We managed to get our hands on a loaner Panasonic LUMIX S1R from a good friend, and shot with it as our daily camera for about 2 weeks. Here is our hands-on review of this beast of a camera, with S-PRO, Leica SL and Sigma Art lenses.
Panasonic LUMIX S1R
The LUMIX S1R is a full frame (sensor size 36mm x 24mm) mirrorless digital camera, and currently part of the S1 crop of cameras by Panasonic. The S1 represents the apex camera in Panasonic’s lineup, and all full frame digital, all mirrorless: with the entry level S1 at 24Mp, the S1R at 47Mp and the video oriented 24Mp S1H. While all the bodies are capable of shooting video, the features and functions offered suggest a bias towards photography for the S1R, and towards video for the S1 and more advanced cinematography for the S1H. Recently, Panasonic released a lower end, entry level model in the S5, which combines new features and functions for video. Many pundits think the S5 might replace the S1 as we know it now, as it surpasses the features found in the older S1, and approaches the S1H in video. Certainly a curious product positioning strategy. My focus is only on still photography, and the S1R is the weapon of choice for this purpose.
The body is larger than the Micro Four Thirds camera which LUMIX is very famous for. Read my discussion with Peter Nievaart on the benefits of the Micro Four Thirds as the camera for watch photography here. It is clear from the photograph below, that the S1R is much larger than the GH-2, though when compared to the latest LUMIX MFT body for photography – the G9, it is only slightly larger.
The S1R’s high-res 47MP full-frame sensor is equipped with built-in In Body Image Stabilization (IBIS), 4Kp60 video and weather-sealing. The autofocus system is Panasonic’s Depth from Defocus (DFD) system, which is fast and accurate for all applications except for fast moving action. But for landscape, architecture, portrait, macro, the system works very well.
User handling experience
The body ergonomics are excellent. The rather large grip bump provides a nice hold on the body, even with larger and heavier lenses. There are myriad of buttons scattered all over the body, and all of them customizable…not only does Panasonic present you with a few options for each, but for almost all the buttons, a drop down menu of several pages is presented. It is incredible the attention to detail and the customizability of the S1R.
I found that with some exceptions, most of the buttons and dials are laid out in such a way which is logical to me, perhaps as a long time GH-2 user, the layout is intuitive. The LCD screen on top provides excellent information on the status of the camera, and the three WB, ISO and Exposure compensation buttons are well placed just behind the shutter release. Very useful for quick adjustments on these oft used parameters.
There are three wheels in total, one in front of the shutter, one on top on the right just behind the on/off switch, and the last one on the back as a jog wheel. In addition there is a joystick. With the Play, AF-On, Quick menu, Metering mode, Display mode, Delete and Return button rounding up the buttons in the back. Yea, I told you there were a lot of buttons.
The rear LCD is touch screen sensitive, and many of the functions can be changed by just a touch. Sensitivity is excellent, and the experience is like using a smart phone.
All the buttons activate positively, with good feedback, and are well placed. On the front, between the grip and the lens mount are two further buttons – which I customize to be a magnification punch in, a boon for macro critical focus and only available to cameras with EVF, and an aperture stop down preview. I usually leave exposure preview on the camera off, and only activated with this button pressed. This is essential in flash photography, as modeling lights are often weak, or non-existant, and the scene is too dark to focus and view as it only gets proper exposure when the strobe fires.
One key feature in the S1R is the IBIS. The implementation is claimed to provide 5.5 stops of stabilization, and in practice, I have found this to be generally true. The camera can easily be hand held, and pictures come out sharp and clear.
The EVF is superb, with 5.7million dots of resolution, selectable in either 60 fps or 120fps. I left it in 120fps which sucks a bit more power from the battery, but is very beautiful and a joy to look through. Coupled with the magnification punch in for critical focusing, this is the big advantage EVF has over optical finders, which can often be larger and brighter, Case in point is the Leica S Type 007 and the Hasselblad H series optical viewfinders. Both are larger, provide a higher magnified image, but are not able to punch in with 10X mode to do critical focusing.
Autofocus is quite accurate, but the nature of the DFD mode used in Panasonic cameras mean that there is a bit of hunting as the camera settles on the final focus position. In low light, this can be a hit and miss. The usual focusing accoutrements like focus peaking is available, and is a very useful feature in the S1R, especially for macro work in manual focus. I did not stress test the continuous follow autofocus modes provided, but in the simple tests I did, they performed well. Face, eye and animal detection modes are also available.
Image quality from the S-PRO, Leica SL, and Sigma Art lenses are excellent. Colours are brilliant, and right out of the camera.
ISO performance is excellent, with usable images up to 6400 for web and small print, and up to 3200 for larger prints, though I would rather err on the safe side with a max ISO of 1600 for critical jobs.
High Resolution and Focus Bracketing
The S1R also feature a high resolution mode, which uses pixel shifting technology to create a 187Mp raw image in-camera. This is available only with the electronic shutter, and is very useful for landscapes, but not usable for studio based strobe macro photography of watches. More on this next week in the Image Review of the S1R.
The S1R also provides focus bracketing. It does this in two ways. The first is the conventional manual mode, where one selects the near focal point, the step size (arbitrary) and number of frames needed and the camera moves the focus point by the step size the required number of frames, taking an image each time. This can be done with either the mechanical focal plane shutter or the electronic shutter. I have tried this mode for landscape and it works fine, but I could not get it to work to stack watch images. I am not sure if it is because it does not work with the Sigma Art lens attached.
The second method is rather ingenious. Panasonic calls this Post Focus, and it makes use of the 6k movie mode of the S1R to create a sequence of movie images with each frame focusing on a different part of the subject. The camera then presents this as an image stack, where the user can chose to export to process externally, or have the camera process it automatically in body. There are 2 resolutions possible – 6k which results in a 18Mp image or a 4k mode with a smaller image of about 8Mp. I only used it in 6K mode. The tool requires a still subject and a still camera.
The photograph above was created by manually selecting the range in Post Focus mode. The S1R compiles this image in JPEG (only jpg is supported). The final image is acceptable focus stack for small web sized images intended for social media. Quick and easy…and dirty. No multiple frames to deal with. Just one final stacked image. Not perfect, but easy to do.
L Mount Alliance lens ecosystem
The S1R is part of Panasonic’s response to the L Alliance partnership created by Leica to build a standardized lens mount system for full frame digital mirrorless cameras. Sigma is the other party to this alliance. The Leica correspondent body to the S1R is the SL2 which we reviewed here.
Native LUMIX L Mount lenses
I had on loan three lenses – the S-PRO 16-35 f/4, S-PRO 50 f/1.4, S-PRO 70-200mm f/2.8 O.I.S. All the lenses are superb in build quality and imaging capabilities. The lenses are rather large and heavy, and Panasonic told me that this is because they are optimized for image performance.
In particular, I found the S-PRO 50 f/1.4 to be quite a superb performer, and suspect (without any form of a scientific test) that it is even sharper than the superb but much more expensive Leica Summilux 50 f1.4.
The S-PRO 70-200 f/2.8 is also a superb performer. This lens was also loaned to me, but for only a week. Having said that, the S-PRO 16-35 f/2.8 is no slouch either. The S-PRO designation on these lenses separates them fom the regular Panasonic lenses, and is labelled on the lenses with a red “S”. These lenses are certified by Leica as part of their partnership, and have better image quality performance than the regular LUMIX lenses. This arrangement is also not new, as the 10 year old LUMIX Leica 45mm f.28 Macro I use on my GH-2 is also so certified.
Leica L Mount lenses
Of course, the apex lenses in L Mount Alliance are Leica’s own lenses. These are designed and built mostly by hand in their facility in Wetzlar, Germany. The build quality is exceptional with few parallels in the industry. The SL lenses, especially the Summicron series, of which there are 4 – in 35mm, 50mm, 75mm and 90mm are all state of the art. Peter Kalbe, the head of lens design at Leica told me that these are the best lenses ever made by Leica – with the best resolving power, best clarity, highest sharpness, and most accurate geometric performance all through the aperture range. And most importantly, also optimized at the fully open aperture of f/2.
I discussed the superb Leica lenses, especially the SL series in the SL Type 601 and the SL2 Image reviews. And as a roundup, all the Leica SL lenses that I have tried are truly superb. Image quality is beyond reproach. If we nitpick, there are tiny flaws in some, for example, as noted in my unscientific tests at fully open apertures, the S-PRO 50 f/1.4 is very slightly sharper than the Summilux 50 f/1.4, though the Summicron 50 f/2 bests both of them. But we are talking minute differences here. Really small differences.
Sigma Art L Mount lenses
The Sigma Art lenses are a revelation. Priced very competitively, as low as 25% of what Leica charges for an equivalent lens. For e.g. the Sigma 50mm F1.4 DG HSM Art retails for S$1,388, handily undercutting the S-PRO 50m f/1.4 retailing S$3,599, and the Summilux 50mm SL at S$7,680. Certainly, build quality, prestige and resale level steps up with each price level, but certainly the economics of marginal returns apply. Not dissimilar to watches. A $500 Miyota powered mechanical watch can keep as good a time as a $11,000 Rolex or a $200,000 Greubel Forsey.
The two Sigma lenses I had were superb. The 70mm Macro, in particular saved the day for watch shoots, as it is a full 1:1 macro, and at 70mm, the working distance is rather convenient for selfie wrist shots. The image quality is outstanding, and there is no equivalent competition from either LUMIX or from Leica, as neither offer a 1:1 macro solution. The Leica TL60Macro, while excellent and is 1:1, crops the SL sensor to APS-C. This still works well for web and small prints, as I have shown in our Baselworld 2019 coverage which was photographed entirely with the SL Type 601 and the TL60 Macro. The APS-C crop results in a 10Mpix image which is challenged with larger prints. The SL2 fares better as the APS-C crop still results in a 24 Mpix image. But seems a bit of a waste as one pays for 47Mp of real estate, and use only 24Mp.
Then there is also the philosophical concept of a system built to work together to optimize the strengths of the lens with the body. Does a body designed to work with its own lenses able to perform better than one adapted to use third party lenses? That is an exploration for another day.
The most obvious competitor is within the L Mount Alliance and of course is the formidable Leica SL2.
Specifications wise, the Leica SL2 and the Panasonic LUMIX S1R are like twins. They both use the same Leica L Mount, the same 47Mp sensor, which we believe is made by a company partially owned by Panasonic, though neither would confirm the manufacturer. Leica, having a strong optical division work on the glass around the sensor themselves. This actually results in a small improvement in image sharpness when compared side by side to the S1R. The colour science applied by the image processing in the firmware is totally proprietary to each company. Out of the box, colours are different. Personally, I slightly prefer the Panasonic colours, as they are more vibrant. This is a preference, and when shooting in raw, either can be tweaked to be like the other quite easily in Lightroom or Adobe Camera Raw.
But the design inspiration and goals are totally divergent. The Leica is epitome of almost Bauhaus like simplicity. Buttons are few, and none are labelled. Function assignment to the button is incredibly simple. Short press to activate the assigned function. Long press to bring up a drop down selection of other functions which can then be assigned. No need to deep dive into the pages upon pages in the menu system. The menu system is very intuitive to use, much like a smart phone. The LUMIX, on the other hand, is typical Japanese – with buttons everywhere and which are labelled, though the camera is so flexible that any of the buttons can be reassigned to any of the functions. I find the menu system easy to navigate, but it is extremely comprehensive, offering hundreds of customization options and features. Both work well, and is thus a difference in philosophy and approach.
I found the S1R to be quite a joy to use. I was not quite prepared to like the camera this much when I first borrowed it. Especially immediately after I returned the Leica SL2. But the S1R charmed its way. It does everything right. And almost matches the Leica feature for feature. Even though the ergonomics are totally divergent, both work in their own way. The Leica in the clean, simple, intuitive menu system. And the LUMIX in its button for everything approach, though truth be told, I think the designers must have been photographers as well, as the buttons are many, but they are in the right places.
There is very little to complain about the S1R. Handling is superb. Image quality is excellent. And if compared to the SL2, it lacks a tiny bit in terms of sharpness and nuance in the image, due to the modifications Leica made to the sensor and the different processing engines of both cameras. But it sells for much less than half of the SL2, and of course totally missing out in the Leica image, branding and street cred. And a “budget” high end full frame system can be assembled with the S1R and the excellent Sigma Art lenses.
If one asks me to choose, the SL2 nudges the S1R out. But only very slightly. And if form follows function, feel, status is important, the SL2 wins by a large margin. If feature set, price economy comes into consideration, the S1R gets a notch up. Especially when coupled with the excellent Sigma Art lenses. In any case, I can highly recommend the S1R for full frame mirrorless photography.
Coming next week: Images from the LUMIX S1R and lenses.