So, here it was. One of the new boxes arrived, standing on the table and waiting to be opened. As a photographer you almost get used to those procedures: A new camera, a new lens, more megapixels, faster and more possibilities. Every 2nd month a new gadget arrives, and the way we use our equipment changed completely. A Leica R9 or a Nikon F3 was a matter of at least a decade, and a Hasseblad 500 CM even longer. From time to time we saw a new kind of film arrive, but our equipment stayed the same. Five years ago I finally saw the need to sell all my analogue gear and change to digital. A 203 F Hasselblad with five lenses went for a ridiculously low price, thank God to a student. I hope he stills works with this fantastic camera. The time pressure from the customers to deliver was just to great. Certainly, I will not miss the hours of dust removal after scanning, and I can tell you, there have been many of those. I still remember the day some new equipment arrived. A bit skeptical and still shocked from the big investment I told my assistant to unwrap the boxes, study the manual, and place the gear into the photo bag. Almost five years have passed now, and I saw my first digital medium format camera go on sale last month.
So, here we are again – another new box. Made in Germany this time – black and pretty. I took it home, not into the studio. Did not let my assistant open the box and study the manual. This time it was different. It was a matter of privacy. Of course I knew the Leica S2 already, I wouldn’t have bought one without a preview test. At least when it cost a fortune. But this one in the box was special: The one in the box was my private Leica S2.
I’ve had several cameras in my life, but just two made me feel respectful. The first one was my self-bought Minolta XG-M model, and it was my first ever personal mirror reflex. I will never forget the day. I was 15, and my dad took the money I had saved over the last couple of years and went to the store to buy it on my behalf. I carried the white Minolta-box home. An exciting time started, where the hobby became more serious than expected. Ansel Adams and Brett Weston became my big idols, and I swallowed every book I could read or look at. Five years later I finally bought my first large format camera. I felt such a respect opening the small box. It was a 50 years anniversary model, produced in Munich, and the finest machinery craftsmanship on this planet: A Linhof Master Technika. The camera was placed in a translucent bag, which was closed with a red seal. This was really big, and this experience really left a huge impression in me. Over the next five years we became best friends. I did one of my favorite early images with this beautiful camera, until it got stolen in France on a business trip, on one of those 10 minutes café occasions. I still have a Polaroid image of me sitting sad in the police station, taken by a good friend who traveled with me at this time.
The Leica S2 box is again one of those big respectful adventures. I have opened several Leica boxes in my life, and yes, it is not a secret that I am a Leica fan. My digital module for my Leica R8 was a very good investment. I had all together eleven R-lenses so there was not really a choice. It is still in good shape and working. My Leica CM still follows me on some of my journeys and a Leica M9 with one lens is also in my Leica family. And now finally the Leica S2.
Why invest in such a costly camera system in this time of post crisis? A lot is back to daily business, but a lot has changed. I believe we are in the beginning of changes to come. After seeing Camerons Avatar it is clear what 3D work is able to create today. If you follow all the different photoblogs on the world wide web, where photographers is showing the miracles of photoshop work, you can just imagine what we are heading for. Photographers competing against enormous amounts of photoshop layers creating the final result. Post production gets larger attention and in many cases photography becomes more of an illustration. In this whole process the moment when capturing an image becomes almost secondary. So where is the place for a Leica S2? Let me answer this question by placing the Leica S2 in your hands. What I liked straight away about this camera was the smoothness of the surface. A time/program wheel on top, four buttons on the back, and a click wheel on the right thumb. Clear, simple and basic. Does this remind you of something? Exactly! This is how cameras used to look like for many years. Don’t get me wrong. This camera is capable of the highest demands, and equipped with all possible and modern solutions if needed. But first and not least it leads your focus to the most important thing: The object or scene in front of you. It simply doesn’t draw the attention to technical issues. It lets you feel the pride of being a photographer again. It leads you back to photography!
Some month ago I had a visit from two very good German friends. We know each other from our study at the Folgwang School in Essen. Obviously, my camera purchase came up as a theme. When I placed the Leica S2 on the table I saw the glow in their eyes. A Leica has something magical to it. It doesn’t really matter if it is a mini Leica or a S2, because you instantly feel a certain pride to hold one of those in your hands. So is the fuss about this camera with the red dot a myth? Maybe? A camera of your favorite choice will always give you the feeling of security, joy and motivate you to capture images. The Leica is my choice. The people in Solms holds on to traditions and they design every unit very carefully. They often decide against trends for fundamental basics. I must admit that I like this approach. If I could sum up all these thoughts I would mention on word: Haptics. (The sense of touch.) The Leica S2 inherited all of those traditions. The material, the design and choice of details. Just place a Leica S2 in your hands and you will understand what I’m talking about. But there is also another reason for me to feel good about my purchase. The Leica S2 and Leica M9 are not just constructed, but also completely produced in Germany. Now almost every product is produced in the far east because of lower costs, and therefore I have big sympathy with companies that holds on to decisions to produce in their own countries. It is fantastic that the factory in Solms has employed more and more brilliant people and decided to create outstanding new digital products in the last few years.
Usually a camera box is supplied with a manual, which when printed, often appears the size of the Bible. This is the point where I get frustrated. I recently loaned another small format digital camera because some high ISO values were needed, where my digital Leica R8 just passed out. It was equipped with several buttons that made several combinations. I always pushed the wrong ones. Yes, I know I should have studied the bible, but I had my assistant with me and he saved me from the frustrating situation. The Leica S2 is the opposite: Less is more. It is equipped with a clear written and illustrated manual, quite comprehensive and friendly for such a high tech product. But even if you don’t read it, you will understand the Leica S2 in a second. I needed less than five minutes to know all the possibilities, and that is not due to loss of functionality, but to the clarity of the menu. Intuition! Everything is explained almost by itself. Of course some of the missing buttons could have been spared, since their function were moved into the menu, but to be honest it is a relief. The technical aspects of photography still haven’t changed for the past 150 years, but we get help from more and more automatic functions, which seems to make our lives easier. If you have the need for fast access of the most basic functions from the menu, you have the possibilities to program the four buttons on the back of the camera. This goes very fast and tidy.
Because of the shape and size of the Leica S2 it might be mistaken for a small format camera, but it simply isn’t! On one side it is even smaller than the flagships from Canon or Nikon, on the other hand the image quality of the Leica S2 exceeds far beyond those models. Of course this is due to the sensor size and that’s why the lens is larger compared to the small format lenses. The Leica S2 fits very good in the hand and I find the size of the lens not a disturbing factor. It lets you forget that you hold a camera which competes against other top medium format cameras. Compared to those you get spoiled by additional functionality. It’s smooth, it’s fast and it has a fantastic matrix measuring system, not to mention a spot meter, which is a very useful and profound function. It also has a very fast and precise autofocus, which was something I couldn’t relay on with my last camera. It lets you feel that you are holding a masterpiece in your hands. Nothing vibrates – it’s a 110% unit. The Leica S2 has the best release button and the smoothest mirror of all mirror reflex cameras I have ever owned, and for a medium format camera absolutely exceptional! An very useful additional function, which is known from the Nikon and Canon top models, is the parallel use of two memory cards. You can choose if you want to enlarge the total amount of memory or write raw and jpgs parallelly to the other card. This is a very helpful and timesaving offer if you shoot a lot of images on location. If you own one of the S-lenses with a central shutter you have more possibilities, like photographing outside with a flash or high speed with the 1/4000 second curtain. It gives you the possibility to work with open apertures in bright light.
I felt sympathy with the viewfinder from the first moment. For me it is the most important part of a camera. Here your ideas and your thoughts become real. The Leica S2 viewfinder is clear and gives you a good overview of the composition. Many cameras are not to my taste in this detail. The eye often needs to look too far out in the corners to overview the whole image. I am used to watch a large format screen with a certain distance and the Leica S2 comes quite close without the need to think upside down. The screen is very bright and it’s also the first digital camera where I feel I can focus manually on the screen with ease. The Leica S2 will have different screens to choose from: A grid screen is now available, other focusing screens with manual focusing aids will follow.
I bought my Leica S2 with all four available lenses. All follow the same design. There is no button for manual autofocus. Instead you just override the autofocus manually with the well designed rubber focus ring. The autofocus will be reactivated with the next push of the release button – a very nice and intuitive thought! With an aperture opening of 2.5, (except for the 3.5 / 180mm), the lenses are very open. This is absolutely unique and a landmark in medium format standards, but you pay for this with a bit larger lens design. The central shutter also needs a lot of space, but all together the size of all lenses is nothing unusual or heavy. It is expected compared to the small size of the camera body. A Leica lens is the heart of the system. Only the best is good enough. All lenses are constructed with no compromises. To support this you will find a square shade delivered in your box. Sorry, but I don’t trust circular shade design and find them neither clever or useful!
So, is the Leica S2 the perfect camera? After all the positive reviews we should take a look at minor problems. There are really just a few, and I’m sure Leica is working on solving those problems as soon as possible. Some are just a matter of taste actually. One of them is the preview and zoom in function, which is controlled by the only push-wheel. A very good thought actually to simplify the whole process, but I feel you need to concentrate to push the wheel in the right order. I feel the M9 solution, which came from the digital module, is still more convenient.
What you also might need to get used to is the format ratio. Usually medium format cameras have a 4:3 or 4:5 ratio. The Leica S2 has a small format 3:2 ratio – the traditional and first Leica format. For photographers taking a lot of commercial photography this ratio is welcomed, since you operate in the DIN format world. But I also like the 3:2 ratio format in my personal photography. My presentation on the internet is adopted to this format, but in the end it’s a matter of taste and personal decision.
Leica feels very loyal to S2 customers, and since this is a new start in the professional world, you will get supported in the best way possible. You can choose from different support options when you buy your Leica S2 and adjust your investment. What I found surprisingly positive is the last offer for all registered customers: The S-lenses with the central shutter will soon be available and Leica offers to replace all pre-owned lenses with a trade in, regardless of the condition of the used lens. I find this unusual and it shows how serious and professional the approach is. Also, the last software update has brought new functionality and it is not the last one I guess. If you are a registered user you will enjoy all the comfort of free software upgrades and other advantages of the Leica S2 service.
I have been working with the system now for over one year. So was the investment in the S2 worth it? I must admit i haven’t regretted it for one second. It is not just about the reliability, but also the joy to open my case and take this beautiful camera in my hands. I did not necessarily invest into the system because of commercial reason. Far more because of my personal and art projects, with the highest demands for large print exhibition quality made the decision necessary. This is where the exceptional quality of a Leica S2 comes in. We live in times where photographers are convinced a 35mm digital is good enough to solve every possible demand. Don’t get me wrong, most of todays 35mm digital cameras are fantastic and you get enormous offers for money, but straight after comparing it to a Leica S2 file you get aware of the limits.
Certainly, we will see some new cameras arrive soon with new functions, faster and so on. What makes me feel quite good about my Leica S2 system is to own the best basic tools in photography. The best lenses, and a camera which is built around the most profound basics in photography. My Leica R8 still offers everything to make a perfect technical image, a possibility it has had for the last 20 years and will have for the next 20 years at least. If film still exist. The Leica S2 exceeds all this possibilities by far, and I am sure that this is the beginning of a long, passionate friendship.
– Damian Heinisch