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Traditionally, medium format photography involves sturdy tripods, long shutter speeds, and low ISO settings. I imagine that many Leica S2 owners have never even tried to shoot above the camera’s base ISO setting of 160. In reality, the S2’s versatile ISO capabilities open up new possibilities for hand-held medium format shooting. With an ISO range of Pull 80 all the way to 1250, the S2 inches far closer to the coveted hand-held usability of 35mm DSLR cameras than medium format ever has in the past, while still maintaining the full 37.5 megapixel resolution of the CCD sensor.

At its base setting of ISO160, the S2 exhibits an excellent balance of noise, sharpness, and shadow detail. This image was shot with the Leica S2 and 180mm lens, ISO160, f/11 at 1/180 of a second. The purple area in the center of the statue serves as an excellent area to gauge noise in this image (the faded yellow area is from the statue’s exposure to the hot Florida sun).

S2_ISO160

1/180th @ f/11, ISO160 (click for larger view)

1/180th @ f/11, ISO160 - 100% crop (click for larger view)

1/180th @ f/11, ISO160 – 100% crop (click for larger view)

Applied to this image is a Lightroom preset with a combination of settings that maximize detail. You can download this ISO160 S2 preset here (right click and save to download preset).

Bumping up the ISO to 320 shows a negligible increase in noise while still retaining the fine detail in this image. I adjusted my exposure by exactly 1 stop, my new settings are ISO320, f/11 at 1/350 of a second. You can use the same ISO160 preset on this ISO320 image, but for images with large areas of single tone such as skies or man-made objects, I tend to use a preset with a small amount of luminance noise reduction and a bit less sharpening, which you can find here (right click and save to download preset).

 

1/350th @ f/11, ISO320 (click for larger view)

1/350th @ f/11, ISO320 (click for larger view)

1/350th @ f/11, ISO320 - 100% crop (click for larger view)

1/350th @ f/11, ISO320 – 100% crop (click for larger view)

When shooting the S2 hand held, even outdoors, I am almost always at ISO320. This way I can keep my shutter speed up but also extract as much detail out of every scene.

Raising the ISO yet again to 640 requires a slight change in technique if I want to minimize the encroaching noise. Increasing my shutter speed again by 1 stop, the settings for this image are ISO640, f/11, 1/750 of a second. You can see that there is a reduction in fine detail, but noise is still well under control. Using ISO640 requires a different Lightroom preset, which you can find here (right click and save to download preset). This preset reduces the amount of sharpening and adds a small amount of luminance and color noise reduction.

1/750th @ f/11, ISO640 (click for larger view)

1/750th @ f/11, ISO640 (click for larger view)

1/750th @ f/11, ISO640 - 100% crop (click for larger view)

1/750th @ f/11, ISO640 – 100% crop (click for larger view)

Still not impressed? Now I will increase the ISO to the S2’s highest setting, ISO1250. Again I will bump up my shutter speed one stop, so my new settings are ISO1250, f/11, 1/1500 of a second. This is where noise will be most obvious, and fine detail will degrade further.

1/1500th @ f/11, ISO1250 (click for larger view)

1/1500th @ f/11, ISO1250 (click for larger view)

1/1500th @ f/11, ISO1250 - 100% crop (click for larger view)

1/1500th @ f/11, ISO1250 – 100% crop (click for larger view)

You might ask why bother shooting at ISO1250? With a bit of technique you can actually extract considerably more quality from the S2 at ISO1250. The secret is a bit of overexposure. By slowing my shutter speed down just 1/2 of a stop to 1/1000 of a second at ISO1250, the improvement in overall image quality is significant. Not only does noise decrease dramatically for such an incremental change, the overall color is dramatically improved. Essentially you are shooting at ISO800. With the right preset, found here (right click and save to download preset)you will be surprised at how well the S2 performs at the absolute limit, previously territory reserved only for 35mm digital SLR cameras.

1/1000th @ f/11, ISO1250 (click for larger view)

1/1000th @ f/11, ISO1250 (click for larger view)

1/1000th @ f/11, ISO1250 - 100% crop (click for larger view)

1/1000th @ f/11, ISO1250 – 100% crop (click for larger view)

I can recall a meeting with a professional photographer and his first assistant where they requested to see some high ISO images from the S2. Showing them the ISO1250 shot overexposed by 1/2, they insisted on seeing the metadata of the image to PROVE that it was really shot at ISO1250, since they could not believe such performance could come out of a medium format CCD.

The next time you work with the Leica S2, I would definitely suggest trying some shots at all of the S2’s ISO settings. Be aware that the preview on the S2’s rear LCD screen will exhibit more noise due to the rendered JPEG preview than the actual file with contain. If you are regularly shooting with an S2, keep in mind a few important factors:

  • There is little difference between ISO160 and ISO320, so when shooting hand held in normal lighting conditions, it’s always a good idea to shoot at ISO320 to keep shutter speeds up
  • The right Adobe Lightroom preset can make all the difference
  • At higher ISO settings, a slight overexposure of 1/2 a stop can dramatically reduce noise
  • While it might be tempting to always shoot at the lowest ISO you can, remember a bit of noise in your image can be corrected, but a blurry image from a slow shutter speed cannot.

You can download a ZIP file with all four Lightroom presets here:

Leica_S2_Lightroom_3_4_1_Presets.zip

You can also download the DNG files of the images used in this article here:

S2_ISO160.dng

S2_ISO320.dng

S2_ISO640.dng

S2_ISO1250_overexp.dng (Overexposed 1/2 Stop)

S2_ISO1250.dng

I’ve started a discussion thread in the forum for any feedback, questions or suggestions:

Maximizing High ISO Performance on the Leica S2

2 Responses

  1. royprasad

    Insightful article, thanks for sharing. I can vouch for the technique of overexposing at high ISO – I accidentally stumbled into it a few years ago, and I’ve been successfully using it ever since. It is counterintuitive, but it works.

    Unfortunately, the S2 does not display the ISO in the viewfinder while shooting the picture, so this is a bit of a nuisance. My workaround is to keep an eye on the minimum shutter speed I have set for a given lens (e.g., 1/f), and if I see the shutter speed dropping below, then I know my ISO is at 1250.

    However, this doesn’t alert me to the pathological case when I just make the 1/f shutter speed at ISO 1250.

    Reply
  2. Jack MacD

    Love the presets, thanks.
    I will use a link to this article to address any comments that argue the S2 is just a studio camera, without trying in out of the studio themselves.

    Reply

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