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Leica S2 versus Nikon D800

The Leica S2 and the Nikon D800 are two professional cameras that were officially introduced, respectively, in September 2008 and February 2012. Both are DSLR (Digital Single Lens Reflex) cameras that are based on a medium format (S2) and a full frame (D800) sensor. The Leica has a resolution of 37.5 megapixel, whereas the Nikon provides 36.2 MP. Read on to find out how these two cameras compare with respect to their size, their sensors, their features, and their reception by expert reviewers.

Body comparison: Leica S2 vs Nikon D800

The physical size and weight of the Leica S2 and the Nikon D800 are illustrated in the side-by-side display below. Three consecutive perspectives from the front, the top, and the back are presented. All width, height and depth measures are rounded to the nearest millimeter. If you prefer, you can also use the toggle button to switch to a comparison in percentage terms (in this case, the camera on the left – the S2 – represents 100 percent across all the size and weight measures).

Snapsort Leica S2 vs Nikon D800
Compare S2 versus D800 top
Compare S2 and D800 rear

If the front view area (width x height) of the cameras is taken as an aggregate measure of their size, the Nikon D800 is notably smaller (6 percent) than the Leica S2. Moreover, the D800 is markedly lighter (29 percent) than the S2. In this context, it is worth noting that both cameras are splash and dust-proof and can, hence, be used in inclement weather conditions or harsh environments.

The above size and weight comparisons are to some extent incomplete since they do not consider the interchangeable lenses that both of these cameras require. Hence, you might want to study the specifications of available lenses in order to get the full picture of the size and weight of the two camera systems.

The table below summarizes the key physical specs of the two cameras alongside a broader set of comparators. If you want to switch the focus of the display and review another camera pair, just select a new right or left comparator from among the camera models in the table. Alternatively, you can also move across to the CAM-parator tool and choose from the broad selection of possible camera comparisons there.

Camera Body Specifications
  Camera
Model
Camera
Width
Camera
Height
Camera
Depth
Camera
Weight
Battery
Life
(CIPA)
Weather
Sealing
(yes/no)
Camera
Launch
(announced)
Launch
Price
(USD)
Street
Price
(USD)
Used
Price
(USD)
Leica S2» 6.3 in 4.7 in 3.1 in 49.7 oz .. Y Sep 2008 22,995- i
Nikon D800« 5.7 in 4.8 in 3.2 in 35.3 oz 900 Y Feb 2012 2,999- i
Canon 1D Mark IV« » 6.1 in 6.2 in 3.1 in 43.4 oz 1500 Y Oct 2009 4,999- i
Canon 1Ds Mark III« » 5.9 in 6.3 in 3.1 in 48.9 oz 1800 Y Aug 2007 7,999- i
Canon 1D Mark III« » 6.1 in 6.2 in 3.1 in 40.7 oz 2200 Y Feb 2007 4,499- i
Leica S Typ 007« » 6.3 in 4.7 in 3.1 in 44.4 oz .. Y Sep 2014 24,490 i i
Leica S-E Typ 006« » 6.3 in 4.7 in 3.1 in 44.4 oz .. Y Sep 2014 16,900- i
Leica S Typ 006« » 6.3 in 4.7 in 3.1 in 44.4 oz .. Y Sep 2012 21,950- i
Nikon D810« » 5.7 in 4.8 in 3.2 in 34.6 oz 1200 Y Jun 2014 3,299- i
Nikon D610« » 5.6 in 4.4 in 3.2 in 30.0 oz 900 Y Oct 2013 1,999 i i
Nikon Df« » 5.7 in 4.3 in 2.6 in 26.8 oz 1400 Y Nov 2013 2,749 i i
Nikon D800E« » 5.7 in 4.8 in 3.2 in 35.3 oz 900 Y Feb 2012 3,299- i
Nikon D3S« » 6.3 in 6.2 in 3.5 in 43.7 oz 4200 Y Oct 2009 5,199- i
Nikon D3X« » 6.3 in 6.2 in 3.5 in 44.4 oz 4400 Y Dec 2008 7,999- i
Nikon D700« » 5.8 in 4.8 in 3.0 in 37.9 oz 1000 Y Jul 2008 2,999- i
Nikon D3« » 6.3 in 6.2 in 3.5 in 45.9 oz 4300 Y Aug 2007 4,999- i
Pentax 645D« » 6.1 in 4.6 in 4.7 in 52.2 oz 800 Y Mar 2010 9,995- i

The price is, of course, an important factor in any camera decision. The listed launch prices provide an indication of the market segment that the manufacturer of the cameras have been targeting. The D800 was launched at a markedly lower price (by 87 percent) than the S2, which puts it into a different market segment. Usually, retail prices stay at first close to the launch price, but after several months, discounts become available. Later in the product cycle and, in particular, when the replacement model is about to appear, further discounting and stock clearance sales often push the camera price considerably down. Then, after the new model is out, very good deals can frequently be found on the pre-owned market.

 

Sensor comparison: Leica S2 vs Nikon D800

The size of the imaging sensor is a crucial determinant of image quality. A large sensor will generally have larger individual pixels that offer better low-light sensitivity, provide wider dynamic range, and have richer color depth than smaller pixels in a sensor of the same technological generation. Moreover, a large sensor camera will give the photographer more control over depth-of-field in the image and, thus, the ability to better isolate a subject from the background. On the downside, larger sensors are more costly to manufacture and tend to lead to bigger and heavier cameras and lenses.

Of the two cameras under consideration, the Leica S2 features a medium format sensor and the Nikon D800 a full frame sensor. The sensor area in the D800 is 36 percent smaller. As a result of these sensor size differences, the cameras have a format factor of, respectively, 0.8 and 1.0. Both cameras have a native aspect ratio (sensor width to sensor height) of 3:2.

Leica S2 and Nikon D800 sensor measures

With 37.5MP, the S2 offers a slightly higher resolution than the D800 (36.2MP), but the S2 nevertheless has larger individual pixels (pixel pitch of 6.00μm versus 4.88μm for the D800) due to its larger sensor. However, the D800 is a somewhat more recent model (by 3 years and 4 months) than the S2, and its sensor might have benefitted from technological advances during this time that further enhance the light gathering capacity of its pixels. Coming back to sensor resolution, it should be mentioned that the S2 has no anti-alias filter installed, so that it can capture all the detail its sensor resolves.

S2 versus D800 MP

Consistent information on actual sensor performance is available from DXO Mark for most cameras. This service determines an overall sensor rating, as well as sub-scores for low-light sensitivity ("DXO Sports"), dynamic range ("DXO Landscape"), and color depth ("DXO Portrait"). The following table provides an overview of the physical sensor characteristics, as well as the sensor quality measurements for a selection of comparators.

Sensor Characteristics
  Camera Sensor
Class
Resolution
(MP)
Horiz.
Pixels
Vert.
Pixels
Video
Format
DXO
Portrait
DXO
Landscape
DXO
Sports
DXO
Overall
Leica S2» Medium Format 37.5 7500 5000-----
Nikon D800« Full Frame 36.2 7360 49121080/30p25.314.4285395
Canon 1D Mark IV« » APS-H 16.0 4896 32641080/30p22.812.0132074
Canon 1Ds Mark III« » Full Frame 21.0 5616 3744-24.012.0166380
Canon 1D Mark III« » APS-H 10.1 3888 2592-22.711.7107871
Leica S Typ 007« » Medium Format 37.5 7500 50004K/24p----
Leica S-E Typ 006« » Medium Format 37.5 7500 5000-----
Leica S Typ 006« » Medium Format 37.5 7500 5000-23.912.282476
Nikon D810« » Full Frame 36.2 7360 49121080/60p25.714.8285397
Nikon D610« » Full Frame 24.2 6016 40161080/30p25.114.4292594
Nikon Df« » Full Frame 16.2 4928 3280-24.613.1327989
Nikon D800E« » Full Frame 36.2 7360 49121080/30p25.614.3297996
Nikon D3S« » Full Frame 12.1 4256 2832720/24p23.512.0325382
Nikon D3X« » Full Frame 24.4 6048 4032-24.713.7199288
Nikon D700« » Full Frame 12.1 4256 2832-23.512.2230380
Nikon D3« » Full Frame 12.1 4256 2832-23.512.2229081
Pentax 645D« » Medium Format 39.5 7264 5440-24.612.6126282

Many modern cameras cannot only take still pictures, but also record videos. The D800 indeed provides for movie recording, while the S2 does not. The highest resolution format that the D800 can use is 1080/30p.

 

Feature comparison: Leica S2 vs Nikon D800

Beyond body and sensor, cameras can and do differ across a range of features. The S2 and the D800 are similar in the sense that both have an optical viewfinder. The latter is useful for getting a clear image for framing even in brightly lit environments. The following table reports on some other key feature differences and similarities of the Leica S2, the Nikon D800, and comparable cameras. The full specs-sheets can be found in the camera manual or, for example, in the dpreview camera hub.

Core Features
  Camera Viewfinder
(Type or
'000 dots)
Control
Panel
(yes/no)
LCD
Size
(inch)
LCD
Resolution
('000 dots)
LCD
Attach-
ment
Touch
Screen
(yes/no)
Shutter
speed
(1/sec)
Shutter
flaps
(1/sec))
Build-in
Flash
(yes/no)
Build-in
Image
Stab
Leica S2»optical Y 3.0 460 fixed n 4000 1.5 n n
Nikon D800«optical Y 3.2 921 fixed n 8000 4.0 Y n
Canon 1D Mark IV« »optical Y 3.0 920 fixed n 8000 10.0 n n
Canon 1Ds Mark III« »optical Y 3.0 230 fixed n 8000 5.0 n n
Canon 1D Mark III« »optical Y 3.0 230 fixed n 8000 10.0 n n
Leica S Typ 007« »optical Y 3.0 922 fixed n 4000 3.5 n n
Leica S-E Typ 006« »optical Y 3.0 922 fixed n 4000 1.5 n n
Leica S Typ 006« »optical Y 3.0 922 fixed n 4000 1.5 n n
Nikon D810« »optical Y 3.2 1229 fixed n 4000 5.0 Y n
Nikon D610« »optical Y 3.2 921 fixed n 4000 6.0 Y n
Nikon Df« »optical Y 3.2 921 fixed n 4000 5.5 n n
Nikon D800E« »optical Y 3.2 921 fixed n 8000 4.0 Y n
Nikon D3S« »optical Y 3.0 921 fixed n 8000 11.0 n n
Nikon D3X« »optical Y 3.0 922 fixed n 8000 5.0 n n
Nikon D700« »optical Y 3.0 922 fixed n 8000 8.0 Y n
Nikon D3« »optical Y 3.0 922 fixed n 8000 11.0 n n
Pentax 645D« »optical Y 3.0 921 fixed n 4000 1.1 n n

Both the S2 and the D800 have been discontinued, but can regularly be found used on eBay. The S2 was replaced by the Leica S Typ 006, while the D800 was followed by the Nikon D810.

Review summary: Leica S2 vs Nikon D800

So what is the bottom line? Is the Leica S2 better than the Nikon D800 or vice versa? The listing below highlights the relative strengths of the two models.

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Arguments in favor of the Leica S2:

  • Maximized detail: Lacks an anti-alias filter to exploit the sensor's full resolution potential.
  • More prestigious: Has the Leica luxury appeal, which ensures a high resale price.
  • More heavily discounted: Has been available for much longer (launched in September 2008).

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Reasons to prefer the Nikon D800:

  • Better moiré control: Has an anti-alias filter to avoid artificial patterns to appear in images.
  • Broader imaging potential: Can capture not only stills but also 1080/30p video.
  • Larger screen: Has a bigger rear LCD (3.2" vs 3.0") for image review and settings control.
  • More detailed LCD: Has a higher resolution rear screen (921k vs 460k dots).
  • Faster shutter: Has higher mechanical shutter speed (8000/sec vs 4000/sec) to freeze action.
  • Faster burst: Shoots at higher frequency (4 vs 1.5 flaps/sec) to capture the decisive moment.
  • Less heavy: Has a lower weight (by 410g or 29 percent) and is thus easier to take along.
  • Easier fill-in: Has a small integrated flash to brighten shadows of backlit subjects.
  • More affordable: Was introduced into a lower priced category (87 percent cheaper at launch).
  • More modern: Reflects 3 years and 4 months of technical progress since the S2 launch.

If the count of individual advantages (bullet points above) is taken as a guide, the D800 is the clear winner of the contest (10 : 3 points). However, the pertinence of the various camera strengths will differ across photographers, so that you might want to weigh individual camera traits according to their importance for your own imaging needs before making a camera decision.

S2 03:10 D800

In any case, while the comparison of the spec-sheets of cameras can offer a general idea of their imaging potential, it says nothing about, for example, the handling, responsiveness, and overall imaging quality of the S2 and the D800 in practical situations. User reviews that are available, for instance, at amazon can sometimes shed light on these issues, but such feedback is all too often partial, inconsistent, and inaccurate. This is why hands-on reviews by experts are important. The following table reports the overall rankings of the cameras as published by some of the major camera review sites (cameralabs, dpreview, ephotozine, imaging-resource, photographyblog). The full reviews are available by clicking on the site logo in the table header.

Review scores
  Camera cameralabs dpreview ephotozine imaging-resource photographyblog Camera
Launch
(announced)
Launch
Price
(USD)
Street
Price
(USD)
Used
Price
(USD)
Leica S2»----- Sep 2008 22,995- i
Nikon D800«HiRec82/1005/55/55/5 Feb 2012 2,999- i
Canon 1D Mark IV« »-89/100-5/5- Oct 2009 4,999- i
Canon 1Ds Mark III« »-HiRec4.5/5-- Aug 2007 7,999- i
Canon 1D Mark III« »---rev- Feb 2007 4,499- i
Leica S Typ 007« »----- Sep 2014 24,490 i i
Leica S-E Typ 006« »----- Sep 2014 16,900- i
Leica S Typ 006« »----- Sep 2012 21,950- i
Nikon D810« »-86/1005/54.5/54.5/5 Jun 2014 3,299- i
Nikon D610« »HiRec87/1004.5/54.5/54.5/5 Oct 2013 1,999 i i
Nikon Df« »-81/1004/54/54/5 Nov 2013 2,749 i i
Nikon D800E« »-84/1005/54.5/55/5 Feb 2012 3,299- i
Nikon D3S« »-89/1004.5/55/55/5 Oct 2009 5,199- i
Nikon D3X« »-86/1004/55/55/5 Dec 2008 7,999- i
Nikon D700« »89/100HiRec4.5/55/54.5/5 Jul 2008 2,999- i
Nikon D3« »-HiRec5/5rev4.5/5 Aug 2007 4,999- i
Pentax 645D« »---4.5/5- Mar 2010 9,995- i

The above review scores should be interpreted with care, though. The ratings were established in reference to similarly priced cameras that were available in the market at the time of the review. Thus, a score needs to be put into the context of the launch date and the launch price of the camera, and rating-comparisons among cameras that span long time periods or concern very differently equipped models make little sense. Also, kindly note that some of the listed sites have over time developped their review approaches and their reporting style.

 

Other camera comparisons

Did this review help to inform your camera decision process? In case you are interested in seeing how other cameras pair up, just make your choice using the following search menu. Alternatively, you can follow any of the listed hyperlinks for comparisons that others found interesting. If the camera you are interested in is not available, please send me an email, and I will try to add information on that model to the database.

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