With the recent string of successful camera and lens introductions over the past few years, Leica has made the process of choosing a camera much more difficult. In the not-so-distant past, certain individual systems outshone the rest for different applications. Decisions were straightforward. But now? The Q, TL2, CL, M10, SL and S007 are all incredible cameras, each extremely capable in its own right. So, how do you pick just one? Admittedly, I don't have an easy answer, and continue to struggle with this very conundrum every time I prepare for an outing. After a decent amount of debating pros and cons for each scenario, along with some serious soul searching, I do end up making up my mind.
The Leica SL
And while I have spread the love across a variety of systems over the last two years, my most used camera system during this time has been the Leica SL. Paired with the outstanding 24-90 zoom, the SL is simply a go-anywhere, do-anything combo. It’s fast, it’s fun and the images are stunning. The 4.4MP EVF is a pleasure to use. No lag, no delay, no blackout. So, the SL has become an easy go-to for me. For added flexibility, I'll add M lenses for low light or ultra-wide capability, which often means throwing a 35 Lux or 18 Super-Elmar in my bag.
On a week-long vacation to the Southwest in October, the SL was my constant companion. With the 24-90 plus the 18mm M lens, I could do it all. And with weather sealing to boot, the camera joined me on all my adventures. Canyoneering in Zion with 60-foot rappels, driving high-speed ATVs through the desert in Lake Powell, exploring Antelope Canyon, and hiking down into the Grand Canyon from the North Rim were all no problem. The 24-90 zoom made easy work of most situations, as the focal range provided a good variety of perspectives. And, not having to stop to get into my backpack to change lenses allowed me to keep moving.
Okay. No surprises or new information here. The SL is awesome (You can read my full review here: Leica SL (Typ 601) Review: A Professional Mirrorless Camera). And, while this article is about my thoughts on the future of the S-System, I think that the perspective of the SL is important to the discussion. Using the two systems one right after the other makes clear to me, in spite of how often I use the SL, why the S is still superior for certain applications, and what might make it even better in the future.
Back to the Leica S (Typ 007)
Because scheduling was tight, I didn’t have a chance to return home after our Southwest adventure. I’d have to fly directly to Maine, gear up and lead two back-to-back landscape workshops. So, I swapped out the SL and zoom for the S007 and a backpack full of S lenses. Why? Simply, because it puts the SL to shame for landscape photography. The SL is certainly no slouch when it comes to image quality, matching well to the output of the M10 and the Q, both superb performers in their own rights. But the S just moves that bar a lot higher. And it’s not just the additional resolution.
The color out of the S is gorgeous. Only the recently released M10 equals it. Per pixel acuity is staggeringly good. The S lenses are amazing. An insane 15.3 stop dynamic range allows for single shot HDR in Lightroom, easily handling scenes that would require exposure bracketing and multi-frame blending in post on the SL.
Then there are the lenses. Oh, how I love the S lenses. My favorites are the 45 and the 120. And the 30. And the 24. The 180 is pretty killer too. And the 100 is lusciously creamy. The 35 is great for walk-around. As is the compact and lovely 70. Ok, I literally just named all the S prime lenses. Asking me to pick favorites is like choosing between my children. I don’t struggle the same way when paring down M lenses, as I have definite preferences. But, on the S, I will carry almost a full complement in my pack.
So, how did it perform for fall foliage in the White Mountains and along the Maine Coast? Again, no surprises here. The S007 just dominates landscape photography, while the ergonomics make the camera such a pleasure to use. As amazing as the EVF is on the SL, using the optical viewfinder of the S is like coming home. Big, bright, clear. A perfect window to the world, rendered by whatever delicious S lens graces the front of the camera. And the images. So much detail. Unequaled malleability in post. Colors rendered represent the best part of reality, riding the line between accuracy and artistry.
Back in August, I also relied on the S007 for all my photographic heavy lifting. I co-led a workshop to Iceland for ten days, knocking out 4,000 shots. And while it seems almost impossible to take a bad picture in Iceland, I felt my images from this recent trip were so far beyond what I came home with from my first time there. My biggest challenge upon returning home was (and still is) whittling down my first-round pick count from over 800 keepers to something a little more manageable.
With the hyperfocal readout on the top display, DOF is no longer a guess. High contrast scenes are easily handled. And, of course, the S is as rugged as they come. My 3-Series Gitzo got knocked over when we got slammed with an unrelenting 40 MPH wind during an early morning shoot in the Highlands, with the S taking a dive into the rocks and mud. After a quick water bottle bath in the field, the camera was as good as new. Besides the amazing locations, the camera system deserves some credit for assisting me in averaging over 80 keepers per day.
What about the next generation Leica S?
The S007 continues to impress me, and remains my favorite system for landscape photography, but now that the camera is a little over two years old, many have started wondering what the future holds for the S System. I’ve increasingly heard concerns that Leica is “abandoning” the system and that there has been no activity. Well, I suppose apart from firmware updates, this is true to an extent. Not the abandoning part, but the stagnation aspect.
The lens line is complete. So, I wouldn’t expect any development there. And, the camera has only been on the market for two years. The M240 was around for four years until the M10 was introduced. No one worries about the future of the SL. Yet, it too, shares the same 2015 vintage as the S007. So, while I don’t think a new S is exactly around the corner given past product life-cycles, we certainly can speculate what a future S camera might look like. No harm in some wishful guessing, right?
I'm going to lay out my wish list for the next generation Leica S. Follow along with me and vote on the mini surveys I've put in for some of the more significant items. At the end, there is a poll where you can select from a summary of all possible features.
Right off the bat, despite the warm fuzzy feeling I get ogling the crazy details of S files on my 34 inch monitor, the top request has to be a bump in resolution. In fact, I think everyone agrees that a resolution increase is overdue. Three years ago, after Leica released specs on the S007, I questioned why Leica was choosing not to jump on the 50MP bandwagon, instead opting to keep the same 37.5 MP as the S006. The answers from the engineers at Leica were so enlightening I wrote an article about it. You can read the reasoning here: Why Leica is staying at 37.5MP for the S (Typ 007)
But, three years later, I’m hoping that Leica has figured out how to squeeze more pixels in the next S without sacrificing performance. Now, for the math that makes pure speculation seem more legitimate. A 20% increase in linear resolution would take the S sensor pixel dimensions from 7500 x 5000 (37.5MP) to 9000 x 6000 (54 MP). A 30% increase would take this even further to 9750 x 6500 (63 MP). Having spoken to many S users over the last few years, I’m sure that a 54 or 63 MP sensor at the heart of an S camera would scratch that megapixel itch. What do you think?
What resolution sensor would you like to see in the next generation Leica S?
ISO and Dynamic Range
Naturally, I’d love to see the higher resolution sensor maintain clean ISO 6400 and still deliver 15.3 stops of DR. I wouldn’t complain if either of these specs could be improved upon, but I’m satisfied with both. How about you?
What would you like to see for usable ISO in the next generation Leica S
If we assume that we’re all good on the sensor side, we can safely say that the S lenses are certainly up to the task. But what about processing speed? You see, even though the linear resolution would only see a 30% bump assuming a 63 MP sensor, the resulting pixel data would increase by a whopping 70%. Could the current Maestro II handle this volume of data with no change? Well, the current processor in the S007 can crunch through 320 megapixels of sensor data per second. Even at 63 MP, the camera could theoretically still offer a frame rate up to 5 fps.
This assumes that the sensor readout could keep pace. Nonetheless, this is impressive, considering the Maestro II is going on three years old. Ignoring how good this current hardware is, for the sake of discussion, let’s also add a Maestro III processor to the wish list, guaranteeing that all shooting and playback operation are as instantaneous as possible. Agree?
How important is speed to you on the next generation Leica S
And with the increase in megapixels, I’d like to see the buffer memory upped from 2GB to 4GB. This would allow for longer continuous burst shooting.
I’d also love to see the 3” touchscreen from the SL find its way onto the back of an S. When I switch to the S007 after using the SL for a while, I will invariably attempt to double-tap the screen to zoom during playback. Of course, nothing happens except for feeling stupid. As we see more Leica cameras incorporate the hybrid touch interface (SL, Q, CL, TL2), it seems natural to extend this to the flagship S. Would you like to see a touchscreen like SL on a future S?
How important is a touchscreen on the next Generation Leica S
USB 3.1 Type C
Lots of pro shooters rely on tethering for their photography. Moving to the latest standard of USB 3.1 Type C would go a long way to improve that experience, allowing for significantly faster transfer rates. If the same port could supply power to the camera, which the spec allows for, even better.
I personally don’t use the S for video work. The SL is just so much better suited to fill that role. But, the prospect of a large frame video camera with S glass is still appealing. Upgrade to HDMI 2.0, offer full-frame 4K or 5K capture at 10-bit 422 and you’ve got something really interesting.
How do you feel about video on the next generation Leica S
Moving to a faster SD card spec seems like an easy one. In fact, change the mixed SD/CF card combo of the S007 and migrate to the twin SD configuration of the SL. Make both UHS-II if possible, allowing fast throughput for mirrored DNG shooting.
One of the few annoyances with the S007 is that the sensor is a dust magnet, especially with my frequent lens changes in some inhospitable locations. A self-cleaning sensor might not eliminate this issue completely, but it should help.
With the fastest S lens coming in at f/2, the S doesn’t need as extreme shutter speeds as the SL or CL, but the option of a silent shutter could come in handy in many professional applications. With E-shutters on many current Leica models, this should be doable.
As a landscape camera, I often want to use longer exposures than the S007 allows me too. Give me 30 minutes at base ISO, and 30 seconds at ISO 3200 and I'll be happy. Also, give the option of disabling long exposure dark frame subtraction. That feeling of watching a rapidly changing sunset vanish as you wait for the “Noise Reduction” message to clear? Yeah, I could do without it.
Things not to change
Now that I’ve listed what I’d like to see changed, here is what I feel shouldn’t be sacrificed:
- Body Design – I love the S camera body. It is one of the most comfortable cameras to shoot. Very ergonomic with almost perfect balance in the hand.
- Viewfinder – Why mess with the best optical viewfinder on the market? Exactly.
- Dynamic range – I’ve been spoiled by the 15+ stops of DR on my S007. I’d hate to give up ground here in favor of resolution.
- Color – The colors out of the S are gorgeous. Keep the rendering. Okay, if it needs to be changed, M10 rendition would be okay, too.
- Battery – Keep the same Typ 007 battery for maximum compatibility.
- Top display – The S007 and SL share the same monochrome LCD top display. It’s great for info at a glance, with easy readability in both bright sunlight and at night.
- Speed – The S007 is the fastest MFD camera on the market with a frame rate of 3.5 fps and instant playback and image zoom. Let’s keep it that way.
Undecided: Mirrorless vs. SLR
I know a lot of people want to see Leica come out with a mirrorless S body using the same EVF used in the SL. I’m split on this one. Shooting with the SL is such a joy. Being able to see your picture, before you take it, is a great experience. As is zooming in to 100% to check focus. But, that optical viewfinder on the S is so, so nice. Am I old fashioned? Perhaps, but I’m also quite comfortable with EVF shooting.
And maybe Leica will indeed move to EVF as they feel more pressure from Fuji and Hasselblad’s mirrorless offerings. Honestly, I could probably be happy either way. But, the EVF experience would have to be like the SL, and not the Hassy X1D, which has over a one second viewfinder blackout and laggy display. Leica specifically waited out the mirrorless game until they had all the necessary tech to make EVF shooting as seamless as optical. Anyone who has used the SL can attest to this.
There are other considerations to think about as well. A move to mirrorless would require yet another line of lenses, as well as an adapter to work with existing Leica S optics. And, battery life would most certainly suffer. On the S007, I can go nonstop for a full day in the field with just one battery in the camera and a single spare in my bag. With the increased power requirements of live view, I'd probably need three or four at a minimum.
That's my take. What do you think?
What are your thougts on a mirrorless Leica S?
I suppose we will have to wait and see where Leica decides to take the next S. I’ve outlined my wish list here, but take it all with a grain of salt. While I am intimately familiar with the S System, I have no idea, or inside info as to what Leica is planning for their next medium format camera. What do you think the next S should be? Vote on the mini surveys I've sprinkled in the article, the aggregated poll here, and leave a comment to let me know your thoughts.
What imporovements do you want to see on the next generation Leica S? (check all that apply)