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.
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.