Monday, November 25, 2013


Leica has often been criticized for not having paid enough attention to digital photography, that a few years ago they fell hopelessly behind their competition.  Yet in all this criticism one fact is getting lost these days, the fact that already in 1996 Leica introduced a high resolution digital camera, the Leica S1.

We must remember that this was at a time when 2 to 3MP digital cameras that took pictures of questionable quality were the norm, the days when film photography was still way ahead of digital and when the Lweica M6 was the best 35mm film camera that money could buy.  In view of this, it is all the more amazing that the Leica S1 offered a resolution of 26 megapixels, something that even by today’s standards is very high.

Leica S1

How could this be possible?  At that time, resolution levels of this magnitude could only be achieved with so called scanning backs.  Instead of taking the entire image instantly, as is the norm today, the Leica S1 (as well as other, similar digital cameras at the time) scanned the image line by line.  Unfortunately this resulted in exposure times of about 185 seconds.  Subsequently the camera was only useful for stationary objects.

The camera was designed to capture square 36 x 36mm images using 35mm lenses. Though designed for use with Leica R-series lenses, Leica also offered lens mounts for Nikon, Contax, Canon FD, and Minolta lenses as well as for medium-format optics from Hasselblad and the Pentax 6x7. There was also a Novoflex adapter that allowed the use of large-format lenses from Rodenstock & Schneider, and a tilt-shift adapter for use with Hasselblad lenses.

Leica S1 with Leica R mount

The S1 could also be coupled to the rear of a view camera to take advantage of tilt, swing, and shift movements which further increased the overall versatility of the camera.

The ISO setting for the S1 was ISO 50, the D-max about 3.3, and the image files contained a dynamic range of 11 stops of latitude. At 300 dpi you could produce incredibly sharp 17 x 17" prints without having to interpolate the image, which in 1996 was almost unheard of.

Leica S1 Side View

Leica S1 Viewfinder

Included with the Leica S1 was a 55mm IRa filter, LaserSoft High Software, a PCI card (PC or Mac), and a 20' cable. As for system requirements, the S1 ran off of PowerMacs (7.55 or higher), or Pentium PCs (Windows 95 or higher) with a minimum of 256MB of RAM, a hard drive of at least 1GB, and Photoshop 3.05 or higher.

All that could be had for the price of $21,500.  Needless to say, the camera did not set any sales records.  It was mostly sold to museums and research institutions.  But it is interesting to think that this level of performance was not available from Leica until the introduction of the Leica S2 in 2008.


  1. Those are very impressive figures, especially for 1996. Are scanning systems still in use, or do all use instant capture?

  2. The majority of digital photography is based on instant capture, versatility being one of the major reasons. But scanning systems are still in use, mostly for large format photography where maximum resolution is a must. The leading manufacturer of such systems is Better Light. Their scan backs have been the camera of choice for some of the most successful advertising, commercial, industrial, art repro and archival applications in the photo industry.
    The technology used by Better Light is totally different from the single-shot digital capture cameras using area array sensors (CCD and CMOS). Their scan backs gather the information for the image in one continuous scan as the light is collected by three, individually filtered rows of pixels, called a tri-linear CCD. Since it moves across the “film plane” capturing light one row of pixels at a time, it will take several minutes to complete a large file. On the other hand, no other camera can achieve such a huge number of pixels, in some cases 144 Megapixels or more over such a large format area of nearly 3”x4”. All of the pixels are pure, true RGB color, not interpolated color by the camera software. This level of resolution and color accuracy currently is unattainable with instant capture systems.

    1. I must add to the above information. I just reported on this blog that Leica bought out Sinar AG of Switzerland. Looking at their range of equipment, I came across a digital back they offer with a maximum resolution of 192 megapixels. Sinar uses an entirely different approach which allows the back to be used as an instant capture back with a resolution of 48 megapixels. But it can also simulate a scanning back by taking 4 separate exposures in RGB and black for an effective total resolution of 192 megapixels and the color accuracy of a scanning back.