Luminous landscape

Last Fall was a busy one for me with lots of international travel and workshops, and so I wasn’t able to attend eitherPhotokinain Cologne orPhoto Eastin New York. Consequently there were a number of interesting new products which I had failed to see first hand.

The most appealing of these, for me at least, was theLeica S2, a slightly larger than DSLR sized camera with a 37.5 Megapixel sensor measuring 30X45mm.

When it was announced at Photokina I read the reports and didn’t give the camera too much more thought. Leica hasn’t had the most sterling track record in digital the past few years, and undoubtedly the S2 and its family of lenses would be ultra-expensive. But an invitation to meet with Leica and have a hands-on with the S2 at PMA in early March was an invitation that I couldn’t resist.

Let me say right off the bat that this is one sweet camera system. In fact I found the simplicity and elegance of the design highly appealing. The body handles and is sized much like a top-of-the-line DSLR, though the sensor is some 60% larger than full-frame 35mm. The top panel OLED screen is eye candy, and the rear LCD with its programmable soft buttons appeared clear, logically presented, and very much to my taste.

There will be few people that would disagree that Leica has over the years made some of the finest camera lenses – ever! I have little doubt that the CS lenses for the S2 system will meet or exceed Leica’s previous offerings for the M and R series. And, of course, for the first time from Leica these are autofocus lenses. (Panasonic manufactured Leica branded lenses don’t count in this rarified atmosphere, though some are quite fine).

The CS lens samples that I handled appeared exemplary, with buttery smooth manual focusing and fast AF. Initially the S2 line up will include a 35mm f/2.5 Summarit, 70mm f/2.5 Summarit, 120mm f/2.5 Apo-Macro Summarit and 180mm f/3.5 APO-Elmar. Just handling any of these is enough to cause heart palpitations in a Leica lens lover, let alone the image quality that was visible in large prints that were on display.

There has been no price announced yet for the S2 or its lenses, but have little doubt that these will all be pricey. Just how pricey remains to be seen, as the camera and first four lenses are not scheduled to ship for several more months – likely mid-summer. My guess (and it’s just a guess at this point) is about US $25,000 for the camera with "normal" 70mm lens, and between $5,000 and $10,000 each for the additional lenses.

There remain though additional questions to be answered. Who is this camera for? Is it aimed at pros, and if so what’s the selling proposition vs. more traditional medium format systems on the one hand (those with interchangeable backs), and top-end DSLRs on the other?

We know that the lenses will be as good as anything from any other manufacturer, and likely better, but what about the sensor and image quality? The sensor is from Kodak, as are those used in other medium format back maker’s cameras, but there’s an awful lot more to producing quality images than buying a sensor from Kodak. Image quality issues with the R-Module and M8 showed us that.

At one point it was rumoured that Phase One has been asked to working with Leica on the camera’s image processing firmware. If that’s actually the case we can hope that the quality of the raw files produced out of the camera will be of a standard to match the lenses that will lie in front of the sensor. If not, let’s hope that Leica doesn’t have another M8 debacle.

Memo to Leica:How about making these lenses in Mamiya / Phase One mount? This will open up a huge additional market for your lenses and likely won’t impact your S2 body sales in any significant way. I write this out of pure selfishness, because I’d really love to use your lenses, but like many photographers already have a camera investment (or two) that might get in the way. Anyhow, buying great new lenses is a photographers sacred duty, isn’t it?

As for who the camera’s intended market might be, that’s the critical question. Since the body and lenses will be very expensive this is not a mainstream product – as if any Leica ever was. This is also not a collector’s camera the way the M system’s film bodies are, or the M lenses. Being digital it doesn’t appeal to the crowd, mostly in Asia, that shrink-wraps unopened boxes and puts them in the safe, for god-knows what reason.

Wealthy amateurs are a likely part of the potential customer base, but in the worst economic climate in 70 years even the wealthy are pulling in their horns to a considerable degree. Pro shooters, fashion, advertising, and the like may find the S2 appealing, but will the price deter those for whom a 21-25 Megapixel 35mm DSLR system is more than adequate, such as those from Canon, Nikon or Sony, which also feature high frame rates, a very wide selection of lenses, and broad availability.

Pros who are currently shooting with Hasselblad, Phase One and other medium format systems may well ask themselves if there’s anything to be gained (other than those amazing lenses) by moving to a Leica S2. The availability of rental gear in major cities world-wide will also be something that Leica will have to orchestrate if they want to garner a slice of the pro market.

Also, with existing 645 camera systems and interchangeable updatable backs one has an upgrade path as new sensors and technology come along. The body stays while the back gets sold or traded in. Since the S2 is a unibody camera upgrading means trading in the whole camera (though if priced about the same as a comparable MF back, then there’s obviously little difference in the exercise).

The final dilemma for Leica is distribution. If this is a pro product, (and it is in terms of price, if nothing else) then it needs to be sold by specialty dealers and VARS. The implications of this are that the product needs higher margins than if sold through mass retailers, making the product potentially even more expensive.

I have no doubt that there is a market for the Leica S2 system, even in these times of financial stress. If it delivers the goods then there will be enough pros and wealthy amateurs to create a market. But, is that market big enough for Leica to not just recover its likely considerable development costs, but also to produce the profits that the company needs to remain a going concern in these tough times?I hope so!

I also hope to be able to test an S2 system within the next few months, as soon as they become available for review, and will publish my report here as soon thereafter as possible.

April, 2009