Camera Test: Leica S2 Medium Format Camera
Not very long after I wrote my review of the new Mamiya DM camera with the DM56 digital back, I received a phone call from David Farkas of Dale Photo & Digital in Hollywood, Florida.
“Would I like to test the Leica S2 medium format camera?” What a question!
So, around the end of June two boxes arrive on my doorstep – one with the camera, and the other with a Leica SF 58 flash unit. Didn’t expect the latter; a very pleasant surprise. A 70mm f/ 2.5 lens came with the camera.
The Leica S2 Camera
My first impression out of the box was “rock solid”. The camera fits the hand very well, and feels a bit like a 35mm DSLR on steroids. Weight is very reasonable, and controls come to hand easily and naturally. The camera is coated throughout – I hesitate to say “rubberized” – that’s not exactly what it is – it provides a non-slip surface that is near-perfect in texture and grip traction.
Camera layout is unique. The exterior is clean, almost minimalist, and one clearly sees the Leica heritage of simplicity in its design. It facilitates use of the most important functions; other adjustments and settings are available through on-screen menus displayed on the 3” LCD.
A collateral benefit of this is that the camera body has far fewer openings than other DSLR cameras. I didn’t try this, of course, but I’ve heard stories about demonstrations where the rep poured a glass of water over the camera – no ill effects reported.
The camera weighs about 3 pounds; a little heavier than, say, a Nikon D3x. Keep in mind that the camera does not come with a vertical grip; that is an add-on. It adds battery capacity, and I’m sure the camera is noticeably heavier when equipped this way. I did not try this accessory.
The camera body grip is very good. No fatigue at all during long photo shoots. On-camera controls come to hand very naturally.
The S2 uses a removable, internal battery that is charged outside the camera. Battery life is very good – I went an entire day shooting without changing batteries. The charger is as simple as it gets – there is a small socket on the battery – the charger cord is inserted, and the charging unit is plugged in.
The viewfinder is bright, and the readouts are easy on the eye. The autofocus “crosshairs” don’t obscure the subject, and do a very nice job when using manual focus.
There are two displays on the camera – a 3” LCD on the back, and an OLED on the top of the camera, near the shutter button.
The LCD is much easier to see in bright light, or even direct sunlight, than most. The OLED readout is bright and colorful, but suffers a bit in harsh light.
Although some have said that the shutter button is “over sensitive” I just didn’t have that experience; in fact, just the opposite. Very good tactile feedback, totally controllable. Shutter activation is quiet. By the way, this camera provides the option of setting the self-timer to flip up the mirror, wait, and take the shot. Sweet.
The rear LCD is surrounded by four “soft” buttons. These drive menu choices on the camera. There are four main sections, as you can see in the illustration above. I don’t have the room here for a detailed description; suffice to say that the menus are logically grouped and nested.
I’ve thought a bit about Leica’s decision to put most camera options in this part of the system. The S2 photographer will typically set the camera up ahead of time, and attend to exposure during a shoot. Given that most MF cameras are not intended for, and are not going to be used in photojournalism, this works fine for me.
Image quality is excellent. The camera captures images in DNG format, which makes editing in software like Lightroom or Capture One Pro a snap. Native ISO is 160, and goes up to 1250; one can “pull” ISO to 80 with some loss of contrast.
The camera uses a 37.5 megapixel Kodak CCD. It is 45x30mm, with pixel pitch of 6 microns. It offers true 16-bit capture. Frame rate is 1.5/second.
The 70mm lens provided classic Leica depth and dimensionality, great contrast and color. There are no discernable edge distortions or other gremlins to be seen in this image of a red flower against a blue sky.
Autofocus is fast and quiet, as are the mirror and shutter. I did not experience any hunting or missed focus using AF. The camera operates shooting to a memory card, or tethered via USB 2.0. Given the file size, a fast card is a good idea.
Shooting in the studio was a good experience. We used Profoto strobes, using a beauty dish, a background light, and fill light. Images were clean at ISO 160, with great color right out of the camera. Images were tack sharp on every shot.
This image was taken shooting against the roll up door at the back of the studio:
Sarah Muldorfer, the model shown here, is a “natural” and easy to work with. This was almost a grab shot – we were trying out different looks and she struck this pose. We worked this photo shoot at the Santa Clarita Valley Center for Photography.
This next shot was unplanned; Sarah was sitting at the makeup table during a break. The lighting is provided by incandescent bulbs. The camera was set to 320 ISO, with the lens wide open at f/2.5 so I could shoot hand-held. The image is remarkably sharp, with great bokeh. Noise was a bit of an issue in shadow areas, but that’s to be expected – most MF digital cameras aren’t totally clean at higher ISO. Noise does become an issue for me at 640 ISO.
A quick note before moving on to a still life image: I used the Leica flash on-camera to photograph my niece’s graduation. Set on TTL, camera and flash worked very well, in spite of a darkened room and a very dark background. Nailed the exposure – good thing too, as I had one chance at it.
This orchid was photographed in-studio. Note overall sharpness (I was pushing diffraction issues at f/16), and the absence of artifact or aliasing along the edges. The bottom petal is too bright, but that’s my fault, not the camera’s.
To wrap up:
A pro’s camera, with great design and build quality, and faithful to its Leica heritage.
At $22k for the camera body, and $5-7k+ for the lenses, not a trivial investment. Having said that, we all know that Leica gear holds its value remarkably well; you won’t see “used car price syndrome” with this camera or its lenses.
Lenses currently available include the 70mm f/2.5, 35mm f/2.5, and the 180mm f/3.5. The 120mm Macro is reportedly due out within a month. The central shutter versions of the lenses for this camera are reportedly planned for release in August or September.
If you are interested in the S2, I suggest you get in touch with David Farkas at Dale Photo and Digital. Here’s a link to the Dale Labs Leica Shop page; their phone number is 1-800-327-1776. I thank them for the loan of the camera for this test.
David and his team have prepared a series of HD videos about the S2. Very thorough, covering all aspects of the camera and its operation. They expect to release the videos soon, so keep watch on the web page linked above.
Link to New Workshops
Disclosure: I did not receive any compensation in connection with this camera test, or for writing this review.