Here's my hands-on review of the Lumix S1, a new full-frame mirrorless camera from Panasonic.
This is not the camera I expected when I heard that Panasonic was diving into the full-frame camera market. For one thing, it’s big. One of the selling points of mirrorless cameras has been that by doing away with the mirror chamber of a DSLR, they can be packed into smaller and more portable bodies. But the body of the S1 is about the same size as a full-size professional DSLR. It’s also heavy.
For another, it’s relatively expensive. Lumix, and for that matter most mirrorless cameras (with some notable exceptions of high-end models from Sony, Nikon, and Canon) have generally been aimed at what you might consider mid-range pricing. The S1 sells for $2500 for the body.
But the camera team at Panasonic have clearly sensed an opportunity here, and the S1 seems to be designed to go head-to-head with the Sony a7 iii, Nikon Z6, and Canon EOS R. As with the Z6 and a7 iii in their respective ranges, the S1 is the second model down in the range. There’s a higher-specced and higher-priced model, the Lumix S1R, which sports a 47-megapixel sensor and sells for $3700.
In broad strokes, it has a 24-megapixel camera that produces images that measure up to 6000 by 4000 pixels. It has built-in sensor-shift stabilization (Panasonic claims that it gives an oddly specific 5.5 extra usable stops), a native ISO range from 100 through 51200 (and extended ISO range up to 204800), both mechanical and electronic shutters that can shoot up to 9 frames per second, and up to 4K video recording at 4:2:2 10-bit mode.
So here’s my detailed hands-on review after shooting with the S1 for a while now (you can see some examples of the photos I’ve taken with it below)
I’ve already mentioned that the S1 is bigger and heavier than I expected. It’s not a dealbreaker, but a big part of the promise of mirrorless systems is that by dispensing with the mirror chamber of a DSLR they can potentially create smaller and more portable cameras. But in this case, it hasn’t shaved off much bulk here, and it’s about the size of a full-sized DSLR. Putting it into numbers, the dimensions of the body without a lens attached are 5.9 x 4.3 x 3.8 inches (148.9 x 110 x 96.7 mm) and it weighs 2.25 pounds (1021 grams) with the battery and memory cards inserted.
It’s not an especially pretty camera to look at. It’s rather angular and utilitarian. That’s not a bad thing–a pretty camera doesn’t do much to help you take better pictures–but it does hint at the potential for more refinement. There are no fancy ergonomic considerations with the handgrip–it’s a simple rounded one-size-fits-all approach.
The buttons and dials are quite spaced out, and rather than cramming all the controls over onto the right (as you’re shooting with it), as some cameras do, it has some key controls, like the shooting mode dial, over on the left. Overall, they’re conventional without any surprises or quirks in using them.
The menu system does what it’s supposed to do. I don’t find it particularly remarkable either way–it works and is reasonably logically laid out. I’ve yet to come across a menu system that is perfection–most of them use a traditional categories-tabs-lists approach, as does this one–but it’s fine. With the default camera settings, the menu is only accessible using the buttons and dials, but you can also turn on an option to enable touchscreen controls for the back screen that work with the menu system.
It has two memory card slots. Slot 1 is for an XQD card. Slot 2 is for an SD (UHS-II) card.
The back screen is a touchscreen and tilts vertical (it doesn’t rotate). It’s bright and crisp. And it’s oriented in such a way that it works when wearing polarizing sunglasses–a small point, but one of my pet peeves is cameras that have back screens that go black when you’re wearing polarizing sunglasses.
The electronic viewfinder is bright and crisp and works pretty much as you’d expect.
It uses a USB-C port (USB 3.0, type-C). While more and more cameras are catching up to using this newer and better type of port, it’s still a relief to find that a camera uses it considering there are still so many other new models that don’t.
It has a full-size HDMI A port for outputting a video stream to an external display or recorder.
It also has Wifi and Bluetooth, which is pretty standard on cameras these days. But I haven’t used either with the S1 and can’t speak to the quality of the apps that work with it.
It uses a large battery that takes up much of the space inside the handgrip. Despite its size, though, I’ve been somewhat underwhelmed by the battery life. There are ways to maximize the battery life–turning off the image stabilization and dialing back on the back screen use are good places to start–but when using the default features the battery drains relatively quickly.
The battery is a Lithium-Ion, 7.2 VDC, 3100 mAh battery, and the model number is DMW-BLJ31.
There’s no getting around that this is a big camera. It’s no larger than a full-size pro DSLR, but it’s also not any smaller. So if you’re looking for something that gives you a size and weight advantage for something like travel photography, you’ll probably want to look elsewhere to something like the full-frame mirrorless cameras from Sony, Nikon, or Canon. But if size and weight isn’t a critical issue for you, the S1 has a lot going for it as a stills camera.
The S1 has a native ISO range from 100 through 51200. You can also enable an extended range, where the camera’s internal software takes over to add an extra boost (and image quality suffers) that goes down to ISO 50 and up all the way to ISO 204800. The sensor’s sweet spot is up to around ISO 6400, but I’ve been quite impressed all the way up to ISO 20000. Just where the usable range is will depend on each photographer’s own preferences and tolerance for the downsides that come with climbing the ISO ladder. I’ve posted some side-by-side examples here.
While it seems to me that there’s room for improvement in the usability of the camera, the S1 shines when it comes to image quality. I’ve been using it with the 24-105mm ƒ/4 zoom lens, a lens that is offered as a bundle with the camera, and the results are excellent. The lens is also contributing to that. It’s a very good lens to start, but it also employs some digital help in the form of lens corrections that address issues like vignetting, chromatic aberration, and barrel distortion. But I’ve been very impressed with the quality of the images that comes out the other end–they’re sharp, have excellent dynamic range, and have beautifully smooth tonal transitions. The processing engine that takes the raw image data and turns it into JPGs (or JPG previews, if from RAW files) also leans toward a very realistic and muted look rather than overdoing the drama or adding noticeable casts.1
Overall, I’ve found the image quality to be excellent and one of the standout features of the camera.
Here’s a small selection of photos I’ve shot with the S1 to give some real-world examples. I’ve posted a much larger collection of sample images separately.
It has the usual assortment of autofocus modes, including face/eye/body/animal detection, subject tracking, various areas of the frame, and pinpoint.
But I’ve struggled to get good results consistently from the autofocus system. I’ve found it to be a bit hit-and-miss as to whether it guesses the part of the frame you want in focus. Oddly, this includes when using face and shape detection, even when it has registered faces or recognized objects. And in low light conditions, I found it to have more trouble locking onto focus than it probably should.
While there’s probably an element of user error going on here–I’ve tended to be a bit lazy about checking where the focus point was for each shot even when it had a tendency to wander off to other parts of the scene–but there’s room for improvement here that makes it more accurate, more intuitive, or both. I’ve since noticed that I’m not the only one to find this, reinforcing my belief that it’s a shortcoming with the S1–and a rather important one at that. Perhaps it’s something that can be addressed in a firmware update, as Ricoh recently did for the GR III.2 But right now, it’s an issue that would give me pause.
The S1 has the usual assortment of still photo features that you’d expect from a camera in this class. Things like various autofocus and metering modes, mechanical and (silent) electronic shutter speeds up to 1/8000 of a second, fast burst shooting of up to 9 frames per second with the mechanic shutter or a special 6K/4k burst mode that can generate up to 30 frames per second at 6K resolution and 60 frames per second at 4K, and various options for the size and filetypes of the output images, including RAW (Panasonic’s .rw2 format) or JPG or both at once. You can also specify what should be saved to which memory card.
It also offers interval shooting (otherwise known as time-lapse), with the option to save the individual photos and then choose whether to compile into a video file in the camera. There are also stop motion animation modes and various types of bracketing shots available.
While I’ve been mainly using the S1 for still photos–and that’s really where the camera’s emphasis appears to be–it has capable video features as well even if it doesn’t compete in this area with some other cameras, like the GH5, that lean much more heavily into video capabilities.
With the S1, you can choose between 4K and 1080p resolutions, the frame rates max out at 60 frames per second, and some modes offer recording in the older, widely compatible H.264 codec, a few with the newer and more efficient (and less compatible, for now) H.265 codec, and some using the Sony/Panasonic-developed AVCHD codec. There’s also an option for very high-quality encoding with 4:2:2 10-bit encoding, but when saving the stream to a memory card you’re limited to 30fps or 24fps; you can push that up to 60fps if you stream directly to an external recorder using the HDMI port. And you can shoot HDR video by making use of the Hybrid Log Gamma mode.
For internal recording (ie. saving to a memory card), these are the available resolutions, frame rates, codecs, and bitrates:
|4K (3840 x 216)||24||4:2:2 10-bit|
|1080p (1920 x 1080)||60||H.264||28|
There’s also a full HDMI port for outputting 4K60 video encoded at 4:2:2 10-Bit that you can use for live display or with an external recorder.
The S1 comes with a battery. If you’re looking for a spare or replacement, the model number is DMW-BLJ31, and I’ll warn you now that they’re not cheap.
Like most cameras, the S1 doesn’t come with a memory card as standard. There are two slots, one for XQD card and another for an SD card. You don’t need to fill both slots, and you can use one or the other. To take advantage of the burst shooting modes and high-end video capabilities of the S1 you’ll want a fast card–the maximum video bitrate on the S1 is 150 Mb/s, while the 6K burst mode files are at 200 Mb/s. I haven’t tested SD cards in the S1 specifically; I was using the ProGrade Digital V90 card, which worked well for me. You can find some general recommendations for fast SD cards here.
You can find the Lumix S1’s manual in searchable PDF form here.
After shooting with the S1 for a while, I’ve found the image quality to be excellent. The operational aspects, such as the menus and controls are quite good with some room for improvement and refinement, and the overall handling and design are very good. I’m underwhelmed with the autofocus system, but perhaps that’s something that could be addressed with a firmware update. Battery life isn’t anything to write home about. And it wouldn’t hurt if it was in a smaller and lighter form factor. But overall, I’ve enjoyed shooting with the S1 and have been very impressed with the image quality that comes out of it. It seems to me to be a very solid competitor in the blossoming full-frame mirrorless market and well worth a look.
The Lumix S1 is now available and retails for around $2500 (body only). You can find them at B&H Photo either as a standalone body or bundled with the very impressive and versatile Lumix S 24-105mm ƒ/4 Macro lens.