Yesterday was all about the new M. Today, it was all about the S. I’ve been a huge fan of the S system since it was announced at Photokina four years ago. After all, I was standing right there when the S2 was unveiled and was also one of the very first to put it through its paces the following summer in 2009. I’ve personally shot with the S2 as my main system for the last two and a half years. So, you might expect that I was very keen to see what my good friends at Leica had done to improve on such an outstanding camera. The S2 was designed from the ground-up, specifically for high-end digital capture. This wasn’t a hodgepodge effort to bring an analog system into the digital age so the S2 hasn’t really been a camera that many felt needed updating or replacing. I felt the same way. The S2 offers incredible image quality in a relatively small rugged and weather sealed body, with an amazing viewfinder, unbelievably long battery life, accurate AF, and allows use of some of the best lenses ever made. So what could be improved? I suppose this was a question that Leica thought about long and hard, because while each change in and of itself isn’t monumental, the sum of these small tweaks adds up to a noticeable overall improvement.
After arriving at the Leica booth for some other meetings, I headed into the back room next to the S Studio for some quality time with the new Leica S. Kelsey Fain, S-System Specialist from Leica USA, was nice enough to get me started. We were joined by Steffen Skopp and Toni Felsner, both technical product managers for the S System. Knowing what a big proponent of the S2 I am, they were excited to show me all the new features. I’m sure after keeping all of these enhancements under wraps, all while getting customer questions and suggestions, couldn’t have been easy. It must feel great to finally tell everyone about the cool new stuff they have been working on in secret.
Let’s start with the physical changes in the new S from the S2. Most notable is, of course, the same amazing 3” 920,000 pixel LCD with Gorilla Glass used in the new M. Bright, crisp and extremely color neutral, this might be the best LCD I’ve seen on a camera. It is a true 8-bit per channel display capable of displaying the full sRGB color gamut. The extra screen real estate enables some changes in the interface as well as providing reliable feedback to the user.
Another big change is something physically small, but functionally huge- the new joystick control which takes the place of the rear thumb button. Yes, it can still be used as a AF activation button in MF mode (my preferred setup), but it can now also do so much more. You can now navigate through menus with either the joystick or the clickable thumb wheel. In zoom playback, you can move around the image in any direction. I will admit that when Kelsey challenged me to “figure out how the new playback works,” I instinctively tired to navigate with the thumb wheel, just as I do on my S2. A minute later I had a private conversation with my brain and fought muscle memory. Then, I was fine and using the new interface like a champ. For those new to the S system, they will pick it up right away. S2 owners, be warned. Change is sometimes difficult to overcome, but in this case, it’s well worth it for the speed and convenience the new joystick offers.
A small change, but one worth noting is that the remote release LEMO connector is different. This has been changed to allow a locking sync cord as Leica received comments that the standard PC connector would fall out mid-shoot.
There are also cosmetic changes to the body. The rubberized leatherette cladding is changed to a more finely textured material which feels nice and grippy. Toni assured me that it is less slippery under wet conditions, which I think will be a welcome change. The new multifunction grip features a matching cladding.
The shutter speed dial has been redesigned and now features a new setting for flash with a lightning bolt symbol between 4s and B. The most common technical “problem” that Leica was presented with by studio photographers was that the flash wasn’t firing. I can attest that we received a similar number of questions when renting out our S2 kit for professional photo shoots. Ten times out of ten, the reason the flash wasn’t firing was that the photographer or tech was trying to shoot at 1/250th and the S2’s max focal plane sync speed is 1/125th. As a fail-safe, the flash will not be triggered past the X sync. Now, with the inclusion of a little red lightning bolt, all that can be avoided, shoots can go smoothly and nobody has to be in a panic with clients or art directors wondering what is going on. With a non-CS lens mounted, the flash setting corresponds to 1/125th and with a CS lens mounted it will default to 1/1000th.
And, while they were at it, the A position on the dial of the S2 has been replaced with a red AUTO. Another seemingly simple and obvious thing, but some confused A to stand for Aperture not Auto. Both of these changes will go a long way towards user success. The dial itself has also been reworked. Totally smooth on top, the dial is now machined from a solid piece of brass and the markings are etched and painted just like the M shutter speed dial. While there isn’t anything technically wrong with the S2 dial, the new one is nicer and just feels like better quality.
The hot shoe is now finished in black metal, instead of contrasting silver chrome. This is simply cosmetic, but does look nice. On the functional side, the requisite pre-flash on the SF58 is supposedly much quicker, allowing more instantaneous TTL flash shooting.
The last visible change is the dial-looking bump on the left side top plate for the GPS. Attempts were made to have the GPS receiver sit flush with the top plate, but the metal plate proved to be a problem. This round bump is made of a very durable technical polymer and certainly doesn’t feel like it’s going anywhere. I personally prefer the cleaner look of the S2 top plate, but the value of a built-in GPS overrides my style considerations. You could always get some model airplane enamel and paint on some P, S, A, M, SCN 1, SCN 2,etc markings to fit in with the Canon and Nikon DSLRs. Then again, maybe not.
That’s about it for physical changes. Now, let’s dive a little deeper into the feature additions and enhancements.
A big one is auto focus performance. The Leica S uses a brand new AF sensor which is more sensitive and more accurate than the one in the S2. Also, the AF algorithm takes into account white balance to achieve better low light and artificial light performance. In my brief usage in the back area, the AF didn't hunt and locked on precisely. Perhaps it was my imagination, but the AF also seemed to lock on more quickly.
As I mentioned in yesterday’s Leica M article, both the M and the S utilize the same Maestro ASIC image processor and share the same firmware kernel. Besides this, both systems are very close in terms operational concept. They both have thumb wheels and multi-direction controls (d-pad on M, joystick on S). And, they both use the same resolution LCD. This allows feature modules to be shared across platforms. This is most definitely a very good thing. So, with all that being said, some of the features mentioned here might be a little repetitive due to them being implemented on the M as well.
The info display has been completely revamped. Gone is the checkerboard with colored labels. The S features a very clean and modern monochromatic scheme with the same font that is on the S lens barrels. Subtle gradients provide line separation. At a glance, though, we can see all pertinent info, including battery life and memory card info, both of which are lacking on the rear LCD of the S2. The quadrant jump buttons are still there for easy access to different settings without having to scroll through the entire list.
The GPS is obviously new and so are the corresponding menu items. The GPS itself has a very simple On or Off setting, but a little less obvious and much cooler are the Time controls. Here, you can set the S to automatically update the time zone and correct time, direct from satellite. Gone is forgetting to change the time when traveling across time zones and being stuck with the wrong time/date stamp on the files. The GPS doesn’t have to be connected at all times. It will remember the last acquired signal until it can access the satellite signal again.
The new custom white balance procedure, called Greycard, is really sweet. First, select Greycard in the White Balance menu, then the camera instructs you to take an image. On the S2, you have to fill the center box with your gray card. With the S, just take a shot with some neutral in it.
Using the joystick control, move the crosshairs anywhere in the image and depress the button (or press the upper left button) to preview the white balance at the selected point. Move the crosshairs and try as many different points as you like. When you’re satisfied with the color balance, hit the bottom left button to save the white balance. Wow. This is really intuitive and useful. If you are using a gray card like a ColorChecker or SpyderChecker, it no longer has to be held up right in front of the lens, but can now be anywhere in frame. If you don’t have a gray card handy, you can just pick a neutral in your shot.
Even though the sensor in the S is the same as the one used in the S2, all the supporting electronics have been completely redesigned. This allowed Leica to create a usable ISO range of 100-1600, with no more Pull setting necessary. The base ISO is no longer 160, rather 100, so the whole stop increments are “normal” ISO steps. I would still like to see half stops for more flexibility, but can live with this approach if the noise levels have been improved from where they are on the S2. From what I’m hearing and looking at a few shots in LR on Leica’s studio iMac, I think the ISO improvement will be a tangible one. We’ll have to wait and see what the final product delivers as noise optimization is still being tweaked up until release.
A very hand feature is the ability to select lower resolution JPGs while still capturing full DNGs. This will prove especially useful in the field or in the studio to send smaller JPGs over WiFi to an iPad for instant evaluation while the high res shots get stored to CF card. My guess is that 2.3MP will be too small for proper display on a Retina display iPad, but 9.3MP should be just right and allow for a little bit zooming as well.
A feature I highlighted on the M is the new virtual horizon. The implementation is identical to the M, with visual and numeric indicators for pitch and roll. This horizon is also in the viewfinder display at all times.
While the custom functions have always been on the S2, addition screen real estate makes the using the setup a little easier. Same goes for auto bracketing, which no longer requires you to confirm every option with the thumb wheel. Just use the joystick to navigate to the field you want to change and press to confirm.
One of the most requested firmware changes is now offered standard on the S. The thumb wheel can now be configured to operate in either direction for setting aperture, with handy-dandy arrows for visual reference. The option is under the Click Wheel menu in Setup.
Just as with the M, copyright info can be set to record into the meta data. Useful for many professional applications to be sure, but scrolling through the entire alphabet with the joystick is a bit tedious. I suppose if you set it once, it won’t be such a big deal.
As has been reported in the technical specs, the RAM has been upped to 2GB, which allows the S2 to have a burst depth of 30-32 compressed DNGs. This puts the maximum shots per minute to around 60, which is pretty decent, especially for tethering. And while the S is still sticking with USB 2.0 instead of 3.0, Steffen assured me that the connection isn’t the bottleneck in the process. The readout of the data from the sensor actually takes longer than the file transfer over USB. Then, of course, there is Adobe, who still has plenty of opportunity to increase performance on the computer side. There is also a new Leica Image Shuttle software, but I didn’t get a demo of it.
The viewfinder display has been reworked as well. The frame coverage is now 98% due to some tweaking of the masking which is a nice change. I’m sure many would like 100% coverage, but if you’ve ever looked through an S viewfinder, it is already better than just about anything out there in terms of size, brightness and clarity. Honestly, I’d rather take a big, beautiful S finder with 98% coverage than a tunnel-like DSLR finder with 100% coverage. But, hey, that’s just me.
The lower LED viewfinder display now shows quite a bit of information at a glance. Going from left to right, I’ll explain each item. The strange looking collection of shapes at far left is the virtual horizon. In the case of my image here, the camera is pointing down and tilting heavily to the left. When you have one single horizontal line, you are level in both directions. Next is the shutter speed, followed by the shooting mode and aperture. In the center is a +/- 3 stop metering scale which also shows exposure compensation. The X on the far left of this scale shows that the camera is within its flash sync ability. Yes, there were a lot of issues with users setting the wrong shutter speed for use with flash. The small dot is focus confirmation, which is flanked by two arrows (which you can’t see because the camera is in focus). The nested box icon is the metering mode. The next number is a shot counter, which when shooting shows the remaining buffer depth. And last, but certainly not least is now ISO in the viewfinder. Yay! This has been a very common request from users. The LED display itself is also much brighter, which should allow for easier use in extremely bright outdoor conditions.
Lastly, the playback procedure has been designed anew. There is now a zoom to 100% feature in playback, which can be activated by long pressing the thumb wheel. Once zoomed in to 100% you can scroll through images with the wheel to evaluate focus.
The scroll wheel plays two functions: moving between images and zooming. These can be toggled by a short press of the wheel. When reviewing on the screen, you change display modes by depressing the joystick. The main view just displays the image in full, with basic exposure and frame info above the image. You’ll notice that there is now a page icon in the upper right corner of the image. This indicates that the thumb wheel will move between images.
Press the dial in and the icon switches to a magnifying glass, indicating the zoom function. Turn the thumbwheel to zoom in. When zoomed in, the joystick always acts as a direction pad, moving around the image in any direction.
An overlaid histogram is now viewable at any magnification, which is excellent, as it shows a histogram of just what it is in view on screen. This becomes a very useful spot histogram without being relegated to the Info display.
There is also a highlight/shadow waring view, indicated by a blue and red box in the lower right hand corner. Again, magnification is maintained when viewing, and just as on the S2, the clipping definition is definable in the menu.
The Info display no longer has a histogram on it at all. The data presented here is very clean and easy to read, but the image is still zoomable and maintains zoom level when cycling through review mode screens. The zoom level is also maintained when scrolling through subsequent images. Toni explained the concept as two circles intersecting perpendicularly. Both cycle indefinitely and are independent of each other. One circle is the sequence of images that can be advanced through. The other circle is the different review mode screens.
All in all, the new Leica S improvements really do add up to a more polished, modern camera system. I'm very pleased with the work that Leica has done to both address customer concerns and requests and introduce their own features. For a little fun, I brought up the Q&A session I did with Toni and Stephan Schulz at Photoplus last year to see which items have been checked off the list, and it was quite a few. They've done a nice job, but as users, we need to keep the the line of communication open – Leica wants to hear from us for future suggestions to further improve the Leica S.
The new Leica S will cost $21,995 and should be available starting in December of this year. You can pre-order it here from Leica Store Miami.