Leica releases its medium format camera, but it comes at a cost.
The red dot has bumped its megapixel count. Nearly a year and a half after first teasing it, the Leica S3 medium format camera is available for those willing to shell out $19,000. A 64MP Leica ProFormat CMOS sensor is capable of recording 4K DCI internally. But is it worth a look for videography? Let's dive in.
- 64MP Leica ProFormat CMOS
- Maestro II Processor
- 4K DCI Internal Recording
- 15 Stops of Dynamic Range
- ISO 100–50,000
While its predecessor, the Leica S (TYP 007), has the same sensor dimensions of 45 x 30mm, a notable jump is in megapixel count from 37.5 to 64. The new Leica ProFormat sensor has a 3:2 ratio and sits between 35mm film (36 x 24mm) and 120/220 medium format film, which can see dimensions up to 56 x 67mm. For comparison, the Fujifilm GFX and Hasselblad X series are 44 x 33mm, a 4:3 aspect ratio.
What's been interesting to watch over the years is that 45 x 30mm is being called medium format. When comparing it to medium format film stock, it falls short, but with digital technology, sensor sizes rarely match film format standards. Each manufacturer puts its own spin on a sensor for various reasons. We see it again and again with the sensors on digital cinema cameras saying its Super 35 or full-frame when only one dimension is close. One possible theory to why companies do this is to keep it from being an apples to apples comparison to other manufacturers as well film negative. It seems anything above traditional full-frame (36 x 24mm) is going to be dubbed "medium format," "full format," "large format," or anything marketing teams come up with.
The S3 sensor, like its predecessor, compliments full-frame to possibly appeal to video shooters more. Since 45 x 30mm is a 3:2 aspect ratio, it's visually closer to full-frame than a 4:3 aspect ratio when croppping.
The sensor does not have a low pass filter so we'll have to wait an see how minimal the moire is, but it does have an IR filter to block mid-infrared wavelengths. As for the its image processor, it uses the Maestro II which has a 2GB buffer memory and is capable of shooting stills up to 3 frames per second.
Video images are captured using the full width of the 45 x 30mm sensor up to 4K DCI internally with timecode. As of now, there are only two recording resolutions with limited frame rates and currently no high speed frame rates. Full HD 1920 x 1080 at 24, 25, and 30fps and 4K DCI 4096 x 2160 at 24 fps. Color subsampling is 4:2:2 with a bit-depth of 8-bit. Video compression is Motion JPEG (MJPEG) and is stored in a MOV container.
The difference between H.264 and MJPEG is that MJPEG compresses each frame of video while H.264 generally compresses across the frames. Setting aside ALL-I or IPB options, H.264 video can be interlaced (i) or progressive (p). Interlaced frames are compressed individually while progressive frames only record changes from the previous frame. Generally, H.264 progressive frames can save on bandwidth compared to MJPEG. However, since MJPEG records individual frames, it is a friendly editing format even before converting.
Additionally, the Leica S3 can send an uncompressed full HD signal through its mini HDMI (Type C) connector at 4:2:2 8-bit. Currently, 4K DCI through HDMI is not an option. The S3 has an ISO range of 100–50,000, and according to Leica, has up to 15 stops of dynamic range.
The S3 has a pixel pitch of 4.6 microns (µm), which is the same as the Hasselblad H6D-100c. Pixel pitch is the amount space between two pixels. The smaller the pixel pitch, the less space between each pixel. This provides a higher pixel density and better resolution. The Fujifilm GFX 100 is 3.8 µm, the Hasselblad X1D II 50c is 5.4 µm, and the Leica S (TYP 007) is 6 μm.
Sound can be recorded to an internal microphone at 48 kHz 16-bit in automatic or manual adjustment settings. If you want to plug in a pair of headphones or an external mic you will need to use a Leica Audio-Adapter S. The adapter plugs into the LEMO connector on the side of the camera and offers a split for a 3.5mm headphone jack and 3.5mm audio microphone.
The viewfinder is 3" TFT LCD that displays all the essential exposure settings. The LCD is stationary and does not articulate or move in any way. A Live-View image has a refresh rate up to 60fps in both video and stills mode. It allows focus peaking, histogram with clipping, exposure data, grids, and horizon to be superimposed over the image. The display shows 100% frame coverage and is covered in Corning Gorilla Glass for added protection.
File Formats & Storage
The left side (when looking from the back) houses both a single CF card (max. UDMA 7) and a SD card slot. SD-/SDHC-/SDXC with a maximum of 512 GB. Both UHD-I and UHS-II are compatible. 4K video recordings can only be recorded to the SD card. Stills can be shot in DNG lossless compressed or DNG+JPEG.
Body & Lenses
The S3 has a magnesium body, and as we've come to expect, is also sealed for protection against dust and moisture. The form factor is similar to the Leica S2 and S (Typ 007). The controls also mirror the S (Typ 007) and feature a joystick, top knob, rear wheel, and separate record button. There are also 1/4-20" and 3/8-16" mounting points on the bottom.
The S3 is part of the Leica S-System and the autofocus system works hand-in-hand with S-Lenses. For stills, there's a central shutter available for flash synchronization at 1/1000 s compared to its focal plane shutter with a maximum sync speed of 1/125 s. The S-Lenses also have adapters for other lenses including the Hasselblad V and H series, Contax 645, Pentax 67, and Mayima 645.
Leica S3 & Fujfilm GFX100 Comparison
Leica was developing the S3 for some time. Since, Fujifilm (and Hasselblad/Pentax) have released competitive models. The Fujifilm GFX 100 is a $10,000 102MP medium format camera. It's video specs include internal 4K DCI 17:9 All-Intra/Long-GOP H.265 at 4:2:0 10-bit and 4K DCI All-Intra/Long-GOP H.264 at 4:2:0 8-bit. There's also uncompressed 4:2:2 10-bit via HDMI. The GFX 100 also touts UHD and full HD recording, but like the S3, tops out at 30p in 4K DCI. Recording full HD with the GFX 100 does offer 60p. It's important to note specs can change via firmware for either camera.
The Fuijfilm GFX 100 seems to be built more for video shooters. Broadcast and video is in Fujfilm's DNA, unlike Leica, a company more geared towards still photography. Other medium format cameras that come to mind are the $5,000, 51MP Pentax 645Z and $5,750 50MP Hasselblad X1D II 50C.
The Leica S3 seems to fall flat in terms of it video capabilities, at least on paper. Many of the features are similar to the Leica S (Typ 007). There's a bump in pixel pitch and megapixel count, but what else are we getting? For video, the specs are the same. How the images compare we'll have to wait and see. Maybe the Leica had something more in mind for the S3. It was first set to be released in 2019, but suffered from several unknown delays. Maybe Leica settled a bit here, but that's speculation. Either way, the Fujifilm GFX 100 is a much more viable option for medium format video shooters.
Pricing & Availability
The Leica S3 sells for a hair under $19,000 USD. It's available for pre-order and is shipping by the end of March 2020.