Photographers always lust for new toys. I've never lusted over owning a Leica before - the price point on a Leica is very restricting - but I've always lusted to use one just to know if a $35,000 camera is worth it...... and the price isn't a typo!
There is a certain stigma about Leica's. They are sexy, they are expensive, and they are the kind of thing you may never take outside for fear of damaging it.
Earlier this year I had the opportunity to borrow a Leica S2 system, which is the flagship SLR camera offered by Leica, and take it on a shoot in Harpers Ferry, WV. The S2 with a few lenses easily runs over $40,000, so this was probably also the first and last time I'll ever use a camera like that! Although my D800 hadn't come for me to do a side by side comparison at the time, I will draw some comparisons between the S2 to the significantly less expensive D800.
The S2 is a 37.5 mega pixel SLR with a 30x45mm sensor. By comparison, the D800 has 36 mega pixels and a 36x24mm sensor. In plain english this means that the effective resolution of both cameras is essentially the same. While the D800 has a slightly longer sensor, the S2's sensor is about 40% larger overall. There is some debate regarding Nikon's decision to make a camera with so many mega pixels and if it was to offer a lower cost competitor to the Leica. Either way, under the hood, they have many similarities.
The S2 is a very heavy camera, and that's the first thing I noticed when I picked it up. The D7000 felt like a plastic toy by comparison and the D800 seems to be a good compromise in terms of weight; the S2 was almost so heavy that it became cumbersome to carry all day. A big part of the weight comes from the lenses. Nikon has plenty of heavy lenses, but the Leica lenses for the S2 system were like bricks. Of course this is one of the trade-offs for the superior optical quality that Leica hangs their reputation on.
The second thing I noticed after picking up the camera was the difference in controls from a Nikon. The D800, which has a zillion buttons, looks significantly more complicated than the Leica. Instead of dials and buttons to adjust settings like the Nikon uses, the Leica depends on cleverly designed and easy to use menus and a main function knob. While different from how Nikon and Canon build their menus with joystick command dials, the Leica menu was still easy to use and could be operated quickly to avoid missing the shot.
Leica only offers 5 prime lenses for the S2 system, a 30mm, 35mm, 70mm, 120mm and 180mm. They also offer adaptors to use with other brand lenses. While its a well accepted fact that prime lenses are always optically superior to their zoom counterparts, there's something to be said for the convenience of carrying a few zoom lenses in the bag. If I was going on a hike, I'd probably end up carrying 3-4 of these lenses to cover my bases - the Leica lenses are so heavy, however, that I'd be miserable. I normally carry 3 lenses on a landscape/hiking shoot with my D800 and can manage the weight of that comfortably.
When it comes to using the Leica, it's a very easy camera to use. This is an area where the Leica really beats the Nikon and Canon lineup.... Because you have so few buttons, lights, messages, dials, widgets, etc, you spend more time concentrating on the image and composition than worrying about the 40 billion settings you could be tinkering with. I also found the dynamic range and tones that the Leica produced out of the camera a little better than what the D7000 gave me, however, I believe a large part of that can be attributed to white balance settings in the cameras being different. The dynamic range of the D800 seems to be on par with the Leica - that's not a scientific test but rather a Mark I Eyeball test. One of the most enjoyable things on the Leica was the viewfinder, which was remarkably clear and large. If it wasn't for the price, I'd buy a Leica S2 just for the viewfinder!
The files produced by the Leica, like the D800, are very large. Most of my RAW images were roughly 70MB in size. Despite having a new iMac, my computer still struggled to keep up in post processing these large files.
I took a variety of images using several of the lenses during the day in Harpers Ferry. These have all been retouched in Photoshop CS5 and converted to black and white. As you can see, the focus is very sharp and the 37 mega pixels allows me to capture an amazing amount of detail.
Overall I enjoyed using the Leica S2 and getting to fulfill my lust to use a camera like that. Two years ago I probably would have wanted to win the lottery to buy one, but with the D800, I don't see a great need. Sure the lenses are probably better and there are some nice features, but for the price of the S2 and one lens, I could outfit a really good Nikon kit and still have the money for a trip to Africa. I feel like this is a good time to remind you that our gear let's us take great photos, but its the photographer who makes the fine art!
Recommendation: Unless you just have to have the most expensive and best thing on the market, stick with the D800. Nikon isn't paying me to say that - I loved the S2, but for 99.9% of photographers, it's just not practical. Then again, Leica is only targeting 0.01% of photographers with a camera like that!