Let’s pretend you’re in the market for a Leica camera, but you also want the lovely workings of medium format in a more compact form. At the end of 2008, this may not have seemed possible until the release of the Leica S2. Back then, stuffing a medium format sensor into a DSLR-like body with a whopping 37.5MP sensor was quite cutting edge. But, as per usual with Leica kits, you had to pay for the privilege.
There were medium format cameras available at the time, but where the Leica S2 stood out was in its compact size, at least in the medium format camera realm. The Leica design was also built from the ground up and uses DNG RAW files. It has plenty of high-end features, so let’s see if this camera body can still cut it in the 2020s.
As per the usual Leica design principles, the S2 body design is sparse. The rear of the camera has the most external controls, centered around a three-inch LCD screen. Four soft key buttons surround the display, which have different functionality depending on the menu item being viewed. A small dial on the rear right side has multiple functions, such as changing aperture or scrolling through menu items.
The body itself is made from magnesium alloy, with a healthy sized grip, built to the usual Leica standards. The top plate features an elegant looking OLED screen, with just the right amount of exposure information, plus the usual Leica shutter speed dial. Everything here is fully waterproof and dustproof, but not exactly lightweight at 1410g.
As for more overview specs, as previously mentioned, the sensor is a 30x 45mm CCD 37.5MP unit. That’s 56 percent larger than a regular DSLR full-frame sensor. A ‘Maestro’ image processor provides the speeds of processing, with a native sensitivity of ISO 160-1250, expandable to ISO 80. Metering options range from Spot, Center-weighted, and Multi-field, although those capabilities are a lackluster 1.5 fps in burst mode.
One standout feature here is the dual shutter system. A focal plane shutter handles fast shutter speeds, while a central shutter provides flash synchronization in all modes, aimed squarely at the studio photographers. Dual memory card slots have also been provided, with a LEMO design USB 2.0 and HDMI (Type C) ports.
This is also a stills-only camera. No video facilities here, but the Leica S2 is not aimed at the generic, casual shooter. Rather, it’s for the professional who needs a medium format solution and a simple, straightforward way of shooting.
The Leica S2 In Use
Jumping from a full-frame sensor to medium format has the same type of benefits as going from a crop sensor to full-frame. More sensor space for a larger amount of pixels and more space between them. There’s also no anti-aliasing filter to hinder the process. Plus, there’s a 16-bit workflow instead of 14 bits on a regular DSLR.
Half the reason for buying into a Leica camera body is the lens offerings. The Leica S2 utilizes the S-system lenses, which in a nutshell are world-class. This is part of the reason why Leica remains so popular. There’s also a healthy amount of focal lengths available from wide-angle to telephoto. Leica lenses are a discussion in themselves, but suffice to say they won’t leave you wanting from the quality, with exceptional levels of contrast, color, and detail.
As for autofocusing, it may be perplexing that there is only a single AF point, but at least it’s fast and accurate. The multi-pattern exposure metering system generally does a good job of nailing the exposure, but the system can be tripped up with high-contrast areas – more than what you would expect from a DSLR. In this area, the camera feels very much like a photo studio machine more than anything.
The photo studio analogy also applies to noise and ISO sensitivity. In this setting, ISO settings are always kept as low as possible, which means a huge ISO range is rarely used. The Leica S2 may seem initially limiting with ISO 160-1250, with noise identifiable at ISO 640. However, the comparisons here are with equivalent medium format cameras of the time. The camera also isn’t the fastest when tethered, with a slow by today’s standards USB connection, but firmware updates can remedy this issue to an extent.
Despite the S2’s seemingly slow workings, the main selling point here is quality and resolution. Shooting portraits with ample amounts of light provides a ridiculous amount of detail. With a full-body shot of a subject, it’s very easy to zoom into the pupil of the eye and see a detailed highlight of a soft box or umbrella. Images are also rendered with neutral tones, allowing for loads of scope for post-processing. In other words, from image quality along, this camera has every bit the medium format quality. And isn’t it the end result that ultimately counts?
How Does It Compare?
Lining up the Leica S2 against either medium format offerings or even DSLRs is difficult. The S2 has the design features of a DSLR, but with medium format sensibilities. Thus, the omission of the usual comparison table.
Up against an equivalent Hasselblad, Mamiya, or Pentax, the S2 has comparable quality with a similar heavyweight price tag, just in a more portable form. Lined up against DSLRs of the day, the Leica S2 has plenty more resolution, but is nowhere near as versatile. Plus, you can easily buy a bunch of full fat DSLRs and lenses for the same money.
The medium format brigade also put a lot of effort into making more compact units as a whole. That means, in retrospect, the S2 is now a cost-effective way to buy into the Leica range at today’s prices.
Compared to other medium format cameras of the day, the S2 has the most integrated features and as it produces DNG files, which can be edited in any type of software such as Lightroom. For sheer quality, you can’t go wrong with the Leica S2, but for those who are used to using DSLRs, you may be left wanting. The S2 doesn’t have video features, is not the best in low light, and is not exactly the fastest camera around. If you want a more all-round camera solution, than the likes of Canon, Nikon, and Sony might be better.
All of that doesn’t matter to Leica, as this camera isn’t aimed at the general market. This is a solution for the working professional in a studio environment. Not that the camera can’t go out into the wilds, it just has a more narrow scope of light capabilities.
The Leica S2 is a specialist offering and doesn’t really care about a more generic market. It’s not trying to please everyone, but rather those who want Leica quality lenses and an easy to handle medium format camera to boot.
In today’s prices, you’ll still have to shell out a few thousand dollars for the privilege of owning one of these things, but even in today’s high-resolution stakes, the S2 can still cut the mustard. If you don’t mind paying top dollar for the accompanying lenses, the Leica S2 is still a great camera.