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Hands On: Leica S2

by Chris Gampat on 04/19/2010

A while ago at the Leica Roadshow in NYC, the S2 was presented to all who attended. The camera, Leica’s main entry into the professional medium format space, is one that surprised all during the seminar. Being a 37.5MP beast of a camera, when one actually holds it they notice that it is actually more elegant that it is a monster. However, it does have a couple of quirks; as do most medium format cameras.

Author’s Note: This article is very, very late to a point which is almost inexcusable. I apologize to the readers and to Leica as site statistics and reader letters have demanded other things from me.

Ergonomics

When the Roadshow was in NYC, I was currently reviewing the D3s, D3X, and D300s so the comparisons were only naturally on my mind. The Leica S2 is a camera that is more comfortable to hold than all three of the previously said cameras. When one reads reviews of it, one may read that it is similar to the D3s in feel. In my hands, it felt smaller and more comfortable. However, the grip on the D3S and D3x did feel better.

When holding the S2, feelings of holding a Canon 5D Mk II actually came to mind. However, one must remember that the S2 is still a bigger camera.

For the main work of a photographer, one can probably not ask for much more. There is a dial to adjust shutter speed on top of the camera and one dial on the back to adjust the aperture. One can see the changes being made on the top LCD or in the viewfinder.

One of the really nice things about this camera is the lens release button. For Canon, Nikon, Olympus and others, the button is on the left. On the S2, it is on the right. While this may be confusing at first, in practice it actually makes quite a bit of sense. For example, say that I am doing headshots for a client in studio and need to quickly swap lenses due to time constraints. To save extra time and because I am holding the camera in my right hand, I can depress the release button, twist off the lens, hand it to an assistant, take the new lens from them, put it on, and get right back to work. It greatly facilitates the work flow and productivity on a set.

The other buttons can be a little hard to master, however. In general, this has been my experience on all medium format cameras; Phase One and Hasselblad not excluded.

Another good point is the fact that the on/off switch is on the back in an area that will not get accidentally touched.

The S2 also has the biggest and brightest viewfinder I’ve ever seen so far on a camera of this type. Part of the reason is the much larger sensor size.

Something that was asked was if there is Live View available. There is no Live View unfortunately.

Menus

They’re long. In fact, they can sometimes be painfully long. This all depends on what one wants to do though. If you want to adjust the white balance in camera you need to go through these menus. If you prefer to do it in post-production, then you can avoid the menu system.

To access the menus, users press one of the four buttons on the back of the camera by the screen. The buttons aren’t labeled though as they do different functions depending on which menu you are in. For example, the play menu offers different features assigned to the buttons than the settings menu does.

Despite their long layout, the menus are quite intuitive once you memorize what settings are located in which subset. As with learning a new camera and system, this just takes a bit of memory and usage. I only had about an hour of time with the camera as a shoot was scheduled afterward.

Image Quality

At this stage of the game, this isn’t really a major factor. First off, Leica lenses are superb and second to none, even with the new system. Additionally, this is medium format. Medium format photographers work with loads of lighting and almost always shoot at lower ISO settings.

At medium format levels, we shouldn’t be nitpicking every single detail and pixel peeping is quite useless.

However, the fact that there is no back for the camera means that image quality cannot be upgraded in the long run. This may hurt Leica in the long run if they do not offer an upgrade program of some sort.

Images are written to a CF card and if wanted, an SD card as well. The latest batch of UDMA cards are supported.

Ruggedness

With weather sealing and a tough body, the S2 seems to be on par with many DSLR cameras. There was one thing that really did amaze me and the other attendees to the point where our jaws dropped. The presenter plugged a FireWire cable into the camera and let the camera dangle from the cable. The port was designed for that type of ruggedness and torture for the clumsy photography that may do that when rushing on set due to high stress.

That’s something not possible with other medium format cameras.

I can actually see this pairing very nicely with the Sun Sniper strap that I reviewed.

Autofocus

There is only one autofocus point and it is in the middle. The nice thing about this is that it doesn’t seem to hunt for your subject the way that previous autofocus systems have. It is very accurate as well.

The one autofocus point works well for medium format photographers. However, I do wish that it had the focus-shift that Hasselblad has for their systems. Once again, this readjusts your focus when you shift your camera back to the original focus distance/point.

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