Stephan Schulz, Head of Professional Imaging at Leica, pictured at the
Photokina 2012 trade show in Cologne, Germany (photo: Barnaby Britton)

The biggest lines at Leica's stand at this year's Photokina were for the new M and M-E rangefinders, but Leica also announced a new camera in its 'S' medium format line. Called simply the 'S', the 37.5MP medium-format DSLR offers a range of improvements and refinements compared to the original S2. Leica also announced three new S lenses, and an adapter to allow Hasselblad users to mount their H lenses on the S with no loss of functionality. Barnaby Britton caught up with Stephan Schulz, head of Professional Imaging at Leica, and spoke about the new camera, the challenges of making a zoom lens for medium format, and why he's really, definitely not scared of the Nikon D800. 

How has the S system been received since its inception in 2008?

Very well. Many different people like to use it, from professionals that work commercially but on the other side we have a lot of enthusiasts who like the system because it is easier to carry, and easier to operate than traditional medium format, and also much more reliable. That helps them a lot. And we will develop the system to make it even more versatile for studio use and for use on location and in the field, and that's the reason we have produced the first Vario zoom lens for S.

Tell me about the new camera, the Leica S

It's more refined, [compared to the original S2] we've made more than eighty improvements, it's not a revolution but we did collect a lot of [feedback] from the market, from photographers, where we thought that here and there we could improve on the S2. One main change is that we have doubled the internal buffer memory to 2 gigabytes, so you can now shoot 32 Raw images in a row without stopping. This is something that a lot of photographers had been asking for. We have a GPS now built-in, so this is the first medium format digital camera with built-in GPS.

We have also improved the sensor and image processing for increased dynamic range and extended ISO sensitivity - we start now at ISO 100 and go to ISO 1600, and we have a new display on the back, with double the resolution compared to the S2, and Gorilla Glass for protection. We have a new rubber coating on the camera to make it easier to hold, a new viewfinder display with bigger characters and more information displayed, you can now see the ISO setting in the viewfinder and frames remaining in the buffer, there's a built-in electronic level, too, and a new GUI. We now have a joystick on the rear which you can use to navigate menus and review images. So we've done a lot of things to speed the camera up and make image control more intuitive and quick.

The second camera in the S line, the new 'Leica S' offers more than 80 improvements over its predecessor, including increased buffer depth, and built-in GPS.  A higher-resolution LCD screen is (literally) nice to see, too, as well as an overhauled UI. 

What was the main feedback from users of the original S2, in terms of things they wanted added or changed?

There were not really any complaints, but there were some little things. Fashion shooters wanted greater buffer size. Some people criticized the playback mode, so we added the joystick. This was one of the main complaints actually - navigation in playback mode. But we did not only listen to complaints but also we thought about what would make the camera even better. We don't want people to think our cameras are just 'OK', and sometimes it's nice to surprise people. That's why we built in things that we thought would amaze people and make the S system even more attractive for them.

Have you had requests for built-in wireless capabilities?

Yes, a lot. But with today's wireless standards it makes no sense because it's too slow for the images produced by this camera. You can use Wi-Fi enabled memory cards if you want to though, and we have introduced 9.3MP and 2.3MP JPEG shooting modes, which might work with WiFi nicely. With external accessories.

Do you feel any pressure from cameras like Nikon's D800, which offer comparable pixel counts to the S?

Many people ask me this question, but people who really like to work with medium format don't ask me that. Because they know medium format is about more than just resolution. There are still a lot of photographers who work with 22 and 31MP digital backs, and they are fine with the resolution, and they would never change to a 35mm [format] because the image characteristics are completely different. People who ask about cameras like the D800 have never experienced medium format. They just look at the pixels, but the world is not only pixels. You can get small DSC cameras with 14, 16, 20MP but no-one asks 'should I buy that 500 Euro compact camera or a Canon EOS-1D X?'

This question comes only from people who have no experience of medium format at all.

I'll try not to take that personally! Moving on, how long have you been working on the new Vario lens?

Development time on lenses is typically 2-2, 1/2 years. For zoom lenses like this it's maybe a little more, because they're more complex.

Alongside the new S camera, Leica introduced three new lenses - the Leica Vario-Elmar-S 30–90 mm f/3.5-5.6 ASPH, the Leica Super-Elmar-S 24 mm f/3.5 ASPH and the Leica TS-APO-Elmar-S 120 mm f/5.6 ASPH.

What challenges did you have to overcome to produce this lens?

Our goal was to make a Vario zoom lens that is very similar in its characteristics to the other S lenses. Which means you can use them at any aperture, you do not need to stop down for better image quality at any distance. So they are always corrected from infinity to closeup for perfect image quality, because all of our lenses have compensation, floating elements, things like that. To achieve this with a zoom lens was a challenge. But we succeeded.

This lens can shoot wide open with image quality that is outstanding at all focal distances. To manufacture this lens we had to develop a new centering technology, the centering is now very tight, between 1-2 microns, and we have made extensive use of aspherical elements - there are three in this lens.

It must be very difficult...

Very. We also have a new 24mm lens, and a new tilt/shift. Three new lenses. In total there are now eight lenses for the S system, and we also have a Hasselblad H adapter, which gives full compatibility, so H lenses can be completely integrated into the S system. This adds 11 additional lenses that you can use on the S camera.

What is Leica's market share, in medium format digital?

We are roughly at 20%. So at the moment we are behind Hasselblad and PhaseOne but our goal is to become market leader. And with the S system, this will happen, one day for sure because it is the most advanced system. There are still people hesitating, because photographers are a little bit conservative in investing, and I can understand that. They do not jump into a new system just because it is there, they want to know whether it is really developing, whether the company behind it is stable, whether the company can sustain the system over the years, and this level of confidence cannot be built-up over one or two years.

So this Photokina is very important for us, with three new lenses and a new camera body, people will see 'OK, Leica is really pushing and investing in this segment' and this will help us to increase their confidence.

Did a lot of photographers hold back when the system was introduced, out of caution?

Yes, we saw that in many discussions. The Hasselblad adapter helps to make the entry-level lower, especially for Hasselblad customers, obviously, who have a bunch of lenses. They're pretty happy with these lenses, they're not bad, but the camera body sometimes limits what they can do. The Hasselblad bodies for example are limited to a shutter speed of 1/800sec. You cannot have faster shutter times. The S has a focal-plane shutter and you can use your Hasselblad lenses up to 1/4000sec. In our experience, people see this, and step over [to us].

When you were planning the S system initially, were you aware that making a medium format digital SLR was a risk?

Yes, it was a big risk. The biggest risk Leica has ever taken. A new format, a new market that nobody [at Leica] understood, to be honest, and still have some people who don't understand it! Culturally, the company has lost, a little bit, the professionals. From my point of view, in the 1980s we lost more and more professionals and now there's a lack of understanding of this market, within the company, but with the S system we're back. It's good, because it refreshes the image of Leica, to make cameras that are really used by professionals. This is what we need, and this is not only a system, it's a statement for the brand. Leica is a company that is able to serve even the highest level of professionals with an appropriate camera system. But was a big risk.

So it was a risk that has paid off?

We need some more years to pay it off. But this is a long-term investment for Leica, for sure. But that's not a problem because Dr Kauffman, who is the majority shareholder in the company, stands fully behind this idea. He said 'yes, we need the S'. And we do. We need something people can dream about, that's beyond everything on the market. This system is the proof. Leica can do something beyond everything else on the market. it's a brand statement - our flagship.