PhotoPlus Expo 2009: Testing the Leica S2 (Sample Images)

Oct 26, 2009
By Theano Nikitas

When I received an invitation to shoot with a final version of the elusive 37.5-megapixel Leica S2 at an off-site studio during PhotoPlus Expo last week, it didn’t take me long to juggle my already-packed schedule to make room to test this $23,000 (body only) camera.

I was told by Leica that the two S2 DSLR/medium format hybrid cameras they had brought to the shoot were the only final testing units in North America.

I arrived at the studio for my allotted 30-minute slot to a basic studio set-up consisting of a single Briese light with a honeycomb grid, black backdrop with a white board set to the side as a reflector, and a lovely model to photograph. Leica S-System Product Specialist (and photographer) Amy Kosh worked the tethered Macbook Pro, which was equipped with the new Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 3 Beta and the 0.8 Beta version of Shuttle, Leica’s new S2 tethering software.

We paired the S2 with the new 180mm Leica APO-Tele-Elmar-S f/3.5 lens. The camera was ready to go at 1/125 sec, f/9.5 and an ISO of 160, so all I had to do was focus and shoot. Easy enough but what really surprised me was how comfortable the S2 is to hold and use.

My hands are relatively small but I had no problem focusing with my forefinger and, at the same time, reaching and holding the AF lock button with my thumb. The camera is also relatively lightweight and even after a half-hour of shooting with a 70mm and then a 180mm lens, I didn’t feel fatigued and my arms and wrists didn’t ache as they sometimes do when shooting with a pro DSLR and long lens.

Transitioning from DSLRs like the Nikon D700 and the Canon 5D Mark II, with all their external controls, to the streamlined S2 was a little difficult, especially when I wanted to manually move the focus point. That’s when the AF lock button on the S2 came in handy as I focused and then recomposed (the same button also activates AF when you’re in manual focus).

The S2’s surface is remarkably free of buttons and dials but, as S-System Product Manager Stephan Schulz explains, Leica wanted to find out what was important to the target market and make the camera “efficient for the job” rather than include “everything.” Most controls are menu driven, which may seem like a hassle but the menus are well-designed, color coded and conveniently accessed.

Although the viewfinder is large and bright, I opted to stay with autofocus throughout the shoot. AF locked in pretty quickly although the shutter felt a little spongy and seemed to have more play in it than most DSLRs I’ve tested recently (including the Nikon D3s). But the softer feel of the shutter release also made it easier to squeeze rather than snap it, providing a smoother and steadier motion.

When my allotted shooting time was over, I was hard-pressed to put the camera down, especially after having glimpsed how sharp and detailed the images looked on the tethered laptop. Shot as DNG, the 16-bit files were about 72MB each but, with only a couple of issues, transferred quickly and easily between the camera and the laptop.

Shuttle, the S2’s tethering software mentioned earlier, will work with any software application that supports “hot” or “watched” folders and will be available for download from the Leica site (but it only works with the S2).

For posting with this article, the DNG files were opened in Adobe Camera RAW and saved as sRGB JPEGs. Still, you can easily see the fine detail captured by the S2—actually, there’s so much detail that it might be a little too much information. Although there wasn’t any way to judge color accuracy (other than the model’s shirt), the model’s skin tones appear smooth and natural.

Leica hopes to ship the S2 in January 2010 and, according to S-System Product Manager Stephan Schulz, pre-orders have already exceeded Leica’s expectations. That’s great news for Leica but let’s keep fingers crossed for the January ship date.

My guess is that there are a lot of photographers who can’t wait to get their hands on this camera and, from my brief experience, I can understand why.

Click on each web-sized image below to open a full resolution JPEG. (As stated before, for posting on this site, the Leica S2's DNG files were opened in Adobe Camera RAW and saved as sRGB JPEGs.)

ISO 160, 1/125th, f/9.5, 180mm (click to enlarge image)

ISO 160, 1/125th, f/9.5, 180mm (click to enlarge image)

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