I made a mistake coming to Leica’s booth at Photokina this year. Every other camera now feels a little diminished by comparison to Leica’s upcoming flagship S3 medium format DSLR. You read that correctly, there are still camera makers that proudly tout their DSLRs instead of hiding them away in a corner while showing off the shiny new mirrorless stuff. The 64-megapixel S3 is thus quite a unique launch for Photokina, but it’s also an unparalleled camera even outside the constraints of current fashions and trends. The design, performance, and engineering of this camera have swept me off my feet and up into some fluffy daydreaming clouds. And daydreaming is all I’ll ever be able to do about the S3, since this is going to be Leica’s most expensive standard camera (think $20,000 and up) when it’s released in the spring.
The exterior look of the S3 makes it seem almost like an unfinished prototype. A magnesium alloy frame is surrounded by a matching black natural rubber that’s easy to grip (even when the camera gets wet, Leica tells me) and is understated in appearance. Labels are almost entirely missing from this camera, which isn’t an oversight, as Leica just decided to make the majority of buttons and dials customizable and multifunctional. The four large keypads surrounding the rear display each respond to a long press as well as a regular one, and the control dial under your thumb can also be long-pressed to switch between shooting modes. Another programmable button resides on the front of the camera, just next to the lens mount.
Medium format cameras aren’t expected to be fast, but this one is
My visits to Leica are always an experience of stuff I can’t afford or justify to have, but I’ve never wanted anything the company has made as much as this Leica S3. It’s surprisingly light for its substantial size, and it handles beautifully. The simplified physical interface and large buttons make operating the camera easy, which is helped in no small part by its fast operation. Shooting up to three frames per second at 64 megapixels and on such a large sensor size is no small feat, but Leica pulls it off with great performance and responsiveness. And a gorgeous shutter sound. The old mechanical thwack of a high-end DSLR is a joy that mirrorless cameras can only ever hope to imitate.
The Hasselblad X1D is my benchmark for medium format cameras, combining genuinely portable ergonomics with the massive sensor size and resolution that such cameras are known for. But that camera takes a full eight seconds to start up, which practically guarantees that I’ll miss any impromptu photogenic moments by the time it’s ready to shoot. The Leica S3, by comparison, is ready in just a couple of seconds. Both the X1D and S3 have simplified interfaces that do away with the clutter that typifies the traditional camera interface, however the S3 lacks the touchscreen of its Hasselblad rival. I’m not sure I’d miss it, to be fair, and I appreciate the plethora of possible shortcuts and arrangements that Leica provides.
The optical viewfinder on this camera is absolutely enormous
There are a few cool details that delight me about the Leica S3’s construction. The grip of this camera is phenomenal. I wouldn’t expect a company that prides itself on producing angular blocks of meticulously polished metal to get the contouring of an ergonomic grip quite so right, but handling this camera, as large as it may be, is a breeze. Leica’s attention to detail also extends to the lens hoods for its S-mount lenses, which are covered in a velvety material that’s chosen specifically for its minimal reflectance. I’m similarly happy about the optical viewfinder on the S3, which is enormous. Leica’s choices to stick to a DSLR system and an optical rather than electronic viewfinder run counter to current trends across the camera industry, but I think they make sense in the ultra premium / professional segment of the market that the S3 is addressing.
You can hang the entire S3 off its over-engineered cable and everything will be fine
Though its engineering hews to old-school standards, Leica is keeping up with the times by adding Wi-Fi and GPS to the S3 — hence the black window on the left side of the camera, which provides an opening for radio signals to escape the metal shell — as well as compatibility with its Fotos mobile app. While I might have liked to see a USB-C port on this camera, Leica has opted to use LEMO connectors for most of the S3’s physical interfaces. These are an expensive option, but Leica justifies the choice by pointing out that people have literally had the camera hanging off a LEMO-connected cable and no harm has come to its internal boards or the cabling. Again, in Leica’s price range, spending a bit more to ensure long-term durability is kind of a no-brainer.
The entire S3 is weather-sealed, including the battery, which slots in without a covering flap. Leica uses the same trick that I first saw Hasselblad employing: unlocking the battery only drops it out of the body a little bit, then you have to push it back in, and that releases it to fall out entirely. Leica tells me that it was first to introduce that design when it launched the Leica S2 in 2008. The battery itself is 2,300mAh, which Leica representatives tell me has been enough to get them through whole weekends of shooting with the S3.
I could keep gushing about this camera, but you get the idea by now. Even at this early pre-production stage, handling the Leica S3 is amazingly easy and intuitive, the optical viewfinder is a marvel, the shutter sound is a joy, and the speed is excellent. Now I just need to walk away and forget about it entirely, because whatever sky-high price Leica puts on this thing next year, it will probably be worth it only for people who truly need the massive sensor size and resolution for their job or to fill a bottomless hole in their soul.
Photography by Vlad Savov / The Verge