Panasonic S1 Hands-on Part I
Hands-on with the Panasonic S1
by Jaron Schneider
I don't think it would be unfair to say that the S1 and S1R are two of Panasonic's most anticipated cameras ever. Though the world has only had a few short months to get hyped and excited about them as Panasonic did a very good job keeping their development under wraps until now, expectations are high for this newcomer to the full frame mirrorless game. But with that excitement comes expectation, so how well do Panasonic's cameras hold up to the hype?
As a note before you continue, the S1 and the S1R are nearly the same camera in just about every regard, from body design to autofocus functionality. With the samples we were able to spend a short time with, even the video features were largely the same (the more advanced video functionality of the S1 will require a paid firmware update after launch, and those functions were not available to test during our short hands-on session). As such, much of the following previews for each camera will be the same, with side notes in select sections branching off to discuss major differences.
Also, the cameras we were given to test for a very short time were pre-production builds, and as a result we won't be diving too deep or offering detailed opinions on image quality and other features. Raw files will also not be made available at this time.
Writer's note: Panasonic had very limited numbers of cameras and lenses. Cameras specifically were distributed to each region, and USA only had one S1R among all present journalists. Same for the lenses, which we only had one of each available lens. It was therefore challenging to not only share one of each lens we had, but also find a way to move that single S1R around among us while also not squandering the very limited three hours total we had to shoot. I received an S1 and 50mm f/1.4 initially, hence why most of the images I captured during the shoot time were done with that combination of equipment. See our beta S1 Gallery page.
Body Design and Build Quality
I think the first thing most will notice about the S1 is the size of the camera; it's pretty large. Though the body is thinner than a DSLR thanks to not needing a mirror, most of the rest of the camera is pretty similar in size to a Canon 5D Mark IV or even a Nikon D750. It has significant heft, though it is lighter than the D850. Differentiating itself from, say, a Sony Alpha full frame mirrorless, the grip is noticeably deeper and more robust, and the height of the camera allows for your full hand to grip the body without your pinkie finger having to drag underneath the battery compartment. Some may feel that the while the grip is indeed much larger than on a Sony camera, it still may not be deep enough for every hand grip position or for those with larger hands, as it is very easy to get your palm into such a position and jam the tips of your fingers into the base of the grip.
Nevertheless, it is very comfortable to hold, and it is likely that more will praise Panasonic for their design choices here than those who will be outspokenly disappointed.
Panasonic decided to break away from their vari-angle LCD that is popular with video shooters and instead used a multi-axis tilt screen that is surprisingly robust. It allows you to tilt the rear monitor up and down at a few different angles, and then also can be flipped to the side slightly by pulling on a small trigger on the left side of the monitor. It allows you as a shooter to get pretty much any angle on the screen as long as you are behind the camera. The S1 is more a stills shooting camera than a video camera, but because it can be outfitted with a good number of high-end video features, some videographers might not be happy with the limited viewing angles available to video shooters. The monitor can not be articulated to face fully forwards or left, for example, which can result in some challenging angles depending on the shoot. But since it does feature a full-sized HDMI port, using a monitor with the S1 feels like a fair compromise in exchange for the full frame video.
Also, given that Panasonic went pretty far out of their way to build a camera that was robust and tough, the design of this monitor fits that bill very well. You can hold the camera by the monitor at any of its possible angles without fear of it snapping on you. It's a very tough design.
If you have used a Panasonic camera before, the position of many buttons will be similar, though there are some changes to the placement of items compared to the GH5, for instance. Firstly, the command dial that is located behind the shutter button on the GH5 is in front of it on the S1. The mode dial is moved from the right side of the body to the left to make room for a top-facing LCD, and the burst rate and self timer buttons were placed underneath that dial, instead of existing as their own dedicated dial on the GH5.
The video record button was moved from its place on the top of the body on the GH5 to be snugly, almost hidden, to the lower right of the eye cup on the S1. If you aren't looking for it, you may miss it.
Many other buttons have seen slight shifts in location from their mainstays on the GH5 body, but none of them feel out of place or in odd locations, except for perhaps the power switch. Instead of keeping it wrapped around either the shutter button (like on Sony cameras) or the mode dial (like on the GH5), the power switch stands alone on the top of the body, taking up a large portion of the real estate next to the top-facing LCD.
Speaking of that top-facing LCD... there is one! It's not particularly striking in any other way other than it does exist, and there is a backlight button that can be toggled to the right of the LCD for use in the dark.
The one small complaint I have regarding one of the button/dials is the button/dial that surrounds the menu button on the back of the camera. This dial turns just fine, but it is also a directional pad that can be used to navigate menus. As a directional pad, the "pressability" of it felt odd. It's a bit hard to explain, but while you can press the dial in a number of directions, it feels like you have to extend a bit more effort into the press than you would think. It doesn't have a satisfying click and feels shallow, despite the fact that this button/dial protrudes from the body of the camera more than any other button on the body. That's the best I can do to describe it, so hopefully that paints a decent picture! It's by no means a deal breaker, but the same button/dial on the GH5 feels remarkably more "complete" than it does on the S1.
Many of you will rejoice to hear that the S1 has two memory card slots: a UHS-II SD card port and an XQD port that will eventually support CFexpress.
Finally, I want to touch on the quality of the electronic viewfinder: it's stunning. My friend Jordan Drake from DP Review put it perfectly when he said, "I never realized how bad my GH5 viewfinder was until I looked through the S1's."
The GH5 viewfinder is not bad, but the S1's viewfinder is just immaculate. For video shooters, this is a wonderful thing. Every detail is visible, the refresh rate and the 120 frames per second makes everything just look so smooth when shooting. For stills shooters, these higher and higher resolution EVFs are less important, but I don't want to de-emphasize how much you will appreciate the quality of this EVF. It's very, very good. I'm confident saying it's either the best or close to the best one I've personally ever used.
I want to spend a short moment here to congratulate Panasonic on their menu design: it's very good. Though some will probably find that it's still clinging to the old hierarchical, page-based design that digital cameras have used since pretty much their inception, but it's smart in its layout of all the features. Rather than feel like just one giant list of options randomly assembled together, which is a problem on several other cameras by other manufacturers, Panasonic nicely organized all similar features together. It uses easily recognizable icons next to menu items so you know what section you are presently working through.
Like with all cameras, I spent the first few minutes setting up the S1with my own personal preferences, and I recall it taking significantly less time than with other cameras, and I did not have to ask for help from any engineers to do it. I also did not have to grab the instruction manual and thumb through that while searching for any feature at any time. That's a testament to the strength of their menu design.
I used to personally think Canon did the best job of making their menus not confusing to navigate, but the S1 takes it one step further. Though both companies do a good job, Panasonic is presently my personal favorite thanks to a mix of excellent overall organization and their use of easily-recognizable icons.
This is perhaps the most important section for many, as autofocus has been the center of speculation and debate due mainly to Panasonic's public distaste for phase-detection pixels on sensors. The S1R is indeed devoid of them, instead relying on a mixture of DFD-powered contrast detection and what Panasonic calls "deep learning" object detection and recognition. The result is somewhat mixed, but let me preface this by saying that at no point did I consider the autofocus "bad." It is in fact quite impressive in many regards. However, it's slightly inconsistent in some areas leaving me feeling like I need more time to fully evaluate it.
The below insights are based on using both the S1 and S1R, as we had very limited time with both cameras. Some shooting situations the S1R was not available to use, and vice versa. That said, the autofocus system felt identical on both cameras.
Let me share the shooting environments we experienced, and my thoughts on the autofocus performance in each of those environments.
The three or so hours we had with the cameras took place in three indoor locations broken up by nice, late afternoon light on the streets. While walking from our bus to the first indoor shooting location, I spent some time getting images of buildings, people and street objects. In this regard, I found the camera to be extremely snappy and accurate to focus. That is to say, I could get lost and fully immersed in the shooting experience and at no point felt myself directly thinking about the camera.
The first indoor location was a cramped, dimly-lit bar where we had a few moments to photograph two bartenders, their drinks, and the ambiance. Because the camera uses a database to determine shapes and lock focus and also combines this technology with eye-AF, photographing people is pretty natural. I used the human detection autofocus setting, and I have to say I was pretty impressed with how good the camera was at quickly seeking and locking on to the face and eyes of the bartenders. The camera also did a decent job of selecting focus of non-human elements like the drinks they were making, though this was a bit more hands-on than anything else I had shot thus far. Because I was also shooting at a very wide open f/1.4, I had to often recompose or ask the camera to try again when aiming at the drinks. I don't know if this is because of the shallow depth of field or because the deep learning algorithms don't include obscure bar top objects. I say this knowing full well that phase detection probably wouldn't have helped. In retrospect, single point AF would likely have been a better choice.
While tracking faces in the dark environment, some images in a burst sequence would dip in and out of focus as the camera attempted to keep track of what I wanted it to capture. So while I did not have a shortage of good finished images, it was mostly because I took so many. The cameras were good at capturing a crisp image when they recognized a subject properly, but this did not always happen.
Because the environment was so dim and I still got quite a few excellent images, I am overall very pleased with the results in this setting.
On the way to the next location was more street shooting, so the " Grade A" stated before continues to stand in this regard.
The next location was a museum of sorts that featured high ceilings with glass roofing and plenty of light. It was a rather cavernous, open space with not a lot to photograph other than a few select architecture images. The lighting situation inside the building was pretty much identical to the lighting outside, so the few images I did capture in this space were just as good as my experience outdoors.
The final shooting location was an indoor studio with four or five different sets, a few featuring still-life arrangements like fruit or drinks on a table, and a couple featuring models and strobe lights. For the still life images, there were large kino-flo style panels with plenty of light, and in the case of the models the rooms weren't dim, but they weren't well-lit either.
In the well-lit still life sets, the cameras performed very well. Focus was swift and accurate. In video mode, I tested tapping on different areas of the frame with very shallow depth of field (using the new 50mm f/1.4 which is, by the way, a stunning lens) to see how the camera was able to judge changes in distance and depth. Moving from a background subject to a foreground subject, focus was absolutely superb. I cannot imagine it working better. Not only did it smoothly move from the background element to perfectly focus on the foreground, it did so in a very "human-like" slow and smooth rack focus. I made a note on that set that it would be hard for me to manually make a rack focus that was as smooth and perfect as what the camera did automatically.
Moving from a foreground element to a background one, however, was less good. For some reason, consistently, foreground to background required the camera to stutter a bit to determine a contrast point. Imagine how all old digital cameras used to focus: rack out and back in to determine contrast point distances, and then it locks onto an area based on that data. That is what the cameras did here consistently, but only from foreground to background. From background to foreground, the cameras never did this.
When shooting the models, I relied heavily on the facial recognition and eye-AF. I only shot one model with the S1, and about half of my images I was happy with the level of sharpness. Through the viewfinder, the S1 told me that it was tracking an eye, but the captured end result sometimes resulted in an overall soft image. I am not sure if this is due to the autofocus or the model moving too much for the shutter speed we were working with, but I am happy that I had some results at all from this set (it was rushed, cramped and challenging to work in). I wasn't able to baby the camera and get everything perfect, but the camera still produced results I was happy with. I think there is something to be said about that.
Overall, I have to say the hardest part about shooting with the Panasonic S1 is the visual feedback you receive when using autofocus. As is common with other cameras from Panasonic, like the G9, the S1 is constantly wavering its focus as it continually calculates with contrast detection and Depth From Defocus. The deep learning helps the camera recognize important subjects to track on, but at this time I'm not sure if it actually contributes to the forming of sharp images. I get the feeling it's relying on the combination of DFD and contrast detect for that, which has its limits. The closer you are to a subject, the stronger the visual effect is. Imagine a scene slightly pulsating as you look at it, or the out of focus bokeh areas slightly growing and shrinking at a rapid pace in the background. This is a result of the autofocus system Panasonic chooses to use, and is not just limited to the S1R or the S1. For those who are not used to this kind of visual feedback, it can feel unsettling. Sometimes you will feel like the photo you took missed focus, but when you check the image on the back of the camera, more often than not it's perfect.
And that's a camera-to-user interaction that is kind of a let down with the S1. I think that if this weird effect did not happen in the viewfinder, I probably would be less critical overall of the autofocus capability. It definitely will take some getting used to.
What is very important to note here though is that Panasonic has made a camera in 2019 that is capable of acquiring, locking and tracking with autofocus extremely reliably in a variety of lighting conditions without the use of phase detection. Their desire to go a different route with autofocus technology and rely on machine learning is a bold one (the camera isn't learning and adding to its database while you shoot, so it's not true machine learning, but the idea is there), and they are really the only ones doing it this way. In this first iteration, I would go so far as to say their experiment here was a success. It's worth noting that Panasonic can continually update this software to become more intelligent and they have proven this to be the case with their cameras in the past that only used Depth from Defocus, and adding the deep learning to their focus algorithm has only made it better and will continue to do so.
Brief Notes on Video and Image Quality
I don't want to go too far into this section because the camera was pre production, and we aren't permitted to discuss too much of a deep dive on image quality at this time, but I do want to say that the overall "look" of images and video gets a big thumbs up from me.
Though I wish there were more opportunities to photograph people in natural light, the images that I was able to capture showed me that there is a lot to like about the S1's ability to render color. Now, granted, for stills shooting much of this is editable in post and it really only matters when you look at JPEGs or the straight video files, but it's still important to feel good about the images you capture when you see them on the back of the camera.
In that sense, I was very happy with how good the camera rendered shadows and highlights as well as blues and midtone reds. I will have to do more research at a later date regarding how it deals with greens, but what I saw in my short time with the S1 leads me to believe it's not quite as good as what you see out of a Nikon, which is my personal standard for bright and stunning greens (D750 for example is one of my favorite sensors for this).
Judging the S1 on video at this time isn't particularly fair. As I mention in my hands-on with the S1R, both it and the S1 share the same 4:2:0 8-bit limitation at this point, with the additional higher-end video features coming to the S1 after launch at a time to be determined, for a price that hasn't been stated yet. So with both cameras shooting at the same 4K in 4:2:0 8-bit, the video feed from both cameras looks pretty much identical. I say "pretty much" because I'm sure someone with better eyes than me could spot the difference, but I honestly think they look exactly the same. I think that is more praise on the S1R than the S1, since that camera is working with a great deal more pixels to render the same frame of view and final video size.
I think that the video on both cameras looks very good for standard profile, 4:2:0 8-bit straight out of camera. Anyone who regularly shoots in a camera's standard profile and does minimal to no grading in post is going to find a lot to love about either of these cameras. Right now, I'm confident saying that at least in standard, since Log was unavailable to test, the Panasonic S1 is easily my favorite out of any other competitor camera that shoots full frame video.
The S1 has a limitation that the S1R does not, and that is its ability to capture 4Kp60. The S1R will capture 4Kp60 in full frame, something the S1 cannot do (this is because Panasonic wanted to assure a certain quality for the S1 once 4:2:2 10-bit became available on it, and offering the full width of the sensor in 60 frames per second would not hold up to that standard. Since the S1R won't ever be getting V-log or 4:2:2, they did not have to be so strict on what they allowed the camera to do). Comparing the 60p video to the 24p feed out of the S1 is only noticeable in that the 60p footage has a significant crop. The actual look and quality of the footage appears the same to me, as was the case with the S1R video as well. The crop is rather extreme though, but at least 4Kp60 capture is enabled at all. Once the S1 gets the video package upgrade, being able to capture 4Kp60 in APS-C size at 4:2:2 10-bit is going to leave me very little to complain about. Do I wish it was the full width? Of course. Is it holding me back from loving this camera? Absolutely not.
The Panasonic S1 appears to be a very solid competitor in the full frame mirrorless space. The body design, viewfinder, menu system and image quality all look to stand up to the best of what is out there, and in many cases exceed those competitors.
When the shutter clicks down and you feel the camera capture an image, it feels good. The S1 is a satisfying camera to use in just about every regard.
The main sticking point for many will be the autofocus, and not really even how good it is but rather the experience of using it. In many ways it feels like older cameras, at least in its visual feedback to you as the shooter. You have to be willing to ignore a lot about the what it's doing in order to feel comfortable, and I'm still personally not sure how that makes me feel. I think there is great promise in what Panasonic is doing with their deep learning technology, and for a beta release of the camera it felt surprisingly polished. The S1 will not let you down in most cases, but I am hesitant to say that Panasonic's choice for autofocus puts it even near the top of what is available. Is it good? Yes. Is it great? Jury is still out.
At this point, if you forced me to pick between the two, I would probably go with the S1. Not only is the price point easier to swallow, the 24 megapixels are much more forgiving than the 47 on the S1R, and the coming video features to the S1 makes it more of a camera for me specifically. In an ideal world, I would have both the S1 and S1R in my bag with my GH5 and GH5S. All these cameras together create a complete photo, time-lapse and video solution that only Panasonic presently offers in these form factors and price points. They really do have something special with what they are building here, and they've made a believer out of me. It makes me want to give their autofocus more chances, because the rest of the system they are building is so intriguing and compelling.