Well, where else do you think I’d spend my first day at the show? After last night’s marathon of typing, I decided to sleep in. No worries, as I had plenty of time at the Leica booth and no where else to be today.
The booth design this year is nice and a little fancier and larger than in 2006. As I came down the escalator into Hall 2.1, I saw a legion of Leica employees armed and ready with the new M products, defending their posts at the front of the stand. I saw Peter Karbe and said hello. As many may know, Peter is the head optics designer of Leica, personally responsible for the slew of excellent glass in the last few years. He worked on the 50mm f/1.4 ASPH for ten years to perfect it…in his spare time. Totally brilliant optics designer. We spoke briefly about the new S lenses and wanted to show me the MTF charts for them. He didn’t have them with him, but I am hoping to see them later on in the week. He said that they are perfectly flat lines all the way up to the top, from one side to the other. Apparently, Peter believes these lenses might be the best Leica has ever produced. Now that is saying something.
After our brief chat, I made my way over to the AFRika VIP area. AFRika is the internal code name of the S2, standing for Auto Focus Reflex Kamera. So, trusty VIP Access badge in hand I made my way into the VIP lounge. The S2 room was packed, so I was told to just have a coffee and relax for a while. Well, I don’t drink coffee and I was way too excited to relax. So, I made the most of my time in the back area and played with the M8.2, Noctilux, 21 Summilux and 24 Elmar.
The new lenses aren’t recognized by the new firmware. So, there is no focal length displayed in playback. There will be an update around the time the lenses ship in November. All of the new wide angle lenses have screw-on metal hoods. Perhaps this is a sign of things to come. First the WATE, then the Summarits, now the new exotics. Users have been complaining about the plastic clip-on hoods for a while and Leica listened.
The new Noct there was a working lens, just not finished yet. I won’t post any shots from it as it is too early to judge anything by them. The good news is focusing is much smoother and the focus throw is a lot shorter. The pull-out hood protrudes just a few millimeters further than the IR filter and I’m not sure if it is that effective. Looks nice, though.
The 24 Elmar is nice and small. I’d compare it to a 28 Cron in size. Shot wide open, the lens is dangerously sharp. I think I underestimated this little guy. Small, lightweight and somewhat affordable, this lens might even find its way into my bag someday.
There was no 24 Lux to play with back in the lounge, so I made do with a 21 Lux. As I mentioned in my post from the launch event, the 21 balances extremely well on the M8. The mechanics of the lens are super smooth and focusing is easy. This lens is certainly usable wide open. I took a few shots and they are spot on. Really nice look to them. Crisp and contrasty with smooth nuance. Definitely Leica. The filter arrangement makes a lot more sense now that I’ve dissected one. The hood just unscrews and the filter (sans threading) just drops into the hood. Screw it back on and it’s done. So, series 7 for the 24 and series 8 for the 21.
While waiting, I had a nice conversation with the editors of LFI. Great guys and very knowledgeable about Leica. If you don’t already subscribe to their magazine, you should.
After patiently waiting, I couldn’t hold out any longer. I made my way to the S2 room. There were several Leica reps there each with an S2 and two lenses, the standard 70 Summarit and the 180 APO-Elmar. I am pleased to report that the S2 works very well, even in the prototype stage. It autofocuses accurately and quickly, shoots with little-to-no-shutter-delay, handles nicely, and displays pictures on the LCD. The playback zoom is instantaneous. No waiting like on the M8. Menus are intuitive and quick once you get the walkthrough. I would like a direction pad like on Nikon, but once used to the S2 review system you get pretty quick with scrolling around. The camera balances nicely in the hand, especially with the 70mm mounted. The vertical grip is very comfortable as well. Wow. Where to start?
The viewfinder is big and bright with plenty of eye relief. It isn’t as large as the viewfinder of the Mamiya 645 or Sinar Hy6, but larger than a D3 or 1DsIII. There is but one AF point in the center of the frame. This honestly doesn’t bother me, as I usually focus and recompose anyway. The lenses all have a slip differential so you can switch to manual focus by turning the focus ring, like on Nikon AF-S lenses, just with much better feel. The lenses feel like quality. They are lighter and smaller than comparable Hasselblad H lenses, yet made of aluminum and not plastic. Manual focusing was insanely easy, with great tactile feedback and nice ground glass focusing screen. Sorry, no split image or microprism for all you R fans out there. Trust me, you can easily tell when you are in focus and when you’re not.
The design of the camera has been a point of contention out there in forum land. It does fit nicely in the hand with the front and rear finger and thumb notches. The prototype cameras are covered in a soft-touch smooth rubber, but the final production cameras will have a finish closer the R9 with a texture to it. The 3” screen is large and the menu access buttons are easy to get to, but not overly easy to accidentally press. The top right button is dedicated to EV lock in shooting mode as it sits pretty close to your thumb when shooting. This is customizable to be AF-on, AF lock, EV lock, or AF/EV lock. Press the top left button to activate the screen. Four quadrants come up with various settings at a glance. The soft keys are displayed as well, allowing you to access Camera, Image and Setup menus, as well as image playback (in the upper right position). The upper left, lower left, and bottom right are user customizable for use as quick access keys in shooting mode. So you can access EV comp, ISO, WB, advance mode, etc. with one button press and arrange them how you prefer.
Perhaps I should stop for a moment and take notice that this camera and its firmware is pretty well thought out, certainly not what I expected to see this early on in the development cycle. Aside from the lack of finishing touches on the body like covering and nicer memory card door, it feels like a real camera, not something engineers cobbled together in a workshop to show off in a dog and pony show. To say that the reps showing off the S2 were proud of all the work they did in house would be an understatement. No nervous shuffling around or waiting for a camera to break. They were all smiles and looking really confident that they had hit a grand slam for the home team (do they have baseball in Germany).
The thumb wheel on the back of the thumb rest also depresses, acting as an OK or Enter key. So spin the wheel to your menu item and press in to activate the sub menu, scroll, press in again, then press the shutter to start shooting again. Fast and intuitive. Not one handed as you need your right thumb to activate the screen, but almost everything else is. The CS/FPS/Off switch on the back turns the camera on and off, as well as letting the photographer select focal plane shutter or leaf shutter without digging through menus. Pretty smart to keep this analog, actually. The shutter speed dial controls both shutter mechanisms. I asked what would happen if you had the focal plane shutter set for 1/4000th and switched to CS mode. The camera will automatically set the leaf shutter to the highest possible speed and display it in the viewfinder and on the OLED screen on top. No problem. To change shooting modes, just press the wheel and turn to your desired setting: P, A or M. Where is S? Turn the shutter off of A and your in S mode. If you want to change aperture, just spin the thumb wheel. Leica really did a great job making the camera super simple and intuitive with the least amount of clutter.
The camera can take CF and SD cards as we already know, but I did find out that it can operate like the Nikon D3. Mirror output to both cards, write to CF or SD based on selection, or write the DNG to one card and the JPG to the other. The card door will be much stronger and more robust than what was shown here. Of course, SDHC and UDMA are fully supported. The S2 has a 1GB buffer, which clears pretty fast using the Maestro DSP and UDMA cards. Other storage options include external and a future WiFi capacity. The tethered setup uses high-speed USB with a unique cable. It is not the mini USB, but rather a round metal connector with a safety lock. My Leica fellow plugged the cable in and dangled the camera and lens over the floor held up by the USB connector! I nearly had a heart attack and he had a good laugh. Apparently, they had been pulling that one all day. Then he showed me a neat trick. By opening the PC Sync/HDMI cover and pressing a super secret button with a pen tip the left strap lug comes out of the camera and a yet-to-be-designed WiFi adapter will plug in to enable wireless tethering. Sweet. Another example of a totally clean and seamless design. The HDMI cable allows both 1080p and 1920×1200 outputs for image review on external LCD monitor at high res while still enabling CF/SD storage. Great for commercial shooting where straight tethering is a slowdown and you need to have a large real-time image display in studio.
The vertical grip is also a beautiful design. Instead of being like every other grip in the market which requires you to turn a wheel to attach and detach, the S2 grip has a single slide on the back. Put your thumb on and slide to the left, put the grip on the bottom of the camera and release. The vertical grip is now solidly locked to the camera. Easy, fast, and secure. A second battery fits in the side of the grip.
The main battery fits in the bottom of the hand grip. It has no door; just push the safety button, turn the lever and the battery pops out in one go. It is gasketed and sealed, just like every other seam on the S2. The battery is smaller than an EN-EL4 Nikon battery but larger than an M8 battery. Expect about 500 shots on one battery, 1000 with the vertical grip. The standard charger will charge two batteries simultaneously. Another nice touch for pros on the go.
The ISO range will start at 100 and go to either 1600 or 3200. The high ISO performance is supposed to be superior to any other MFD system. The prototypes only shot at 100 ISO, so I can’t report on the results yet.
The shutter feel was nice. Pretty quick on focus and responsive when you press the shutter. The mirror blackout is quite short for medium format and the internal vibration feels more like a 35mm FF DSLR than a 645 camera. There is no loud clunk with a dark viewfinder. Actually, I think the S2 was quieter than my R9. The mirror is large as is the ground glass, but there is nice dampening in the camera.
Metering has been carried over from the R9, with multi-zone, center weighted and spot built-in. TTL flash is compatible with SCA 3502 shoe mount flashes. There is also a new pro Leica flash that will be available shortly after the camera. I’m going to go out on a limb here and assume that this will be one of the new Metz flashes with built-in digital TTL for Leica. This is just another example of Leica’s commitment to an entire system, not just a body and one lens.
The rear LCD was clear and bright. There are actually two settings for the screen: image brightness and backlight brightness, which I think might be a first. There is also an ambient light sensor that will automatically adjust screen illumination. From what I can tell by holding the camera up to the halogen track lighting, the screen doesn’t wash out and should be 100% visible in daylight, which should come as a nice change for anyone not using a DMR already. Upon my trying this, Jurgen, the Leica rep (in charge of Quality Assurance, btw), commented that the screen has anit-glare coating on it. They just keep racking up the points.
And to prove that the images actually exist, I was shown DNGs in Lightroom from the S2 that were shot today in the demo room. Everything works perfectly in LR from WB to exposure to sharpening. We zoomed in 1:1 and I will say that it is certainly medium format quality, even at this early stage. Loads of detail and great color (even in our trade show lighting).
I don’t know if this is getting repetitive but I was incredibly impressed with Leica’s effort and their ability to deliver the goods. Jurgen told me that he just got the final prototypes on Friday before Photokina to start QA. This process usually takes weeks. They got it done in days. And no hiccups. Amazingly the S2 just worked when all the pieces were assembled. I have to think this is more than luck. The engineering minds at Leica are unmatched. Now, with Andreas Kaufmann at the helm, the engineers are getting the proper resources and support that has been lacking for some time at Leica.
Some fellow who came by to check out the S2 had a Nikon D700 with 24-70 f/2.8 zoom. I kindly asked if he would mind setting his camera down next to the new Leica. It didn’t take too much convincing as he whipped out his compact digital as well and snapped away right beside me.
Maike finally kicked me out of the demo room. Well, not really. But she did joke with me that she would put me to work tomorrow to demo the camera, as I knew as much about the S2 as the booth staff. Before leaving I got the hold and photograph the KAF-37500 sensor next to a full-frame 35mm chip, as well as the Maestro DSP chip.
Outside in the main booth, I took a look at the new Pradovit-D 1200. They set up a viewing area with slide shows playing. Standing with my ear to the running projector I couldn’t hear anything except silence. The magnesium alloy casing was warm to the touch as the outside housing acts like giant heat sync. Motion was smooth; images were just 3D with pop and sparkle. The clarity and vibrancy were outstanding, as was the nuance in the highlights. With a contrast ratio of 2500:1 black was pure black. The Pradovit is truly class leading. And, it is really compact. I put my Moto RAZR phone next to it for scale.
Keep in mind that this projector is exclusive to Leica. They worked with a company in Norway (which is where the projector is made) to design it to Leica specs. The Philips lamp has an adjustable color temp and there is a six panel RGBRGB color wheel to eliminate rainbow effects in moving images, as this effectively doubles the refresh frequency. The lens is Leica designed and is a big piece of glass, but required to display the 1920×1200 resolution sharply and distortion-free.
At the M product counter I got to finally try the 24 Summilux. Same width as a 35 Lux and just a tad longer. Very reasonable size. Deciding between the 24 Lux and 24 Elmar is going to be a tough choice. Also tried the new viewfinders. Small, distortion-free and bright. What’s more to say?
Next stop was the compact digital cameras. I finally got to shoot with the D-Lux 4. That is one fast camera. The shooting speed and lack of lag is phenomenal. The screen is large and bright with good sharpness and accurate color. The camera as I mentioned yesterday is a little thicker and denser than the D-Lux 3, but it does use a larger sensor. The accessories were unfortunately behind glass that had no door, so I wasn’t able to try them out. I have a “real” meeting with our rep Roland on Thursday, so I may get a chance then. Also, tried the C-Lux 3. Small, light and easy. I shot a little HD video and the quality looked good (at least on the LCD). When I get more in-depth, I’ll post an update.
Lastly, I checked out the Future of Memories display. The Ur-Leica came out of the vault and was on display with a guard watching it from two feet away from morning to night. Also there was the S1 digital camera from 1996, a few other system products and an architectural model of Leitzpark. This will house the new factory and visitor center, to be completed by 2010.
At 6:00 PM the trade show closes, but we stuck around as the Leica party was just getting started. Tonight was a dealer/employee party at the booth. The Kolsch was flowing and the food was non stop. Dr. Kaufmann gave a short speech, then mingled among the crowd. I got a chance to speak with him about some of the new product. I had met Kaufmann at the LHSA meeting in Rochester back in October of last year. He is so affable and approachable. Everyone at Leica truly respects and admires Kaufmann. He has charisma and charm to spare, not to mention a clear plan and the financial wherewithal to make it happen. I do believe that he is the best thing that could have happened to Leica.
Finally around 9:30 I left with the Leica folks and headed back to the hotel. Perhaps it is the Kolsch, but I am even more excited than I thought I’d be by the direction Leica is taking. Everything is clicking into place. My conversation with Maike about a new reflex two years ago. Kaufmann’s keynote at the LHSA meeting. Hints and teasers from our USA contacts. The plan makes sense. Some might complain about the choices they have made, but if you put all the information together and take a wide view, I think that the decisions were logical and necessary to the continued health and prosperity of the company.
Leica has worked extremely hard to get to this point and I think they deserve all the success in the world.