The Leica S1 was a digital medium format camera that was presented to the public at Photokina 1996 and became available for purchase at the end of 1997. It featured a square 36 x 36 mm² CCD sensor that generated images of 5140 x 5140 pixels, thus offering a resolution of about 26.4 megapixels. For its time, this level of detail from a digital camera was truly exceptional. Indeed, the S1 was a highly specialized imaging tool aimed at museums, archives and scientific facilities. Only about 160 camera units were produced and sold at a unit price of US$21,500 (about US$34,500 in 2020 US dollars).
The S1 was a scanner camera that recorded images line-by-line. It captured every picture element in red, green and blue without any Bayer matrix extrapolation. On the downside, it took about 185 seconds to record an exposure. The image files were not stored inside the camera, but immediately transferred to a connected computer using an optical cable and a PCI card. As such, the camera was not intended to be used hand-held for daylight or flash photography, but was designed for stationary studio use with continuous light sources.
The Leica S1 captured its square images using standard, interchangeable lenses. In addition to Leica's own R-series and M-series lenses, lens mount options for Canon FD, Contax, Minolta MD, Nikon, Olympus, and Pentax were available. Moreover, medium-format lenses from Hasselblad and Pentax (6x7), and large-format optics from Rodenstock and Schneider-Kreuznach could also be adapted. Hence, the S1 could integrate with and complement various existing camera and lens systems.
The quality of the images taken with the S1 was outstanding for its time. The image files provided dynamic range that spanned 11-stops of latitude and offered D-max of about 3.3. Color reproduction was excellent. Moreover, the high resolution of the captures made it possible to make 17 x 17 inch (43 x 43 cm) prints at 300 dpi without having to interpolate.
In 1998, Leica introduced two varieties of the S1 that offered a different resolution versus speed tradeoff: The S1 Alpha provided only half the linear resolution of the S1 (2570 x 2570 pixels for 6.6 MP images), but could scan an image in 75 seconds. The S1 HighSpeed offered a 16 MP resolution (4000 x 4000 pixels), thus about 30 percent less linear resolution than the S1, but could capture an image in a "speedy" 20 seconds. At the same time, the S1 received a finetuning and was henceforth marketed as the Leica S1 Pro.
The Leica S1 was a large and heavy camera. It dwarfts its current day successor, the Leica S3, which by itself is not a small camera. The oval handles on both sides of the camera were intended to give the operator a secure grip of the heavy device and also endowed the S1 with an iconic look. The handle's design was apparently patented by Burkard Kiesel, the housing design's inventor.
The S1 came with a package of accessories. These included a special version of the SilverFast software, which had originally been developed by LaserSoft Imaging for high-end scanners. Moreover, there was also a PCI card for PC or Mac, a 55mm IRa filter, and an optical cable in the bundle. Concerning system requirements, Leica's first digital medium format camera could be connected to Pentium PCs (Windows 95) or PowerMacs (7.55 or higher) that provided a minimum of 256MB of RAM, had a hard drive of at least 1GB, and were equipped with Photoshop 3.05 or higher.
The close integration with a computer system of its time can nowadays pose a challenge when trying to use an S1, since the Silverfast scanning software might not run on a modern system. A legacy computer system is needed to make things work. As a consequence, if one of these cameras is listed for sale on ebay (check here for current listings), it is often offered together with an old computer and operating system that makes it possible to run the S1's software and operate the camera.
Comparison with modern cameras
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