Leica S Type 007 + Summarit-S 70mm – a three week adventure with an amazing dslr

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We received a Leica S Type 007 with Summarit-S 70mm f/2.5 ASPH CS camera system for about 3 weeks to use as a daily beater. Many thanks to Leica Singapore for the loan, and here is our user impressions review on this high end, luxury camera.

Leica S Type 007 + Summarit-S 70mm F/2.5 ASPH CS

The Leica S body is equipped with a medium format sensor. While the use of the term medium format is somewhat contentious to some purists, our take on the use of the term medium format is that the sensor needs to be larger than what is universally agreed as full frame. Full frame takes its reference from 35mm film, and is defined as one with a sensor of dimensions 24mm x 36mm. The Leica S has a sensor measuring 45mm x 30mm, which Leica calls ProFormat. We also earlier reviewed the Hasselblad X1D, which carries a sensor measuring 44mm x 33mm. We consider both to be medium format. Note that the Leica S’s sensor aspect ratio is not the same as the X1D. Leica chose to use the 3:2 aspect ratio of 35mm camera sensors, while the Hasselblad and Fuji medium format aspect ratio is 4:3.

Format sizes compared.
Source: Paul Reiffer blog. We use this physical size comparison image, though Paul takes a narrower view that the 44×33 format or 45×30 format is not medium format.

Traditionally, medium format film means that the camera uses either 120 rollfilm or 220 rollfilm. The film measures 61mm from edge to edge, and the smallest traditional medium format is known as 645, which exposes an image about 56mm x 42mm. In the digital world, all sensors are smaller than the area exposed in 645 film. Only the Phase One IQ4 150 and the Hasselblad H6D-100 comes close with sensors measuring 53.4mm × 40mm.

The Leica S-System

Leica entered the medium format market with the S2 in 2008. The Chief Editor tested this camera and reported that this was a remarkable camera. See these articles:

The S2 featured a CCD sensor of the same 45mm x 30mm dimensions with 37Mpx. And was replaced by the Leica S (yes, Leica is well known for non-sequential model numbering, for eg the M3 came before the M1 or M2, but the M6 came later), the Type 006 with a CCD sensor. While the Type 006 was released, the S2 was repackaged as the SE. These CCD sensors had some issues with sensor corrosion, and Leica replaced them in a long term recall exercise. The CCD corrosion also affected the M9. The Type 006 was replaced by the the Type 007 with a CMOS sensor. Both retained the sensor dimensions and pixel count of the first generation S2.

The Leica S Type 007

Our review sample is the Type 007. Leica announced in Photoking 2018 that a new S3 will be available with the same size CMOS sensor, but with 63 Mpx. But to date, only prototypes have been seen. In comparison, Fujifilm announced the GFX 50R and GFX100, Hasselblad announced the X1D-II at the same show, and all three products have started to ship to end customers.

The camera body

The shape of the Leica S body is not changed since S2, retaining the overgrown DSLR look. The ergonomics and feel in the hand is superb, albeit a bit on the heavy side at 1.28kg for the body alone, and lenses are also correspondingly heavy. A standard outfit like the one with the 70mm as shown will tip the scales at just above 2kg.

With this lens attached, the combination is well balanced, but heavy. The grip is quite substantial, and may pose a problem for smaller hands, but in my averaged sized male hand, it is quite comfortable, though carrying comfort cannot beat that of the Hasselblad X1D body, which in my view is the pinnacle of industrial design. The S is as comfortable on the hand as its own sibling, weight notwithstanding – the smaller full format Leica SL.

The layout of the buttons are very logical, and I have no trouble getting used to the ergonomics from the get go. Twenty minutes to setup, and ready to shoot. Granted, this is from familiarity with the Leica SL, but the layout is very well thought out.

The body features a focal plane shutter which is capable of speeds up to 1/4000s. It can also control leaf shutters up to a max speed of 1/1000th of a second. The body does not offer an electronic shutter. The availability of a focal plane shutter means that it can easily be adapted to use legacy lenses.

Flash sync is up to the max 1/1000s for leaf shutters (which in Leica-speak is called Central Shutter, denoted by CS on the lens nomenclature), and 1/125s for the focal plane shutter. The lens I had is the CS model, which is some tens of grams heavier, and more expensive.

The bottom is a massive plate, featuring double tripod sockets, and access to the battery. The same system as the SL is used. Pull the lever once to release the battery, and push the battery in to release it. This prevents accidentally dropping the battery when trying to change it in the field.

The S is also capable of 4k video, though specialists in the video market would do better with a more focussed video body like the similarly priced Red Digital DSCM2 BRain with Gemini 5K S35.

The viewfinder deserves special mention. By virtue that it is a traditional optical viewfinder, it is very large, and very bright covering 98% of the sensor view. The mirror is also large as it has to be to cover the large sensor, but is well damped in operation. Mirror shudder is well controlled, and the body offers a mirror-up at the touch of a button for critical situations. The mirror slap is much softer than the Hasselblad H3D, which of course has an even larger mirror as the sensor is also larger at 48mm x 36mm.

The rear LCD is bright and clear, with information presented legibly.

A large LCD is also provided at the back with 921,000 dots. The LCD is bright and contrasty enough to be viewed under bright sunlight. This is sharp and detailed, though by today’s standards is rather low resolution. For eg, the Hasselblad X1D-II’s rear LCD is 3.6 million dots.

The S-System lens ecosystem

The S system has been around for a while, and Leica have had sufficient time to develop a comprehensive lens ecosystem. A total of 9 primes, 5 of which are available with leaf shutters. Focal lengths range from 24mm ultra wide to 180mm telephoto are available, including the specialist use TS-APO-ELMAR-S 120 f/5.6 ASPH with tilt shift and the 1:2 macro option in the APO-MACRO-SUMMARIT-S 120 f/2.5 used with the S2 in our images from about a decade ago.

The Leica S lens lineup.

In addition, a zoom lens is also available in the Vario-Elmar-S 30–90 f/3.5–5.6 ASPH. A range of adapters are also available to enable Hasselblad H and V lenses, Contax, Mamiya and Pentax 67 lenses to be used with the S System.

What is missing are lenses longer than 180mm, and teleconverters. The competing Hasselblad H system have lenses up to 300mm and a 1.4 teleconverter, and is perhaps more complete.

For our watch photography work, the system lacks a full macro lens. The Summarit-S 120 macro offers only 1:2 magnification, while the competing Hasselblad H system and Phase One IQ4 XF system have 120 macro lenses capable of 1:1 magnification plus the possibility of extension tubes for even closer work. The Leica S thus offers a H Adapter, which allows Hasselblad H lenses to be used and is a good option. It works well, with full electronic control of aperture, shutter and also autofocus from the S body.

All the lenses are stellar in performance. Excellent sharpness, superb optical quality with nice, creamy bokeh. Next week, on this column, we will show the photographs of events we took during the time the Leica S + Summarit 70/f2.5 was with us and used as a daily camera.

Daily beater

In daily use, we found the autofocus to be very precise. When the camera nails focus, it is almost always perfect.

However the autofocus is only available on a singular center point which is not movable. Focus and recompose is an essential part of using the S. It is by no means a speed demon, but is rather fast for a medium format camera. However, in Live View mode, the camera allows you to move the single focus point anywhere on the Live View screen, though the focus accuracy is less precise anywhere other than the middle position.

Comparisons with the like the Sony A7mk4 or the Canon 1DxMk2 are moot, as these full frame bodies offer blazing fast, almost instant autofocus. And when compared to the Fuji GFX 50 series and the Hasselblad X1D series, the Leica S focuses a bit faster as it uses a Phase Detect Autofocus System as opposed to the slower Contrast Detect Autofocus System used in the mirrorless bodies. Though when compared to the new Fuji GFX100 with its class leading PDAF + CDAF, the Leica S shows its age and is considerably slower to acquire and lock focus, though when it does, it is more accurate.

For studio work, when the weight and bulk of the camera is not a negative, the Leica S is superb. For carrying around, the weight bugs one down pretty fast, but the image quality is rewarding enough for one to consider lugging it for travel and events. For candid use in street photography, it is not as successful, as the huge size screams “professional photographer”, and lacks stealth.

Buying used: Do note that the early S lenses have also a cog in the motor which tend to break in heavy use. Leica also performed a free recall for many years to have these motors replaced, and when buying a used S lens, you will need to ensure that the Focus Motor is replaced. Just as in if you buy a used S2 and S Type 006 (or a CCD Leica like the M9), make sure the sensor is replaced, and the camera carries this documentation.

Concluding thoughts

This is a superb camera system. The only two negatives we can think of. Firstly, it is a very expensive system. And secondly, the system is rather heavy.

But the superb optics, coupled with the excellent sensor, though one which is beginning to show its age is still very capable of making excellent photographs. But the S Type 007 remains a viable high end camera. The new S3 improves on it with more megapixels (63 instead of 37.5), but most of the camera remain unchanged.

Orchids, photographed hand held under available lighting of the Breguet Boutique in Kuala Lumpur shows the detailed image, with excellent nuances of tonal and contrast.

It will demand more of a photographer’s skill to coax out the best it can give than a full frame marvel. But when all is right, the image quality is top drawer. Dynamic range. Tonal characteristics. Colour science. All top notch. For this alone, and the street cred of lugging a huge Leica, may be worth the very high entry price to a medium format Leica. This is the right camera system for those select individuals who care about top grade images, excellent ergonomics and a correspondingly high prestige level.

Editor’s note: edited for typo on the lens length. It’s a 70mm f/2.5 and not 50mm f/1.4.



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