11.22.2019

A few thoughts about the new Lumix system after using several S1s and four lenses over the course of a month+

This camera, with a battery grip and one of the big, native lenses, is a heavyweight.

I've got to get one thing out of the way right up front; if you are physically frail, averse to carrying weighty objects, in thrall to the pixie-fication of cameras, trying to cram an entire system into a shoebox, or just lazy, you will not be happy as the owner of a fully decked out S1 or it's nearly identical sibling, the S1R. These are heavy cameras that are built to take the knocks and tumbles of professional life or adventure life without falling apart. I handed an S1 with a Sigma 85mm f1.4 Art lens and battery grip to Belinda and she was shocked at just how heavy and dense that package was. Shocked.

So, why inflict this burden on one's self? Why carry around such a massive package? There is really only one answer and that would be the potential image quality of the camera and lens system for both traditional photography and videography. A secondary reason might be the desire to do on the job weight training.

I was interested in using an S1 from the moment I saw the initial announcements of Panasonic's full frame Lumix system because I had gotten stellar results from their micro four thirds format G9 and figured that, scaled up to full frame the results had the potential to be class leading. I'm also a big fan of Panasonic's menu structure and their button layout. As a former Leica M and Leica R shooter I also have an attraction to both the Leica S Pro lenses and a dangerous interest in several of the Leica L mount lenses. 

There are currently two cameras in the system. One is the S1R which features a 47+ megapixel imaging sensor. This falls into my category of: would be nice to have sometime in the future. The other camera is the S1 which uses a lower resolution sensor of 24 megapixels. The second model is the one that makes the most sense for the kinds of work I do which include everyday photography that's destined for computer screens and magazine print, and also high quality video projects. In this regard the S1 is, to my mind, the perfect hybrid camera tool for the working content provider. The base camera gets an "A" in every category while the higher res model gets an "A+" for resolution but only a "B-" for video.

While most buyers will write of as "marketing" the idea of Leica certification for the Pro series Lumix lenses I've tossed myself into the camp of true believers after using the 70-200mm f4.0 for a spell. Over the course of the last week I've shot nearly 4,000 images with the system and of those 4,000 about half were done with this zoom. Nearly all of them were shot with the lens at its widest aperture of f4. The resulting photos are wonderfully sharp and almost completely bereft of distortions, artifacts and optical glitches. This lens reminds me of the revelation I had back in the 1990's when I first started using longer Leica Apo glass on my R8's after having used Canon and Nikon's lenses. The difference was obvious to not only me and my fellow photographers but also to art directors who had rarely commented previously about any technical aspect of submitted images. The 70-200mm Lumix lens is superb. If this was the only lens I needed I would say that the cost of entry to the system is worth it just for this tool. 

Why would I buy the Lumix S1 over its competitors? Understand that my motivations are probably different from yours. I had no collection of lenses from any other full frame system so, in the time period in which I made my purchase I also considered the Nikon Z6 and 7, the Sony A7iii, and, even glancingly, the Canon 5Dmk3 (dismissed out of hand because it lacks the 21st century "must have" super-feature; an EVF).  I also bought a couple of used Pentax K-1s but can't use them as serious work cameras in most situations because their video is not a good match for my client's needs and, to be painfully truthful, the autofocus I've experienced is about two generations behind just about everyone else's. 

While the Nikons have their merits they lack a good selection of native lenses, have some banding issues (which isn't that big of an issue) and seem to be stop gap products meant to wave the Nikon flag while they desperately work to get some sort of professional version ready to go out the door. 

I've owned and used a number of iterations of the Sony system and while the image quality is good and the focusing is not problematic the design of the camera seems to be at odds with the idea that human hands would willing hold them for any period of time. While the cameras have state of the art photo specs they are woefully underpowered as video cameras. Fine for family vacation documentation but nothing you'd want to shoot with for clients who demand things like 10 bit color and 4:2:2 files. Also, while you have to pay extra for it the Log profile that Panasonic makes available for this camera is world class and provides real benefits in editing and color grading. Using the S-Log on the Sony cameras is a bit of a smoke and mirrors thing. You can get real Log encoding but you are doing it (always) on 8 bit files which means banding in final images with sky, etc. is almost a given. 

Add to this Sony's legendary overheating issues with video and you have a handful of reasons to run in the opposite direction from their cameras. If you are truly interested in Sony and video it makes sense to just buy one of their dedicated video cameras like the FS5 or FS7 and keep separate inventories for each type of job. At least the lenses will work across both platforms. 

So I ended up investigating the Lumix cameras. I went through the check boxes that matter most to me. Yours will almost undoubtably be different. First up was imaging quality from a sensor perspective. Having had great performance from the G9 I knew I'd like the way Panasonic tweaked the color from the sensor while DXO numbers informed me that the overall sensor performance in raw would make the S1(rated 95) pretty much equal to the best performances of the Sony and Nikon rivals and far ahead of the Canon offerings. The S1's excellent low light score makes it a good match for the theater photography I routinely do....

After having shot theater and portraits with the S1 I find myself well pleased with the choices Panasonic has made in color treatment in both raw and Jpeg files. The images are easy to work with in post. My one complaint, which is easily remedied with a one time dive into the Jpeg menus is that the default sharpening is a little high. Interesting that on the Pentax K-1 files I find I need to boost the sharpness of the Jpegs to match.

So, image color, noise and sharpness are all satisfactory; in line with my preferences.

Video

Moving on to the video performance. Even in the "out of the box" configuration the camera does a nice job with 4K video files. The on-the-body microphone pre-amps are very low noise and sound nice. The full size HDMI plug should be standard on any camera that wants to be considered as a "professional" tool and, of course, it is on the S1. This camera is transformed with the addition of the V-Log unlock code and the addition of the microphone accessory that fits in the hot shoe. The V-Log unlock code gives us full-on 4K files at up to 30 fps with no crop while delivering 10 bit, 4:2:2 files straight into the camera's memory cards. No external recorder needed for this performance. I'd say it was "class leading" but none of the other cameras in this full frame class can provide this level of performance. Add an external recorder and you can get 60 fps with the same basic specs, but with a 1.5x crop. 

The microphone accessory, the DMW-XLR1 is well worth cost. I provides two XLR inputs to the camera along with phantom power, filters, line level input adjustments, and hard dials for level controls.  While many productions have the budget to do separate sound, where a sound engineer records from the microphone into a dedicated recorder from Sound Devices, Tascam or Zoom and then syncs up the sound in post production, the DMW-XLR1 allows a single operator to pull in very competent audio that's already sync'ed to the video files and does so in a package that is unobtrusive enough to make single operator work doable. 

While Sony has a competent version of this audio interface available for their cameras Nikon and Canon lag far, far behind when it comes to audio recording as part of videography. Whether they will or want to catch up is not clear. Both systems are well capable of creating great video products but in the case of Canon one gets the impression that so much video prowess is missing from their still cameras in order to protect sales of their video lines. Nikon, on the other hand, has mastered the art of nice looking video files but seems not to have the bandwidth to add tackling audio to the list of things they need to get done right away --- like introducing more Z lenses....

Moving on to how the S1 camera performs I have to mention that the EVF is the absolute best I have ever used and sometimes, when I am switching between the S1 and the Pentax K-1 (which has an exemplary optical finder) I forget that one of the two finders is an EVF!!! That's a huge deal to me. I've been championing the concept of EVFs for over ten years and this is the point at which I can say we've finally surpassed "good enough." The finder is big and bright and can be configured into one of three different magnifications so eyeglass wearers can be accommodated as well as people who need to see information around the edges. Purists can call up a magnification that files the eyepiece. It's just beautiful. And stand off is good as well.

Stabilization

Another feature that most will see as required is Panasonic's class leading image stabilization. The system is great while using the in body image stabilization but is superb when lenses with stabilizers are used in conjunction with body stabilization. They call it "dual I.S." and it leverages the benefits of each kind of system to give photographers up to 7 stops (cited in conjunction with the new 70-200mm f2.8 lens). Both of the Lumix lenses I use work in dual I.S. and I've found the system nearly as good as that on the G9 camera when using the Panasonic/Leica 12-60mm. 

The in-body image stabilization makes possible the high resolution feature in which the camera takes multiple shots while moving the sensor a tiny bit between each shot in order to capture more color information more accurately. It works. Not on moving subjects but on any still subject, it works. 

One of my friends was discussing camera choice with me and posited that the S1R (high res model) would be more useful to him as an architectural photographer. Since most architecture doesn't move I argued that the 96 megapixel files that come from the hi-res mode would seem to be more than enough for nearly any application...  We'll test this theory some time soon. He's still shooting with a Nikon D850 so we can do a side by side test to evaluate. Will we see a difference? Hmmmmm.

Build quality

I'm going to take a minute to talk about something that shouldn't really make a difference in the age of ever-obsoleting digital cameras but seems to make a difference to me, and that is the build quality and implied reliability. I've seen the dedicated site that Panasonic put up showing how much metal lies just under the fake leatherette and also how well sealed the S1 series cameras are and it is impressive. Also impressive is the specification that the mechanical shutter is rated as being good for about 400,000 exposures. What all this points to is a camera that won't let one down, mechanically.

Will any of this make a difference in three to five years when 60 megapixels is baseline and 100 megapixels seems to be the new, exciting metric? Will I care if the camera is impervious to full on meteor strikes if the next generation features 8K video and all sorts of computation imaging tools that make my stuff look better? Probably not but....if I see myself as an artist/hobbyist instead of a mercenary photographer I would imagine that we're in a sweet spot that's going to last for a while and having a camera that can take a lot of use and abuse without bricking makes me feel more....comfortable. Less antsy about taking fewer units along for the ride.

This is a camera which, along with the S Pro lenses, that I can be comfortable with if there's sudden rain shower at Eeyore's Birthday party and the camera and lens get sprayed with rain (or beer). I've already dropped one of the two I own on to concrete and gotten nothing more than a ding on the metal shade of my Sigma 45mm lens. 

Handling

Coming from the Panasonic G9 there are a lot a operating interfaces, both on screen and via external buttons, that seem familiar to me and make operating the camera more assured and less hesitant. For instance, there are three buttons just behind the shutter button. One is for WB, one is for ISO and the one on the far right (as you operate the camera) is for exposure compensation. The ISO button in the center has two small but pronounced bumps on it so you can identify it immediately with one touch. The left side WB button is a bit taller than the exposure comp button. Small features but useful to one who works with the camera in near dark situations.

The hand grip is just right. It's even got a little "shelf" indentation on the lens side that helps fingers find a nicer purchase. It's nice. The camera, when used without the battery grip, is pretty much perfect for me to handhold. Even more so when equipped with a small, lightweight lens like the Sigma 45mm or my adapted Carl Zeiss 50mm f1.7. The grip and the larger lenses together take some getting used to. They have made no compromise for size and weight and you'll feel it. The trade off is, hopefully, robust reliability.

When I shoot the camera bare, without the battery grip and with a smaller lens (like the 45mm f2.8 Sigma) it's actually a small enough package (not much bigger than a Fuji X-T3) and it feels comfortable but dense.

The finder is BETTER than an optical finder. It also makes handling more fun. And commercial shooting more productive.

What are the perceived drawbacks (cons)?

To my mind there are really only two dings on the cameras (both the S1 and S1R): One is the autofocus and the other one is battery life.

I tend to use S-AF almost all the time, and to simplify even more I find myself using a single focusing square, moving it with the rear joy stick to the right point if I have time, otherwise I use a center focusing point, lock in focus and then recompose. I am resolutely old school in this regard. I find continuous focusing to be in opposition to my work flow with cameras. Too much to keep track of. Too many things to re-learn. But I had heard so much about "focus wobble" when using AF-C that I had to try it out just to see what the deal was. And it's true, there is a very disconcerting wobbling in the EVF during C-AF that would make the camera less desirable to me if that was my routine manner of working. If you routinely use C-AF or focus tracking AF with your cameras and this is an important way of operating for you I strongly advise you to head to a bricks-and-mortar camera store to check out the camera yourself. You might be able to get used to the frenetic action in the finder but...... you might not.

Will Panasonic improve this with a series of firmware updates? I have no idea but I buy cameras in order to use them right now; not some vague date in the future after home improvement firmware upgrades. If you are a heavy duty sports shooter I'm going to conjecture that these cameras were never on your short list to begin with.

The cameras focus quickly and accurately in S-AF, as good as anything out there, but if you want the camera to track stuff moving around the frame I think you need to spend an afternoon with an S1 and see what you get.

Battery Life

The battery that comes with the camera is big, beefy and rated at over 3,000 mAh. That would lead us to believe that it will power a conventional camera for hours and hours; even days.... But, alas, Panasonic rates the battery at about 390 exposures and I'd venture that with reviews and longer timeouts  you might even get less out of them. As I buy more of the cameras I cajole my sales person to give me an extra battery in lieu of a discount on the main product, knowing that I'm a nervous user when it comes to running out of power and I'll charge and take all the batteries I have on a shoot so I can avoid ever having to tell a client that we've run out of juice.

The batteries are $90 a pop and I'm beginning to think that Panasonic is taking "pricing lessons" from their good friends at Leica. Going on location for a day's worth of shooting I'd be comfortable with two batteries but even happier with three batteries total per camera. So, to be safe you end up carrying around an extra $180 dollars worth of little black objects with type on them.

Alternately, you could go with one battery and take along an external Lithium battery pack/device such as the ones that are sold to charge iPhones and tablets in the field. The camera has a USB-C 3.1 port and it allows in camera battery charging as well as powering of the camera. With a set up like this you sacrifice a bit of mobility but you gain some piece of mind. Not such a great trade off for a wandering tourist but probably just fine for a working pro on a fixed location with the camera welded to a tripod.

Bottom Line

Cameras should feel good to operate, from a strictly machine/human interface point of view; that should be a given. Next up in importance are two things in equal measure: The performance of available lenses and the quality of the sensor in the camera.

It seems that Panasonic, and in fact all members of the L-mount Alliance are focused on making lenses that are exemplary and high performing regardless of their cost to consumers or the cost of the resultant size and weight. Several of the Panasonic S Pro lenses are designed by Leica and carry an inscription claiming: Leica Certified. According to Panasonic this means that those lenses have passed the rigorous optical standards and build quality standards of the world's most prestigious consumer lens designer. From what I've seen so far I think I'd say that the lenses rock.

On my wish list is the 50mm f1.4 Lumix S Pro lens. It's being touted as their "reference standard" and the lens all others in the system will be judged against.

Another reason to consider the Lumix cameras is, in fact, the range of lenses that are already available for the system. There are numerous Sigma Art lenses now provided in the mount and on the other end of the price spectrum you have access to the Leica SL lenses which are excellent.

While you won't find a $200 kit zoom or a $149 "nifty-fifty" you might find some really great lenses that mesh well with the very clean and well reviewed sensors in both the 24 and 47 megapixel cameras. This isn't a system for those who want a mix of economy and convenience lenses along with a few premium lenses; at this juncture it seems like this system is aimed at people who are tired of the middle way and ready to just buy premium.

Does it work for me? Yes. It does.