Photokina 2012: Hands-on with the 37.5MP Leica S Medium-Format DSLR-style Camera

Posted by on Thursday September 20, 2012 | Camera

We were on hand earlier in the week in Cologne, Germany for the Leica event where the company unveiled the new Leica S but only got a few minutes to check out this DSLR-style medium format camera amidst the hordes of excited onlookers.

So we paid a visit to the Leica booth at photokina the next day and got some in-depth hands-on time with this camera, which is the follow up to the well-received Leica S2 from 2008.

While the new Leica S uses the same Kodak-built, 37.5MP, 45 x 30mm-size CCD sensor as the S2 and looks very similar to its predecessor, there are many internal and external tweaks to this latest top-of-the-line pro model from Leica.

What’s in a Name?
But first, a bit about the name. As with its latest full-frame digital rangefinder — the Leica M — the company is now going for a general nomenclature for its highest end models, with the idea that similarly named iterations will follow. The approach has been compared to Porsche with its 911 sports car series, which maintain the general 911 name through the years while being upgraded. (Leica, Porsche…you see where this camera is being marketed, right?)

It’s an interesting approach which, I suppose, is more classy than just adding numbers at the end of a model name but I wonder if it will be confusing to prospective Leica buyers. (If it works for the new iPad though, perhaps it will also work for Leica’s products.)

Leica says it’s made over 80 improvements to the Leica S based on “consumer feedback from the market.” One thing they did not improve on, however, is the price: the Leica S will go on sale, body only, for $21,950 in December 2012. If anyone’s keeping score, that’s approximately the same price as the previous model, though the Leica S adds a new protection plan that increases the warranty to three years total.

General Improvements
Some general speed improvements have been added to the Leica S, including a doubling of the internal memory buffer, allowing you to shoot to up to 32 RAW DNG files until the camera slows down to catch up. That’s a rather significant improvement actually, and even while shooting with the camera at the Leica booth, I could tell it will help photographers who work with models and don’t want to have to wait for their camera to catch up to their creative flow.

While the Leica S has the same sensor as the previous model, there’s a new sensor board, that lets the camera shoot at a native ISO of 100 with increased dynamic range. (The S2 offered ISO 80 but it was a “pull” ISO and dynamic range was flat.)

The Leica S’ ISO range now increases in basic steps — ISO 100, 200, 400 etc. — rather than the half steps offered in the previous camera. Maximum ISO is now 1600.

In terms of hardware changes, the Leica S adds built-in GPS, with the GPS module slightly sticking up on top of the the left shoulder of the camera. This feature, along with the new Vario-Elmar-S 30-90 MM F/3.5-5.6 ASPH. lens (24-72mm equivalent in 35mm) for the S, are clearly designed to appeal to landscape and outdoor photographers, who might want to geo-tag their travel photos, or simply use the GPS to correct the camera’s internal clock to the correct time zone when they’re on the road.
The rear 3-inch LCD display has 920K of resolution and uses the sRGB color space. Images looked sharp and beautiful in playback, marking a noticeable improvement from the previous camera. Menus area easier to read and follow a new and, it should be said, improved system for making adjustments. There’s now hard, protective Gorilla Glass from Corning covering the LCD, which is nice.

For navigation purposes, a five-direction joystick on back helps you zip through the menus and scroll through images in playback. The joystick also lets you navigate within an image while zooming in. There’s a large histogram display option for your images now with peaking indicators and quicker access to the image controls.

Other Tweaks
Though the Leica S looks a lot like the older camera, it’s an excellent weather-sealed design and I’m very happy they didn’t change it drastically. The new model, however, has a revamped rubber surface that’s softer and offers a better grip.

The shutter speed dial on the Leica S has also changed. Like the classic Leica M models, the dial now has engraved shutter speeds rather than printed speeds, giving it a touch more class.

The only indication of the model name is on the black hot shoe on top, which has Leica S subtly engraved there.

Though its the same single-point autofocus system — with manual override — as the previous camera with the same maximum 1.5 frames per second “burst” shooting, the Leica S felt quicker to lock in on a subjects in low contrast shooting situations. Part of this might be from a new AF module — an internal optical device — that’s been added to the Leica S’ autofocus system.

There’s also a new RGB sensor for the AF in the viewfinder that gives the AF system an indication of what kind of light is around so it can compensate.

The viewfinder display has more info it including a built-in level — there’s also a level function on the rear screen — and indicators to tell you the current ISO and how much space remains in the buffer.

No, none of this will likely make current S2 owners want to buy the Leica S as a replacement — unless they have tons of disposable income, which is possible — but it does further refine an already excellent medium-format DSLR hybrid, which we named PDN’s Camera of the Year back in 2010.

Any photographer who’s put off by traditional medium format cameras, should take a serious look at the ergonomic and highly functional 37.5MP Leica S. (Just make sure you look at your bank account first to check if you have enough funds.)




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