January 06, 2010
Believe me when I say that the Leica S2 could either save the medium-format camera market or completely destroy it. It could save it if rival manufacturers take a look at this intriguing new hybrid digital SLR/medium-format camera, swallow their pride, and try to borrow some of its strengths in their next models. Or it could destroy medium format if the competition just turns up its nose and continues on its merry way. . .towards a rapidly approaching cliff.
For how great a camera the 37.5-megapixel S2 is—and it is, undeniably, a great camera—the dwindling medium-format market will certainly not be saved by Leica alone. S2s, after all, are "handmade" in Germany by the same company that has been tinkering with its M-Series rangefinder cameras for all these years. Is Leica in a rush? Nah, not at all. Do they think they have a winner with the $23,000 S2? There's no doubt.
I had a chance to try out a working final version of the S2 with my frequent co-tester Jason Groupp (www.jasongphoto.com), over a limited, two-day loan. While two days were probably not enough time to get a full picture of the S2, which houses a 45 x 30mm size CCD Kodak sensor in a body not a lot larger than most pro digital SLRs, it definitely gave us a good taste of what could be the future for medium format as it battles the DSLR invasion. Here's what we thought.
THE WALK AROUND
The first thing you'll notice about the S2 is how surprisingly light it feels. This, in fact, is no illusion. Though it's slightly bigger than most pro-level digital SLRs, the S2 weighs about the same.
More importantly, the weight is distributed evenly across the S2's all-metal, magnesium die-cast body. This camera is very well balanced and comfortable with a nice ergonomic design that's suited for both shooters with small hands and those with big oven mitts such as Jason and me.
In early prototypes of the S2, the camera had a smooth rubber grip that molded nicely to your hand. While I liked that grip, the new textured, leather-grain finish is also quite comfortable. Overall, as you would expect of Leica products, the S2 is a solidly built imaging machine. Along with the tough metal body, the S2 is weather and dust-sealed making it feel more akin to a rugged pro DSLR than a delicate medium-format camera. Studio use with the S2 was a pleasure and we felt the camera offered a DSLR's versatility with the presence and gravitas of a medium-format camera.
Leica's penchant for Spartan elegance extends to the love it/hate it layout of the unlabeled, trapezoidal buttons surrounding the camera's 2.7-inch LCD. There is a certain logic to the controls, though, which have added "soft" functionality when you keep them pressed.
The S2's menu system is also logical and easy to read if a bit dull. And, of course, the trade-off to having such menu-driven control is that's it tougher to make quick changes when you need them. There's a command dial on top of the camera but it's pretty basic with just shutter speed settings and a choice of putting the camera in Auto or Bulb mode. A tiny OLED menu screen—we measured it at 1x.6-inch—on top provides data on your current settings. The only other switch on the camera is on the upper left near the viewfinder which turns the camera on or off and lets you choose between the Central Shutter (CS) focus and Focal Plane Shutter (FPS) focus.
The one other design "quirk" on the S2 is the dual card slots—for both CompactFlash and SD—which accept the cards with the front label facing in instead of out as is more typical. Leica says this is because the grip on the cards is on the rear—they're correct—but it's liable to drive you batty the first couple times you load the camera with memory.
While the S2 suffers a bit from its bland controls, it shines as a speedy performer in the studio. For our test, we spent two days at Jason's studio photographing portraits of one model using both natural light and a small strobe set-up; and a second day with another model in full studio lighting in a more active, lifestyle shoot.
Though it may not be as fast all-around as the leading pro DSLRs out there, the S2 is worlds faster than any of the medium-format cameras we've tried which is really a better comparison. Though the S2 may look and feel like a DSLR, with its jumbo sensor (50 percent bigger than 35mm full-frame chips) and a $22,295 price tag, it's a medium-format through and through.
We used the Summarit-S 70mm f/2.5 FPS lens ($4,500) and experienced some lens hunting with the S2's autofocus system but nothing distressing. (Most of it occurred when we deliberately tried it in low contrast shooting conditions not under studio lighting.)
In terms of performance, what I really wanted to look at with the S2 was how it handled a relatively fast moving fashion shoot. Certainly, with a pedestrian 1.5 frames per second shooting speed, it would not be the sort of camera you would take to shoot sports. (Maybe sports portraits but that's about it.)
So, for our second day of shooting we called on one of Jason's favorite models, Noam Harary, who is quite comfortable getting physical during a shoot. As Noam danced, jumped, karate-kicked and leaned back precariously, Jason fired away.
Though the frame speed and focus performance didn't reach the level of a DSLR such as, say, the Nikon D3x, it held up admirably. And image quality, as you'll see in the next section, blew the D3x away. With a new dual-core image processor design by Fujitsu called "Maestro," the S2 outpaced every medium-format model I've tested in the last two years, even those which purport to have a similar 1.5 frames per second shooting speed.
SHARP AND COLORFUL
When comparing this interloper hybrid- camera to true medium- format models, one of the key things to look at, naturally, is image quality. And image files we captured with the S2 during our two-day shoot, in comparison to other medium-format images, held up extremely well, particularly when it came to sharpness and color.
DNG files we captured with the S2 and 70mm f/2.5 lens were so sharp a Leica product specialist had to vigorously clarify to us that no in-camera sharpening had taken place. Indeed, every strand of stubble in Noam's beard could be discerned as could every pore and blemish on his skin. Make-up artists will likely need to be retrained when the S2 hits the streets.
There was also great three dimensionality of color straight out of the camera. The thick coils of Noam's hair, dense with mixed brown tones, had shape in the S2 images and there was much detail in the dark areas.
As a point of comparison, we used a Canon 5D Mark II as well, and RAW files from that camera looked noticeably flatter with less dynamic range. Granted, some of that could be improved in Photoshop but with the S2 files, they were ready to go straight away.
DNG files from the 37.5-megapixel S2 came out as 72 mb compressed and opened to 104 mb files in Photoshop. Though there may be some who say when you blow up a 60.5-megapixel Phase One file to billboard size you're going to have more detail than the S2, that's one of the few instances where that's going to matter. (If it really does matter.) Otherwise, the S2 impressed in the studio.
As a more casual, field camera, I'd have more trouble recommending the S2 against a DSLR. While it would be an excellent choice for environmental portraits or doing posed shots at a wedding, if you're used to shooting with a regular DSLR, the slower-than-DSLR speeds for frame rate and focusing will disappoint you.
Also, though the ISO range is 80 (pull) to 1250, this is not by any stretch of the imagination a high ISO camera. Stick to ISO 400 tops, or you'll see tons of noise. Like the M9 and many medium-format cameras, the S2 does not use an anti-aliasing or blur filter which increases sharpness but makes the camera more susceptible to noise.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Photographers and manufacturers interested at all in the future of medium-format cameras would be wise to seriously consider the Leica S2, both as a camera and a concept. Though this hybrid DSLR/Medium Format model is tough to categorize, the end result is so beautifully crafted and highly functional it's almost like it existed there all along. As a studio camera, the S2 is a swift and agile performer, able to pirouette and parry with even fast-moving dancer/models. As a field camera it won't keep up with a DSLR, though image quality in good lighting is astounding. The sharpness and depth of color we got while photographing models in the studio with the S2 was among the best we've ever seen. The S2 could be the warning shot across the bow that medium-format needs.
Pros: Tough, lightweight, and comfortable design; fast speed for studio work; astounding image quality especially when it comes to sharpness and depth of color.
Cons: Slower than most DSLRs; some autofocus lens hunting in low contrast subjects; noisy at higher ISOs.
Price: $22,995 (body only)
©Ali EnginFaces Portrait Photography Competition
- ADVERTISEMENT -
Articles available to all PDN and PDNOnline subscribers. Log in to access all the benefits of your PDN subscription. Log in now »
The Latest Exclusive Headlines
- ADVERTISEMENT -
- ADVERTISEMENT -
- ADVERTISEMENT -