A full frame jewel?

Panasonic DC-S1 review

The Panasonic DC-S1 is the first foray for the Japanese company in the realm of the full-frame mirrorless body. Together with the sibling DC-S1R which is identical but the 47MP sensor, they tried to tackle the prosumer market for photographers and video makers alike. It’s built around the existing L-mount, originally developed by Leica, and now also supported by Sigma. This will not be a technical review per se but an in-depth user experience centered on ergonomics, image quality, dynamic range, high ISO and autofocus, which are the most important aspects of a camera. This camera has been on loan from one of the best dealers in Milan, Daniele Astarita (http://www.astarita.homeip.net), whose kindness is second only to his technical prowess. If you are in the area of Milan, his shop is one of the better stocked not only with Pannies but with camera gear and accessories from all the major camera companies, his prices are also competitive. The S1 features a 24MP CMOS full-frame sensor, five-axis image stabilization, high native ISO range from 100 up to 51200, 9 fps burst in AFS and 6 fps in AFC and awesome video features like 10-bit internal 4k recording. The camera was loaned with the kit lens S 24-105 f4 Macro OIS. I was always concerned by the quality of the so-called “kit lenses”; during my more than 25 years of photography, I’ve never bought a kit lens shifting instead to prime or quality zoom. I must admit that this lens delivers; it’s super sharp at f4 in the frame center and good to quite good in the far corners at 24mm; it has also a pleasant bokeh; and, last but not least, it is “relatively” compact. 

In order to freeze the movement of the lights projected on the bridge I had to raise the ISO to 12800; the noise is very well controlled.
Pavia, The Old Bridge

Ergonomics 

Here we are…. (one of the cons of this camera and the system as a whole) is that’s very huge; I remember when I took the camera in my hands for the first time together with a Fuji GFX 50R (which is a medium format): not only it was bigger but noticeably heavier netting more than one kilos (body only). This is one of the few drawbacks of the camera but a major one, whereas Nikon, Canon and Sony have managed to squeeze weight and space from their mirrorless cameras like the Z, the R and the A7-series, Panasonic took the opposite direction. Adding insult to injury the lenses from Sigma, even if they have stellar image quality, are very big and heavy. The pros of a body, so huge, is that the grip is almost perfect; the thumb rests where there’s the AF joystick and all the controls related to AF, while the finger is right on the shutter release. During a day of shooting in the hills of Oltrepo, side by side, with my Fuji X-T3 with the XF 16-55 f2.8, we both found that the grip is way better than the Fuji, even if it’s heavier. 

ISO 12800 not bad; Old Bridge and the Duomo

The body feels solid as a brick, is weatherproof and the combination of metal and rubber extremely well made, even if it’s off-shored to China, to reduce manufacturing costs. The S1 feels durable and will no doubt stand the test of time. One note about the menu: I always found the menus on all the Lumix cameras to be some of the most intuitive ones together with the Nikon – and the S1 is no exception. Even if the camera is packed with tons of features both for stills or video, the menus are easy to navigate and to find out the area of your interest. What’s more, for my kind of shooting, Panasonic put some really useful controls on the top left dial such as intervalometer and the self-timer so you can avoid to dig in the menu. The only thing that I wished they leave on this dial is bracketing, but you can customize a Fn button in the front and you are done. There’s just one thing that spoils an almost perfect ergonomics, but it is one with which we can live and is centered on the power switch that is in a rather awkward position. 

Top left dial
ISO 100
ISO 200
ISO 400
ISO 800
ISO 1600
ISO 3200
ISO 6400
ISO 12800
ISO 25600
100% crop ISO 100
100% crop ISO 200
100% crop ISO 400
100% crop ISO 800
100% crop ISO 1600
100% crop ISO 3200
100% crop ISO 6400
100% crop ISO 12800
100% crop ISO 25600
This is a 100% crop of a landscape photo at ISO 3200; as you can see noise is very few and even the details of the rows of vines in the background crystal clear.
At left a straight out of camera RAW file, while at right just une click in luminance noise. If you see it on a big display you can clearly notice the difference. The sensor is among the best in is class.

Let’s take a look at the EVF (electronic viewfinder)……well the review here is simple. This is the best EVF in the market today, is an OLED panel brilliant, bright and super sharp with 5.76 million pixels resolution, 120 fps refresh rate and 5 millisecond lag. Do you know that both the S1 and S1R have also backlight illuminated controls on the rear? Bravo Panasonic………..

Image quality. 

Images were processed in Lightroom and I’ve used a number of Panasonic’s film simulations. Let’s delve deeper into the technical aspects of the image: regarding High Iso take a closer look at the series of shots above taken above at one-stop interval, from ISO 100 to ISO 12800, do you see some noise? …. look also at the 100% crop at ISO 12800…. it rocks. Noise is very very low and well balanced and with one click in LR, from the RAW files, you can dramatically reduce luminance noise to acceptable levels. There’s another aspect of photography which is important for me:  and is color rendition. Well, to my surprise, I’ve found that Panasonic has really pleasant colors for skin tones, punchy landscape colors and even nice B+W settings. The sensor delivers, furthermore, razor-sharp images and I look after trying this camera with some primes from Sigma, the kind of 85 f1.4 or 135 f1.8 to reach the limits of technical image quality, the sensor can deliver. The image stabilization works great, Panasonic together with Olympus pioneered this technology on the sensor so you can expect perfectly sharp images up to 4 stop in almost all the situations, which allows you to shoot hand-held 1/8th of a second at 105mm. One of the greater features of the S1 is the hi-res mode which produces, shifting the sensor, a 96 MP image in a RAW file (of a whopping 190 MB!!!) greatly improving resolution. I’m curious to try this feature on the 47 MP S1R  to see the outstanding 192 megapixels files. To use this feature you must put the camera on a tripod and it works well with subjects which don’t move; having said that in a day with light wind I was able to get a good shot even of landscape, and the bump of resolution is truly impressive; look at the images to get an idea. Panasonic packed a lot of extra features in the camera such as 4K and 6k photos and Time-Lapse Animation with the possibility to create a video in-camera with just a click of the rear display, which of course, is touch-sensitive. For dynamic range, I over and underexposed by three stop and I was able to recover both the highlights and the shadows, the latter a little tad better. For the former probably 2-stop is the maximum that we can achieve before losing details in the highlights. 

Hi-res mode vs. standard both 100% crop – still
Hi-res mode vs. standard both 100% crop – landscape
See how well works IBIS; this is a 100% crop hand-held
This is a 100% crop at 105mm 1/10th of a second hand held
Underexposed 3-stop
Overexposed 3-stop

Autofocus,

Most of the criticism surrounding the Lumix cameras even for the Micro Four Third ones are centered around Panasonic proprietary technology of DFD (Depth from DeFocus), which is based on contrast detection whereas the most advanced cameras today employ phase detection. I used extensively single AF and, at least for my experience, is quick and responsive, it does not seem to be slower and less accurate, than the AF on my Fuji X-T3, which is phase detection and also one of the best in the market. Most of my concerns are on AFC which, as you can see in the images below, it seems to achieve focus, then lost and then again acquire focus anew, all without other interference. Having said that, the ratios of shot perfectly in focus is around 50/60 % than we have 20/30 % which shows an acceptable focus and only 10% or so completely out of focus. Anyway, it delivers fair to good results once you get used to. The buffer is good allowing me to shoot bursts of images in RAW+Fine on a fast SD card; of course, if I will buy this camera I will invest some money in a couple of XQD cards to achieve even faster write time. A couple of words on MF, thanks to the amazing EVF manual focusing is a real joy. 

Final word

Just a couple of words about video. Provided that I’m a photographer and not a video maker, there’s a lot to like in the S1. The in-body image stabilization does an incredible job of smoothing videos and that alone is a good reason to use it as the main camera for videos. There’s no crop as the S1 reads the entire 24.2 mega-pixel sensor and downsamples to 4K size. Shooting video indoors in dim light at high ISO up to 51200 there’s very few noise, a result close to that of low light champion like Sony A7SII. There is no denying that Panasonic has made a lot of things rights and just a few wrong. They packed a lot of amazing features in both the S1 and S1R, showing that they are in (full-frame market) for the long haul and I’m quite sure that they will be a formidable competitor for both Canon, Nikon and, even Sony. Investing a stack of money in the sharply declining market of photography is a clear sign of their commitment. I’m mainly a travel photographer so, for me, weight and space are a real issue and for obvious reasons, the S1 is not what I’m after. But if you don’t mind to lug around heavy gear, I will heartily recommend this camera.