Panasonic S1R: Problems and Nikon's Brilliant Counterattack
Continuing with my Panasonic S1 series coverage, this weekend I took my shiny new camera out for a spin with my new Panasonic Lumix S PRO 50mm f/1.4 lens. I was so stoked to use this setup and shoot several new images to post on the blog. But after an hour or so hauling this gargantuan rig, I started thinking about the S1 system as a whole and where it stands against the other mirrorless options. All is not perfect in the Panasonic world of full-frame mirrorless cameras. Let me explain.
There are three gripes I have with the current S1 series cameras. They are: System size, autofocus, and workflow integration.
I knew going into this system that the camera was large. As I’ve explained, it actually helps the ergonomics in many ways. However, when you add additional accessories such as battery grip, eyecup, and the Panasonic S PRO 50mm lens, you have the Incredible Hulk of cameras. It is so heavy with that setup.
And when I say system size, I mean the entirety of the system from camera body to lenses. Even the accessories are large (just take a look at the battery or optional eyecup). When fully equipped it’s like a medium format rig, but without the medium format output. Not really what I’d want in my 35mm system.
I ended up removing the battery grip and just going with the body and lens. Still, it felt heavy and clunky, more because of the lens than anything. I like my equipment to feel nimble. It can have a little weight to it, but not be overly heavy. That’s one of the reasons I love Nikon’s G series lenses. They’re large, but overall lightweight for the most part. At least the primes are. Heck, even Sigma’s 50mm Art lens is both smaller and lighter than the S PRO 50mm. The Panasonic 50mm weighs what you’d expect of a large zoom lens or telephoto prime lens. Not really what I’m looking for in a 50mm.
Why such a large system with only nominal performance gains, if any, over the competition?
Like I mentioned in my first post about the S1R, it would have been great if Panasonic introduced some 1.8 primes that a much more reasonable in terms of size and cost. The S Pro 50mm is a beautiful lens. Is it worth $2300? I can’t really say it is if I’m being honest. Most would be fine with the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 ART lens and not notice a difference between the two lenses unless they were side-by-side.
However, the Sigma MC-21 adapter is still not available as time of this post. So those impatient photographers, like myself, only have a few options for lenses at the moment. And they’re huge. Bummer.
From my experience with the S1R, the autofocus system needs a bit of work. It doesn’t seem sure of itself. A test I often do with both my cameras and new lenses is point them at the window blinds in my apartment. My blinds are usually slightly open so you can see what’s going on outside. The Nikon D850, Z6, and Canon EOS R cameras all were able to nail both focus on the blinds when I aimed at them or at whatever was going on outside behind them if I switched where I was aiming. The Panasonic would stay locked onto whatever it focused on first. Say, the foreground (the blinds). It would take several attempts before it would adjust focus to focus on what I’d changed to (i.e., the background).
Another weird occurence is that it simply wouldn’t focus at times. I have a potted plant in the corner of my room. I pointed at various objects in my apartment and it locked on just fine. When I pointed at the plant, the entire viewfinder was a blurred mess. It couldn’t figure out what it was looking at. I guess that’s the downside of the contrast detection/DF-D focusing system. But I will mention I never had this problem on my Panasonic G9. It was weird and cause for concern. When I went on my photo walk to test the camera out, it exhibited similar behavior with a variety of subjects.
There’s a basketball court near my place and I wanted to capture some of the guys playing. Aiming through the fence at the players, the camera struggled to focus on the fence in the foreground or the action taking place in the background. Annoying.
It’s just not sure of what you’re trying to focus on at times and takes a moment to figure it out. That’s worrying as for a pro that can mean the difference between getting the shot and not. I’m sure Panasonic will improve the performance with firmware updates, but it’s an annoyance at the moment.
I’m primarily a portrait photographer who works in a studio. I love shooting tethered and currently there’s no smooth way of shooting tethered with Panasonic cameras. Panasonic offers their Lumix Tether software which is nice, but it complicates the process. For one, with a Nikon, Sony, or Canon I can just plug my camera into Capture One and start shooting. The images will pop up and I can browse through my photos and make adjustments. I can even apply those adjustments to future images.
With Lumix Tether, you set a folder to send your captured images to and they will go there upon each capture. You can see the image you just shot in a larger view, but there’s no way to “browse” through all your recent captures for, say, comparing and marking favorites. And there’s no native tethering support in Capture One for Panasonic. There’s a workaround which involves selecting your capture folder from Lumix Tether as a “watched folder” by Capture One. When you take a picture using Lumix Tether, the image goes into your capture folder, Capture One then sees it and pulls it into the program. You can also do this with Lightroom.
So in a nutshell, you have to combine Lumix Tether with whatever RAW software you use. The camera won’t tether natively in either program.
It’s an okay workaround, but not without it’s faults. For one, the program doesn’t advance to the next photo correctly so when you take a picture and it pops up on screen, it’s usually the image you previously took, not the one you just snapped. It’s always one image behind in the viewer. Annoying. Additionally you can’t set it to apply adjustments to your subsequent captures as you can when natively tethering through Capture One Pro. Annoying.
So when I came home to look through my images, I thought to myself, “There’s nothing so great about these images that are better than the Nikon Z I had. What are the pros that make this camera worth considerably more than it’s competition?” I couldn’t find a clear answer. While I pondered this, I went over to NikonRumors.com to check the Nikon news. Nikon was preparing to launch a deal with the Z7 being $600 less than before.
When I looked at the cost of the Z7 versus the cost of the S1R it really didn’t make any sense. What about the S1R makes it worth $1000 more than the Nikon Z7 or a7R III? Sure it looks better aesthetically, but does it look $900 better? It doesn’t focus nearly as good. It’s heavier. The lenses that are available are HUGE. There’s still no Sigma adapter. Or native Sigma lenses. How can I justify it? It really doesn’t outpace the Nikon Z7 in any significant way. Perhaps the S1 has benefits over the Z6, but when comparing the high megapixel bodies from both companies, the Panasonic doesn’t have a clear advantage over the now $900 cheaper Z7.
Look at this breakdown by CameraDecision:
Don’t get me wrong. I like the S1R. But it’s not worth $900 more than the Nikon or equivalent Sony. It just isn’t. It has plenty of features that I wish the others had (lock button, stunning EVF, etc.), but those lack of features are annoyances more than deal breakers. The tether shooting drives me up the walls, the focusing is inconsistent, and it’s a kettlebell to carry around all day. At least if a DSLR is heavy, you can counter this by buying a tiny prime lens like a 50mm f/1.8 or similar. No go with the Panasonic at the moment.
So, I returned the S1R. Crazy right? I have egg on my face. I know.
I’m quite bummed about it because I love Panasonic and what they’re attempting. It’s just not there yet. My desire for cool gear is outstripped by my practicality as a working professional. I need my equipment to just work and get out of the way. I have a certain way I like to operate and the Nikon Z(and even the Canon EOS R) fit right into my workflow.
If the S1 system gets better in the future and the price drops a bit, I’ll reconsider. Again, I love Panasonic gear.
I was soooo excited for this camera, but there’s nothing about the S1R that justifies higher price tag. It is a pro body. It’s beautifully designed. It’s just not a mature enough system yet. It’s better than the Canon EOS R by a country mile. But at least Canon has lenses and an adapter right now. Heck they’re coming out with their 85mm 1.2L next month! And more to follow this year. Sony has a mature system with lots of options, RIGHT NOW.
The Nikon is still not the best looking camera. Still a little ergonomically poor. But it’s a much better value at $2800 than the S1R is at $3700. You get a lighter camera, access to more lenses - RIGHT NOW, an adapter - RIGHT NOW, and stellar image quality that’s pretty much identical to the S1R.
I chose to save the money, get the Z7 and a couple of Sigma Art lenses. I’ll be posting my thoughts on those in the days to come.
Goodbye Panasonic S1R, I hardly knew thee.