ChilloutTGIFridays: Leica S3 – the revenge of the Germans

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We take a closer look and get a week with the rather rare Leica S3, a rather rare sighting in the world of high end digital medium format cameras.

Leica Singapore called and asked if I was keen to take the Leica S3 for a test drive. But due to other commitments, they can only let me have the camera with 3 lenses for a week. Of course I said OK. Many thanks to TS Sim for giving me this opportunity. The Leica S3 is a kind of unicorn in the industry. Not many are seen in the wild, though there have been reports of some being sighted at the local 7-11s around the world.

A week is quite a short time to get familiar with a camera, especially one as advanced as the Leica S3. But in my defense, as I am very familiar working with medium format systems, so am relatively comfortable with the camera. Here is my brief report as I took the following system for a quick test round the block, so to speak.

Medium format digital camera world

The Leica S System is Leica’s offering in the medium format space. Leica is the only German camera manufacturer left in business. Franke & Heidecke who makes Rollei been out of business since 2009. Its successors have led a shaky manufacturing journey, though the DW Hy6 mod2 (name changed, but essentially the original Rollei HY6 designed by F+H in 2006 with some modifications) is still being produced, though there are no further developments to the platform since 2013. Of the German lens manufacturers, only Leica and Rodenstock remain, with Schneider-Kreuznach only producing for Phase One. If we cast the net larger to European manufacturers, the producers still remain only a few. While Leica is also the only 35mm manufacturer left standing, European makers dominate the medium format and larger systems. Linhof still makes large format cameras in Munich. The others manufacturers are Alpa (medium format) and Sinar (mainly large format) in Switzerland, Arca Swiss (large format and accessories) in France, Cambo (large format and medium format view cameras) in The Netherlands, Phase One (medium format) and Hasselblad (medium format) in Denmark. Whereas the rest of the world only have Fujifilm and Pentax in Japan making cameras in the medium format level. The big 3 global camera makers – Canon, Sony, Nikon and even Panasonic only have offerings in the 35mm full frame and smaller market.

The Leica S System

Nomenclature: The first Leica medium format camera was the Leica S1. This is an unusual scanner camera with a resolution of 26Mps for stationary use introduced in 1996. It had a 36mm x 36mm sensor with 5140×5140 pixels. As a very specialized camera, it saw limited usage in the field or studios. In 2008, Leica announced plans to offer an S-System in the form of a DSLR with a Kodak-made custom CCD image sensor measuring 45mm x 30mm and containing 37 million pixels. This was replaced in the S Type 007 in 2012, also using a CCD sensor, and updated with a CMOS sensor in 2014 with the S Type 007. Both the S retained the 37Mp resolution. Though announced in 2018, the S3 only saw first delivery reports from late 2020. The S3 sensor is increased to 64mp, while retaining the sensor dimensions of 45mm x 30mm.

The Leica S3, showing the exposed mirror box and bottom of the pentaprism assembly.

We have carried reviews of the Leica S system cameras here:

The system came in a Pelican like lockable, sealable case – the System Case S retailing at SGD 920. The maroon arrow points to the Leica S3 body, SGD 29,950. The top 3 arrows in yellow, blue and green are the lenses – the Summarit-S 35mm f/2.5 ASPH CS SGD at 12,330. the Summarit-S 70mm f/2.5 ASPH CS at SGD 8,380 and the APO-Macro-Summarit-S 120mm f/2.5 ASPH CS SGD at 12,330. All the lenses in the package came with leaf shutters, which is designated CS (Central Shutter) by Leica. The white arrow points to the charging hub – the Leica Pro Charger retailing at SGD 630, capable of charging two batteries at a time. Each battery is SGD 250. All prices are Singapore retail, and include GST. And the purple arrow shows the spare battery, the other battery is in the body. The other cutouts in the foam is for the cables and other accessories, which was not loaned to me.

Leica S3 body

The Leica S3 body looks exactly the same as the S Type 007 we reviewed earlier. It is a weather sealed, non-modular design, like an overgrown DSLR, though truth be told, it is no larger than the top of the line professional cameras from Canon and Nikon. Indeed it is a DSLR, as it contains a mirror box and pentaprism to offer an optical viewfinder. And also different from other medium format digital cameras, the sensor has an aspect ratio of 3:2 measuring 45mm x 30mm a ratio which is the same as 35mm full frame. The other medium format platforms use a nominal 4:3 aspect ratio – either with 44mm x 33mm sensors, or 56mm x 40mm. For publication and large prints, the 4:3 aspect requires less cropping as it is consistent with the aspect ratio of popular paper sizes. The sensor offers 64Mpixels of resolution, providing a claimed 15 stops of dynamic range. The operating ISO range is from 100-50,000 and the body has a dual shutter system with either a focal plane shutter in-body, or a leaf shutter in the lens which are so equipped. The body and S lenses are weather sealed.

Layout and ergonomics are excellent. And the controls are very well thought out. Only 4 programmable buttons are on the rear LCD. The camera also comes with two thumb wheels, and one dial. And a on/off switch which doubles as a switch to use the camera body’s focal plane shutter or to use the leaf shutter in the lens which are so equipped. Two additional buttons on the top to engage video recording (yes it does 4k), the other can be user assigned., That’s it. No 25 separate and fully programmable buttons that typically adorn a normal Japanese camera. The large viewfinder is optical, and very bright. Diopter correction is offered in an intuitively designed dial around the finder.

The rear lcd is a 3″ affair with 920,000 dots. While it is clear and bright, and adequate to check focus and display menu and histogram, it must be noted that it is archaic when compared to other cameras. The Fujifilm GFX 50S II and the Hassleblad 907X 50C both are specified with 3.2″, 2.4Mdot LCD. Focusing on the S3 is somewhat slow, especially in low light where it tends to hunt a little. But as the S3 uses a phase detect autofocus system, but it is deadly accurate. When the camera reports that the only autofocus point is in focus, it is spot on.

I took no time at all to familiarize myself with the controls. The grip fits well, and is comfortable to hold. However, after moving to mirrorless cameras, I recently purchased the GFX 50S II (weighing a svelte 440g), the S3 does feel a bit heavy weighing in at 1270g for the body only. However, it is lighter than my Hasselblad H3D-39 (about 1850g) or the Phase One XF IQ4 150 (1890g). The S lenses are also equally bulky and heavy, but this is par for the course as all medium format lenses are very big and hefty as well. Mounted on a tripod, the weight is less of a concern than if used as a daily carry camera, though this is what I did over the week that the S3 was with me.

The mirror is relatively smooth and quiet, and mirror slap during activation is minimal. The S3 does not have in body stabilization, but it is quite easy to hand hold the camera with lens attached. The heavy weight perhaps helps, but more importantly the weight is nicely balanced. And the body with either of the 3 loan lenses feel good in the hand.

Leica S lens ecosystem

I covered the S lens ecosystem in my review of the S007. This is a rather comprehensive system with a total of nine primes, of which five are available with leaf shutters and one zoom. Focal lengths covers a range from 24mm ultra wide to 180mm telephoto. All prime the lenses feature large (by medium format standards) apertures, ranging from f/3.5 to f/2.

I had access to the Summarit-S 70, the Summarit-S 35 and the APO-Macro-Summarit-S 120. All the lenses are exceptional in both build quality and also in the image quality it able to generate. Leica does not make use of extensive post correction in the software to address flaws, but the S lenses take care of the aberration corrections optically. All lenses draw beautifully, with smooth, creamy bokeh, and very sharp across the entire frame. These three lenses are rectilinear, with negligible barrel distortion.

As mentioned, the lenses are very large and heavy. For example the Summarit-S 35 weighs 1080g, the Summarit-S 70 (the smallest and lightest S lens) weighs 890g, with the APO-Macro-Summarit-S 120 coming in at a whopping 1205g.

For a more comprehensive guide to the S lenses, I recommend the very well documented article by David Farkas of the Leica Store Mami: The Definitive Guide to the Leica S Lenses.

Image quality

Image quality is outstanding. This is a Leica after all. However, for my use case as a macro camera for watch photography, the S system falls a bit short. The only macro lens in the ecosystem, the APO-Macro-Summarit-S 120mm f/2.5 only goes to 0.5X magnification. Leica does not make automatic extension tubes, nor a bellows system so higher magnification is not possible natively. I have not tried the Elpro attachment, and do not know if it will work with the 120.

Shown as an example is the Glashütte Original Senator Perpetual Calendar in stainless steel with a salmon coloured dial (full review soon!). Photographed in my usual studio, and shown here is the full frame. This is the closest the Leica S3 can get. With my usual 1X magnification via the Hasselblad HC 4/120 Macro either on the Hasselblad H3D-39 or the Fujifilm GFX 50S II, the dial will nearly fill the frame at its closest focusing distance. Other than the inability to get closer, the S3 files are gorgeous. Very detailed, with excellent micro and macro contrast and tonal variations captured beautifully. Chromatic aberration and colour fringing is almost zero, and a testament to the APO designation and the excellence in the lens design. The 64Mp sensor resolution offers the ability to crop the image, especially for web presentation. This offers some respite. But for very large prints of the watch filling up most of the frame, the S3 will be challenged.

Leica S3 with Summarit-S 120 Macro at the maximum magnification. Full frame image. No other processing is done, other than resizing in Photoshop and adding the watermark. Note also the 3:2 aspect ratio.

I have documented the Summarit-S 70 in the earlier S Type 007 article, as it was the only lens I had then. See this article for some sample images. I am happy to report that it resolves beautifully with the new, higher resolution sensor. The lens is fully capable to handle the increased resolution. Shown below is a selfie wrist shot. This is almost impossible to shoot with the 120mm lens (same problem with any 120mm macro), as the working distance for a framing with the watch on the wrist is too far (min focusing distance for half size image is 57cm) to be able to execute solo in comfort. In the shot below, I used the Summarit-S 70, at its minimum focusing distance of 48.77 cm, yielding a 1/4.8 magnification. This results in an image which is too wide, and will need a crop for a good wrist shot. Note at this distance, it still requires that my the left wrist wearing the watch to be bent at an awkward angle. With the right hand to handle the camera, I am not enough of a contortionist to allow me to pull this off. I have noted this problem with my Hasselblad 120 Macro lens as well. And even with the Hasselblad 80mm. But when the 80mm is combined with a 26mm extension tube, it is almost perfect for this job. But as mentioned the Leica S system does not offer extension tubes.

Leica S3, Summarit-S 70. No other processing is done, other than resizing in Photoshop and adding the watermark. Note also the 3:2 aspect ratio.

I am also very happy with the Summarit-S 35 performance. The lens is linear across the frame, with very very low distortion – either barrel or chromatic.

Harry Winston Salon in Singapore. Leica S3, Summarit-S 35.

In black and white, the image is satisfying.

Leica S3, Summarit-S 35, cropped to wide mode, and converted to black and white in Photoshop.

And as a portrait lens, it works well too. The image below is slightly cropped, as 35mm is quite wide for portraits, though can be pressed to be useful for an environmental portraits. Here is my friend Michael in a typical Singapore hawker center. Shot wide open at f/2.5, the out of focus renders very nice, with nice round bokeh balls. And the subject is tact sharp, demonstrating a very nice separation from the background.

Leica S3 with Summarit-S 35.

Other than the need to crop for close up watch photography, the Leica S lenses are superb, and I enjoyed my time using them.

Concluding thoughts

As I mentioned at the start of the article, one week with an advanced camera is too little time to get fully acquainted with the system and its quirks. But it is absolutely clear that this is a magnificently built camera system. Superbly engineered, beautifully constructed. The lenses are top notch, and perhaps among the most advanced optically optimized lens ever. And the system is capable of producing stunning images of the highest quality.

At shortest focussing distance, the Summarit-S 120 Macro extends quite a bit from the barrel. At this working distance, the magnification is only 0.5.

What remains to be answered at the end of a review, is the final question of whether the Leica S3 system worth the money? At a system price for the camera with 3 lenses of about SGD 60k, it is indeed a very expensive camera system. Only the Phase One cameras are more expensive. However, Leica takes the premium pricing badge as the S lenses are even more expensive than the “equivalent” Schneider-Kreuznach Blue Line Phase One lenses. Probably the most expensive lenses in the market. So, in conclusion. Is the system expensive? Yes. Heavy? Also yes. Is the image quality good? Top notch. Should you buy it? This one, only you can answer. Do you need the quality? Do you need the image and street cred which comes with rocking a top of the line Leica? Do you have the swagger to carry it off? If yes, certainly the Leica S3 is a fantastic system for you.

Photo Notes

The photographs of the Leica S system in this article was shot in our studio with the Fujifilm GFX 50S II and Hasselblad HC 2.8/80mm lens, Profoto strobes in our usual manner.

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