Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Photokina 2010: Day 1 – Leica S System

Another Photokina has begun. Walking up the steps into the Koelnmesse and into Photokina felt great. Not only was it a beautiful day this morning, but the sheer amount of photo goodies awaiting you inside can boggle the mind and cause even the most seasoned industry veteran to get a little giddy with anticipation.

My first stop, naturally, was Leica. Coming down the escalator into the usual spot of hall 2.1, the Leica booth was buzzing with activity and excitement. The M counter was swamped. The S counter was swamped. Hordes of people swarmed around the compact camera islands. Journalists were queued up to gain access to the press area. Leica employees (the ones with the red dot lapel pins) were manning their posts and obviously enjoying Leica's somewhat newfound popularity.

After a few quick greetings, I made a beeline for the S system counter. I wanted to see the 120 macro again and see what else might be waiting to be discovered. Well, I was satisfied on more than one account. There were plenty of 120 Macro lenses to go around as well as the newly released multifunction handgrip.

The most I'd ever seen of the grip was a solid block mock-up. The grips that were on the cameras here were most certainly not mock-ups. I was surprised by the weight, or rather lack thereof. Made of aluminum and magnesium alloy, the grip is solid and sturdy but extremely lightweight. The textured rubberized covering is the same as that of the S2 itself. Somewhat of a surprise to me was the change from the one-handed quick release attachment method to the more tried-and-true screw-in approach with a large thumb wheel. I found out later that when putting the lever solution through quality assurance, Leica engineers were not satisfied with the security and reliability of the locking mechanism. They went back to the drawing board and redesigned the grip with a more robust solution. At first I was disappointed as this was always such a cool concept, but I suppose I would take a more mainstream approach rather than have my S2 fall to the ground while I was shooting vertical. Gotta have priorities, right?

The base of the grip has two tripod mounting holes, ¼"-20 and 3/8", both with corresponding anti-twist holes. Also on the base in a somewhat unusual position is the switch to enable or disable grip control. It is recessed nicely and I highly doubt the possibility of any accidental switch flipping.

On the left-hand side is a battery compartment door, with a nice metal turning latch. The door reminds me of the battery cover on the Nikon D3, except much finer construction and more sturdy. When you turn the release, the door flips down and reveals the battery, which sits flush in the case. Next to the battery is a metal push button, with releases the battery with the same clever safety feature of the camera's main battery. The cell pops out about a quarter of an inch and requires a short, soft inward press to fully release. This keeps batteries from inadvertently falling on the floor, or off a cliff (if you so happen to venture near cliff edges while changing batteries). The S2 will pull power from the battery in the grip first, then switch to the battery in the body. In Leica's testing, they found that the combined battery life with the grip was over 5,000 shots. Not bad!

On the right side of the grip are the shooting controls, similar to those on the S2. On the front, the same metal shutter release button. On the rear, the same clickable scroll wheel with a AE-L/AF-L button just to the left of the wheel. In the hand, the grip feels great for vertical shooting. The balance is just about perfect and in landscape orientation, with the extra volume on the base of the camera adding a nice steadiness. Also, with the grip attached, you can use the new hand strap. Very comfortable. I want one.

At the counter, I had a nice chat with Wanja Szypura, who is an image processing engineer in the R&D division at Leica. This is one of the best parts of Photokina. You will often find that the people showing you products at the counters are not sales staff, but rather those that are deeply involved with the design of the equipment itself. In addition to writing image processing algorithms for the S2's firmware, Wanja is the point person for the collaboration with Adobe. He verified for me that Adobe does in fact have two S2s systems, one is in California for the tethering team to work with and the other is in Seattle for the image processing team to work with. Just in our brief chat, it is quite clear that the relationship between Leica and Adobe is a strong and important one for both companies. He also mentioned that Leica will probably offer users ICC camera profiles for Capture One and Adobe will roll out lens profiles for ACR and LR most likely in the next release. All good news for S2 users.

For further S2 enlightenment, I joined S2 product managers Stephan Schulz and Toni Felsner in the S2 studio inside the press area. Professional photographers were carrying out shoots in Leica's trade-show studio. Leica again partnered with German studio lighting company Briese to build and equip the studio.

Amidst the shoot, Stephan demonstrated the new Leica Image Shuttle software, which introduces a preview function. Click the little eyeball icon under the FPS button in Shuttle and a second free-floating window appears. In this latest version of Image Shuttle, a 2 megapixel image is sent over the USB connection immediately after the shot is taken. After about 1.5 seconds, the image pops up in the review window. While not high enough resolution to check critical focus, it is sufficient to judge lighting, expression (for people shots), exposure and color. The previewed image is extremely close to the final color rendering and looks pretty good. Stephan took my picture to demonstrate. Ideally, Leica is working towards allowing the user to use Image Shuttle for camera control and rapid preview, but still allow the direct tethering connection into Lightroom for DAM and image processing. I think this is a great solution, as the integrated design of the S2 allows Shuttle to control every setting in the camera remotely. Used combined with Key Lock, this could be a digital tech's best friend on a fast paced shoot. Then, combined with the speed increases and imaging tools in LR, the photographer or tech has a great tool.

On the subject of speed, one of the features we have been clamoring for is a compressed DNG. Well, the soon-to-be-released S2 firmware allows the user to select losslessly compressed DNG files. This is not the same square root compression algorithm used on the M8 and M9, but a newly developed one that is 100% lossless.

The S2's Maestro image processing chip allows the camera to execute much more advanced algorithms than possible using the M9's generic DSP. File size will vary between 35-50MB depending on subject matter. I didn't settle in for a timed test, but watching the photographer shoot and seeing the image display on the monitor, I think there was a speed increase. So, now we get slightly faster tethering with image transfers averaging 2.5 seconds per image as well as reduced storage demands on hard drives and CF cards.

The new firmware also has some substantial improvements in other areas as well. Here's a breakdown of what I have seen so far:

  • Option for compressed DNG files (explained above)
  • Storage mode changes from External to Internal Sequential if USB cord is removed from the camera mid-session. Currently, the camera will remain in External storage mode. The new firmware automatically switches the camera from External to CF or SD internal storage.
  • The new Clipping Definition menu option allows the user to define the thresholds for highlight and shadow warnings. You can set the shadow level from 0-20 and the highlight level to 200-255. Neat feature.

  • When in Bulb setting on the shutter speed dial, by pressing the thumbwheel in, a control displays on the rear LCD allowing shutter speeds from 8 sec to 125 sec to be dialed in. This is really cool.

  • Now the rear thumb button can be controlled more finely. Currently, in MF mode, the rear thumb button activates AF, but only in AFc. This can now be adjusted to be AFs or even add AE-lock at the same time. Good addition.

  • Added electronic focus confirmation for use with adapters and manual focus lenses
  • Refined autofocus (again), by making the AF active area dynamically larger for closer distances and smaller for further ones. This should help isolate subjects even when a background is just a few feet behind them when at middle distances.
  • Added support for handgrip

Some hardware goodies, besides the grip and strap, were some real, honest-to-goodness CS lenses. No, I'm not kidding. I even got to shoot off a few frames with one. Stephan explained that they are tweaking the timing of the focal plane shutter and central shutter to coincide very close to each other. This will reduce the mirror/shutter blackout to a minimum. When asked when these will be available, I was told "Spring 2011".

A physically small, but functionally big item was a split image/microprism focusing screen. Wow. This was perhaps the brightest, easiest-to-nail-focus screen I have ever used. The standard screen in the S2 is incredible, but can be challenging for manual focus. This one makes manual focus a dream. You can immediately and positively see the exact point of focus. I took a picture through the S2 viewfinder, but it doesn't quite do it justice.

Saw the Pro Charger in action. Small, light, multivoltage with quick charging of two batteries, each with its own digital charge readout.

After the show and tell, we moved on to discuss lenses. Leica is putting an obvious emphasis on wide angle lenses for the S2. Adding to the brilliant 35mm f/2.5 will be a 24mm f/3.5 and a 30mm f/2.8. The decision to go with a 30mm when there already is a 35mm lens might seem a bit odd, but after Stephan explained the approach, it made good sense to me. The 30mm will be equivalent to a 24mm for full frame 35mm. The 35mm is a 28mm. Classically, photographers tend to choose either a 24 or a 28 for their wide angle work. They plan to leverage the existing design of the 35mm lens with some repositioning of the elements. What this will mean is that the 30mm will also be offered in a CS version, making it a great choice for wide-angle fashion shots. The 24mm, as discussed last summer, will be equivalent to a 19mm ultrawide. I haven't seen one at the show, and I don't really expect to. I do expect the 24 and the 30 to be available sometime next year.

In other lens news, Leica is in the process of designing adapters for other medium format lenses. Stephan confirmed that they have made some early prototypes of a Hasselblad V to S2 and a Pentax 67 to S2. There might be others in the works, but only the V and P67 adapters were confirmed. Things are looking up for the S system on all fronts it would seem.

In one of my meetings during the day I had the opportunity to try out the M9 Titan. The camera is really a work of art and looking through the viewfinder and its bright red frame lines, I felt like I was targeting a missile or the like. I took a picture through the viewfinder for good measure. I'm a bit tired to go into too much more detail on the M9 Titan right now, so for now, these photos will have to suffice.

Until tomorrow…..

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At 11:54 PM, Anonymous Jack MacD said...

I asked for plenty of info on the S2 grip and you delivered very well! Thank you.

Clever of you to marry a model.

What camera are you using to do the close up shots?
Surely not your S2?

Great news about the firmware update details on the S2. I will appreciate the compressed files.

At 1:02 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It looks like there is no hope for us R users. Sad to say, it has been a great run. Any chance for a full frame digital solution?

At 3:46 AM, Blogger David Farkas said...

@Jack MacD - No problem. We aim to please.

I'm using the D-Lux 4 to take all my trade-show pics, screenshots, and viewfinder images. It works quite well.

Yes, Leica's commitment to keep improving the S System is quite evident in their efforts and enthusiasm. The system is already amazing and will only get better - an advantage of starting with a clean slate design and opting to bring all the necessary resources in-house.

At 3:53 AM, Blogger David Farkas said...

@ Anonymous - I was as disappointed as many R users were (I was an R/DMR user myself) that the R10 was canceled, but I understand the reason they did so.

After using the S2 since the beginning of the year (and before that if you count testing), the decision to go to a medium format camera makes a lot of sense. Not everyone will like or be able to afford the system, but it has been and will continue to be, a critical and commercial success for Leica.

Leica did say that there would be some solution for R users, but also said there would be no SLR either. Many believed that this meant an EVIL camera and this was often rumored to be announced at this Photokina. I would not give up hope yet. Leica moves in mysterious ways....

At 6:29 AM, Anonymous Pepe said...

David, thank you for the insights. I share your fascination for the S system. I’m used to the Alpa system and various digital backs, and the S is the first integrated system I’m jealous on. Are you going to see the new Phase One and Leaf stuff at Photokina?

At 8:15 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

These are great news with regards to the firmware improvements - just the right features and the changes to the AF/AE button will allow me to shoot the way I need to. Any idea given on the timing of the release?
Also I am looking forward to new Adobe profiles etc..

If only the lenses could roll-in a little faster...


At 11:42 AM, Anonymous Jack MacD said...

Do you ever sleep?

At 4:28 PM, Anonymous Bill Hart said...

David, thank you for your detailed report. Whets my appetite for the S2. Meantime, we R users have not given up hope, but wonder if the "mysterious ways" are apt to be revealed in the near term?

At 8:07 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Is there any chance in the wide angle line-up that Leica will fill the large void with a S2 50mm lens soon?

This would be equal to a 35 mm wide angle. A 50mm S2 lens is really needed for landscape, wedding, reportage type photography. The S2 35mm field of view is too great for the aforementioned applications. Sooner vice later would be great for us S2 users. Leica knows how to build 35mm lenses. This should be a cake walk for them. Worth asking the question.

At 8:34 PM, Blogger Thorsten Overgaard said...

Really really great coverage, David.

At 9:45 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A you mentioned the planned 30mm S2 lens: Did you hear anything about the previously planned T/S lens. This had been announced at the same focal lens - has the plan for this lens been dropped?

At 8:24 PM, Anonymous DaleF said...

Great, unbiased reporting. An easy read, even on the most technical information.

The photos illustrating everything are really the key.

Nice job, David!


At 8:33 AM, Anonymous BR said...

Nice work. But lose the red tie.


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