Lumix DC-S1GN-K review – one camera for two masters


Minus system expansion considerations, the S1 is a fully featured, highly capable camera that coupled with an L-mount lens to suit a budget will offer its user a surprising level of satisfaction.

Some reviews could write themselves. Like this one, because when a camera – in this case the Lumix S1  – wins the Technical Industry Press Association World Awards “Best Full Frame Photo/Video” category,  it might be cavalier to follow any course of appreciation other than the one taken by the respectable folks at TIPA. Who am I to challenge their judgment?

So I’m not going to. There’s little doubt the Lumix S1 deserves the accolade. As the first Lumix mirrorless full-frame camera, the high anticipation held for this shooter would have crushed it had it not lived up to expectations.

It’s come through that anticipation with (mostly) flying colours. What I will do, though, is explain why I find this camera exciting and hope to help your camera purchasing decisions by doing so.

First, though, let me point out I’ve taken a keen interest in pixel-packing sensors over the last year, having bought into the Fujifilm GFX 50s as a way to incorporate a physically larger sensor into my creative choices.

I’ve also put a Canon 5Dsr into my camera bag to complement my Canon lens system, which despite all the innovations presenting themselves in the market these days is a lens system I remain hesitant to part with.

The S1, however, has turned my brain inside out with its High Resolution capture mode, which for some time has seemed to me a gimmicky concept, until I realised just how useful it can be; in this case, turning the S1 into a camera that can serve two masters. And what do I mean by that?

My main line of work is construction timelapse photography.

For this, I can use crop sensor or full frame cameras, though I prefer the latter. The key workflow concern, however, is data volume.

If I capture 3000 frames during a day’s work, I have to be mindful of wrangling that data in post-production, especially with the additional storage required for back-ups. This generally precludes using high density sensors such as the GFX or Canon 5Dsr. Those sensors, for construction timelapse work, are overkill.

Yet regardless of my main line of work, like most photographers I want to keep up with developments and have access to ever increasing pixel counts. It’s the photographer’s lament: more/bigger/faster is always better, right? Yeah, and it keeps us broke, too.

So here’s the thing. The S1, like a few of its competitors, has a pixel-shifting capture mode that Panasonic calls High Definition mode. If you enable it, the camera’s in-body stabiliser is put to work to physically move the sensor through a sequence of exposures that are stitched together in-camera to build a file that quadruples the pixel count of captures in standard mode.

This means instead of the standard 6000 x 4000 pixels, the S1 will give you 12,000 x 8000 pixels. 24 million pixels vs 96 million pixels. And that, friends, is a lot of pixels.

Thus, the S1 can serve two masters: firstly, the timelapse producer in me who needs file size efficiencies to deal with commercial projects inevitably measured in terabytes and, secondly, a camera capable of delivering a pixel-packing file when I need to scale up the capture quality, especially if there’s an A3 print (or larger) at the end of the workflow.

The dual practicality of the S1’s sensor extends to a host of photography applications. For instance, shooting architecture but don’t have a tilt-shift lens? Switch the S1 to High Definition mode and those extra pixels provide a heap more leeway for correcting converging verticals.

Shooting a country sporting event and want to tack on a day trip to shoot some outback landscapes? Use the S1’s standard capture for the action, switch to High Definition mode for the landscape.

My experience with the S1’s pixel-shifted captures was surprising and fun. In fact, I’d like you to see the files for yourself, so I’ve included my email in this review.

Send me a message with “S1 files” in the subject line and I’ll respond with a Dropbox link to the unprocessed RAW files.

Alongside the High Definition captures, you’ll find standard capture files so you can make a comparison. Bear in mind when looking at the files that the lens supplied with the S1 review unit was the 24-105mm.

This is actually a very good lens, which comes as a bit of a surprise given that while this zoom length is a popular design it’s usually appreciated more for its versatility than its finesse. That said, I fully expect better results could be achieved with prime lenses, such as a Sigma 24mm with an L-mount.

I need to digress a moment. L-mount is a mount system developed jointly between Panasonic, Sigma and Leica that opens up a wealth of lens options. Perhaps this lens production alliance should be a consideration in your purchasing roadmap? There’s an FAQ here if you’d like to know more: https://l-mount.com/en/Q-and-A.

For now, know that in the L-mount camp there are three Lumix lenses with three more due out by year’s end, eight Leica lenses and Sigma has 11 on offer.

Also bear in mind there are limitations to pixel-shifting. While the mode settings includes two options for dealing with blur in between sensor movements you will need to mount the camera to tripod and your subject needs to be motionless, or close to it.

Thus, architecture, products and landscapes are obvious choices as subjects. V8 Supercars? Not so much.

Alright, so with the thrills of pixel-shifting possibilities out of the way, how does the S1 handle? Short answer: beautifully. I’m really pleased Panasonic didn’t try to produce a shooter that panders to the lightweight mindset that seems to be driving the world of mirrorless cameras.

This camera is squarely aimed at the demanding buyer with a reassuring build quality that feels like it can withstand the rigours of working life. At a smidge over 1kg without a lens, it sits solidly in the hand, always a good thing for those of us with the caffeine shakes. Its physical dimensions will suit well an owner with big hands, even more so with an optional battery grip. This is no dainty snapper. It feels like a workhorse.

If I have one grudge it’s the shutter release button. I’m sure lots of people will love it but its sensitivity drove me a bit nuts. If you’re a somewhat heavy-handed, half-press-to-focus kind of shooter, you are going to have to get used to working with back button focus or grow accustomed to deleting a lot of unintended frames.

But here’s some things I really love.

There are White Balance, ISO and Exposure Compensation buttons lined up behind the shutter release button and the first two of those buttons can be pressed repeatedly for incremental changes to the respective settings while the Exposure Compensation uses a familiar button/wheel combo to affect changes.

There’s an On/Off toggle behind this row of buttons, the design of which seems kind of retro and it weirded me out at first but took no time at all to appreciate for its easy but affirmative action. It’s a small detail but it feels right, as does all of the control layout.

The top panel display has a backlight illumination button that actually lights up the display. I’m so sick of wussy backlights on displays, so this impressed.

The exposure modes – M, S, A, P, Movie, iA and Custom – are on a selector dial on the top left panel, with shooting modes – Single, Sequence, Timelapse and Timer – on a selector ring below. All of these controls feel solidly built, just like the body.

I adapted very quickly to the two adjustment dials – one in front of the shutter button and one on the back top right corner – that enable very quick aperture/shutter speed adjustments when shooting in manual mode without needing to take a finger off the shutter.

The Electronic View Finder is excellent, apart from the briefest blackout between frames when shooting in high-speed burst mode. When tracking a moving subject such as the scooter in the sample shot with this story, I didn’t find it limiting but I expect shooters of very fast-paced sport may find it falls a bit short.

I very much like that the USB-C input can charge the camera. Not having to take the battery out or carry a charging cradle is one thing but being able to easily power the camera out in the field from a portable power source scores extra brownie points.

This is not to suggest the S1’s battery is a weakling. It’s not, though as always I would strongly recommend the battery grip if you’re a trigger-happy shooter. In trialling the S1, I never actually drained the battery but I’m sure if it was out with me on assignment, the single battery wouldn’t see the day out.

Image shot on the S1 by Chris Oaten

The customisability of the S1 is impressive, including a Function lever on the front panel that I could grow very attached to, enabling an affirmative switch quickly to enable a shooting aid such as the Sheer Overlay, which I would work with a lot when setting up intermittent timelapse captures of the same subject. (Sheer Overlay? Very cool feature. You select an image off the card that is overlaid translucently on the live display.)

Colour rendition from the 24.2MP CMOS sensor is excellent. No complaints from the usual tricky subjects such as skin tone.

Especially pleasing was a wide dynamic range with very clean shadow detail. A lot of sensors have disappointed me in this regard in recent years, requiring a secondary capture for the shadows and blending in post to get around the noisy shadow issue. Not so here.

The new Venus image processing engine is doing a lovely job. The promotional guff for the S1 describes “Multipixel Luminance Generation” and ‘Intelligent Detail Processing”.

To be honest, I don’t fully understand what those two things are but I do know a clean file when I see it. One of the RAW sample files I’m offering includes a High Definition capture of a metallic latticework in the foreground combined with a short depth of field that has vehicles moving through a background rich with foliage. I fully expected this scene to fall apart on at least one technical level. It didn’t.

Of course, this shooter also offers excellent video capture – the TIPA award recognised the camera’s photo AND video capabilities – though there was one thing I found a bit weird. In the High Speed Video capture mode the ISO setting is restricted to Auto and the lens is stopped wide open, so if you wanted to shoot High Speed with a fuller depth of field in low light conditions with a high ISO, you’re out of luck if the Auto ISO doesn’t handle the situation.

Image shot on the S1 by Chris Oaten highlighting the dynamic range

However, you do of course have full control over exposure settings in normal capture mode with a range of capture settings up to 4K (3840 x 2160) at 60p in 8bit/LongGOP/150Mps. I’d encourage you to check Panasonic’s web site for full specs. Also, be aware there’s a VLOG Filmmaker kit due to ship this month.

When this camera came out, I noticed there were a few reviews claiming the continuous AF was spongy. In my time with the camera I updated the body’s firmware and found the constant AF was mostly up to the tasks I presented it with and better than before the firmware update.

For instance, I tested it mounted on a tripod shooting a factory laser-cutting machine that had erratic lateral movements and the AF kept up with it just fine shot at 35mm. However, when shooting handheld at 105mm and reframing the shot, I found the AF needed a little nudge with the back focus button to pull focus on near subjects brought into frame at the end of a pan.

There’s room for improvement here but when weighed up against everything else this camera offers, this shortcoming would seem to me to be no deal breaker for the user who mostly shoots stills. For the demanding shooter whose main task is video ahead of stills, it may be of greater concern.

Switch back to shooting stills, on the other hand, and the AF is sweet. Among the AF options is a subject tracking system that recognises an animal or human and locks focus on it.

Image shot on the S1 by Chris Oaten highlighting the super detail

If you’ve used or seen the Live-tracking mode in a DJI drone (or something similar), you’ll recognise the application in the S1. It’s not a great mode for sports subjects but I reckon pet photographers might just love it.

It’s in the weighing of pros and cons, with respect to buying into the Lumix S1 system against whatever you’re now using , where the challenge lies with this camera. Panasonic is clearly going after the pro, prosumer and enthusiast market with the S1 and S1R – the latter designation offering a 47.3MP sensor (and a massive RAW file when that baby’s shot in High Definition mode).

The price alone tells you who this camera is aimed at, which is a potential buyer who very likely already owns hardware in the high-end spectrum from a competing maker and thus a system changeover is in order and that may be a big ask. If this is you, something to bear in mind when considering a switch is the S1’s dual slots house the common and affordable SD card as well as the newer XQD card and while the 440MB/s write speed of those XQD cards is tasty – and necessary, given the S1 has no time limit on 4K recording – kitting out with a set of even modest capacity XQD cards will set you back many hundreds of dollars.

Image shot on the S1 by Chris Oaten demonstrating the responsive Auto Focus

Also, if you want to integrate the S1 into a professional set-up, you’ll be wanting the XLR microphone adaptor. You’ll also be needing either a set of L-mount lenses or adaptors for the lens system you already have, which if you decide to pursue should be accompanied by some testing and/or research into performance limitations imposed by those adaptors; I have a professional colleague who tried his Canon lens on an S1 and was very disappointed with the slowness of the lens’ autofocus resulting from using an EF adaptor.

In pointing out these cost issues, I’m not trying to dissuade anyone from seriously considering the S1.

Indeed, Panasonic’s commitment to research and development over the last few years along with its part in the L-mount alliance suggests to me the company is very serious about capturing a slice of the high end full-frame market and will remain committed to serving it. To that end, the S1 presents an auspicious beginning along that track and should certainly be in your sights if you’re looking to embrace a mirrorless full-frame system.

For those not in the professional sphere, the S1 presents a bit of a no-brainer.

Panasonic Lumix S1

$3,599

VERDICT

Minus system expansion considerations, the S1 is a fully featured, highly capable camera that coupled with an L-mount lens to suit a budget will offer its user a surprising level of satisfaction.

For sample file requests email Chris Oaten at  chris@insightvisuals.com.au

Chris Oaten is s professional photographer from Insight Visuals



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