I want to say upfront that until I did the test, I had no idea how the result was going to turn out. What I suspected wasn’t quite the outcome that occurred; but you’re going to have to read on to find that out I apologize in advance, because what was supposed to be a quick A-B image comparison has turned into a 3,500 word dissertation. There are a lot of things that must be said, clarified and put into context when dealing with these cameras.
The best conceived test is completely useless if the methodology isn’t sound; likewise, a seemingly unfair fight can be actually relevant if properly executed. Both cameras are in the high 30MP range; 36.3MP for the Nikon D800E, and 37.5MP for the Leica S2. Close enough to make as near as no difference. (Also, the S2-P is the same camera as the S2 except for the sapphire cover over the screen and professional service.) Everything was shot at base ISO on a sturdy tripod (a heavy Manfrotto 444 Carbon One with Hydrostat head) and mirror lockup. Lossless compressed RAW for both, with files processed via ACR 6.7 final release with equal sharpening, zero noise reduction, and equal shadow/highlight recovery slider settings. Images were then saved as quality 12 jpegs – the full frame shots you see are reference for color only, not resolution of course – and the 100% crops are also quality 12 jpegs. There is some minor quality degradation but not a lot. The first cityscape had both cameras set to the same Kelvin temperature for white balance, however subsequent shots were point balanced in ACR to the same location as this was more representative of real-life workflow.
In addition to outdoor subjects – the dynamic range torture test – I also shot a number of indoor subjects to test both front and back bokeh, sharpness, high ISO performance, lens performance in the macro range, and a trial run for something I’d use both cameras for – watch photography.*
Similarly, I matched lenses as closely as possible; we chose the best for each system. Not difficult with the S2 – all of the lenses are incredible, and nearly flawless. It is simply one of the highlights of the system; there are no lenses worse than excellent. And each lens has its own calibration firmware embedded at the factory, to ensure perfect focus on every camera body – why other manufacturers don’t do this is beyond me. I certainly wouldn’t have had the D800 AF issue if this was the case. I used the Leica 35/2.8 Summarit-S and 120/2.5 APO-Macro-Summarit-S on the S2, and the Zeiss ZF.2 2/28 Distagon and Nikon 85/2.8 PCE Micro-Nikkor on the D800E – both lenses I consider to be the best of their focal length in F mount.
Focusing was done either via the AF system (and results checked via live view or manually bracketed) to achieve optimum sharpness. Everything was shot within minutes of each other, so there should be minimal differences in lighting. There will be some differences in the final watch shot as I couldn’t get the tripod to hold in that overhead position with the weight of the S2; the shot was handheld and there are some minor differences in lighting due to watch positioning and reflections.
*I shot part of an architectural assignment recently with the S2, 30mm and 70mm lenses; see an upcoming On Assignment for the rest of that article.
Part one: Cityscape – dynamic range and resolution test. Zeiss 2/28 and Leica 30/2.5
The first obvious thing is that the color response of both sensors is hugely different, despite both being set to the same color temperature; I’m guessing it has to do with many factors, including a) CMOS vs CCD architecture; b) the nature of the Bayer algorithm used and the color filter array layout; c) internal signal processing and ‘company color profile’; d) ACR’s interpretation of the files.
The D800E’s file looks quite natural but is a touch too warm; the S2 is very blue-green biased and would make for great landscapes, however it doesn’t get the color right either. Both cameras could be corrected to accurate (as their sensors’ tonal response is broad enough) however neither gets it right out of the box. The S2 has slightly better dynamic range – perhaps half a stop or so – but there isn’t a lot in it. Neither camera has blown areas or blocked up shadows.
In the center, the Zeiss/D800E combination is already excellent at f2.5 (set to match the S2) and barely improves at f8. The Leica, however, is even better at f2.5 (wide open!) and seems to soften a bit at f8. I repeated this test several times with the same result – the lens is best used wide open, it seems.
The corners tell a very different story; the Zeiss/D800E is very good, but the Leica is outstanding. The former has clear softening due to CA at high contrast edges (note white building) due to field curvature; the Leica shows none of this whatsoever and is sharp enough to show minor evidence of color moire (!). This is best seen in the air conditioning condensers in the windows of the white building.
Note – shadow noise here is high because I’ve run a 50/50 setting for the shadow/highlight slider to maximize dynamic range.
Part two: Indoors, wide-angle bokeh test and flare test
There’s really not a lot in this one – both images look great. Color is accurate, and bokeh is pleasant – though I’d give the edge to the S2 because the highlight rolloff is a little smoother; which no doubt has much to do with the dynamic range of the sensor. What is noticeable here is vignetting on the D800E/ Zeiss combination; almost a stop. I guess it’s one of the factors that contributes to the cinematic look of the Zeiss. The Leica has zero vignetting, despite being shot wide open. Depth of field is about the same; the D800E/ Zeiss was shot at f2, and the Leica at f2.5.
Both lenses are commendable in the way they handle the strong backlight with almost no flare; the coatings on both are superb and you see very little of the first few elements. However, on closer inspection at 100%, we see the Zeiss has a definite purple fringe, and the Leica appears almost completely apochromatic. I’d say resolution here is a tie.
Part three: telephoto bokeh and flare test
We’ve now switched lenses to the short tele macros; the 85/2.8 PCE on the D800E, and the 120/2.5 APO-Macro-Summarit on the S2. The tripod was moved between shots to try to match the angle as the Leica 120 is about 95mm equivalent; I don’t have the AFS 105/2.8 VR handy, and besides, I think the 85/2.8 PCE is a better lens anyway – the micro contrast structure is a lot more refined, and LoCA is lower.
The D800E seems to have a slight dynamic range advantage here, though it could be due to exposure. Bokeh from the S2 is definitely better, as would be expected from a lens that’s both faster and longer. Both lens/ camera combinations deliver a very 3D feel, and pleasant foreground bokeh – something that’s frequently ignored by photographers, but contributes heavily to a workable defocused foreground as part of the composition or not.
On closer inspection, we see both lenses are easily capable of matching the resolving power of the sensor; if forced to choose, I’d give a hair to the Leica, but there’s almost nothing in it. Where there is a difference is in longitudinal chromatic aberration (‘bokeh fringing’) which is very obvious on the Nikon crop, but almost completely absent from the Leica – the 120mm is an APO lens, after all. This may contribute to the overall impression of the Leica being slightly sharper. Interestingly, the micro contrast structure and color transmission between the two lenses is very similar indeed, which is to say very neutral.
Part four: high ISO test
The same scene, again – however, this time at ISO 1250, which is the upper limit for the S2. The D800E can of course go a lot higher – to 25,600 – but I wouldn’t touch this with a barge pole. Notice the reduction in dynamic range for both cameras – more so on the S2, as expected from its CCD sensor architecture. Color transmission is commendably consistent between the two. In case you’re not convinced it’s dark, exposure time was 1/40s at f4 ISO 1250 for both cameras. Although this isn’t pushing the limits of the Nikon with it’s CMOS sensor, it is pretty much forbidden territory for most medium format systems.
THe S2 displays a similar noise profile to the M9 at the pixel level; this of course isn’t surprising because they share the same base sensor architecture from Kodak. It is clear that both cameras are showing noise (there is zero NR applied here; it could be much improved by judicious use of the noise reduction tools in ACR). The D800E’s noise pattern is very fine grained luminance noise only; there’s a hint of chroma noise in the S2, but it’s still mostly luminance. I’d put it at being 1.5-2 stops behind the D800E. This is clearly not an available light camera; frankly, neither one is; I’d pick a D3s or D4. Detail retention for both cameras is still excellent, with the edge again going to the Leica – more clearly this time – perhaps the Nikon is applying some noise reduction on its raw files (though I switched this option off in camera.)
Part five: practical applications
What you see here is a processed (but un-retouched – that would take too long) final photo achieved with multiple Nikon flashes – triggered via CLS on the D800, or via an optical SU4 trigger on the S2 – which is representative of the kind of shoot I’d use either camera for. Of course, this doesn’t take into account the minimum practical frame size on the D800E being about 10x7mm, vs 60x90mm for the S2.
The S2 image pops more – it could be due to a slight change in camera position for reasons mentioned earlier – but I suspect it may be due to the Leica 120mm having slightly higher overall contrast than the Nikon PCE. Both cameras have done outstandingly well; I like both images very much. Color is commendably accurate after adjustment.
Close up, there’s there’s a bite to the S2 image that’s lacking from the D800E; somehow the finest structures aren’t being completely transmitted by the lens; it seems the S2 lenses have more micro contrast. Once again, both images were shot at the same aperture, but somehow the S2 appears to have a hair more resolution and acuity.
Part six: specific comments on the Leica S2
There are a lot of things I like about this camera. It’s the first Leica system designed from the ground up in a long time, and it shows. There’s DNA from the R9 ‘Hunchback of Solms’ about the way the shoulders of the camera slope, the gigantic shutter dial, and the almost vertical shutter release (which is a great design choice, by the way – squeezing the grip greatly reduces camera shake compared to a vertical plane release). Even the power switch positioning is reminiscent of that lever on the R9 whose function I’d never been able to figure out. In fact, it’s pretty amazing that they managed to fit such an enormous viewfinder inside that prism hump – it’s not much bigger than the D800E’s hump, in fact (though the latter also contains a pop up flash).
Despite the legacy DNA, the control system is well thought out and remarkably simple – four hot keys around the LCD have soft functions; selections and scrolling are taken care of by the thumb wheel, which also clicks in to select or change exposure mode. It’s a very elegant and easy to use system. The camera and lenses are also fully weather sealed, with elaborately precise flanged gaskets that make the Nikon look positively crude by comparison. (Strangely, I was also told that it was probably not a good idea to shoot with the camera in the local monsoon rain). Build quality is excellent; it feels like a solid block of metal (and weighs about the same too, but a lot of this is attributable to the lenses), and there are very few external screws except on the base, which is rubberized; I’d say it’s a level above even the D4. The mirror mechanism is remarkably well damped, and for such a large mirror, blackout time is negligible. The one thing I don’t like about the ergonomics is the hand grip; that odd finger cut just doesn’t seem like it was made for Asian hands.
The viewfinder is enormous – as expected for medium format – and hugely addictive, being both of high magnification and high eye point. In fact, magnification is about 100% with the 70mm, which means you can comfortably shoot with both eyes open. I never thought I’d say this, but it makes the D800E’s finder feel like a dark tunnel. And there’s no comparison when it comes to ease of manual focus – though the D800E does of course have live view. Battery life is excellent, too – in my time shooting with the S2, I’ve never been able to make the charge indicator move more than a small fraction even during a heavy day of shooting with several hundred images. I’d estimate you’d get at least a thousand, possibly even two thousand, images off one charge.
The crown jewel of the system, however, has to be the lenses. The S system lenses are hands down the most impressive optics I’ve ever used; they’re almost flawless wide open, even in the corners, and even more perfect than the best M system lenses. And they focus themselves! Sadly they’re also enormous and heavy – which I suppose is the price paid for perfection. The 120 macro is almost the size of a 70-200 VR.
It’s not all roses, though. The S2 doesn’t work well as an available light camera; it’s very difficult to nail critical focus, stop camera or subject motion, and still stay within the good quality ISO range. I’d go to ISO 640 with reservations, and 1250 in emergencies. But then again, it was never supposed to be. The LCD could be improved, and some parts of the menu just look crude. The reverse-turning (at least relative to Nikon) aperture dial is also immensely confusing; I wish they put an option in the menu to allow users to reverse the direction. Autofocus is precise, but by no means fast; with the 120 APO-Macro it might take a while as the focusing helicoid nearly runs a full 360 degree turn of the barrel.
Part seven: specific comments on the Nikon D800E
You can find plenty of my thoughts on the nearly identical D800’s detailed first impressions review.
After a month of using the sibling of this camera in various ways, my opinion still hasn’t changed: it’s a game changer as far as image quality in the small format goes. There isn’t anything that can touch it, and the D800E stretches that bar even further. I thought the image quality of the M8 was good, but this is like having two M8 sensors welded together side by side – that’s a noticeable increase in resolution.
The D800E does require care with regards to moire; I’ve seen it several times already during my very short time with the camera. Both luminance and chrominance moire are possible; watch carefully with high frequency repeating patterns such as architectural detail or fabrics.
It’s a shame, however, that most of Nikon’s lenses don’t seem up to the task. They have built a monster of a camera body capable of incredible resolution and color that seems to have outstripped the rest of the system somewhat – very, very few Nikkors can do the sensor justice. The PCEs are a safe bet, as are most of the Zeiss lenses; of the AF glass, be careful with the primes. Yes, there were focusing problems, yes, they’re being repaired, and yes, my D800E is much better than the D800 – though still affected to a very slight degree. Enough that I’ll be careful, but not a deal breaker as most of my work with the D800E will be done under controlled studio circumstances with longer lenses.
What I find interesting is that we’re at a convergence point: my complaints of the S2 are because I’m treating it like a normal SLR; on the opposite hand, I’m expecting medium format quality from the D800E. This says a lot: both cameras have achieved and surpassed their design objectives. The Leica S2 was designed to make medium format easy and convenient; it does – to the point where we forget that we’re shooting with medium format. The D800E was supposed to raise 35mm-format DSLRs into the medium format realm; it does. I don’t think I’ll ever take the D800E with me on holiday; I’d certainly pack something lighter, smaller and less demanding to shoot. But I can offer my clients a new level of quality, but without the limitations of medium format (wireless TTL flash, magnification, focal length selection). By the same token, I’m quite happy walking around with the S2 and 70/2.5 (which is my favorite lens for the S system) and treating it as I would my M9-P. Both have a place in the photographer’s arsenal; however, you probably shouldn’t buy either unless you know you’re going to use the resolution – and in that case, the S2 wins on the quality its lens system.
You’ve probably read all the way to the end of this review hoping I’ll pronounce one better than the other; the reality isn’t that clear cut. The Leica S2 wins on lens quality (by a large margin), resolution (by a hair), dynamic range (though this may be debatable) and build; the D800E wins on color, practical usability (ISO 6,400 at medium format resolutions, anybody?), lens selection, speed and portability.
I honestly like both cameras and systems very much; I don’t think I could pick between the two if money weren’t an issue. The reality is that unless you’re going to torture your files and print them at enormous sizes, the D800E does deliver much better value for money. However, you’re going to have to spend a lot of money on lenses to do the sensor justice – that is if you can even find anything suitable; this lens selection is very, very small; and it’s also not cheap. I’d give the edge overall to the S2; because of the matched lenses, it feels like a more complete system, but you’ve got to climb a steep diminishing returns slope to get there. However, with the ever rising pixel densities of lower end cameras – 24MP APS-C, for instance – I’d be surprised if there wasn’t an even higher resolution D4x in the future, and given the undoubtedly huge investment for Leica, this is just the beginning of the S system. MT
Note: I don’t think I’ll be doing a direct comparison with the regular D800 as I no longer have one handy; however what I will do is try to dig out some similar files and do an approximate comparison that way. What I see from the D800E definitely has higher acuity at the pixel level, though I’ve also seen clear evidence of color and luminance moire – much in line with expectations.
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