I’ve fallen in love with many women, a dozen or so cities, and innumerable moments in time. But I’ve only ever fallen in love with one camera – the Leica S2.
By love I mean that irrational exuberance that can overcome any obstacle. That encounter with such beauty, intelligence, or elegance that compels me to rethink, even abandon, the way I do everything. That compulsion that allows me to gladly sacrifice almost anything to feel it once more, or prolong it just a little. Of course, love is also many other things, like the ability to overlook glaring faults. Some might say I’m actually describing infatuation, but they would be wrong – it’s love!
I’ve claimed to be in love with this camera since I saw the press-release images of it, admittedly that might be more like infatuation, or like saying I love Keira Knightley because I saw her in a beautiful film. Spending time with her might be a totally different experience. Thanks to a very kind person at Leica, I was loaned an S2 for a week. I proceeded to have an all-too-brief affair with it in New York City. I’ve never had my world so uprooted by a mere piece of technology.
After I sent one too many text messages describing my elation with this camera, I was asked to stop talking about it, and write a proper review. [Full disclosure: Leica had no idea I would be writing about the camera, nor did I, for that matter].
The Object of Desire
There are plenty of technical articles that can tell you the Leica S2 has 37.5 megapixels, a 56 percent larger sensor area than full-frame 35mm DSLRs, and the price tag of an entry-level BMW. However, to discuss those things is not only redundant, but almost completely misses the point of the S2. This is an object, a machine, a force so compelling that no matter what logic may tell you, you will adapt in any way necessary so that you can use it! As a physical object the Leica S2 is exquisitely refined and understated. If Jonathan Ive, Eero Saarinen, and Mies van der Rohe designed a camera together, this would be it.
This camera is like a fundamentalist religion. Once I adapted to its ways everyone else’s seemed retrograde. For example, the buttons are all unlabeled and the photographer selects what function each button serves. After I got used to this, all the labels and icons on my Nikon cameras suddenly seemed very amateurish. Why should they be labeled? I should know instinctively what each does. And why are there so many buttons on my Nikon in the first place? As it turns out, four programmable buttons on the back of the camera is actually all I ever need. The Leica S2 has a grand total of 10 buttons, switches, dials or levers. My Nikon D3s has 32!
This is representative of the type of thought that went into designing the S2. I had the distinct impression that the return distance of every button, and the tension in every dial were calibrated to some secret resonance with the human body that only Leica is privy to. It is why, at the end of the day, using a Leica S2 is such a sublime experience. It is also why you’ll overlook glaring faults, like the fact that many point and shoot cameras have better LCD screens than the S2. Even Leica’s own, and very beautiful, M9 seems a little crude when compared to the beauty of the S2, and any other camera is absolutely beastly.
Everyone kept asking me about the quality of the files. This is the rational side trying to justify the S2’s price tag. I was traveling during this affair, and no laptop screen is going to display these files with enough accuracy to answer that question, so I used it for 5 days without having any idea what the files looked like. Even if they had resembled those of first generation digital cameras I still would have figured out how to make that lack of quality part of my style. Fortunately, that wasn’t the case.
At it’s native ISO (160) the files are a photographer’s dream. Skin tones are smooth and exact. Highlights cease being a troublesome part of the spectrum requiring special treatment and simply look like any other part of the file. In fact, the Leica S2’s sensor makes the very concept obsolete. The shadows are deep, full of detail. I can’t even show their depth because most calibrated monitors don’t have a wide enough color gamut to display the subtleties of these richly-textured shadows. And yes, 37 million pixels behind a Leica lens translate into an astonishing amount of detail! In one portrait I made, the catchlight not only revealed windows in the studio, but individual buildings in the skyline. In short, the quality of these files exceeds the web technologies we use to commonly view and discuss them.
As I’ve mentioned, trying to talk about practical considerations is almost impossible when it comes to the Leica S2. It’s like trying to discuss the trunk space in a Ferrari. Once you’ve driven one, you simply reduce the amount of groceries you buy until they fit snugly in it’s diminutive storage compartment (or so I’m told). Not only does my rational side completely capitulate to the sensual allure of this camera, but it’s re-employed and put to work in finding ways to justify any objections that might be made. Only one-center AF point? No problem, I don’t need to shoot non-centered moving objects anyway! Can’t really shoot above ISO 160? I’ll just buy a studio! Can only afford one lens? Great, I’ll just relish the simplicity and creative strictures of only having one lens!
In theory, these factors may appear to make it an extremely limiting tool outside of a very controlled environment. In practice, it’s such a joy to use in the field that limitations and obstacles don’t really feel like either.
Now with all this perfection comes an unexpected problem. As soon as I deviated slightly from a perfect exposure, or dared bump the ISO up just one stop to 320, paradise was lost. It’s not that the file becomes unusable, or even problematic. I could deliver files to clients shot at the maximum ISO of 1250 without any problem. It’s that the file is no longer perfect. That deviation from perfection generates a sense of loss that I haven’t experienced with any other camera’s files. It is like the one stain on my favorite white shirt. It’s still perfectly usable, but now all I can see is that it is no longer perfect. Once I tasted the milk and honey from a correctly exposed S2 file at ISO 160, I don’t ever want anything else from it.
A Costly Affair
I would be remiss if I didn’t address the price, and more importantly the cost of using this camera. It straddles two different markets, for a medium format camera it is a remarkably good deal. Compared to a 35mm system it is astronomically expensive. And then there are the more intangible costs. Like any peak experience, once you know that apex of engineering and artistic sophistication, your eyes are opened to what the world could be, and you wonder why everyone else falls so short? I literally did not want to pick up any other camera after having used it.
The true value of the Leica S2 is the energy and vigor it brought to my work. Ordinarily, I have a pretty narrow focus in what I shoot. I’ve never been a photographer who shoots whatever is in front of them. I don’t take vacation pictures, I don’t document daily life, I don’t really photograph anything that isn’t in the 4 or 5 areas that have interested me for the past 20 years. But I never wanted to let go of the Leica S2. It made me want to make images – of everything! It compelled me to shoot things it was built for: like landscapes, and studio portraits, and then with equal force, genres it had no business in, like: street photography, or wildlife. It energized me. It fueled and pushed the boundaries of my creativity. It made me want to photograph anything – all the time. I realized that $27,500 doesn’t just buy me the most beautiful camera ever made, it buys me a muse, and then it suddenly seems like an irresistible deal.
David Wittig is an art and wedding photographer based in Chicago. He’s just leased a studio in preparation for his S2 and is hoping 27,500 people will give him $1 so he can buy one.