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Alternative Systems to the Leica S2

An immediate issue is aspect ratio. The Leica S2 has a 3:2 aspect ratio, just like a 35mm DSLR. Most medium format cameras offer a 4:3 aspect ratio, so this might be unacceptable to some pros, but it will feel right at home to 35mm DSLR users.

Target market for the S2

The S2 is in a “squeeze” situation: below it in price are the Nikon and Canon pro DSLRs, soon to nudge up against the 37.5 megapixels of the S2, perhaps with 30 megapixels, or even a bit more. And perhaps for the first time, without an AA filter.

A Nikon D4x at 32 megapixels without an anti-aliasing (blur) filter would make the S2 proposition start to look quite shaky; a 50% sensor size advantage is just not that important, and Nikon has years of experience with noise control at high ISO, where the S2 just can’t compete beyond the low ISOs. Already, the Nikon D3x and D3s demonstrate oustanding image quality in most regards, and the depth and breadth of the system is astonoshing. Take it one step further, and .... game over. And maybe not just for Leica, leaving only the high-high end market for the medium format vendors.

Above the S2 in price are the Phase One and Hasselblad offerings with larger sensors, but relatively clunky operational characteristics.

If Leica is thinking the S2 will displace the 50 and 60 megapixel PhaseOne and Hasselblad offerings, that fantasy is just not likely to come off. Rather, the S2 fits much better against the Nikon/Canon offerings, but at triple or quadruple the price, it will be tough sledding. Certainly I’d love to own the S2, but looking at ~$30K for one body, one lens and a few accessories, it’s difficult.

In the pro market, cameras are tools for specific jobs. They are not playthings; they deliver exactly what is needed, or they don’t happen. But at the same time, any pro working daily with PhaseOne or Hasselblad might just as well have a Leica S2 around for certain types of shoots; no tool does every job better than every other tool. And the pros buying this stuff can afford both, so if the S2 serves a purpose, it will succeed as a tool in the toolbox— but not as a replacement.

Support and accessories are not to be underestimated: this could well be the Achille’s heel of the S2. The lens line is very limited and supply is all but non-existent. No pro can tolerate that situation, or the fact that rental support is also needed. So Leica has to get product into the channel, so that at least those who want to buy can buy. This is a very serious problem as of July 2010; the launch is taking many months— too long.


Price context — a basic S2 system with 70mm lens runs about US$28000. Add the remaining four lenses for a system that can cover the bases, and one is looking at a system cost of about $46000. Throw in some accessories, and ballpark it at $50K. Add the platinum support plan (a requirement for working pros), and the system is now looking like US$55K. But what pro can afford to have only one body? It’s a disaster if it fails (come back next week everyone?), so that means a second body is all but mandatory, at another $23K.

Drop one lens from the kit (3 lenses), and it’s still around US$48K, though one can drop the platinum support and accessories, and get it down to ~$41K. Not very realistic though.

The alternatives out there are very competitive.

Alternative: PhaseOne P65+ + DF Kit

On July 8, 2010, I received an email promotion from a PhaseOne dealer. For US $39,990, the following three-lens system is offered, along with 24-month 0% financing:

  • Phase One P65+ 60MP back +
  • Phase One DF camera body +
  • Phase One 80mm LS Schneider Lens +
  • Choose your own two (2) Phase One Lenses +
  • Capture One 5 DB software.

A spare body is a few thousand dollars (body only, no sensor), but the Leica S2 is still $23K for another body, so that’s an enormous difference. But of course the camera body and lens mount and digital back had better be perfectly aligned, which is not a given.

Is the PhaseOne/Mamiya solution as sleek as the S2? No. For example, the LCD is a crappy 2.2" with a measly 230K pixels. But the image has 60 megapixels on a very large sensor and PhaseOne has an established history and dealer/support network.

Mamiya/PhaseOne/Leaf offer various other alternatives at varying price points and resolutions.

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Alternative: Hasselblad H4D 40/50/60

Hasselblad had 40/50/60 megapixels alternatives. The 60 megapixel offering is about $41995, but is not available until October 2010.

The 50 megapixel HF4D-50 offering is about $38K, and includes the body and an 80mm lens.

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