On Friday, February 1st, 2019, Panasonic unveiled “their hand” for their full frame (FF) LUMIX S series camera line. While the specs are very impressive, like most cameras they don’t and won’t tell you the whole story. I won’t go too far in depth on them but I will link them below if you’re interested in them. I haven’t handled the cameras yet for myself (but hope to sometime this spring after they’re released) but I did spend some time watching videos and reading impressions of the cameras. I thought I’d put a few thoughts together based on what I could gather because I’ve been using Panasonic Mirrorless cameras since they introduced their first Micro 4/3 camera, the DMC-G1.
Panasonic LUMIX S1 and S1R Press Release
Panasonic LUMIX S and S Pro Lenses Press Release
Regarding the Lumix S series here are my initial impressions based on the information passively absorbed (and possibly even forgotten given the binge nature of cramming loads of info into my brain at once) thus far.
Image Quality: The JPEG engine seems to be pretty good and exactly what I'd expect from a "FF G9" if you will. There seems to be a good amount of dynamic range captured in many of the landscape shots and shadow recovery (based on hands-on impressions) seems to be good even within the JPEG's. Most people also commented on the excellent color and black and white profiles that don't seem to require much editing and this is one thing I've always liked about Panasonic cameras going back 10+ years to the G1 for me.
Regarding ISO performance the S1R is relatively clean at 12800 and usable to 25600 IMO. The S1 is relatively clean at 25600 and still usable out to 102400 IMO. This is a great thing as it puts the high ISO performance roughly a stop ahead of the direct competition and makes the reality of the f/4 lenses available at launch matter just a little bit less as of now.
Body: It's a mixed bag based on whom is commenting but most things have been extremely positive when it comes to the build and the size of the body when used with the lenses that are on the larger side of things. Personally, this is probably my biggest "complaint" of my Sony system in that I feel like the grip is always "required" if you've limited and committed your kit to primarily using the Sony Zeiss or Sony G-Master (GM) lenses as I currently do. Another highlight, in favor of the Panasonic LUMIX S, is that the layout and haptic feel of the cameras seemingly has earned high marks from the testers that come in a variety of sized from average sized women to larger men (I'm 6'3" and about 230lbs so I like some size to my camera bodies). It seems like many in the industry are driving the point that there is room within the pro mirrorless realm for larger mirrorless bodies when professional photographers are the primary demographic. Again this camera continues the "FF G9" brand ethos and design.
Lens Selection: Mixed bag from those that have not used them and mostly positive for those that have.
In short, those that have used the three lenses that Panasonic has introduced have stated that they are high quality and cover the basic working range of 95% of all photography with the obvious omission that none of the lenses will fully satisfy landscape or wildlife photographers just yet due to their focal lengths. The Lumix S Pro lenses (currently the 50/1.4 and 70-200/4) are "certified by Leica" and in that regard, it is clear that Panasonic and Leica didn't want to create any confusion in L-Mount lens pricing strategy between Panasonic branded Leica lenses and actual real Leica lenses. As you may or may not know, Panasonic’s premium lenses for the Micro 4/3 system are designated and branded Panasonic Leica to denote their premium designs. These lenses are still made by Panasonic but Leica “approves” their lens design performance and if it meets the bar then it can be introduced into that line… speaking in simplistic terms.
The loudest critical voices with the boldest statements tend to be the ones that haven't used the camera or lenses (per usual for the internet). A lot of this is coming from a place of “old guard” thinking based on how Canon and Nikon structured their own lineup with faster/more exotic glass being the "pro" lenses and slower apertures representing "consumer" grade lenses… in their eyes. It's a huge reason why some people gave Nikon "grief" for introducing f/1.8 lenses or balk at Sony pricing the 55/1.8 at $999 at launch when their old "nifty 50" only costs them $150… well all lenses aren't created equally but I'd concede ANY argument that there is a point of diminishing returns as you go into higher end in ANY market. A Mercedes or BMW isn't three times as reliable as your average Honda, Nissan, Toyota, etc. but you pay for prestige, a level of luxury, the name, and the premium service experiences. The Lumix S Pro 50/1.4 will likely approach or maybe even exceed Zeiss Otus performance but the Sigma Art 50 comes close too. In the end my recommendation no matter the brand is to is to pick what works for you but I will say this - going forward, expect higher prices for Mirrorless camera system lenses due to the fact that many are designed to be optimal for both photo AND video. No one that I'm aware of (besides maybe Sony thus far) has kept this part of mirrorless lens design for hybrid shooters in mind like Panasonic. As Canon, Fujifilm, Leica, Sigma, and Nikon grow their Mirrorless systems just know that silent operation, quicker acquisitions, and smoother focusing with linear motors for video will become a more important factor in the designing process.
Regarding the pricing on the body and lenses, We can possibly assume there's possibly a "L-Mount licensing tax/fee" that Panasonic and Sigma would likely have to pay Leica to remain within the alliance. It is what it is and the price is the price. If one can afford it then great but if not there are other capable FF options from other companies. For the more successful professional photographers (the primary intended market), the costs aren’t out of line with what one should expect in this market for lenses designed for hybrid photo and video while being able to resolve detail for high megapixel sensors.
Features: I'm not a huge video guy in general but the features provided by Panasonic seem to be capable out of the box with a few workarounds. If the video performance is the primary concern the GH line may still be better… or maybe even just invest money into a dedicated video camera with even fewer video compromises. One exciting thing announced is that the less expensive S1 variant of this camera will receive access to the paid V-LOG upgrade (what's in the Panasonic Varicam line) and not V-LOG L (whats in the GH line) so that tells you where they eventually see the Lumix S series going and which market it'll play in. There are also expectation and rumors that a 8K video-centric variant (think along the lines of a full frame LUMIX GH variant) will arrive around and/or be tested at the 2020 Olympics.
The electronic viewfinder (EVF) specifications, that Panasonic calls a Live viewfinder (LVF), and its performance is class-leading… nothing else really needs to be said. It’s a 5.76 million dot unit with an excellent (by reports) optical system. It’s unknown who manufactures it but most are reporting Sony but it could also be one made in-house by Panasonic or by a company like Epson that made EVF’s for Mirrorless Cameras in the past.
As for the battery life, this may be the most power hungry camera on the market as it has a battery with nearly 50% more amperage capacity than generation 3 Sony bodies and almost half the CIPA rated battery life it seems. Reporting on the cameras by brand ambassadors have stated that it wasn’t unusual to be able to capture over 1,000+ images or 2.5 hours of 4K footage on one battery charge. Thankfully there are multiple powering options through USB, camera grips, and battery packs. Not a serious concern of mine personally as I'm not a high volume shooter usually unless it's a wedding.
One thing that has me extremely excited in the specs was the inclusion of 2:1 and 65:24 crop in camera. I’ve wanted and asked for this from Sony in their FE bodies for a good 2+ years now… still hasn't happened. I generally do this in post when wanted for some shots but having it in camera so I can get the framing right in camera is huge.
Continuous autofocus performance with CDAF and DFD is the biggest elephant in the room. It also happens to my own biggest personal concern. I have no doubt the autofocus will be adequate most of the time for stills but in the video department, the CDAF fluttering/pulsing/pumping can just be distracting. Panasonic really either needs to begin incorporating PDAF or find a way to solve this issue with autofocus lenses (yes I know using manual lenses corrects the concern).
Competition: My first thought when these cameras were announced and seeing the general praise they've received by actual users is that Panasonic JUST gave Sony permission to answer with R/S variants of the A9. They also gave Canon and Nikon permission and reason to release higher-end RF and Z camera variants sooner rather than later. This is a great thing and one of the reasons that I'm going to hold off any potential camera system switches until the summertime at best before seriously considering any switch from Sony for paid work. Additionally, I also feel like the cameras may not sell as well commercially as Panasonic hopes initially until some price drops/rebates happen. The reality is that the Panasonic faithful will snap these up within the first few months but those on the fence are going to cross-shop with other manufacturers - and it may all come down to the pricing.
Cameras these days are more alike than they are dissimilar when we look at them more objectively. The bottom line is that consumers have yet another serious option to consider in the midst of their research. While I may not fully agree initially that this is really "full frame without compromise" (because the cynic in me asks “is anything really uncompromised”) I do feel like this may very well be be “full frame with minimal compromises.” Thats more than what we can generally expect. Panasonic seems to have done a great job in designing a camera system, implementing a strategic vision to aggressively attack the most challenging camera segment, and executing feedback from professionals to essentially deliver a camera that isn’t hindered by some of the glaring shortcomings of their direct competition. Will it be enough? Time will tell but Panasonic now has a legitimate product and strategy that can bridge the gap between their Micro 4/3 cameras and their professional EVA/VariCam Cinema lines.
I began my search for the “perfect strobe” about three years ago when the most prominent brands such as Profoto, Elinchrom, Broncolor, Hensel, and Paul C. Buff were at the top of my list of potential options. I was primarily a Leica M9 shooter in those days but I did own a Sony NEX-5 as a backup to my M’s, as well as, a Sony A77mkI DSLT and a Panasonic G1 Micro 4/3 camera for telephoto and travel photography.
Later within that same year (2013 for those without the best memory), the camera world would be shaken in a sense by Sony releasing a groundbreaking series of Full Frame (FF) mirrorless cameras (in 35mm terms). Many photographers were taken with an extreme interest in the possibility of what these cameras would mean for the industry. For the first time in modern history, a FF camera that was much smaller than what traditional DSLR manufacturers such as Canon or Nikon was available to the masses at a price many photographers could realistically afford without going into debt. This is in contrast to the pricing of what is technically the first mirrorless FF camera, the Leica M9. After being on the market for nearly seven (7) years, that camera sells used in great condition for about the same price of a new Sony A7RII as of writing. I won’t argue the technical specs of each camera - there are plenty of places on the internet that do more than enough of that for us all. I will say that my time with the M9 was special. Being a digital rangefinder camera, it is unlike many other cameras on the market. So how did lead this (mostly) self-taught serious hobbyist become much more passionate about photography to the point of deciding to adopt a very expensive system like the Leica M in general? I used the Leica M almost exclusively as my primary system camera for nearly five years before making the decision to surrender 100% (for my primary digital system) to the Sony FE, which is their FF E-mount system. The decision wasn’t necessarily easy as I was giving up simplicity and arguably the world’s finest 35mm based lenses to go to a system made by a company that is likely better known for the Playstation and their home electronics. The simple answer is the decision was 100% a logic-based one that eliminated the subjective emotional factors. The added flexibility that the Sony provided allowed me to sell both my DSLT and the Leica M, and pair everything down to my film cameras, my Sony FE/E-mount cameras, and the Micro 4/3 camera that remains.
Returning to the discussion of strobes, I quickly found that the off-camera lighting options that worked natively and completely with Sony cameras equipped with their Multi-Interface Shoe were extremely limited a few years ago. Who could blame the lighting companies completely though… Sony did have a somewhat erratic track record of technology development and long-term product support. In those days our options were mostly limited to Sony branded Speedlights. The problem was that we were limited to optical slaving only without radio slave options to control or fire the lights. There were many workarounds found and developed during the last few years using reverse engineered products coming from various Chinese manufacturers… This wasn’t really a proper solution for me and did not represent what I was comfortable with investing my hard earned money into personally.
Today the landscape of off-camera flash options is much different with many of the big time photographic lighting starting to fully embrace and support the Sony ecosystem. There are monolight strobes and speedlight solutions from makers such as Profoto, Broncolor, Elinchrom, Godox, Phottix, Nissin, and of course Sony. This increased support may have something to do with many professionals beginning to integrate Sony into their professional kits, professionals and hobbyists buying them for personal use, the flexibility that the Sony FE provides to operate as a “FF 35mm Digital Back” for lenses of long forgotten camera systems, and the ability to use Canon lenses in near-native capacity with autofocus adapters such as the Metabones lens smart adapters or the Sigma MC-11.
Enter the Priolite system. It was founded by a group of former engineers that previously worked for Hensel, another premium German photographic lighting company. I first heard about Priolite approximately a year ago when they released their HotSync Controller for Pentax branded cameras. This was a huge deal in the industry as the Pentax 645 digital cameras are one of the few “affordable” Medium Format (MF) options. The problem is that most MF options offer leaf shutter capability within their lenses and the Pentax system does not currently have a wide range of these options. Because Pentax lenses are limited to the 1/125th of a second x-sync speed of the focal plane shutter implemented, this really limited the Pentax 645 digital cameras in a studio or on location settings when shooting at larger apertures without very strong ND filters.
I began gathering additional information on the different Priolite options, which are divided between the regular MBX line and the MBX HotSync (HS) lines. Priolite currently offers HotSync controllers for Canon, Nikon, Pentax, and now Sony as well. Once the Sony controller was released I placed my name on the list to test as soon as a test kit was available. Since I was a Sony shooter, my criteria for investment into a strobe system were as follows:
1) The light must be natively compatible with Sony cameras with the MIS hotshoe.
2) The light must have a secure mount with no loss of modifier options when compared to the competition.
3) The light must be able to sync up to 1/8000 of a second.
4) The light must be able to provide at least 500w/s of power.
5) The light must be able to be used on location or in an indoors “studio” type setting.
6) The light must be of high quality in build material and after-sales support.
7) The light must be easy to use without extremely complicated menus.
All of the lights are battery powered but they can also be plugged into a wall and charged while in use. They implement the Priolite Universal Light Modifier Mount which can accept Priolite modifiers, most Hensel modifiers, Bowens S-type modifiers, and even Profoto modifiers can be used when using the relatively newly created Profoto adapter. The Profoto adapter does not retain the “zooming” ability that makes Profoto lighting very popular with many but it is nice to know that one is able to rent Profoto modifiers while traveling so that all a location photographer would have to bring are their camera, lenses, and lights in order to hit the ground running. The Priolite MBX/MBX-HS lights are available in 300w/s, 500w/s, and 1000w/s varieties. The normal MBX line allows one to sync up to your camera’s maximum x-sync speed, which is usually a maximum of 1/250 of a second for focal plane shutters and up to 1/2000 of a second for leaf shutters on MF and some high-end advanced point and shoot (P&S) cameras. The non-HS line of MBX lights has a faster flash duration in comparison to the HS line which is ideal for leaf shutters. The MBX-HS lights are designed specifically to enhance the abilities of 35mm focal plane shutter cameras to be able to sync above x-sync speeds at all available power levels and ANY shutter speed available on the camera up to 1/8000 of a second. The MBX-HS lights have a longer flash duration compared to the non-HotSync MBX lights. This happens because the bi-directional HotSync controller automatically optimizes the timing of when the flash occurs when you engage the shutter to ensure that the subject is properly and fully illuminated. The HotSync controller is pretty straightforward. You can control up to four (4) groups of lights and have up to nine (9) lights in each group. The controller is responsive to inputs and has direct controls to all of the necessary functions. The controller also can operate light up to 1000ft (300m for the metric crowd) away and uses three (3) standard AA sized batteries that are available pretty much anywhere. The HotSync ability of the Priolite Strobe System is a huge difference compared to many IGBT based strobes that offer their “action stopping” high-speed shutter sync (HSS) capability at lowered power settings but not necessarily at higher output power. Often times this is relegated to the bottom 1/4-1/2 or 25-50% of the total possible power of the strobes. Since the Priolite lights are able to be synced at any power setting and shutter speed, you are able to shoot at wider apertures without the need to use ND filters. One could also shoot on location more easily to overpower the sun if using the 500w/s or 1000w/s units in the partial or full sun. That’s not to say that IGBT is bad or worse - it’s simply different technology and for the way I shoot, HotSync is a superior option. I wouldn’t buy a 500w/s or 1000w/s unit to be stuck shooting at 125-250w/s as a maximum power level to sync at “action stopping” speeds… Speaking of which, there are currently no other 1000w/s battery-powered monolight options on the market available from ANY other manufacturer at the time of this writing.
Priolite is the company, that’s been underneath my nose for the last year or so, that’s making a product that gave me huge check marks across all of my requirements. Just like that… I’ve finally found my lights. I will get and kick the sarcastic elephant out of the room that will eventually get asked - no the Priolite MBX/MBX-HS do not currently offer TTL capability, I’m unsure of the ability to add it through some sort of firmware update, and no I do not believe that the lack of TTL is a deal breaker for me. Priolite MBX/MBX-HS are marketed towards professional photographers and the more advanced hobbyist crowd that generally will meter the light manually for more control of creative effects. This is not to say that TTL does not have its uses - TTL does, in fact, have its uses, can be helpful for many, or is a desirable bonus feature for most people with it included in their lighting choices, but it may not be as critical for most people as competitive marketing seems to suggest these days. If one understands the “Exposure Triangle” and exposure values then one can sort of guesstimate a good starting point and adjust output or camera settings from there… The other option (and this is probably the logical approach when working with multiple lights) is to buy a light meter such as one from Sekonic, Gossen, Hensel, or Lumu that measures incident and flash lighting. There are plenty of options to choose from these days.
In use, the Priolite MBX500HS was extremely easy to use. I unpacked it from the Pelican case, attached the stand adapter to the lighting rail, placed the light on the stand, removed the frosted dome cover, mounted a modifier onto the light, turned on the master power switch on the back of the light, as well as, the power on the controller. The lights and controller synced their power levels and I was ready to shoot once my tethered connection in Capture One was ready to go. The 500w/s monolights have a five (5) stop range while the 1000w/s monolights have a six (6) stop range. I placed a few sample shots below.
You can sign up to test Priolite MBX HotSync Strobes here.
You can purchase Priolite MBX/MBX-HS here.