Yesterday I must have spent more than 6 hours looking at different Leica cameras trying to figure out which body and lens is best for me. My wife has heard nothing but Leica this and Leica that and after using and reviewing the Leica SE for a week I might be a little smitten. The Leica S 007 is soon to be released and in preparation for that we decided to review the currently available model.
Cambridge has to be my favourite city for street photography and the Leica does not disappoint. Even handheld the image quality is jaw dropping, especially when you consider how heavy a lens and body combination really is.
As this is a medium format camera the sensor, the body and the lenses are bigger. My 5D mark III looks small in comparison. So what's the actual camera like, well its big, its clunky, its slow at focussing, I'm used to having multiple focus points and medium format cameras only have one in the middle of the frame. The camera has no image stabilization which makes handheld even more difficult especially with let's say the 180mm F3.5. The Leica SE has a CCD sensor which means low light performance is pretty bad and ISO can only be boosted up to 1600 (you'd be wise to stay below 800). There is no live view, no video mode and the top part of the camera is made of plastic, possibly due to the GPS node being there, but who uses GPS anyway? Lastly although its considered to be a medium format camera, the sensor is only 20% bigger, its less medium format and more "Full-Frame Plus".
When you attach one of those behemoth sized lenses onto the camera, all of the above issues seem to magically disappear. The image quality is simply astounding, even with just 37.5MP (for medium format) it feels like the lenses are making use of every single one and maybe a few more just to be safe. I don't profess to be a great headshot photographer but even my shots are looking pretty good. The way the Leica renders fine details, skin texture and contrast really make an image pop. The lack of noise at its base ISO (100) is really impressive and the amount of detail that can be brought back from the shadows still surprises me. Although we talked about this camera having a CCD sensor and it's low light performance, this camera wasn't built for those environments. When you give this camera enough light and use it for what it's been built for, it truly excels beyond expectations.
Being an interior and architectural photographer my favourite Leica lens is of course the 24mm F3.5. This is a beautifully made lens with fantastic build quality, the front element is big and gives off a slight reddish reflection. Leica are known for their lenses and I could be wrong but to my eye this lens has absolutely no distortions. The 24mm lens isn't a tilt shift making some architectural photography a little difficult, however, I've been told Schneider are currently developing a wide angle tilt shift lens which will be compatible with Leica, this is definitely great news for us :). I had the opportunity to take some images of the The Midland Hotel in Bradford whilst using the 24mm lens and the results speak for them self.
In conclusion I think the Leica S system is amazing to work with. The camera has been built for settings where the light can be controlled. It's probably not the best camera for events and wedding considering the ISO performance but then it would be pretty overkill for that too. When this camera has enough light it really comes into it's own. The Leica SE may not be the best medium format camera considering it's smaller sensor size and the fact that you can't upgrade "the back", however it has a really well built DSLR form factor making it very straight forward to use. All I needed were two dials and a shutter button, and because of it's form factor even street photography was easy. This camera is a true photographers camera, it doesn't need all of the other fancy features when it produces such amazing images, The lenses are simply wow, I really can't say enough about how great they are. Some of the people at Leica tell me that relative to the other medium format brands, they make the best lenses, and honestly I don't have any reason to disagree.
Ultimately I'm very pleased with the Leica S system and would definitely consider upgrading to it, however as the Leica S 007 has been announced I think I'll wait till I've seen what that can do before making a decision.