gap in the existing line-up.
Other aspects of the camera’s performance seem lacking when compared to professional Canon and Nikon cameras costing a tenth of the price, but are better or identical to other medium-format systems.
The S2’s autofocus, for instance, is not what you’d expect if you are a DSLR user: only a single AF point and a speed that, while fast, doesn’t set the world on fire.
That said, it’s faster and seems more confident than equivalent systems from Hasselblad or Mamiya/PhaseOne (It’s worth noting that this is Leica’s fort foray into such an AF system too).
The camera’s multi-pattern exposure metering system is about standard for today’s breed of cameras – it gets confused by predominantly light or dark scenes, but delivers good results for more average subjects. Centre-weighted and spot options are also available.
Noise and ISO sensitivity is something that medium-format cameras have never excelled at, and while the Leica makes some advances, the ISO options available sound pedestrian compared to that which you’d find on even entry-level, cropped-sensor DSLRs.
The camera’s base ISO (where you’ll find the best image quality) is ISO 160, and sensitivity goes up from here in whole stops (half stops would be nice). At ISO 320 you can see some noise if you look hard enough, but the noise reduction features in any raw processing software make this a non-issue.
By ISO 640 there are definite signs of noise, but depending on the subject you are shooting this is not a deal breaker. The maximum ISO setting of ISO 1250 is too noisy, in our opinion, for professional-publication quality results.
Leica is listening to feedback, though. Something that was criticized in the early days of the camera is the speed with which it shoots when tethered to a computer. The DNG Raw file format may have all manner of advantages, but it is also very big in physical size.
Combine this with Leica’s crazy choice of USB connectivity instead of FireWire and this originally meant a wait of between 10-12secs between shooting and seeing the image on-screen.
Some firmware tweaks and incorporation of lossless compression into the DNG format have brought this time down to approx. 7-9sec, but this is still much longer than competitor cameras from Hasselblad and Phase One.
This might sound like a petty thing to pickup on, but tethered shooting is the de facto way of working for many fashion, advertising and portrait photographers – exactly the audience that Leica is aiming at with the S2.
Kodak-made 16-bit 30x45mm CCD chip with 37.5-megapixel effective resolution.
70mm f/2.5 standard lens
No built-in memory. Takes CF and SD (up to SDXC) memory cards
Direct TTL-type with 96 per cent coverage and 0.86x magnification. Built-in diopter adjustment
3-inch TFT LCD screen with 460,000 pixels
ISO160–1250 (expandable to ISO80–1250)
Single and continuous
Max burst rate
8–1/4000sec timed speeds, with flash sync at 1/125sec or up to 1/500sec with central-shutter lenses
1.4kg body only
7.4V, 2150mAh lithium ion battery
All in all, there is much to like about the Leica S2. The image quality it delivers is spectacular,and quite addictive; after a few days shooting with the camera, images from even the best full-frame DSLRs seem to be lacking in a certain something.
We are really looking forward to seeing what else comes out of the the Leica S-system project, be it new lenses or new bodies.
Rival products are already at much sensor higher resolutions than the S2, and while this doesn’t automatically equate to increased picture quality, it’s important Leica doesn’t get left behind.
Great image quality from a camera that is quick and easy to use thanks to some elegant approaches to design and ergonomics. Efficient workflow with plenty of software options.
Some aspects of the S2’s design are too minimalist, and we’d like to see some improvements to the camera’s connectivity, using either USB3 or Fire Wire interfaces. We hope some gaps in the current lens range (medium wideangle, zoom, etc) are being addressed by Leica.
Does this warrant paying the price of a (very good) family car for a body and standard lens? Well, it depends who you are.
As we’ve seen it doesn’t replace the faster more sensitive DSLRs from Canon, Nikon, et al, but it does make medium format photography a far more friendly prospect.
If commercial, advertising and fashion photography is your game and you shoot regularly on location then this could well be the ultimate camera for you.
For the rest of us, £20,000 is hard to justify. Our advice: keep on playing the lottery.