The S-League: How Leica Is Reinventing the Medium Format Market

Interesting Forbes interview with Stephan Schulz, head of professional photo at Leica, about how the camera maker is reinventing the medium format market on its own terms. Remember Leica’s S-System, launched in December 2009, is a newcomer in this market that requires a different type of camera than photojournalists do who use the 35mm Leica M.

According to Schulz the Germans are not afraid at all of the other medium format providers Hasselblad, Phase One and Mamiya. Leica’s here to “reinvent medium format for the digital age.” As newcomers without legacy hardware, they enjoy the advantage of designing a medium format system from scratch for digital. Schulz:

The S-System lenses have been designed from scratch, and optimized, for digital imaging — a crucial distinction. With film, there is nothing between surface of the film and the lens. But with digital, you have layers of glass between the sensor and the lens (for example the glass that protects the sensor). These layers of glass have an impact on performance. Lenses designed for medium format film obviously didn’t account for the layers of glass. The result is some degradation of image quality when such lenses are used in digital. Our made-for digital lenses, on the other hand, were designed only with digital sensors in mind. The result is a significant difference in image quality.

There’s another big practical advantage to designing specifically for digital: medium format film cameras have always had a problem keeping a large surface area of film completely flat. To compensate for this unevenness, medium format lenses were designed to mask the imperfections of an uneven recording surface — by not providing peak sharpness. But with digital sensors, unevenness is a non-issue. This allowed us to develop lenses that deliver uncompromising peak sharpness.

Schulz kind of evades the question why Leica’s medium format sensor is smaller than the competition’s. Smaller or not, Leica outperforms even the 50MP Hasselblad, he’s convinced.

The website S-League showcases the latest works by international professional photographers using Leica's S-System. It presents the most recent advertising campaigns and editorial spreads from all over the world.
The website S-League showcases the latest works by international professional photographers using Leica’s S-System. It presents the most recent advertising campaigns and editorial spreads from all over the world.
Because the professional medium format market is so niche, Leica’s marketing communications are highly targeted. Well they don’t really do advertising. They let photographers do that for them. For instance, on the website S-League photographers who are using the S-System showcase the system. Leica’s approach is to let professional users tell their story and showcase their work. “After all,” says Schulz, “for professionals, the proof is in the pudding.”

They sell about 6,000 units per year and have a market share of some 20% after three years. They have more orders than they can produce, but Schulz is confident with the opening of Leica’s new factory in Wetzlar they’ll be able to increase capacity.

We all know that by then the initial M rush is long gone. To make good use of the increased production capacity Leica will no doubt surprise us with a range of product variations and new products to maximize capacity utilization.

To close with Schulz’s cryptic words:

We have historically succeeded not by copying a market but by reinventing it. We did it back in the day with the M, and we’re doing it now with the S-System.

Read the whole interview on Forbes.

  • Bengt Nyman


    Leica presently has an overall photographic market share of 0.15%.
    While Canon sells 450 cameras, Nikon sells 300 and Leica sells 1.
    Leica recently announced that they want to up their market share to 1%.
    They want to sell 7 cameras instead of 1, while Canon and Nikon sell 750.
    Conventional market wisdom and price elasticity says that if Leica wants to 7Up their sales, the price difference between the Leica M and the nearest competitor would have to be reduced by (1-1/7)^2 and would consequently have to go from $ 7,000 to $ 4,110.

    According to Stephan Schultz of Leica they presently have 20% of the digital medium format market. At the moment they are behind Hasselblad and PhaseOne, but their goal is to become market leader. They plan to do this with the Leica S series which is an almost medium format camera with a 30X45 mm 37.5 MP sensor and sells for $ 22,000. The full format Nikon D800 has a 24X36 mm 36.3 MP sensor and sells for $3,300.

    Leica’s slight advantage in pixel size should result in slightly better low light performance. However at six times the price it is sort of academic.

    The future of Leica as a player in today’s photographic market is unfortunately not very bright. However, As a Gucci companion and a continuing anecdote Leica will probably live forever.

  • Within its strictly defined niche, Bengt, Leica not only keeps on enjoying the loyalty of dedicated users, they also expand their market base.

    You must be doing something very right when your products are always on backorder.

  • Bengt Nyman


    If you are happy with 1/700 of the market, you can appeal to all sorts of odd preferences.

    If Leica ever puts out a camera that performs in proportion to its price and the price of the competition I would buy one.

  • A Liong

    A dinosaur kept alive by the noveau riche Chinese and Russians… and some Japs of course.

  • Some clueless comments here.. Leica S has the best lenses on the market bar none.. and a 16bit CCD sensor that offers a different IQ to the D800E..if it’s only about resolution then why not buy a Nokia camera phone with over 40mp.. (btw,I have used both many time’s,the D800E is a great camera but a different camera..and thee are few lenses that can resolve the sensor..)

  • For a long time, that was also almost the exact argument made by Windows PC users against the Apple Macintosh. 10 years on, look where Apple is now. Same story with Apple: overpriced generic hardware, oversimplified UI, etc etc. Yet, for a company that owns just less than 10% of the global market share, they’re not doing too badly, aren’t they.