Panasonic Lumix S1RAugust 10, 2021
When Panasonic first introduced the Lumix S system at Photokina 2018 it piqued my interest. Being a long time Panasonic owner of their mirrorless cameras, their initial commitment to creating a “full frame camera without compromise”, the increased sized that I felt was unfortunately missing from professional grade mirrorless cameras, and an assumption that Panasonic would continue to be one of the two or three companies on the market place with a design ethos with a serious commitment to both photo and video; I knew that this was a strong candidate for a future camera to purchase. For the record I had long been considering a move from Sony, not because of anything technically wrong with their products, but I felt a growing feeling that they were going to become much more conservative than their hyper aggressive commitment to mirrorless began with. On top of that, I began to feel that their camera bodies were ill-equipped to be used with many of their professional lenses due to the small size with my larger hands… but this isn’t a Sony review or a Sony bashing session… I just felt the need to provide some context. With all of that said, after nearly two years of owning the Panasonic Lumix S1R I finally feel like I’m in a place to more fairly review it since I’ve been able to use it in more situations post-pandemic.
Some things to keep in mind - you may or may not agree with all or any of my points. You may find some of them to be fair or unfair. That’s perfectly fine. We can agree or disagree and remain civil in discussion. Keep in mind this review is based on how I use the camera for my own purposes. I try not to be overly sensational and I try not to make things feel like clickbait. I fervently believe that there really aren’t any bad cameras these days but some cameras may be a better fit for some than others. These are all subjective differences which ultimately does not provide final judgement on a camera for all people. You may have completely different use cases from me, desires from your camera, and you may not care about some of the things that I focus on and again… That’s completely fine by me.
Camera Features, Firmware, & Specs
I won’t go too in depth on this. Here’s a link to the Panasonic product page and you can see if it all fits your own needs. The spec list is long for sure because the camera can do so much. Much of it you may never need or use but it’s certainly nice to have. Be sure to check out the Firmware section too because it’ll detail the firmware updates and features added to the camera as well.
This portion of the review is going to be extremely short when compared to the video because it does everything either very well or to an exceptional level. This camera offers excellent image quality and dynamic range. The color retention in images at high ISO is what really drew me into considering this camera to begin with. I’ve photographed weddings, event, or even concerts in the pasts, etc. with some clients/vendors having the intention of wanting to have enough resolution to turn media items into large prints or promotional content. I think this camera more than satisfies that need. Many of the photo-centric features I haven’t used much. These include items such as the in camera pixel stitching for super resolution imagery, time lapse, double exposure imagery, or focus stacking. In any case there are many in camera tools to assist people in learning how to use these options outside of reading the included well written manual. I will say that there is noticeable autofocus performance improvements with the camera beginning with Firmware 1.7. When I purchased the camera Firmware 1.2 was the current version and 1.3 was released a month or two later. These autofocus improvements apply to photo acquisition speed and confidence, less auto focusing “flutter”, and general all-around improvements to make for a more pleasing experience in using the camera with native lenses from Panasonic at least.
This is the area that is the most mixed for me personally and a lot of it comes down to a personal level of uncertainty with Panasonic’s long-term commitment to continue further development on the video side of things for the S1R.
Let’s get the elephant out of the room first and talk about some things that could potentially be seen as a “negative.” Top of the list of course are the continuous autofocus which has been mentioned ad nauseum in general as being somewhat unreliable at best in continuous video. The other issue is this: While both the S1 and the S1R were initially marketed as “photo first” cameras the priority of focus of the Lumix S line has seemed to shift over the years. Panasonic’s marketing tag line which began as “Full Frame without compromise” seemed to be a statement of commitment from both Panasonic Lumix division and the other L-mount partners on some level to create a line of cameras with the professional in mind primarily. At some point in the recent past Panasonic has shifted their marketing slogan to “Motion. Picture. Perfect.” which would suggest a more focused goal of creating products that are video and image quality centric in design philosophy. I see no issue with this in general but there is concern about where this leaves one of their flagship cameras in future development. I would say that I definitely see a commitment in the 24 megapixel bodies but I do not see it in the S1R for sure despite being a “flagship” body.
While it’s true that Panasonic has always maintained that the S1 would be better at video (comparatively when measured against the S1R) it should still be of some motivation, in my opinion of course, for Panasonic to further bolster the video capability of the S1R. If I were to offer reasons why it’s an important commitment to make, it would be for the following reasons. First and foremost Panasonic positioned the S1R as one of their flagship cameras with a flagship price. Panasonic seems to be doing more for their entry and mid-tier bodies bodies these days despite how some may feel. There generally are certain expectations that come tied to this based on product positioning of a premium item and their own track record in the past. As it stands, I’d personally have to do some soul searching before buying another flagship body from them given how it would seem many of the premium features eventually come to the entry and mid-tier bodies. The y certainly check nice feature boxes but I don’t know that the typical entry to mid level customer truly has a commitment to purchase the additional accessories needed to maximize performance. If it were ONLY the S1R affected then that would be one thing but the other side of it is the flagship video body, the S1H, is also affected somewhat. There are still hardware advantages like active cooling and a OLPF in the S1H or nearly twice the resolution with the S1R that make them both more unique but that’s a big price jump for a few unique features after the latest firmware updates… again, in my opinion.
When going back to the video features of the S1R, if one looks at the extremely similar (but let’s not call it the exact same) specification of the Leica SL2, it launched with both LOG/HLG profiles, the ability to do 4K video in both Cinema 4K (4096x2160), and UHD (3840 x 2160) varieties between 24/25/30/60 frames per second (FPS). Additionally it is able to record in 10-bit within all of these modes. There’s also the ability to record 5K video with a 4:3 aspect ratio in 24/25/30 FPS in 10-bit. The S1R did not launch with the C4K, HLG/LOG, 5K, or 10-bit initially. Some of these updated options like the 5K video or HLG profiles came to the S1R in November 2020 via firmware update. It would be really nice to see the remainder of them come over and perhaps for us to even anamorphic modes come to the S1R as another differentiator as it applies to the direct competition that largely offers similar or better features from Canon, Sony, Nikon, etc. As it stands, even without these additions, the S1R is capable of some very nice video results provided the intention isn’t to do a lot of heavy color grading.
I want to be clear that I’m not unhappy with what it can do but I want to be clear that if there’s an effort to improve the lower end of the product spectrum I’d like to see even more effort placed on improving the premium products, otherwise I really don’t get the point of utilizing a market segmentation strategy amongst your products. It would make sense and cost less money to just offer one or two Lumix S bodies that do it all at a competitive price rather than four models that provides a high resolution option and three models that are, for all intents and purposes, slight reconfigurations of many of the same underlying parts.
Speaking more of the competition and the positives of the S1R as it applies to video, what has changed since the camera was launched are the direct competition of high resolution cameras that are also placing SOME emphasis on providing great video potential. Although the Canon R5 had a “rough” launch to be diplomatic about it, there was no shortage of video feature potential. They did what Canon had not been known to do for years and that’s completely move the market by pushing the boundaries of what was possible at a price few expected. Whether or not they lived up to that potential is perhaps a different point to make but we can only expect this to become the norm going forward. When Sony launched the A1 in January of 2021 they seemed to have gotten more “right” than Canon did in their video spec though at a dearer price. Now I think Panasonic made a great move in giving us a high resolution camera with a constant minimal 1.09x crop across 4K, as well as, offering up to 60 FPS video. Another change we’ve collectively experienced has been with the worldwide pandemic that exceedingly saw the shifting needs and demand for streaming video be it for Zoom, FaceTime, OBS, YouTube, Twitch, Microsoft Teams, etc. In many ways Panasonic (and other camera makers) helped to solve the webcam shortage by offering computer applications that allow many cameras, S1R included, to be used for these purposes. As a side benefit the optics on even the least expensive kit lens combined with a modern system camera sensor pose a huge leap in image quality compared to the average webcam.
The S1R does have record limits due to thermal limitations according to Panasonic. Thankfully, one can generally get around these timed limitations by utilizing an external recorder such as an Atomos Ninja V to move into either a 8-bit 4:2:2 color or 10-bit 4:2:2 sampling space (depending on camera settings) with a great acquisition/delivery codec like one of the many varieties of ProRes. Other great video features that this camera has that many of the direct contemporaries do not enjoy are being able to switch being shutter speed or shutter angle, having a very visible red frame on the LCD screen when actively recording video, having an increased level of mass for more smooth handheld movements, industry best in-body image stabilization (which can be used to effectively stabilize both native and adapted lenses), etc.
Whether it was the pricing, the physical size, the perception of the autofocus system, or the slow pace at which the native lenses are being released in many ways the system collectively hasn’t really lived up to the potential for many people. Video performance is definitely becoming the most important spec that users of Panasonic cameras pay attention to. Many users are coming from the more recent Micro 4/3 Lumix G line and expectations in the minds of many is that they were expecting Full Frame GH bodies. For all of the positives of this camera, and there are a plethora of them, in many ways Panasonic is somewhat a victim of their own success on the video side of things. Because of their past success, we’ve all come to expect and want more from them simply put. I can’t say whether that’s 100% fair or not but it’s where we are.
Most of the time if you hear a negative complaint about the DFD Autofocus you can be assured that it is more than likely coming from heavy video users that would like to enjoy some levels of automation with a Panasonic camera. What often is missing in the critique is context and nuance that generally isn’t offered up with the typical internet comments of “Panasonic’s autofocus sucks.” This is usually followed up with an insistence that Panasonic moving to Phase Detect will fix all of the issues because they feel that contrast detection has no place in the world any longer… and they’d be somewhat correct and somewhat incorrect for a variety of reasons. Let’s break it down.
The autofocus doesn’t actually “suck.” What can be said is that it’s seemingly somewhat unreliable. Sometimes you’re in a dimly lit room and take a chance believing that a photo will possibly, if not likely, be out of focus due to the available light and the “focus fluttering” of continuous DFD. Then you get home to your computer and see that camera absolutely nailed it. Other times you’re out on bright sunny day with nothing but a stationary person in a field for a subject or recording a video for YouTube where you ensure your face is properly lit. The camera absolutely misses focusing on the only subject framed or records the back wall of the room while completely ignoring you. This is an infrequent occurrence in reality but it has in fact happened to me. It’s really not a consistent thing either which makes it al the more frustrating. Repeatable results or flaws often lead to a development of a consistent workaround. This isn’t necessarily the case here. I will say that utilizing the Near/Far Focus shift options as customizable buttons has greatly helped my hit rate accuracy. For instance if you know your subject is more than likely going to be in the foreground (let’s say within 5-7m from you or roughly within 15-20 feet) then clicking the near shift custom button places focus priority on things in the foreground while not really worrying about focusing towards the infinity side of the distance scale. In short, those are some of the head scratching occurrences that sometimes happen which leads many to a place where they are either unable or unwilling to fully trust the cameras because it can do these things for no apparent rhyme or reason.
For photo it’s actually better than I expected prior to owning the camera. Accuracy or hit rate wise, I’d say it’s comparable to the second generation Sony A7RII camera in that one can expect 80-90% of all shutter presses to be in focus. I could also compare it accuracy wise to a first generation Canon or Nikon full frame mirrorless camera body after many of their firmware updates. Next, I’d say that all Phase Detect isn’t built equally - and I’m saying that having tried most of the offerings on the market over the last 10 years or so. Sony clearly has the best (read: most reliable) autofocus in the business today and the newest Canon cameras aren’t too far behind the Sony hybrid phase/contrast detect autofocus systems. I won’t pretend that Panasonic’s autofocus is in the same league as the best versions of either of these systems - it’s not. I also won’t pretend like other hybrid phase detect systems are in the same league either - they also are not. If, and this is a huge if, Panasonic decided to forego DFD and move to a hybrid Phase Detect autofocus system I would only hope for a lot of early testing to get the math and firmware “right” because I don’t think they could really take a huge PR set back in the camera division.
Panasonic committed to image quality, which I personally believe, that they delivered on with all of the Lumix S camera. Part of that commitment lead Panasonic to a decision that foregoing “light stealing” on sensor Phase detect sites would maximize image quality and I do believe this is evident in the lowlight ability of this camera but it is most readily realized as the lighting is lowered and the level color retention present. For comparison the color retention feels like it’s about a stop or so better than on my Sony A7RII and that’s despite having slightly increased resolution. It would seem that DFD is heavily reliant upon the processing power of the camera. As such, we’ve seen DFD become increasingly better with each new camera release over the years. It’s entirely possible as well that DFD is just way ahead of it’s time - the concept might be great, time could prove that Panasonic was correct in developing the technology behind it, and time to prove that we are just on the cusp of the system being truly great without any caveat. My hope is that they don’t completely eliminate the research even if they decide to move to a hybrid phase detect focus if some of the rumors prove to be accurate. I do believe that in time that DFD could get good enough at doing the calculations that the focusing system utilized underneath the hood ultimately won’t matter.
There are a few things that I recommend for the S1R.
I recommend looking at a variety of lighting systems for flash photography from someone like Profoto, Westcott, or Godox. All of them offer comprehensive flash photography options with wireless controls. If you’re unsure about jumping into flash or don’t know if it’s for you, then perhaps a continuous LED setup would work better. Thankfully the quality of these has gone up a lot in the last 10 years or so. You can get affordable and accurate LED based systems from companies like Aputure, Nanlite/NanLux, Godox, or of course the premium lighting companies that have been around forever.
If you’re into video the single best camera related purchase I’d say I bought was a Ninja V. It really does “unlock your hybrid camera” and provides a more consistent workflow across a variety of cameras. There are also options from companies like Blackmagic Design that offer the VideoAssist 12G. More or less they both perform the same goals but in different ways. Atomos utilizes SSD media and has a number of expansion port modules to add functionality to your Ninja V unit. The BlackMagic unit untilizes SD Cards but will accept a USB-C external drive as well. More importantly, either offers robust codec choices in several ProRes variants or Avid DNx variants for the Atomos with the ability to record directly to media. I recommend getting Samsung 860 Evo, Sandisk Ultra 3D NAND, or WD Blue SSD’s for a cost effective selection that are pretty reliable and fast if choosing the Atomos unit.
For audio, I personally recommend either a Sound Devices MixPre family of recorder or one of the updated Zoom brand recorders. There are XLR devices that perhaps have a shorter learning curve but I do personally like the idea of having equipment that can truly go along with you and is brand agnostic for consistent workflows. In my opinion, either offers great “bang for the buck” and excellent sound quality. You’d have to spend a lot more money to receive more tangible audio quality gains.
The Panasonic Lumix S1R provides a comprehensive photographic experience for the hybrid photo/video user that places a higher priority on increased resolution and excellent image quality while retaining excellent color reproduction even at higher ISO values.
This is the one camera in the Lumix S lineup that provides a consistent image crop (1.09x) across all video modes and frame rates though it does fall behind the lower megapixel offerings in terms of color bit depth capability by only offering external 10-bit video in some recording settings like 5K, HLG, or 4K60. When the camera was first unveiled in Fall of 2018, no other high megapixel camera could approach the video features contained within this body but now there’s increased competition from Sony, Canon, Nikon, and other L-mount Alliance Partners.
The camera represents an excellent entry into a high megapixel cameras from the Lumix brand and is only a more reliable continuous autofocus system in video applications away from having virtually no major weaknesses for a wider range of hybrid users. Obviously, utilizing manual focus lenses is still an option (like it is with all cameras) and perhaps is the recommended way to go for those that may utilize this body as a back up or are video focused users. Traditional tools like focus peaking and the ability to magnify the image assist the user in confirmation of focus. The video and cinematography markets have become increasingly democratized over the last few years with more value based products like color consistent lighting options, hardware streaming devices, more affordable high quality sound mixers, good quality microphones that aren’t terribly expensive, etc. coming onto the market over the last five years or so.
I do recommend the Panasonic Lumix S1R to those with the budget to be able to afford it, for those that want a physically larger body, for those that place a premium on image quality and color retention, for those that want a fully featured L-mount Alliance camera, for those already familiar with Panasonic Lumix products, and/or for those that like some of the most pleasing images coming straight from the camera irrespective of brand. My largest concerns are continued and meaningful firmware support compared to the support offered on the lower megapixel Lumix S bodies. What this would look like in my opinion is Panasonic’s commitment to continue further development on the video side of things for capabilities like 10-bit video in slower frame rates, working with 3rd party manufacturers to provided deeper external video support, offering the VLog profile to S1R owners that might take advantage of it as an option whether it is free or paid, and perhaps maybe we can even see anamorphic support come to to the camera.
There are so many things that are subjective in nature that goes into a camera purchasing decision and I’m not one to give scores or letter grades in my reviews. Generally speaking, it only leads to people wanting to quantifying the capability or value of a camera based on the time of the review being written. If I were to give any camera say an “A-” or “90” grade today it would likely not mean that the camera is as good as a replacement that may be better in every way but only receive a “B+” at the time of that writing. So because of this just know that the words say it all. This is a great camera with a great feature set. If it fits your desires then you should give it a try to see if it works for your needs personally.