Mirrorless camera technology is no longer just about building lighter weight alternatives to DSLRs, but Panasonic is the first company to completely embrace this concept with its new full-frame Lumix S-series. The Lumix S1 is huge, and not just for a mirrorless camera — it weighs 2.25 pounds, making it heavier than even a Nikon D850 DSLR. But the body is also loaded with physical controls the likes of which we haven’t seen on a mirrorless camera before, making the S1 the most professional “entry-level” full-frame camera yet.
This is a bit of a risky move for Panasonic, a company that doesn’t have the clout of Nikon, Canon, or even Sony when it comes to professional photography. The Lumix GH5 and GH5S, built on the smaller Micro Four Thirds format, have found success with filmmakers and YouTubers, but the S1 doesn’t cater to this crowd. As Panasonic representatives told me at a recent media event in Austin, Texas, the S-series is slanted much more in the direction of still photography than video.
But if Panasonic is an underdog, it certainly isn’t acting like one. The S1 is launching at $2,500 — $500 above the Sony A7 III and Nikon Z6, and $200 above the Canon EOS R. The company is doing everything it can to elevate the Lumix brand to stand alongside the competition, including building a new professional services department for handling worldwide repairs and partnering with working pros, like Annie Griffiths, to promote the S-series.
It also made a damn good camera.
Tipping the scales to raise the bar
Built around a 24-megapixel sensor, the Lumix S1 is the “low end” model of the two S-series cameras Panasonic has introduced (the other is the 47-megapixel Lumix S1R, which looks identical), and will likely be the most popular. While the Sony A7 III and Nikon Z6 look like its closest competitors, Panasonic is not directly targeting those same users. At every tier, Panasonic seems to be going for an even higher-end customer who isn’t bothered by a higher price; the Lumix S1R costs $3,700, also considerably more than the competing Sony A7R III and Nikon Z7.
We’ve seen plenty of good EVFs, but none quite like this.
The S1 also has well over half-a-pound on the Sony and Nikon, partly because of its massive 3,000mAh battery, but mostly due to being built like a tank. This is a camera that could double as a hammer. The grip is gigantic, but at least you won’t have to worry about losing hold of the thing. And everywhere you look, there’s a button, dial, or lever granting direct access to whatever function you may need.
It isn’t image quality or speed that separates a professional camera from a consumer model; it’s control and durability. This is apparently what Panasonic is banking on, as it has designed the S1 like a high-end DSLR. On the front of the camera, a two-position function lever offers immediate access to different settings that you can customize as you see fit, from silent mode and bracketing to autofocus mode and much more.
On top, you’ll find an exposure mode dial with three custom positions and a drive mode dial beneath it with two custom positions, by default set to continuous high-speed shooting and 6K Photo mode, the latter of which records 18MP images at 30 frames per second. (A nice touch here: The intervalometer, used for time-lapse sequences, also has a dedicated position on the drive mode dial.)
On the opposite side, the top LCD information display is the biggest of any mirrorless camera. Turn on the backlight, and it glows a nice amber color — several of the buttons on the back of the camera also light up, although we wish all of them did.
It’s a beautiful piece of engineering, and should ease any lingering concerns that a diehard DSLR user may have.
All of the controls feel good; even the shutter button has been angled slightly to the right to better accommodate your index finger. The power switch is placed inexplicably in an awkward position just behind the shutter release, but we’ll let this slide — at least it’s on the right side of the camera.
But for all the physical control, Panasonic hasn’t neglected the software, either. The menu system has been redesigned and, despite being stuffed with options, is still easy to navigate. It works beautifully with the touchscreen, which is one of the most responsive we’ve ever used, but you can use the four-way directional buttons or autofocus joystick if you prefer.
The best EVF in the business
If the professional control layout doesn’t sell people on the S1, the electronic viewfinder just might. We’ve seen plenty of good EVFs before, but none quite like this. The OLED panel packs in some 5.7 million pixels — 2 million more than the already excellent EVFs of the Nikon Z6, Fujifilm X-T3, and Canon EOS R, and over 3 million more than the Sony A7 III. It can also refresh at either 60 or 120 frames per second (fps).
Pushing that many pixels that quickly spells disaster for the battery. Even with its large capacity, battery life is rated for just 380 shots per charge. In my experience, I made some 165 images before the indicator dropped to about 50 percent. It’s not a scientific measure, by any means, and I was replaying images and messing around in the menus for much of that time, but it’s safe to say that a couple spares are a requisite investment for any working pro who buys into the S-series.
It’s a small price to pay for the best EVF on the market, however. It’s virtually impossible to detect individual pixels, even when looking at the fine text in the exposure meter, for example. It’s a beautiful piece of engineering, and should ease any lingering concerns that a diehard DSLR user may have about giving up their optical viewfinder.
The first thing you notice about the S1 is, obviously, the size and weight. But the second thing you notice is how whisper-quiet the shutter is. Such a soft noise coming from such a hefty camera is confusing at first; looking at it, you expect the fwap-clang! of a DSLR, and instead you get something more like the muffled click of a point-and-shoot. In fact, it’s so quiet that I had wrongly assumed my camera was set to electronic shutter mode and the sound I was hearing was just a simulated noise playing through the camera’s speaker. I double-checked the settings to make sure the mechanical shutter was turned on; it was.
One of the most controversial aspects of the Lumix S-series is how Panasonic opted against phase-detection autofocus in favor of its own Depth from Defocus (DFD) method, which it has used on the past few generations of Micro Four Thirds cameras.
Phase-detection is more-or-less held as the gold standard of autofocus, as it not only knows when an image is in or out of focus, but also whether an out-of-focus image is front- or back-focused. That means it knows which direction to turn the lens to achieve focus, speeding the process up and generally removing the focus “hunting” that occurs in contrast-detection systems.
DFD is based on contrast detection, but Panasonic has thrown some wizardry at it to make it work better. By analyzing the blur patterns of its lenses and storing that information in a profile, the camera knows which direction to move the focus drive just by looking at the blur. On the S1, DFD operates at 480 frames per second. It sounds very complex, and when it works, it’s honestly quite impressive.
But it doesn’t always work.
To be clear, the firmware running on our cameras in Austin was not final production firmware, so performance is still subject to change. But in my experience, I would say DFD worked admirably 90-percent of the time. The one thing that caused it to repeatedly fail was when starting from a very defocused position, when looking through the viewfinder revealed nothing but blur.
In the real world, this could happen when you move from photographing a subject very close to you to shooting one far away, or when you step back from shooting a headshot to, say, capture a full-length portrait. In such instances, the S1 seemed incapable of reading whether the image was front- or back-focused, and was reluctant to simply guess and check by running through the focus rack. Repeatedly tapping the shutter button would eventually get the AF system to work it out, but it was usually faster to just reach for the manual focus ring to give the camera an assist.
No matter how rare it is, a problem like this can be a deal breaker in a professional environment. I’m hopeful that Panasonic will work out the kinks before production-ready firmware is loaded into the cameras, but I doubt if DFD will ever match the reliability of phase-detection, and that could be a sticking point for some working photographers.
Their bodies were nothing but dark blobs, but that was enough information for the S1 to recognize them as people.
On the plus side, face and eye-tracking worked marvelously (again, when not starting from an extremely defocused position). As we’ve seen from other manufacturers recently, the S1 uses algorithms developed from deep learning to recognize objects in the frame. When your subject turns away from the camera, the system automatically begins tracking their body, returning to the face and eyes when they turn back around.
You can tap on the touch screen to select who to focus on when there are multiple people in the frame. For eye detection, I found the S1 had a much greater working distance than the Canon EOS RP (which I happened to be shooting at the same time), and it was incredibly accurate at both wide angles and close-ups, even when shooting with a very shallow depth of field.
What impressed me most, however, was just how sensitive the system is. Working in a makeshift studio environment, it even tracked the other journalists standing in full shadow outside of the lights; their bodies were nothing but dark blobs, but that was enough information for the S1 to recognize them as people.
The 5-axis sensor-shift stabilization system also works very well, offering a combined 6 stops of shake reduction when paired with an optically stabilized lens. That’s 1 to 1.5 stops less than what you get in the Olympus OM-D E-M1X, but it still makes a huge difference in real-world conditions, for both stills and video.
It also enables the high-resolution mode, which takes eight exposures, shifting the sensor slightly between each, to combine into a single, 96MP file. (Unfortunately, test shots in this mode were recorded in RAW only, which I haven’t been able to view yet.)
When it comes to shooting speed, the S1 is not exactly a sports camera, but it can handle 6 fps with continuous autofocus, or 9 fps with AF locked. The various autofocus modes, from standard AF-C to subject tracking, all worked reasonably well, even in our indoor testing area. It wasn’t the most thorough test, but the camera seems to be able to keep up with a moving subject just fine.
If there is a downside to the user experience, it comes back to the weight. This is a heavy camera, and the trio of L-mount lenses we had on hand to test were also not lightweights. The two zooms, a 24-105mm f/4 and 70-200mm f/4, were both well-made and felt very good in the hand, but even with their relatively slow f/4 apertures, they were still pretty big. The S Pro 50mm f/1.4 is an absolutely stunning lens, but the $2,300 prime weighs over 2 pounds on its own. If you’re looking for a lightweight system, look elsewhere. Panasonic will happily sell you a Micro Four Thirds camera, after all.
Video — still really good
The S1 may not be the GH5 of the full-frame world, but it still packs a punch when it comes to video. It can shoot 4K at up to 60 frames per second and can even produce in-camera slow motion using a high framerate mode. It doesn’t have the 400-megabit-per-second codec of the GH5, but it can still output a clean signal over HDMI (which uses a full-size Type A connector). In the future, a paid firmware update will unlock V-log and 4:2:2 10-bit recording.
Panasonic is aiming squarely at working professionals, but it will be an uphill battle.
In my limited hands-on time shooting video with the camera, I found quality to be quite good. There’s plenty of detail and color, although it wasn’t perfect. Panasonic had hired a local rock band for us to shoot, and the mesh on their speakers caused a fair amount of moiré. In normal mode, it was all but negligible — but in slow-motion, which crops the sensor and doesn’t process as many pixels, it was bad to the point of being distracting.
Some of this may be the result of the S1 not including an optical low-pass filter over the sensor, a decision that was made to maximize sharpness in still photography. Of course, maybe moiré simply wouldn’t have been an issue in a different shooting situation, either — we’ll have to wait for the chance to conduct a full review to know for sure.
For now, the S1 is certainly a capable video camera that still finds itself among the best of its peers in the full-frame world, even if it doesn’t quite match the smaller-format GH5. With Nikon now offering RAW video output on the Z-series, however, Panasonic may need to work harder to win over hybrid still/video shooters. Given the S1’s high starting price, good enough simply isn’t good enough.
The quest to be the best
The Lumix S1 is not the camera I thought Panasonic would build. It is bigger, heavier, and costlier than I expected. But it is also bolder. It holds absolutely nothing back in its mission to beat Canon, Nikon, and Sony at their own game. Panasonic is aiming squarely at working professionals, but it will be an uphill battle; the Lumix brand doesn’t sell itself here the way Canon does.
This razor-thin focus on being the premium of the premium also means the S1’s faults are felt more strongly. Autofocus that simply doesn’t work under certain conditions is unacceptable; large amounts of moiré in slow-motion video could make the feature unusable. Again, we’ll need to wait for final firmware to truly judge the camera, but any lingering small issues like these will feel magnified on a camera of this caliber.
That said, from a features perspective, the S1 remains the most impressive mirrorless camera I have used to date, and I have very high hopes for the L-mount, in general. Sigma recently announced it would bring 11 of its high-end Art lenses to the L-mount, and Leica, developer of the L-mount, already makes several (not that most people could afford them). This will accelerate the maturation of the S-series at a pace Canon and Nikon simply can’t match with their new mirrorless cameras.
This is an exciting new venture for Panasonic, but it is also one that, by design, will have narrow appeal. The majority of photographers are likely better off with a smaller, lighter, and cheaper mirrorless camera — but for those who want the best at any cost, the Lumix S1 makes a strong case for your money.