Leica S (Typ 007) review

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Pros:
  • – Exceptional image quality up to ISO 6,400
  • – Well-designed body for handheld shooting
  • – Huge, bright viewfinder is a joy to use
Cons:
  • – Autofocus system only has a single point
  • – Lower resolution than medium-format peers
  • – Unconventional four-button control layout

Introduction

At a glance:
  • 37.5MP Leica ProFormat CMOS sensor
  • ISO 100-12,500
  • 3.5fps continuous shooting
  • 0.87x viewfinder with 100% coverage
  • 3in,921,600-dot LCD
  • Cine 4K video recording

With no background in medium-format film cameras, Leica was able to start with a clean slate when it decided the time was right to begin offering its users a larger sensor. Although the S1 was the first of its S-series models, it was a scanning camera and not closely related to the S models that followed. The S2 was the beginning of the current format, which was announced in 2008 and released for sale in 2009. Leica wanted to make a medium-format handheld camera that was small and easy to use, so it steered away from the Hasselblad/Bronica/Pentax 645 format of long-nosed SLRs and went with a shape more like the Pentax 67 SLR or Mamiya 7 rangefinder, and actually not that dissimilar to its own lovely R system of 35mm film SLRs.

Confusingly, Leica’s naming structure has altered since the introduction of the S2, so we had the S (Typ 006) instead of an S3, and now we have an S (Typ 007), representing the fourth generation of the series. This new model introduces some important changes for the system and brings with it features and functions that make it a thoroughly modern medium-format camera in a world in which the main players are only just moving away from bodies designed and created in the last century. It stands out too as the only digital medium-format camera built in the likeness of a 35mm-style DSLR. It also uses its own unique sensor size with a 3:2 aspect ratio, and is ploughing its own furrow when it comes to the sensor manufacturer.

Features

With its CMOS sensor, the Leica S (Typ 007) is capable of giving much better high ISO results than previous generations of the camera. This image was shot at ISO 3,200

With its CMOS sensor, the Leica S (Typ 007) is capable of giving much better high ISO results than previous generations of the camera. This image was shot at ISO 3,200

While we call the Leica S a medium-format camera, it doesn’t conform to any other medium-format sensor size that we are familiar with, either from digital sensors or from film. Its sensor measures 30x45mm and so is over 50% larger in area than what we’d call full frame for a 35mm-style camera, but fractionally smaller than the 33x44mm sensors used by Hasselblad, Phase One and Pentax. Leica isn’t letting on where the sensor is made, but the company has had a relationship in the past with a Belgian manufacturer called CMOSIS that makes the chip for the M (Typ 240). This CMOS sensor is likely made by the same company – at least it produces similar-looking results and images that don’t look like Sony’s.

Leica calls its unique format Pro Format, and this example of it carries 37.5-million 6μm pixels. This is the same resolution as the S (Typ 006) and the S2, so resolution hasn’t progressed at all, but Leica says its users are happy with the pixel count – it would, though, wouldn’t it?

Leica claims the sensor provides 15 stops of dynamic range, which is an impressive figure, and because it is CMOS and not 
CCD it has an ISO range of 100-12,500. Colour is recorded at 16 bits per pixel, and the sensor doesn’t use a low-pass filter, which should allow finer detail to be captured at the expense of some risk of moiré patterning.

At ISO 100 the camera captures exceptional detail and lovely tonality

At ISO 100 the camera captures exceptional detail and lovely tonality

A 2GB buffer memory and the Leica Maestro II processor allows a frame rate of up to 3.5 shots per second, and for the first time we have 4K and full HD video in a Leica S camera. The HD video mode uses the whole sensor area, so cinematic shallow depth of field is easily achieved, and lenses maintain the same angles of view as they provide in stills mode. The cinema 4K video setting uses a super 35mm area of the sensor, so the view is narrowed by about 1.5x, but resolution is 4,096×2,160p and the frame rate is 24fps. With an HDMI cable, the S can stream video to an external recorder and then can manage 4:2:2 colour and a data rate of 349Mbps. Video is recorded in the MOV file format.

The new CMOS sensor also brings live view to the S series, with a frame rate of 60fps and focus peaking, highlight warnings, a level, grids and a histogram. The rear screen is 3in across diagonally and uses 921,000 pixels, so shooting in live view is a pleasure, particularly when the camera is tripod-mounted. Most users will stick to the viewfinder for handheld work, and its size and 0.87x magnification make it a very enjoyable experience. The standard viewfinder screen is designed to highlight the focus area, but other screens are available with grids and micro prisms.

Another great benefit of the switch to a CMOS sensor is the expansion of the camera’s ISO range. The Typ 006 managed just ISO 100-1,600, but the Typ 007 pushes the top end to ISO 12,500.

The single focus point works best with central subjects

The single focus point works best with central subjects

The S cameras still have only a single AF point in the middle of the frame, but now we also have predictive tracking to make shooting moving subjects easier. You might be surprised that this hasn’t been a feature of the S cameras before, but the AF systems in medium-format bodies are generally less flexible and able than those in smaller systems. The larger lens elements are more difficult to move quickly and, perhaps more importantly, 
more difficult to stop quickly 
and accurately.

Wireless connectivity comes to the 007 as well, with Wi-Fi providing a link to your smartphone so you can control the camera via the Leica S app and transfer images to your phone.

Leica S app

iPhone_S

If you want to be able to use touch focus with the Leica S, you can download the Leica S app to your iOS device and enjoy the promise of modern living. I was quite excited about the app’s touch AF feature, so I downloaded it to an iPhone 5s and connected the phone and camera together.

Making the connection wasn’t all plain sailing, but I got there in the end. I had to set up a password in the camera, and once the camera’s network was selected in the phone’s Wi-Fi settings and the password typed in, the phone goes looking for the camera. 
I had to keep on top of the sleep modes of both phone and camera as they forget each other when they wake up and the phone doesn’t remember the password. Switch the camera off and it forgets it was in wireless mode too, so there is a bit of juggling to do, or you manually switch off the sleep modes.

The app works in both orientations on the phone and recognises whether the camera is in landscape or portrait orientation itself, which is very useful. The menu is extensive enough and allows us to change the majority of shooting features within the camera, and we can capture still and video images from the phone.

Leica’s suggestion that users can tap any element of the scene and the camera focuses on it isn’t quite true. You have to double-tap the screen and the camera’s contrast-detection system drags the focusing group backwards and forwards in an attempt to make something look sharp. If your hoped-for focus distance isn’t too far from the current one the camera will manage it, if not 
quite at lightning speed, but if the distances are dramatically different, some manual intervention will be required to help the machine find the subject.

What makes this app stand out from those of most other medium-format vendors is that it allows the user to download the images from the card to the phone, and to share them directly via the phone to email and other apps. Most other medium-format apps only allow reviewing, not downloading.

Handling

IMG_0134

If you are used to a 35mm-style DSLR, you’ll find the Leica S has a very familiar feel. It is shaped like a DSLR and is, in fact, a DSLR – with an eye-line optical viewfinder, a substantial grip and the shutter release in exactly the place you’d expect to find it. The top-plate offers a large command dial and the rear features a further dial, an eight-way toggle switch and four buttons positioned neatly around the rear screen. It will feel like home from home. It is, of course, bigger and heavier than a normal 35mm-style DSLR, but not excessively so – I was still able to carry it in the pocket of my favourite green coat when it was unzipped to the expanded position.

A great handling improvement for this body is the new LCD screen on the top-plate. The unit used on the Typ 006 was very difficult to see outside, but this new screen is bright and clear in all conditions and easy to use, with especially large typography.

IMG_0038-CMYK

There is a bit of delay on start-up while the camera finds the memory card, which I found a bit boring when I was in a hurry to get a shot, so I tried to just keep the camera on, but the delay occurs coming back from sleep mode too. Dialling in the settings you want to use is as easy as can be, and the rear dial can be turned to control the aperture and can be pressed in to adjust the exposure mode. A top-plate button takes us straight to the live view mode with a single press, while a second press gives us access to exposure preview and audio levels in a cropped 16×9 view.

Leica has unified its menu system across its whole camera range, so the menu in the S is basically the same as that in the Q compact and the M (Typ 240). It is a decent idea as it means Leica users will know where to find what they need immediately, no matter which camera they have come from, and the menu is good enough that it deserves to be repeated in multiple bodies.

Another element of the handling that the company is carrying from camera to camera is the arrangement of four long buttons around the rear screen. These are unmarked and customisable, so users can set them up to operate whatever features they use most often. The buttons are all dual-function as well, so a short press accesses one feature while a long press accesses another. All the short presses take us to menu screens and long presses give us functions such as ISO settings, metering modes or AF modes. It is pretty neat in one way, but you really have to remember which button you’ve set up for which function. That shouldn’t be an issue for those using the camera every day, but more occasional users may need a refresh before they get going.

The other point is that the body has only these buttons to deliver the entire content of its feature-set, and while we have smooth access to four of those features at any one time, there are plenty of others we need regular access to that can’t have a dedicated button to liberate them from the menu screens. The four-button arrangement looks very cool, but there were more than a few occasions when I wished there were more.

IMG_0044-CMYK

The camera has a new shutter system that is designed to reduce the impact of the curtain’s passing, the mirror flipping up and the shutter re-cocking. The process still creates a lot of vibration in the body, so faster shutter speeds than usual are needed, but for the most part the clatter and banging around is reduced. The company also now guarantees the shutter unit for 150,000 actuations instead of just 100,000.

The AF is decent enough in good light, and while the elements are inevitably big and heavy, focus is acquired in a reasonable amount of time. I found the system pretty good and the focus accurate, although I was always looking for more AF points 
across the frame.

Additional AF points are available in live-view mode, and they can be accessed using the joystick on the rear of the camera to shift the focusing marker across the screen until it almost reaches the edges. The marker moves pretty quickly and the action of shooting in live view is not so prolonged that it can’t be managed handheld – at a short shutter speed. It isn’t ideal, of course, and isn’t much good for moving subjects, but it can be done and is useful for off-centre subjects shot at wide apertures. With the camera tripod mounted live view comes into its own, and small details can be used as focus references in landscapes and so on.

For occasions when depth of field is critical, we have a standard stop-down depth of field preview button that works nicely in the bright optical finder as well as in live-view mode. The top-plate display also houses a depth of field information panel that shows the distances for our focused point, as well as the closest and furthest objects that will be sharp at the given aperture, which is pretty useful.

Performance

Leica-S-007L1001845

This past year, I’ve been struck by the extent of the improvement in image quality that Leica has achieved in its cameras. With the Q, the SL and the S, the company has made a sudden jump into the modern era and is producing thoroughly modern cameras that produce thoroughly excellent images. The resolution of this S will be the first measure that most people focus on, and while the detail that 38 million pixels can render is impressive, for me there are other ways to determine how good a camera’s output is.

The range of tones this camera can record in a single exposure is exceptional, and in my eyes makes the camera desirable on its own. Leica quotes a dynamic range of 15 stops and I have no reason to argue with that. It is normal for modern sensors to be able to reveal their shadow details, but highlights are the tones that suffer burnout and colour shifts. In the files this camera produces, highlights recover nicely and produce natural-looking images from scenes that were full of contrast. I love the way contrast can be moderated to create pictures free from hard shadows and glaring bright bits so we can see the subject without tonal distractions in other areas. The sensor isn’t magic, of course, and blacks and whites do occur in extreme cases, but on most occasions it creates lovely results.

Leica-S-007L1001925

Lifting shadows creates more image noise, as we all know, but Leica has done well to limit the number of dots and artefacts in these areas and in images shot at high ISO settings. Below ISO 800 noise doesn’t give us too many problems, but from ISO 1,600 it becomes a definite part of the image. I don’t mind good-looking grain, and that’s what we get from there until 6,400. Beyond that there be dragons, and I don’t recommend it.

I didn’t have too many occasions to use the 3.5fps drive mode, but can report that it does indeed work and that the camera will 
go on taking pictures at an inappropriate rate until you are bored. I thought it might slow down when DNG+JPEG was selected but it didn’t.

Dynamic range, resolution and noise

With the S (Typ 007), Leica has adopted a new 37.5-million-pixel CMOS sensor that’s used only in this camera. Typically for a CMOS design it’s vastly better at high ISO sensitivities than older CCD-based models, but it can’t match modern full-frame sensors for image quality beyond about ISO 1,600, with ISO 6,400 the highest really usable setting. However, image quality isn’t just about high ISOs, and it’s at the lower settings that the Leica really shines. At ISO 100 it delivers highly detailed images with barely any noise, which in turn allows incredibly fine tonal gradations and colour transitions. Image quality is maintained very well at settings up to ISO 800, but beyond this noise becomes increasingly problematic. The sensor doesn’t work alone, of course, and Leica’s uniformly excellent lenses are key to the overall package.

Dynamic range

This graph shows just how well the Leica S performs at low ISO settings. A dynamic range reading of 13.1 EV at ISO 100 indicates that there should be lots of scope for pulling out detail from the shadow areas of the image. However, once you increase the sensitivity beyond the ISO 400 setting, dynamic range starts to fall off quite rapidly, and while it’s still perfectly acceptable at ISO 1,600 the monotonous drop beyond this setting is indicative of ever-decreasing image quality. The 6.2EV result at ISO 12,500 is poor.

Leica-S-DR-graph-(new)

Resolution

With no optical low-pass filter in front of its 37.5-million-pixel sensor, the Leica S manages an impressive resolution of around 4,800l/ph at ISO 100. The DNG files converted using Adobe Camera Raw do, however, show distinct colour moiré around this point at low ISOs, along with maze-like aliasing at higher frequencies. Resolution drops a fraction at ISO 400, but then holds up remarkably well as the sensitivity is raised further. Even at the top setting of ISO 12,500 the camera still achieves 4,200l/ph.

RAW ISO 100

RAW ISO 100

RAW ISO 400

RAW ISO 400

RAW ISO 1,600

RAW ISO 1,600

RAW ISO 3,200

RAW ISO 3,200

RAW ISO 6,400

RAW ISO 6,400

RAW ISO 12,500

RAW ISO 12,500

Noise

Both raw and JPEG images taken from our diorama scene are captured at the full range of ISO settings. The camera is placed in its default setting for JPEG images. Raw images are sharpened and noise reduction applied, to strike the best balance between resolution and noise.

RAW ISO 100

RAW ISO 100

RAW ISO 400

RAW ISO 400

RAW ISO 1,600

RAW ISO 1,600

RAW ISO 3,200

RAW ISO 3,200

RAW ISO 6,400

RAW ISO 6,400

RAW ISO 12,500

RAW ISO 12,500

At its lowest setting of ISO 100, the Leica S (Typ 007) delivers superb image quality with lots of fine detail and exceptionally low noise, which in turn means remarkably subtle tonal gradations. With the size of the sensor – over 50% larger than full frame by area – it also maintains quality very well as the ISO setting is raised. There’s barely any drop in quality at ISO 400, and it’s only at the ISO 1,600 setting that we begin to see some luminance noise creeping into the image when looking very closely. At ISO 3,200 there’s a more obvious impact, especially in darker areas of the image, but the files are still very usable. At ISO 6,400 noise becomes rather prominent, but with careful handling in raw conversion it should clean up OK. However, the top setting of ISO 12,500 is a step too far, with excessive noise blighting even the midtones of the image.

verdict

For all the little difficulties this Leica S (Typ 007) presents, it’s a camera I enjoy using a great deal. Once I’ve set it up with the rear buttons customised to my liking, and now that I’m familiar with the menu system and how to skip pages instead of scrolling through all the options, I can make it work quite quickly. The AF is good enough and works well in most cases, and when it is insufficient the massive, bright viewfinder makes focusing manually a joy.

I long for all medium-format cameras to grow more than one AF point – if Pentax can do it, surely Leica can too. It is the weakest area of the camera.

The handling of the S is very important because Leica has made a statement by creating this design that looks as though it is supposed to be handheld, and while it is big and heavy it is easily the best medium-format camera for working with off the tripod. 
In all, handling is good and fast, and Leica has achieved what it set out to do.

Depth of field is shallow with medium format - this was shot at 70mm f/4

Depth of field is shallow with medium format – this was shot at 70mm f/4

The best aspect of the camera, though, is the image quality, which is exceptional. The resolution looks a bit weak compared with the 50MP and 100MP sensors used by other medium-format camera makers, but for most applications it is more than sufficient. The camera’s ability to resolve detail is really very good, and the Leica S lens range works in some style to ensure images are as crisp and aberration-free as they can be. The dynamic range is excellent, as is the colour and natural look of the images, and noise is well controlled.

When the camera was launched it looked like excellent value compared with the competition, and particularly to the price of the Type 006. Now Hasselblad has dropped the price of the H5D 50c Wi-Fi in dramatic fashion, so the proposition has altered somewhat.

Overall, this is a very nice camera. There are plenty of things I’d like to see done differently, but the combination of image quality and general ease of use make it a really exciting camera to work with.

Full specification

  • Sensor:37.5MP CMOS (30x45mm)
  • Output size:7,488×4,960 pixels
  • Focal length mag:0.8x
  • Lens mount:Leica S
  • Shutter speeds:60secs-1/4000sec
  • ISO:100-12,500
  • Exposure modes:PASMs
  • Metering:Multi, centreweighted, spot
  • Exposure comp:±3EV in 1/2 steps
  • Drive:3.5fps
  • Movie:Cine 4K (4,091×2,160) at 24fps, Full HD (1,920×1,080) at 60fps
  • LCD:3in, 921,600-dot touchscreen
  • Viewfinder:Pentaprism, 0,87x magnification, 100% coverage
  • Stabilisation:None
  • AF points:1-point phase-detection
  • Memory card:SD, SDHC, SDXC, CF
  • Power:Rechargeable Li-ion
  • Dimensions:160x120x80mm
  • Weight:1,260g (without battery)

(whatdigitalcamera.com, http://goo.gl/QbXre1)

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