8.05.2021

I've never commented on Panasonic's S5 camera. It's time to dive in and see what I was missing...



At some point, if you are deep into the L mount alliance cameras, you'll want to give some thought to the Panasonic S5. And if you are currently shooting one of the many lesser brands of mirrorless cameras on the market you might also be interested in a good and inexpensive way to upgrade your photographic, and especially video experiences.

With a sampling of L-mount cameras from Panasonic, Leica and also Sigma I was probably the last person in line when it came to "needing" or even "wanting" to add an entry level camera to the system. But I thought it would be prudent to at least take a look, kick some tires, and see what a couple of years of feedback from avid users, and progress from the engineers might have bought for Panasonic when it came to fine-tuning their overall product line. 

The S5 is an interesting camera because it so directly answers many of the theoretical points of hesitation about the L-mount system. The camera is priced under $2,000 and that is a significant feature all by itself for many people. It's also smaller and lighter than any other L-mount camera, save the Sigma fp (original). And those speed bumps have been two of the impediments to adoption of the system to date. The third barrier to buying into the L alliance systems is the pervasive rumors and blather about the inability of the contrast detect AF system to lock focus on.......anything. Especially if you try to use it in C-AF. I can't really speak to continuous/tracking performance with authority because I am almost never a user of continuous or tracking AF. 

So, what does the S5, released just before the end of last year, bring to the mirrorless knife fight? Well, that all depends on whether you were considering the camera in the condition in which it was launched or whether you are evaluating the value proposition now that the offering has been radically improved by firmware update 2.3. 

In the time immediately after its birth you had a relatively inexpensive camera that was well built and had a fair number of video features that pleased many experienced users. But you still had a camera that wasn't a perfect focuser and lacked a good number of the cool goodies that came standard on the S1H...albeit at half the price. But once the new firmware hit you've got yourself a radically different and much improved camera that would make a good primary camera for a person just getting into the professional imaging field or a great "b" camera, or back up camera, for someone already shooting with one of the S1 series Lumix cameras or the SL series Leicas. 

The S5 features a very good 24 megapixel, full frame sensor. It's the same one being used in the Panasonic S1 and S1H cameras and according to....everyone/DXO...it's one of the top sensor implementations on the full frame market. As a photography camera it's got great imaging performance out past ISO 12,000, the colors coming out of it in both Jpeg and Raw are exemplary, and it's a pleasure to use. The small size is great because it's not coupled with the "too light-ness" of cameras that are built to more mediocre standards. It's a solid brick of a camera and I'd say that you might think you want to err on the side of less weight but when it comes to good cameras that stand the test of time (and abuse) you really want something that's dense, solid and built to higher standards. The color profiles are sweet, the focus is more than good for photography, and it's the lowest cost, full featured camera that gives one access to all the lenses in the L mount system. (The Sigma fp is a specialty tool. Not full featured...).

I've compared its focusing with recently firmware updated S1 and S1R cameras and have found (unscientifically) that it locks onto subjects with S-AF just a bit faster than the others. As far as frame rate and buffer go it's not nearly as fast or as file hungry as the S1 and it's more on the pace of the S1R, which is gobbling down much bigger files. I'd rate it as a good 5 fps camera (with AF) and that's about it. But in context, and in reality, 5 fps is more than adequate for normal, emotionally healthy photographers. Unless you are shooting sports for someone with a budget the practice of banging off 20 fps, and then having to edit all the take down to usable frames, is silly. And a waste of time. (if you need super fast frame rates then wait for my post about frame grabs from 6K video -- coming soon).

But where the S5 kicks butt is on the video side. After firmware upgrade 2.3 it pretty much gives every camera in its price and performance class a lesson in pervasive superiority. The competitor from Sony (A7III) is a suckier video bundle mostly because it's not able to shoot anything but 8 bit video when recording internally. That's pretty much a non-starter for just about any sensible video shooter. Sure, the Sony will do C-AF better (marginally) but what good is tighter focusing performance if the files band and the color isn't as rich? Want faster and better C-Af with an S5? Switch over to shooting in APS-C mode at 60 fps and you'll get close enough so you won't notice the difference. And an amazing aspect is that this under $2,000 camera will shoot 5.9K video in Pro-Res Raw or Black Magic raw if you hook it up to the widely available (and easy to use) Atomos Ninja V recorder/monitor. It's even ready to do that while shooting with anamorphic lenses. Forget-about-it if you think Sony's camera will come anywhere close to that. 

I spent the morning discussing video with a very technically adept videographer yesterday and a lot of our conversation was around the use of hybrid cameras, capable of shooting 6K or 8K video files, being used to shoot video which is intended as content for stills. Shooting 5.9K files while selecting the right shutter speeds/shutter angle could give a photographer something like 30 frames per second of 18 megapixel files from which to cull out the perfectly good (temporal) frames. The height of action. The perfect expression, etc. Camera with these capabilities are finally at the threshold of realizing the potential that the Red camera company teased nearly ten years ago. And those would not be little weeny Jpeg or Heif files either. They would be a series of DNG files which could be tweaked and massaged in post processing. 

The S5, with the latest, free firmware upgrade includes video-centric features like a waveform monitor, a vector scope, full power V-Log (not amateur pseudo-log!) and even control over master pedestal. There are a few caveats when comparing the S5 to the S1H. The EVF is about one half the resolution of the S1 series cameras and you can see that pretty clearly (or unclearly). And the bigger camera offers all kinds of file types for video, including a full raft of All-I files which are important for reducing artifacts in video clips that contain lots and lots of subject motion or complex detail. 

I don't think Panasonic cared a rat's ass about cannibalizing their own S1 camera. The lure of a smaller, lighter, cheaper camera with better video specs would seem to be a strong argument in favor of the newer offering. Sure, the S1 offers a faster max frame rate and a better finder but after adding the V-Log feature at $200 (which comes free and pre-installed in the S5) you're looking at a $700 price difference for the same photographic imaging performance. And you get more battery life in the smaller camera as well. 

You lose a few niceties like the top mounted info screen but you don't give up important features like an unlimited run time with any 8 bit video formats and you still get to use the most valuable accessory for audio, the DMW-XL1 microphone adapter that slips into the hot shoe of all the S series cameras and provides balanced XLR mic inputs, more controls and even phantom power for the microphones that need it. An adapter I've used since the GH5 days. 

Recommendations: If you shoot with the big S1R high resolution camera and you need a good back-up camera this makes a great option. Even the menus are a near match. If you use the S1H for primary video and need a great "B" camera, again, this is a good match. If you shoot with the quirky Sigma fp but occasionally need a good camera to shoot flash with, or to carry around in bright sunlight when you don't want to haul around the Sigma giant-goiter LCD hood to see your previews, you might find this a nice and productive adjunct to your shooting inventory. 
The picture gets murkier if you are a Leica SL user. If you are into the Leica system and looking for matching menus and a bit better video performance than you currently get with your SL2 you'll more likely want to consider the SL2S. But if you just can't stomach the buy-in for a second camera at $5000 you could certainly do well with the S5 at its current price of $1699. While the operational styles and the menus are completely different it's nice to have a back-up camera that at least takes the same lenses. And offers additional features.

If you are sporting a Leica SL you'll likely want to skip the S5 and just pick up a second used body since the prices for clean copies seem to have stabilized around $2,000. While the video files out of the original SL are very nice to look at recording audio is not for the faint of heart given that you'll need to either sync audio from an outboard recorder or source a very rare Leica dongle that gives the SL a headphone jack and a microphone jack. You'll pay for the privilege as the almost unfindable dongle runs nearly $200. 

My nits about the S5 are three. First I think Panasonic should have cinched up, charged a couple hundred bucks more and given us a higher resolution EVF. It's not horrible. It's not even bad... but it's dated and if you are a user of cameras like the S1, S1R, S1H, Leica SL2 or even the SL you'll notice the difference. Second, there is no way, that I've been able to discover, to set the camera manually to shoot in APS-C format. Yes, you get auto switching if you mount an APS-C lens but sometimes I want to shoot a smaller, tighter files and it's a control that comes in handy for me. Finally, I think they should have kept on using the same battery as in the rest of the S series cameras. It's a bigger battery, and I get that the camera designers wanted to reduce the overall size of the camera, but it's frustrating to have to get a new charger and new batteries when you've already invested in six or seven of the previous gen batteries for your system. 

Oh, and one more thing that everyone likes to complain about! They should have included a full sized HDMI connector. Especially on a camera that trumpets the ability to shoot 5.9K video but only with the addition of an external recorder. If you are asking people to connect stuff in order to complete your advertised feature set you should make that required mechanical connection a stout one. The rest of the cameras in the system have it, why not this one? 

I used an S5 today, in conjunction with a Leica 24-90mm Vario Elmarit lens, to make some environmental portrait photos, outside. The camera used a Godox trigger to control an AD-200 flash fired into a Westcott Rapid Box (the larger one) and the whole system was about as perfect as I'd want it to be. The face detect AF was flawless (400+ exposures, five subjects, no failures) and the battery life was revelatory. At least from the perspective of a Leica SL2 user. 

For video that's going to the web this would be all the camera most of us would ever need. If you can get away without needing All-I files this is all the video camera you might need for just about any kind of project. And when it comes to real photography the camera produces images on par with the Panasonic S1 and does a little better with high ISO noise than the older Leica SL cameras. 

It's pretty sweet. 

This was not sponsored. No camera was provided. No money came in my direction. In fact, it was a pretty one-sided transaction. I paid money = I got a camera. End of story. Not click bait because there's no hook and no net to scoop you up with. Get over it.

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