Design & Usability
The design of the latest S-series camera does not depart from the S2 in any significant way. The body is still durable and weather-sealed, and it's practically identical to the S2 in size and shape. The only major control changes are the addition of a rear rubber joystick that improves menu navigation, and a softer rubber coating across the body.
The S-series Type 006 is designed around the concept of "less is more," according to Leica's marketing, and they're not kidding. Almost all of the controls are without labels, leaving you little to do other than frame your shot, set the aperture and shutter speed, and snap away—beginners with $22,000 to spare need not apply.
The components are slightly improved, though, with an upgraded viewfinder (98% coverage on the Type 006 vs. 96% on the S2) and a 3-inch 920k-dot rear LCD. The secondary top-plate LCD looks the same as it did on the S2, though it may offer improved contrast in bright conditions—something we were unable to discern indoors. Leica also claims the Type 006 offers improved predictive autofocus, tracking moving subjects faster and with greater accuracy. But let's be real, you just don't buy a medium format camera for its superb autofocus system.
The latest S-series Leica may not look much different from the S2, but it does offer improved internal components that could greatly improve its flexibility. The new 37.5-megapixel medium format sensor and its attendant processor now offer an ISO range of 100-1600, up from the 1250 max on the S2. The Type 006 can fire shots at the same burst rate of up to 1.5 frames per second, but its expanded internal buffer can capture 32 consecutive RAW files (and unlimited JPEGs), up from 10 RAW shots on the S2.
As with the S2, the new S-series camera captures images in the industry-standard DNG file type, allowing the files to be quickly integrated into digital workflows. The camera comes with dual card slots—one for SD/SDHC/SDXC and one for Compact Flash—allowing users to capture RAW files to Compact Flash while sending JPEG images to the SD card for immediate review.
Leica also announced three new S-series lenses to go with the new body, including their first S-series zoom lens. In addition, they've released an H-S adapter allowing for the use of Hasselblad lenses on S-series bodies. The three new lenses bring the S-series family to a total of eight optics, with five offered in "central shutter" variants. These CS lenses offer shutters integrated into the lenses themselves, offering faster flash sync speeds. The new S-series body can use flash sync speeds of up to 1/1000th of a second with CS lenses, compared to 1/500th on the S2.
While full-frame image sensors are all the rage at Photokina 2012, Leica's medium format S-series update provides a new body for the niche professional photographers willing to plunk down the $21,950 asking price. With its massive updated sensor, the new S-series Type 006 should offer improved image quality over 2008's S2.
In addition, Leica's enhancement of the S-series family with three new lenses will help tide over this particular group of shooters. Medium format photography has certainly seen a boost in the last few years, but cameras like Nikon's 36.3-megapixel D800 threaten the relevance of such large bodies.
The trade-offs are obvious. While the new S-series body isn't much bigger than the D800, it's seven times the price, slower, and doesn't afford the same level of control or lens selection. Similarly, it's more than twice as expensive as the Pentax 645D, another digital medium format camera that offers a much larger lens ecosystem. While the new S-series body is indeed an improvement over the S2, this remains another camera in a niche category for the ultra-rich or the ultra-dedicated only. If that's your bag, then the Leica S Type 006 is a subtle improvement in many ways over its predecessor, and maintains the clean, elegant, compact design of the S2.
The Leica S-series has always been on the lunatic fringe of professional digital photography. The S1 was a revolutionary mid-90s camera with a digital scanning back that produced incredible, incredibly large images. 2008's S2 continued the tradition with a host of special S-series lenses designed to take advantage of the camera's massive 45mm x 30mm digital sensor.
Here at Photokina 2012, Leica has dropped the numeric naming convention and released a brand-new S-series camera. With a new 37.5-megapixel image sensor and processor, the S (Type 006) offers plenty of incremental improvements over the S2 for the low, low price of just $21,950 body-only.
What can you get for that price? Access to some of the most expensive, sharpest medium format lenses in the world; an ISO range that now extends from 100-1600; and double the internal buffer of the S2. In addition, Leica will provide a three-year repair and replacement plan that includes access to loaner cameras while yours is in the shop.