A New S Takes Center Stage
Unveiled at Photokina 2014 in September of that year, Leica S(007) availability was announced almost a year later, on August 25, 2015. That’s a long gestation period. This is the third generation Leica S, joining the S2 of 2009 and the just plan S of 2012 – now called the S(006) – got it?.
Sidebar: I can’t say that I’m much of a fan of Leica’s latest naming convention, where every new model has the same name as the last, except for a code which is appended, as in this case with the Leica S (007).
It makes discussion or writing about the cameras awkward. It makes web searches difficult. It makes buying and selling used cameras confusing and does little, in my opinion, to create either cachet or clarity of communication. And since, if nothing else, Leica cameras are intended to be an embodiment of simplicity and Bauhousian clarity, for me the naming convention fails in its mission.
Michael shares with Kevin the new features of the Leica S (007)
About This Report
Let me start by saying that this is not a full test report. It is a “first look“, “initial impressions” or whatever you care to call it, based in a couple of weeks of field use of a pre-production camera and then a full production camera loaned to me by Leica as part of their beta testing program. (For most of my shooting I was using Firmware V1.0 and V126.96.36.199).
It should also be noted that I am a life-long fan of Leica products as well as the company. In past years I spent my days as a photojournalist with M2, M3, M4, and M6 cameras and in recent years have owned an M8 and M9, not to mention quite a few M lenses.
I no longer own or shoot with Leica M’s though, because a rangefinder camera no longer suits my style or needs, and I’ve never owned an S.
I’ll conclude this introductory section by simply saying that though I am a Leica fan, I’m not a fanboy. I give Leica no greater a “pass” than I do any other company. Which means, none at all.
Though the new S (007) is very much based on the previous S2 and S (006) I am going to treat it here as if it is a brand new camera. The vast majority of readers have never used an S Leica and so for the sake of clarity I won’t be doing back and forth comparisons between the new and the older versions. If you are already familiar with the S, then simply skip the parts that you already know.
To start off, think of the new S as a really large traditional DSLR – which is indeed what it is. If you’re an NFL lineman you’ll find the S fits your hand really well. If you’re of more prosaic proportion you’ll likely find it to be quite large and heavy, particularly with an S lens attached – almost any S lens.
But the build quality is exemplary. The body is built like the proverbial brick outhouse, and is weather sealed, with thick rubber gaskets and covers on all openings. It feels as if one could pound nails with the camera and it would suffer no damage. It also may be the most aesthetically pleasing camera designs ever – tactilely and visually – at least to my taste.
The S is a medium format camera and thus requires a size and weight trade-off – for a 30 X 45mm, 37.5 Megapixel sensor with large glass pentaprism and reflex mirror. The sensor has a pixel pitch of 6 μm while the Sony A7R MKII, which many may consider as a competitor, has a so-called full-frame 35mm sensor of 43 Megapixels that’s essentially 24 X 36mm , with a pixel pitch of 4.71 μm. The 51 Megapixel Pentax 645z’s sensor, for further comparison, is 32.8mm X 43.8mm, and has a pixel pitch of 5.3 μm – right in between the two.
Is the Sony’s smaller pixel pitch trumped by the Leica sensor’s greater real estate, as it should be if numbers told the whole story? Read on, as I have done a quick comparison, but be it enough to say that numbers don’t tell the full story.
But Leica is claiming that their raws are 16 bit, while Sony is known to use a form of lossy compression which is 11 bits (+7 delta offset), though claimed in PR material to be 14 bits. It’s sometimes hard to separate the hype from reality.
Viewfinder & Top Panel
Nevertheless, the Leica S (007) stands on its own merits, especially because it is not a mirrorless camera but one with one of the industries largest and brightest optical viewfinders. In this regard it is simply a joy to use. Surrounding the rubber eye cup is a very large diopter adjustment ring and the viewfinder is loaded with shooting data on its LCD panel.
There is also a bright and legible OLED top panel which provides vital shooting information
New to the S(007) is Live View, which is activated by a small silver button on the camera’s top panel. Three presses cycle through On, Cropped Video Mode, and Off.
In Live View several different screens are available, including a 16X9 cropped image (though not with Super 35mm 4K framing – likely intended instead for regular HD video shooting), a screen with flashing highlight warning and histogram, and one with peaking. There is also a screen mode with a level display and grid lines. A level display also appears in the optical viewfinder.
It’s worth mentioned that the exposure warning allows one to set both the Black and White Point alert levels numerically.
Rear LCD and VF
The rear LCD is a 3″ TFT LCD with 921,600 pixels made of Corning Gorilla Glass. It is not articulated nor is it a touch screen. The viewfinder is reflex optical, and one of the largest and brightest on the market. It’s a joy to use if you’re old-school and prefer an optical finder to an EVF. But I have become quite used to articulated rear LCDs, and not having one on the S (007) is to my mind a drawback for many types of shooting.
Power Switch / Lens Type Selector
To the left of the OVF is a large power-on switch which also selects whether one will be working with the camera’s focal plane shutter or with a CS (Central Shutter) type lens. The advantage of leaf shutter lenses is their faster flash sync speed. There is no electronic shutter available in the camera, though there is delayed mirror lock up for vibration reduction.
Needless to say, because of its mirror reflex design, bulk, and large focal plane shutter, this is not a stealth camera.
The S takes two cards, having both an SD card slot and a CF card slot. (Remember CF cards?) If you have a collection of CF cards available, or you already own another type of medium format back, or an older DSLR, this is great. But frankly, I would have preferred two SD card slots. Most laptops have SD card slots. Using CF cards means needing an external reader.
Note that if you will be shooting 4K video a Class 10 U3 card will be required.
The new S can shoot Cinema 4K at its native 24 FPS. Note that this isn’t UHD 1 at 3840×2160. The sensor is internally cropped to Super-35 format, and therefore there is no line skipping or binning. A Leica technical data sheet describes the colour sampling as 4:2:2, but my guess is that this is only to an external recording device via HDMI. Whether the camera records 4:2:2 to card remains to be confirmed.
Be aware that for this reason, when shooting video in 4K mode, sensor coverage and thus the image is quite severely cropped. This means that it will be quite difficult to get really wide angle shots in this mode because of the 1.5X crop factor.
The file format is motion JPG in .MOV, and the data rate is a very high 349 Mbps. All parameters can be set while filming, though if the camera is in Auto mode the aperture will be heard on the internal mike as a click as it changes, and the change is abrupt. This is not a run-and-gun video camera, but rather one that should be used intentionally.
In video mode the S is like a DSLR. Unlike with a mirrorless camera, the only way to see what is being shot is via the rear LCD or an external monitor. No EVF for this puppy. This means that shooting video in bright daylight presents its challenges.
There is also no image stabilization and no internal ND filters (of course). The 4K and UHD camera landscape currently presents something of a level playing field, with sensor size not playing as large a role as it does with stills. 4K is 4K, and thus the debating points center around colour sampling, data rates and other factors.
I have some concerns about the S(007)’s user interface. Except with the addition of Live View and a joystick it hasn’t changed all that much since the previous generation. The problem as I see it is that there simply aren’t enough direct controls. I know that Leica has tried for elegance and simplicity, but in doing so it has broken the first rule of ergonomics – that form should follow function. In the case of the S camera, sadly, function seems to follow form, and in doing so gets in the way of the S being as productive a tool as it could be.
For example, functions such as mirror lock-up are only accessible via the rear LCD menus. Others can be programmed onto one of the four rear custom buttons, but four buttons turns out simply not to be enough. No matter how you program them there will be functions that are used moment-to-moment when shooting that will require menu diving.
And how does one get to these menus? Through these same four buttons. Depending on what mode you’re in a long press or a short press either calls up a programmed function or a menu. Frankly, after three weeks of shooting with the S (007) I never became really comfortable with the controls. On the other hand, the Pentax 645z (which I own) has some 25 external buttons, and while at first it looks intimidating, after a day or so it becomes second nature to access almost any of the camera’s functions without looking twice – quickly and directly.
Not to draw too close a parallel between these two cameras (this isn’t a shoot-out, though the two are similar in that they are the industry’s only non-interchangeable-back medium format cameras), but when it comes to usability under pressure the Pentax mostly sings and the Leica sometimes chokes.
The Leica’s new joystick does add some additional control, and I liked the fact that it can be configured to activate AF on being pressed inwards. I almost always shoot with AF decoupled from the shutter button and this works well on the Leica since it otherwise doesn’t have an AF button.
It is possible to set up some custom configurations, but what would really make the S(007) much more user-friendly would be if there was a user configurable shortcut menu. For example, if one of the four custom buttons could be set to display a “My Menu” selection where a range of user-configurable controls was made readily accessible.
I should add though that Leica appears to be aiming the S(007) at the traditional Leica owner (maybe a previous S series owner) and as such are sticking with a tried and true formula. This means that while newcomers may find the S(007)’s interface a bit “old”, traditional owners will find it eminently comfortable and familar.
Finally, that the S(007) still, now in 2015, uses a single center autofocus point does not reflect well on Leica’s position in the competitive marketplace. And, while phase detection AF works quickly enough for a medium format camera, once in Live View and contrast-detection AF the camera hunts, and is slow. This is the norm for cameras of a few years ago, but now the industry has sensors with on-chip phase detection and literally hundreds of AF points. Keeping up with the big Asian camera companies is becoming increasingly difficult for specialty manufacturers like Leica.
It’s been said that the camera industry is now the consumer electronics industry. This has never been more true that now, and even (comparatively) smaller companies such as Nikon, who have to source components from third parties, feel the pressure.
Sidebar: No one is immune from these forces. Look at Sony, who once was the king of television sets. They now no longer manufacture their own because they couldn’t do so competitively, and instead OEM from Korean manufacturers.
The Leica S(007) has a built-in GPS, whose antenna occupies the top left shoulder of the camera. It’s definitely nice to have, but there is a bug.
If the GPS does not have a fix, it records 0.0.0 N / 0.0.0 E in the camera’s GPS location field. As seen in the Lightroom screen-grab above, this Geo coordinate is somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean south of the coast of Ghana. Having no location information is not the same as being at 0.0.0 N / 0.0.0 E, which is a real (though likely wrong) location.
I reported this bug to Leica some weeks before launch but a fix didn’t make it into the first release software. I’m sure that it will turn up in a software update before too long.
Because this is Leica’s first medium format CMOS sensor, everyone is quite curious as to how well it will perform. In a word – very well indeed.
The following are not lab tests, but simply ones that are easy to perform without special equipment (other than experienced eyes). I find these tests useful because they are straightforward to repeat with different equipment, and though they don’t produce absolute numerical data, they are both reproducible and also provide useful comparisons over time.
The images below are 100% magnification crops taken at ISO multiples from 100 to 12,500. No processing or sharpening has been applied.
The sensor in the Leica S(007) is a new CMOS design. Leica has not mentioned who the manufacturer is, but it is definitely not Sony.
In terms of noise, I find that this sensor holds up very well, offering essentially noise-free imaging at up to and including ISO 1600. At ISO 3200 a bit of noise appears but is easily managed in post.
By way of comparison, looking at similar test images which I’ve produced with the Pentax 645z (currently the best of the medium format CMOS sensors) I judge the new Leica to be about 1 stop behind in terms of high ISO noise.
Keep in mind though that these are 100% crop comparisons. On anything less than very large prints at 240 ppi or higher, visible noise will, of course, be much less noticeable.
I should also point out that while Lightroom can read the S(007)’s DNG files, the program does not yet have support for this new model. The Pentax has had noise profiles available for more than a year now. I therefore expect that when Adobe does have customized support for the S(007) it and the Pentax will be very close indeed in terms of noise performance. This is excellent performance.
Without a lab it’s not possible to accurately measure dynamic range. But it is possible to do real-world comparisons.
Immediately below is a full frame taken with the S(007) at ISO 3200. This sensitivity was chosen because it is high enough (four stops above base) to show some noise, yet, not so high as to be unrealistic in daily use.
The next three files are of the Leica S(007) cropped at 100%, and also the Pentax 645z and Sony A7RII. These have two of the highest performing sensors of any cameras currently on the market, and I personally own both and use them regularly for my work. The Pentax 645z is, in particular, the most direct competitor to the Leica since it too is a DSLR style MF camera with Live View.
The Leica is (nominally) 37 MP, the Pentax 50MP and the Sony 42MP (rounding downward). Because of different aspect ratios, pixel densities, and lenses used, it was impossible to exactly match all three, but I got as close as I reasonably could matching image magnification.
The files were processed in Lightroom, but only the Highlight and Shadow controls were used to salvage the highlights from clipping (all three clipped slightly) and to open up the shadows as much as possible. The exposure slider was then used to “normalize” the images visually. Indeed, the histograms were a pretty close match. (No sharpening or other corrections were applied.)
My impressions are found below the sample images. Try and draw your own conclusions before reading them.
There are two main areas to look at in each of the cropped images. Firstly, look at the right side of each image. This is an area with mid-tone reproduction. I find the Leica and the Sony to be quite evenly matched, and both are very usable at ISO 3200, with hardly any noise reduction needed in post processing.
The Pentax 645z seems to me to have a very slight edge over both the Leica and the Sony at ISO 3200 in the normally exposed area.
Next, look at the left side of each cropped image. In these the shadows have been opened up as much as possible, by at least two stops. This is a stress test for the camera’s noise floor.
I would rate the cameras as Pentax first, Sony second and the Leica third, both in terms of the amount of shadow detail recovered and noise visible. But once again, realize that these results are obtained with Lightroom, which has noise profile support for the Sony and Pentax, but not yet for the Leica. I therefore would expect essentially comparable performance once support is included, because there is not all that much that separates the three cameras right now.
Also, please keep in mind that this is a stress test, and is designed to see how these sensors perform at “the margins“. All cameras perform well at base ISO, just as all lenses perform pretty well at f/8. It’s when the heat is on that one can determine how much flexibility a tool offers.
For me, a camera is a tool, and a tool needs to be both competent for the task at hand and also flexible, so that it offers performance in a range of applications.
My points of reference are the Pentax 645z which I have now been using for almost a year, and also the new Sony A7RII which I reviewed on these pages recently. I have been using both of these cameras in parallel with the Leica for the several weeks of this test period. One is what I regard as the previous best DLSR style medium format camera available, and the other is the best new full-frame mirrorless camera.
Image quality of the Leica S(007) is excellent. The Leica either matches or is just slightly behind both the Pentax and the Sony in areas such as dynamic range and high ISO noise, and when noise profile support is added to Lightroom these three cameras will likely be quite closely matched. Frankly, on normal-sized prints (up to 20X24″) one will even currently see little if any difference between the output of these three cameras.
As for top-of-the-line Nikons and Canons, I have not done similar comparisons, but I would doubt that there is much of a real-world spread. In this segment choices are to be made more on features and price and other factors than just image quality, which is already higher than most photographers can avail themselves of.
When it comes to build quality, the Leica S is a dream. It feels as if it was carved from a solid block of Unobtainium. Fit and finish are first rate, and, as with an S Class Mercedes, commensurate with its price. The Leica S(007) sells at B&H and has an announced price of $16,900.
My main criticism of the new S is that, for me at least, it must function well in the real world as a photographic tool, and is not simply to be used as a badge of prestige or wealth. In this the new Leica S is largely successful. It’s an excellent camera in many ways. But I feel that Leica needs to stretch itself a bit when it comes to user interface. Traditionalists will applaud that of the new S, while those coming from cameras with more contemporary designs may find it a bit old-fashioned.
I’ll also mention that when the S(007) was announced about a year ago, with its Live View and 4K video, it was exciting. But in the fast-paced product cycle that the camera industry now finds itself in, the intervening 11 months between introduction and shipping has seen Leica’s latest offering become eclipsed in some areas.
It’s About The Lenses
As every ardent Leica supporter knows – it’s about the lenses. Leica glass is about as good as it gets, and the best Leica glass, arguably the company’s S series lenses, are among the best of the best.
For some photographers being able to use Leica S lenses is justification enough for owning a Leica S, and they’d probably continue to do so even if the S was steam powered. Others will look at the competitive landscape, where exceptional lenses exist for almost all cameras, and will have to decide for themselves where the Leica S system fits, both with regard to their desires and needs.
For the pro or wealthy enthusiast with an appreciation for the Leica ethos, the S(007) will be eagerly received. For others, a visit to a Leica store or retailer will pay off with an opportunity to see this company’s new state-of-the-art medium format offering and to draw own conclusions.
UPDATE – 27 August, 2015
Sean Reid has just published his review of the Leica S(007) at redireview. Sean’s is a subscription site, and well worthwhile as he brings a unique and valuable perspective to his camera reviews.