This is my first introduction to medium format digital photography.  Yes, I used 120mm film in the 1970’s, but it was a box camera with an Ansco lens, one f/stop and one shutter speed.  Since that time, I have only used 35mm film and sensors.  The CCD sensors in the Leica M8 and M9 were fantastic swabs of color and the CMOS in the more modern Leica M240 and M10 keep the color and add both speed and high ISO.  So, why bother with the Leica S series?  Over the past few days, I found out why.

The Leica S2 was originally released in 2009, about eight years before this writing.  Since that time, two additional Leica S bodies have been released – the S(006) and S(007).  The S(006) houses a CCD and the S(007) a CMOS sensor.  The S2 captures with a CCD sensor with a 6 micron pixel size – the same size used in the M8 and M9.  However, the CCD size is 30mm x 45mm, compared to the 24mm x 36mm of traditional film and the M9.  So, the sensor has significantly more surface are and pixels. There are other differences in the output from the Leica S which take the results from the M9 up a notch.  In addition, the S2 can be found at prices less than an M9 which makes it a great way to start with medium format.


My good friend and neighbor Andy, walking on the beach.

Sensor Size and Focal Length Conversions

If you have used the APC sized sensors, you are used to upsizing all of the lenses.  For example, a 35mm focal length acts like a 50mm focal length because the image sensor and size are smaller.  Similarly, an f/stop of 2.0 on a 35mm focal length has a wider death of field compared to  an f/stop of 2.0 on a 50mm focal length.  So, images from an APC sized sensor appear more zoomed in for a given focal length, but also appear to have more depth of field.

However, everything the Leica S world goes the opposite direction.  A 35mm focal length is equivalent to a 28mm focal length.  In addition, the standard f/stop on many Leica S lenses of f/2.5 appears shallower because the focal length is really longer.

Pixel Count and Sensor Size

The other advantages of the Leica S2 is the sensor size.  At 7,500 x 5,000 pixels, the 37+ mb RAW image has considerable detail for a given image.  The ratio remains in the 3:2 range, the same as traditional 35mm photography.  Thus, the resulting images remain similar for printing, cropping and framing.

Comparing this 37mb sensor to a current day 37mb sensor can be misleading, though.  This 8 year old technology still has a larger pixel size than a 37mb full frame sensor on a 35mm body.  Hence, the Leica S2 sensor gathers more light than its 35mm siblings.  The results are stellar even for today.  The richness of color in the sensor and the dynamic range are incredible.  Yes, the newer models write faster and have better dynamic range and less ISO noise, but the Leica S2 provides great opportunities.

early morning

The wide expanse of sand at low tide early one winter morning.

Handheld and Tripod Shooting

I can still shoot images faster with a 35mm film Leica than even the Leica M10 and Leica SL.  However, I grew to love the autofocus and weather sealing that the Leica SL brought along with an incredible EVF for my aging eyes.  The Leica S2 is in between.  The S2 is a real SLR with a mirror that flips up before taking an image.  But the S2 is also weather sealed.  The size of the lens opening and mirror give the S2 an almost EVF feel with a very bright image.  I had no trouble focusing and while the S lenses do not autofocus as fast as the SL, they focus fast enough.

Because of the SLR design, shutter speed is an issue.  While I can hand hold a Leica M10 or M3 at 1/15 second with a 35mm or 50mm lens and get acceptable results, holding the Leica S2 at less than 1/125 second (or 1/90 if a real wide angle lens) can show considerable camera shake on the pixel level.  So, for all but one of these images, I used a Gitzo Series 3 tripod with the long spikes on the bottom to help in the sand.  I also used the remote shutter release which appears identical to the one for the Leica SL except for the method of attaching to the camera body.

barnacle rocks

rocks that help hold sand on the beach are covered with barnacles

100 percent view

100 percent view of the RAW file in Light Room Classic CC. This image is a screen grab and not as sharp as the original.

Tricks for the Slower Technology of Old

The downsize to the Leica S2 is the older technology after pressing the shutter.  The older processor and CCD technology means slower write times.  Also, the firmware is not quite as robust as the newer models.  So, after shooting on a cold morning on Folly Beach in South Carolina, I can confirm a few tricks that Josh Lehrer of The Leica Store Miami shared with me (as an aside, The Leica Store Miami has a great team and they have helped me tremendously over the years).

  1. Use a CF card by itself – the write times are much faster.  I use the Sandisk Extreme Pro 32gb CF card as recommended and the write times seem to be about 1.5 to 2 times faster (90 mb/s versus 160 mb/s), but this is by feel not measurement.
  2. Keep the shutter speed up.  Even with the 35mm lens (28mm equivalent), I did not try to hand hold the Leica S2 with shutter speeds under 1/125 second.  As such, the images were crisp.  In addition, keep the shutter speed on longer focal lengths to about 1 / 2 x focal length.  So, for a 120mm lens, use 1/250 second as a minimum to hand-hold the camera.
  3. Keep the ISO in a reasonable range.  I use ISO 160 and 320 interchangeably as they are about the same in dynamic range and noise.  I only use ISO 80 Pull if I need a slower shutter speed.  I have not tried it yet, but ISO 640 appears to work ok if it helps keep the shutter speed up – the noise reduction is more necessary in post-processing and the dynamic range suffers a little, but a noisy image is still better than a blurry one.  I have also not tried using ISO 1280 but over-exposing about 1/2 stop to make it more like ISO 800.  Again, some have produced good results here.
  4. Turn off the auto-review of images to allow a faster recycle time to press the shutter in faster succession.  While the S2 will not take images as fast as a film camera or M10, it will allow for reasonable shutter pushes in succession.  However, while the camera is in auto-review mode, it appears to disallow the recording of another image.  Turning it off helped me significantly.

Dealing with Firmware Lockups

I have found the Leica S2 series still suffers from the firmware lockup that was experienced in the Leica M8 and M9 bodies.  I am using the most current firmware – – but I had about 5 lockups during a 100 image shoot over 2 hours.  The solution was to shut off the camera body, open the memory card slow, eject the CF card, re-insert the CF card and turn on the camera body again.  Since the camera was on a tripod, I did not eject the battery which was hard to get to.

From that limited experience, it appears that the S2 locked up when I went into the menu system and changed the EV adjustment for the multi-field metering method.  I locked up moving from -1/2 stop to -1 stop, from -1 stop to 0 stops and from +1 stop back to zero stops.  This may not be the sole cause, but it was for me.

13th Street

The stairs to the beach at 13th street.

Conclusion – Limited Use, But Great Image Files

My experience on this cold, drizzling day was not disappointing in the least!  I used the manual white-balance and the compressed DNG file writing.  The resulting images in Light Room were pliable from the shadow area and rich in color and detail.  I’m looking forward to more extensive use as the sunlight comes out (hopefully before week-end!).

About The Author

David taught film photography and development for 3 years at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (1989-1991). He began using Leica cameras in 2000 and still shoots 70-100 rolls of film through a Leica M3 and Leica MA while enjoying the challenges of the Leica Monochrom and the new Leica MD 262. David has written about photography and is working on several volumes documenting changes and artistic merit throughout Old Town in Rock Hill, South Carolina, USA. His full-time job is as a CPA, but spends free time with a camera at the ready.

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