Wednesday 21 August 2019

Review: Technically, Panasonic's Lumix S1 is an absolute beast - but can it crack the mirrorless camera market?

Panasonic Lumix S1
Panasonic Lumix S1
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

Panasonic’s full frame Lumix S1 is a pro-friendly, accomplished new mirrorless camera which looks to have an exciting future with lenses from Leica and Sigma.

And yet it may be a bit of a hard sell.

Let’s begin with the positives. I’ve had this for three weeks.

It’s clear to me that this is the full-frame mirrorless camera that Canon and Nikon should have made. Its ergonomics are perfect for a professional shooter — the best of any serious mirrorless camera I’ve ever tried. Its 24-megapixel sensor performs brilliantly in low light. Its engine is superfast. Its video prowess, borrowing from its superb GH series, is top of the range. Its battery life is relatively good. It’s as weatherproof as they come. It has almost every conceivable feature you would want in a professional (or hobbyist) full frame mirrorless camera and the lens roadmap from itself and partners Sigma and Leica is very promising (the Leica lenses for Panasonic’s smaller Micro Four Thirds cameras are astoundingly good). The 24-105mm f4 Panasonic lens I got with my test kit was sharp and on par with the 24-105mm ‘L’ lenses I’m used to using from Canon.

In short, the S1 was a pleasure to shoot with and I can easily imagine using it as a professional go-to camera for everything from press work to portraits to landscapes, sport and wildlife.

And yet I’ll be surprised if they sell many of these cameras.

Panasonic Lumix S1 with 24-105mm.jpg
Panasonic Lumix S1

Panasonic finds itself starting in a distant fourth position in the full-frame mirrorless camera market. In an industry that’s contracting by around 30pc a year, that’s a tough place to be.

It has just three lenses (24-105mm f4, 70-200mm f4 and 50mm f1.4) available at launch and won’t fill out to the minimum of 15 different focal lengths it really needs for at least another two to three years. By contrast, Sony now has over 50 native professional lenses, matching Canon and Nikon’s old DSLR lens range, right up to a €14,000 600mm f4. And Sony, with its five-year lead on everyone else, is still catching up on the traditional duopoly of Canon and Nikon.

Against this, how will Panasonic really make it? Very slowly, I would imagine.

The company has carved out an iron-clad position for itself as a professional camera company with its GH series of Micro Four Thirds cameras that many videographers use either as a primary or B-camera.

It also makes excellent consumer digital cameras, again in the Micro Four Thirds sensor category, which allows them to be smaller and lighter than many rival camera systems.

But it has arguably waited too late to introduce a full-frame digital camera system, even as good as the S1 is.

Canon and Nikon are now both in advanced development of full-frame mirrorless cameras, with their existing Eos R and Z7 models only a taste of the professional models to come either later this year or in early 2020. Everyone knows this. Most professional photographers are either Canon or Nikon shooters. Sony, with that five-year lead in full frame mirrorless models, is now a third serious player in the professional market, neck and neck with Nikon in overall sales and within range of Canon.

Of course, this is just my speculation on the business side. Technically, the S1 is an absolute beast.

Panasonic S1 three.jpg
Panasonic Lumix S1

Its five-axis in-body stabilisation (Ibis) means that I was able to shoot handheld as slow as [one fifteenth] of a second shutter speed, a real help in low light. This is a rare thing that is way ahead of Canon (no Ibis) and Nikon (which has three-axis Ibis but there have been technical problems with it). Only Sony’s just-announced A7R4 really compares.

Its electronic viewfinder is the best on the market. Its button arrays and menus are relatively intuitive, far better than Sony’s. The touchscreen display flips out in a hybrid sort of way, not enough to really be a blogging camera, but enough to let you shoot vertically up high or down low.

It has both SD and XQD card slots, making it very attractive to videographers (due to the latter’s faster speed).

And the S1’s  image quality really is very, very good.

A downside for some might be that it’s quite a heavy camera, roughly the same as professional DSLR models such as Nikon’s D850 or Canon’s 5D Mark IV. But Panasonic can’t really make it any smaller or lighter if it wants to include that in-body stabilisation, larger battery, full-frame sensor and weatherproofing. So I would not count this as a negative against the S1, even if Sony’s A7R newer full frame cameras manage most or all of these features with about 20pc less weight.

Anyone who is into photography will be rooting for Panasonic to succeed with its S1 (and higher-megapixel S1R). It brings a lot to the table. And I can’t see anyone who buys this camera regretting it for an instant. But Panasonic may have left it too late.

Panasonic Lumix S1

Price: €2,499 from Conns Cameras

Rating: ****

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