An Evaluation of the Leica S2 in White Mountain National Forest and Olympic National Park

Last year I had the opportunity to travel with the Leica S2 from White Mountain National Forest nestled on the East Coast of the United States, in New Hampshire to be specific, to Olympic National Park (ONP) on the West Coast in Washington state. I was also equipped with three lenses — Summarit-S 1:2.5/35 mm ASPH, Summarit-S 1:2,5/70 mm ASPH and APO Elmar-S 1:3.5/180 mm — in order to evaluate whether the system qualified as a replacement candidate for my tried and true Arca Swiss 4×5 view camera.

The spring season in the White Mountains of New Hampshire as well as the Quinault and Hoh rainforests and wilderness beaches of ONP can test one’s patience and equipment due to ever-changing inclement weather conditions. It is precisely these changing and challenging weather conditions which translate to outstanding landscape opportunities, but the equipment must be up to task and the photographer must be able to react quickly. The latter is difficult to achieve with a view camera. Despite 12 consecutive days of rain in ONP, the weather sealing of the S2 and accompanying lenses allowed for continued shooting, while in contrast, conditions conducive to view camera usage lasted only a few days. Needless to say, the S2 saved the trip!

One of the chief advantages of the view camera is the ability to achieve perspective control and extreme depth-of-field (DOF) through a combination of shifts, tilts and swings. However, even with camera movements, lenses still require stopping down between f/22 and f/45 since the equivalent focal lengths in 4×5 are approximately three fold those of the 35mm format (e.g. a 28mm lens in 35mm format equates to a 90mm lens in 4×5). This DOF requirement coupled to film speeds of ISO 50-100 often result in long exposure periods, particularly with those emulsions requiring reciprocity correction, such as Fujichrome Velvia 50. In ONP, it was not unusual for shutter speeds to last up to 60 seconds under the forest canopy. At these exposure times, wind can become a limiting factor in achieving crisp images with the view camera and one often comes up with new expletives when the leaves blow midway through a long exposure. In these particular situations the S2 excels. With a base ISO of 160 and the ability to focus stack with software such as Helicon, one can achieve infinite depth-of-field at relatively short exposure durations. Furthermore, focus stacking allows one to use the aperture “sweetspot” of any given lens in order to realize the highest resolving capability of the optic. Having said this, even at f/16, the S-lenses demonstrated virtually no loss in performance due to diffraction. A very impressive optical feat!

The quality of images captured from the S2 were simply incredible. At an image resolution of 240 ppi, one can readily prepare a 21 x 31 inch print; drop the image resolution to 180 ppi, easily handled by today’s top-rated inkjet printers and one can output a 28 x 42 inch masterpiece. In evaluating several of the prints I made from ONP, every subtle nuance in a scene was revealed — tiny ferns growing from moss-covered vine maples were easily resolved, even though this detail was but a very tiny fraction of the entire composition, a testament to the quality of the S-lenses when coupled to the 6 μm pixel pitch of the Kodak CCD. The subtlest hues of green in a newly unfurled maple leaf were accurately rendered, no doubt due to the 16-bit color depth of the DNG files. In fact, colors were exceptionally accurate and true to life. A further advantage of the S2 sensor was afforded by the twelve stops of latitude, allowing me to record scenes within the forest canopy where using traditional transparency film would oftentimes result in blocked-up shadows.

The form factor and mobility afforded by the S2 translated to an ability to hike further and set-up faster than ever before possible with the view camera. To go from a 50 pound fully-loaded backpack to a Billingham shoulder bag was an absolute revelation. With the S2 in hand and two lenses in the bag, a 10-15 km hike was virtually effortless. Previously, when scouting new areas with the Arca Swiss in tow, I was accustomed to using a viewing card to pre-visualize compositions and determine which focal length was most appropriate. This allowed me to determine the candidacy of a scene without actually having to go to the trouble of setting up the camera, an arduous task at the best of times. While the S2 can be carried with a single lens, compositions with the other focal lengths can be pre-visualized using the Viewfinder Pro App made by DIRE Studio.

While a drum-scanned 4×5 transparency remains the gold standard for ultimate print quality, the S2 is not far behind. I am willing to sacrifice this small print differential if it means I am able to capture the image in the first place, rather than just describe the one that got away. There are absences in the S2 lens line-up that need to be addressed, mainly a focal length wider than the 35mm Summarit ASPH and a zoom lens to lighten the load even further whilst providing greater compositional freedom when capturing a scene from a location where one’s movements are restricted (edge of a cliff or along a seashore come to mind). At least one tilt-shift lens would also be a welcome addition to the landscape photographer who does not want to bother with focus stacking or perspective control correction in post-processing.

Thirteen months after my evaluation of the S2 I have finally decided to purchase a system, not to completely replace my view camera, but rather to augment my capabilities in the field. Because of the S2 minimalist form factor, I will also be able to press this system into use alongside my M9 for social documentary projects. In fact, it is a relief that I no longer have to worry about getting my view camera and 200 sheets of film into Cuba for next year’s Beautiful Decay project, as the S2 will nicely tuck into the Billingham alongside my M9. Hopefully, I’ll be able to report back with my experiences from that project in 2012.

-Jeffry Plomley

If you would like to see more of Jeff’s work, visit his website http://www.jeffplomleyphoto.com.