The First Digital Leica

Posted by Scott

This is the S1, Leica’s first digital camera. Introduced in 1996, it was a digital scanning back that could work with various lenses. Each exposure took 185 seconds to complete so had to be shot using continuous light. You might think that such an old digicam would produce inferior results, but apparently it was quite the opposite:

“Though slow, the S1 yielded 76Mb @ 24-bit (151Mb @ 48-bit), 5140 x 5140, 12-bit RGB image files that contained little if any of the artifacting, blooming, and fringing that continue to plague us to this very day” – B&H

And it operated at ISO 50! (the film speed) Pretty good for ’96, and it would only set you back $21,500… I’m loving the look of this thing which stands in stark contrast to the subsequent and far more familiar looking Leica S2 model. The second to last (with the rackmount processor) apparently depicts the “Highspeed Kit” which dramatically reduced the scanning time per image.

Here are some pages from the original brochure featuring some example output from the S1: Page 1 . Page 3 . Page 5 . Page 7 . Page 8

Image sources eBay Auction, B&H, Leica Forum via Gizmodo

16 Comments Leave A Comment


Paul Anthony Webb says:

December 10, 2010 at 4:06 am

I wonder if they will release an update to this ’96 model, and if it will be in the same style. I agree with Marcus though, I would love to see a new one in the style of the current Leica models


Scott says:

December 10, 2010 at 1:54 pm

If they released anything remotely resembling this today I am betting they would never hear the end of it. It would be the Pontiac Aztec of cameras. But I would still want one.


Paulo Catumba says:

December 11, 2010 at 9:28 am

woh…i really love the non standard placement of everything, really close to mid format cameras, but way much more…handy? like it :)
and yeah, those handles…


Marcus says:

December 12, 2010 at 5:27 am

I worked for Leica’s ad agency in the late 90s – so the brochure was probably done by us. I still have a copy of the first complete product catalog from Leica we’ve done. And they still use a very similar design today :)

One day, the product manager showed up with a S1 and hooked it up to one of our Mac G3s (yes, that’s how old this thing is!) and shot a bottle of Beck’s. First with a Leica lens. Perfect image, perfect sharpness in R/G/B. Second he hooked up a Canon or Nikon lens (can’t remember brand or type) and we could see that one channel was sharp, the second was ok and the third was all blurry. You cold literally see how bad the lens was.

Due to its 3 minute exposure it was sold to museums primarily. It was more of a scanner with a lens attached than a camera.


Justin Meyers says:

December 12, 2010 at 11:03 pm

Always felt Leica was an elitist camera… However, after reading (yeah, can’t afford) really seem ahead of the curve.

Friend of mine has a Mamiya RZ series and a Leica range finder that shoots 120 film. Both amazing, but in comparison the Leica was noticeably sharper.

If I ever become independently wealthy, I would consider purchasing something from the Leica line.


Scott says:

December 14, 2010 at 2:33 pm

Very interesting… Would you say that Leica lenses are generally higher quality than Nikon or Canon? They’re certainly priced as such, but never knew if they deserved it. Of course, having worked in Leica marketing, I’m guessing you have a very well prepared answer in the affirmative.


Marcus says:

December 15, 2010 at 1:19 pm

Scott, I’ve never worked for Leica, only for an ad agency that used to work for them ;) Also I can’t recall whether the 3rd party lens was a kit lens or a pro lens. But from my limited experience Leica lenses give you what you pay for. A lot.

I don’t think Nikon or Canon can’t build such lenses, I guess they just have to find the balance between price and performance.

I did some investigation lately and it looks like you can have a Zeiss or Voigtlander lens for the M9 for half or a third of the price of an original Leica lens. Those are excellent lenses. yet the M9 body is still 5500€. (I’m shaking only by writing that price *g*).

Leicas get passed from generation to generation, that’s how good they are. And whatever sensor development will bring us over the next 25 years, the M9 will still be maintained and serviced by Leica and you will be able to take wonderful pictures.

I’m glad the new owner finally brings Leica back on track, after all they invented the 36×24 mm format we’re using today. It’s the mother of all modern photography.

And no, I don’t get paid for writing this ;)


Scott says:

December 15, 2010 at 11:42 pm

thanks for the insight marcus. Yeah, the heirloom quality is definitely a big selling point, but still hard to stomach those prices. When it comes to digital though, hard to imagine working with those very far into the future and standards and interfaces change. Will be interesting to see how they keep up over the years.

When I think about digital format longevity I’m always reminded of that set of lost NASA photos. I don’t remember what mission(s) they were from but they were locked inside of some tape format for which no reader was currently available. All of the machines built to read the format had died long ago. I think some guy was able to resurrect them using some spare machines and parts though.


Marcus says:

December 16, 2010 at 2:29 am

Hi Scott, I forgot about the interface, I was just thinking about the sensor and the lenses ;)

You are right, I don’t see SD-card readers and DNG-file format being accessible in 15 years and beyond.

Interesting point, Leica needs to figure that out.


Nanna Barlby says:

January 20, 2011 at 8:28 am

Great website

A couple of years ago I planned an inspiration tour to the cradle of Industrial design / Germany, Switzerland and Austria / for a group of Korean designers.
One of the best stops was the Leica factory in Solms – for rigor, history, care for detail and quality this is the place to be.

An 70 year old man with ice blue eyes guided us through the factory.
When a guest asked why everything was accessible to visitors – his eyes lit up accompanied by a grin as he said ‘No one can do what we do, ever’

There is a shop and museum – they have a new building now –
It is one hours drive outside of Frankfurt – go go go


PS Next we went to look at the BMW factory in Leipzig and Mauser guns… also recommendable