The mirrorless camera market is heating up since longtime rivals and veteran camera manufacturers Canon and Nikon entered the market in 2018 with their full-frame Z-series and EOS R respectively, so it came as quite a surprise that Panasonic also wanted a piece of the pie in this now very competitive and saturated market segment. Panasonic isn't playing around either, launching three very specific bodies that seem to compete directly with Sony's product strategy - the general-purpose S1, high-resolution S1R and video-centric S1H.
With more lenses to come by 2020, The Panasonic S-series Lumix mirrorless cameras is shaping up to be a tough competitor in the professional mirrorless scene. At present, the camera has only 3 new Panasonic-developed lenses to choose from, but Panasonic made the wise choice of opting to adopt the already-established L-mount for their new mirrorless series, allowing users to choose from an existing selection of Leica and Sigma lenses in the newly-established L-mount alliance.
Panasonic Lumix S-Series Roadmap
Thanks to Clubsnap and PhotosphereSG, they arranged for me to get a loaner S1R set courtesy of Panasonic Singapore for the purpose of this review. As usual, I'm not promised any kickbacks nor sponsorships, so I'll be as objective as I can for the review.
I was also loaned a Lumix 24-105mm f/4 'kit' lens and an S-Pro 50mm 1.4 prime lens to play around as well, granting me a very capable and all-rounded Panasonic kit that should fit a variety of shooting scenarios. Being an urban landscape photographer, I do wish that they'd release the 16-35mm earlier, but at least that lens is projected to launch in 2019.
Panasonic S1R with Lumix S-Pro 50mm and 24-105mm general zoom lens
Unlike the diminutive and inconspicuous Ricoh GRIII that I test-drove a few months back, the Panasonic S1R is quite the opposite. With its uncompromisingly tough magnesium exterior, deep handgrip, large electronic viewfinder (EVF) and similarly large lenses to go with the whole getup, the S1R is unapologetically large. No compromises were definitely made for this camera - it's beefy, screams quality and wants you to know that too. Of course, with a pro-level build, the camera has a pro-level price tag as well - coming in at around S$5,000 for body-only, and over a thousand Singapore dollars more for the 24-105mm kit!
Size-wise, the S1R is akin to a DSLR instead of its smaller counterparts. It weighs in around 1020g with battery, in fact inching out my Nikon D850's weight of 1005g with battery! The only other mirrorless cameras that are as heavy or heavier are probably the Fujifilm GFX mirrorless medium-format cameras. The weight is not without good reason though - this camera is clearly targeted at professionals instead of even keen amateurs, who would probably prefer to go with the lighter Sony/Nikon/Canon full-frame mirrorless cameras. Tough weather-sealing with a metal body and a deep grip does give the shooter a level of no-compromise confidence that smaller systems may struggle to reach. The large size also allows Panasonic to pack in a similarly-large battery capacity of around 3,100mAh - which is crucial to power the high-resolution built-in EVF.
Lumix S1R with Sony a7rii and Nikon D850
Lumix S1R with Sony a7rii and Nikon D850
When placed side-by-side a Sony a7rii and a Nikon D850, the Lumix S1R makes the Sony look tiny in comparison, and is matched size-wise by the full-frame Nikon D850. Panasonic isn't playing around when they announced their intention of wanting to take on the professional market!
The button placement and layout for the S1R is as intuitive as one can expect from a camera aimed at professionals, with both front and back dials placed within easy reach of the thumb and index fingers. Shutter button, along with White Balance, ISO and Exposure Compensation buttons can be adjusted easily with your index finger, along with your thumb for the focusing modes, AF-point selection joystick and the AF-ON button. This is a good layout for the most commonly-used settings, which frees the user from diving into menus instead. However, the power switch and backlight button are placed at an odd position, requiring you to stretch your index finger quite far down to access them. I would rather they put those settings at the shutter button like that on most Nikons and their new S1H.
You need to stretch a finger down to a weird position in order to access the ON/OFF switch and backlight button, but other than that, the buttons and dials are pretty intuitively-positioned
5.76 million dots and a 120Hz refresh rate for the EVF bestows upon the Panasonic S-series an electronic viewfinder experience that is uncannily life-like. As of time of writing, these new Lumix cameras have the highest EVF resolution out of all currently-available mirrorless cameras. The EVF definitely guzzles battery power though, so there's an option to drop the refresh rate down to 60Hz. That said, composing through the EVF is a wonderful, immersive experience indeed. The only caveat that I have with it is that for some reason, previewing the live exposure through LCD or EVF will result in lag at longer exposures because the camera actually previews exposure time instead of upping the gain for exposure preview! This can be annoying at night because there will be a lot of lag during image composition, but perhaps I might not have figured out a way to set it properly.
Articulating LCD displays are pretty much a norm for DSLRs and mirrorless cameras alike these days, but the Panasonic S1R goes a step further with an extra axis of articulation that is extremely useful when the camera is placed in a vertical orientation. This allows the screen to be flipped up and angled towards the photographer for ease of use. As with most modern cameras, the LCD display is also touch-sensitive, allowing ease of menu and autofocus selection and scrubbing through both video and images.
The Panasonic S1R's rear LCD display can be positioned in a multitude of ways to make composing easier
Such modes are usually seen as either gimmicks or for use only when your subject is completely still - i.e. archival of artworks or other completely stationary objects, because any movement will create ugly artifacts in the final result. I can safely conclude that with Panasonic's image-processing magic, this problem is largely resolved with the S1R, making it the perfect tool for archiving landscape and architecture indeed! This is probably the feature that I'm most hyped-up about since it relates so well with the kind of photos I usually take. I've only managed to find one artifact so far out of the many high-res photos I've taken, and even that is a very minor one, so kudos to the Panasonic engineering and design team indeed!
The Panasonic S1R captures eight images in succession while shifting the image sensor about half a pixel in a certain direction for each exposure, allowing the final merged composite to have full RGB values and getting rid of moire caused by the Bayer filter array. This results in a massive 187mp final image stitched from eight 47mp files. As evidently shown in the examples below, there is quite a bit more detail in the high-resolution shots as compared to the normal single-exposure images.
Top: High-res image, Bottom: Standard image
Top: High-res image, Bottom: Standard image - notice the much improved definition in the block numbers!
Top: High-res image, Bottom: Standard image - The words on the 'New Bridge Centre' sign can be clearly discerned in the high-res composite
Left: High-res image, Right: Standard image - moire is removed in the high-res image, allowing increased definition
Although Panasonic has a killer image-processing algorithm that eliminates most artifacts caused by movement in between each successive shot when a high-resolution image is taken, there can be be lapses where the algorithm misses certain elements. That said, it is incredible how well this function works for most real-life scenes with moving elements.
Top: High-res image, Bottom: Standard image - Notice that there is no ghosting in the high-res image with the moving human elements, and the lack of noise as well
High-resolution crop of a highway - no ghosting in the vehicles!
For the most part, Panasonic's image processing takes care of any moving elements in a high-resolution composite flawlessly, but there may be tricky scenes or lighting scenarios that can confuse the algorithm:
Top: High-res image, Bottom: Standard image - Notice the artifacts on the cars in the high-res image
Still, the high-resolution mode does an impeccable job of producing a clean and detailed image with very indiscernible artifacting. To top it off, the output image is also in a raw file format and can be opened with any standard viewer (I personally use Capture One) with the correct profiles. This is much more usable than Sony's implementation where the output file needs to be opened in Sony's proprietary viewer to be saved in an editable format. Quite an exciting feature for landscape documentary photographers looking to archive scenes in extreme detail for hyper-realistic prints!
Panasonic utilises a contrast-detect (as opposed to the usual phase-detect) autofocus system in the S1R, and it does show in day-to-day shooting despite claims that the autofocus can match the performance offered by the more established phase-detect systems. Although the autofocus can hunt from time to time or lose track of the subject, it is very snappy for a contrast-based system and works well with streets. Even so, it might struggle with fast-moving and erratic subjects like those found in sports photography, so the camera is probably better suited for events or stills instead of action. The reason why Panasonic uses a contrast-based autofocus is not without merit - since phase detect points requires the autofocus sensing points to be laid atop the imaging sensor, which may cause banding when lifting shadows.
Some street samples taken with the single-point autofocus mode
I generally prefer to use the single-point autofocus mode instead of continuous autofocus tracking on the S1R, because due to the design of the autofocus system, the camera tries to predict the movement of the subject using its AI algorithms - which can result in an off-putting jittery motion in the EVF or LCD screen. This was rather distracting, so hopefully a future update may be able to rectify the issue.
For the image stabilisation system, Panasonic claims a 6-stop shake reduction when used with lenses with built-in stabilisers, or 5.5-stop when only using in-body stabilisation. That's a pretty bold claim, but the S1R seems to live up to it indeed:
For this 100% crop, the camera's autofocus and in-body stabilisation performed very well to create a crisp and sharp output. Especially in daylight, high ISO shots like the one above (which was shot at ISO 3200) exhibits very little graininess.
I also pushed the stabilisation system to its limits by shooting a scene at 105mm and making a 100% crop to check for fuzziness caused by handshake. Using the '1/focal length' rule for my shutter speed, I took a bunch of images starting at 1/100 and gradually increased the shutter speed to compensate for each stop. The samples below are taken completely hand-held, without any form of support such as resting my body on a wall or propping my arms up on a railing.
Left: Image taken at 1/5s (4-stops more than 1/100s), Right: Image taken at 1/1.6s (Full 6-stops of shake reduction in play)
As all the sample shots in the sequence were relatively sharp, I decided to pick out two samples from the bunch to showcase the S1R's combined optical and sensor-shift stabilisation. Even at 1/1.6s, which is a around 6-stops more than 1/100s that I would have used otherwise for a non-stabilised setup, the Panasonic's S1R's incredible stabilisation system manages to keep almost everything tack-sharp at 100% crop at a focal length of 105mm. At this level of pixel-peeping, some slight fuzziness can be seen due to movement, but the image is definitely very usable even for print.
Noise performance for the S1R is good, as one would expect with modern high-resolution imaging tools in this generation. The S1R ISO capabilities ranges from a low of 50 to a maximum of 51200, providing lots of leeway for a variety of shooting scenarios. I generally find ISOs up to 6400 and perhaps 12800 reasonable with some noise cleanup, so the S1R is a capable available-light camera for the resolution it offers.
ISO 1600 - Panasonic S1R on the left, Nikon D850 on the right
Compared to my Nikon D850, the Panasonic S1R exhibits slightly less noise at ISO 1600, but both cameras show similar levels of details.
ISO 12800 - Panasonic S1R on the left, Nikon D850 on the right
At ISO 12800, both the D850 and the S1R exhibit a lot of noise at 100% crop, so some noise reduction would be necessary before publishing. Both cameras still show good levels of detail in the elements within the scene despite the graininess. All in all, the Panasonic S1R can be a capable high-ISO available-light camera if you know how to work within its limits, and especially by using its powerful sensor-shift stabilisation to drop your ISO.
The S1R is clearly aimed at landscape/portrait photographers and other professionals who require the resolving power of a 47mp sensor for detailed documentary work. In this regard, the camera definitely performs admirably. Apart from pure resolution, the SIR definitely delivers in its wide dynamic range as well. I've not tested it fully myself, but according to Photons to Photos, the S1R has a dynamic range that competes favourably with both the Nikon D850 and the Sony a7riii. In my experience, this seems to be more or less the case especially when shooting at the S1R's base ISO of 100 or expanded ISO of 50.