In Uttarakhand with Lumix S1, Panasonic's flagship full frame mirrorless - An impressive debut!

Friday, July 26, 2019

Picture this - A typical moment in the life of a Travel Photographer!
It’s quite late in the evening and we’re huddled inside a shepherd’s hut at a height of 3500m in Himalayas. My guide’s parents were temporarily camping out in the meadow to graze a flock of 500-odd sheep. This was their hut. The old man, my guide’s father, is 75 yet phenomenally active for his age. He has collected wild curry leaves from the meadow and that would be part of our dinner. Inside the hut, there is little light except for the flicker of the flame upon which our dinner will be cooked. Cows are tied behind in one corner and this man positions himself near the stone hut’s entrance to catch some light from the fading evening to clean and cut the leaves. As a photographer, I think this is a perfect environmental shot accurately portraying all that was going on in the shepherd hut that evening. But it’s also quite late, there’s hardly any light for me to make a perfect image. But I try! I bump up the ISO to 20000 and set the shutter speed at 1/20 at the risk of underexposing the shot with the hope that I could pull out the details in post processing. And here’s the result below - quite impressed with the tack sharp and natural quality of this image taken at extreme low light inside a dark shepherd’s hut.

In June this year, I spent few weeks in Uttarakhand testing a brand new mirrorless camera. Panasonic is the latest entrant into full frame mirrorless market. They sure took their time before jumping into the fray but they’ve come up with a solid product. Launched as the new Lumix S Series, two flagship full frame mirrorless cameras were announced last year, up for sale this year. LUMIX S1R and S1 are the two cameras, both with a 35mm full-frame CMOS sensor and an exciting L-Mount standard.(We’ll get to why this is exciting in a bit). The S1R is the top of the line camera with a 47.3-megapixel sensor while the S1 sports a 24.2-megapixel sensor. I carried the Lumix S1 paired with a Panasonic S 24-105mm f/4 lens with me.

Now in the interests of all fairness, I must disclose I haven’t used any other mirrorless systems yet, so there will be no comparison whatsoever. This post is purely based on my experience of using Lumix S1 alone, which was my workhorse for the two weeks I spent in Uttarakhand.

Lumix S1 - The Efficient Heavyweight!

Lumix S1 - The ultimate hybrid for Stills and Video. Image courtesy: Panasonic

Panasonic’s Lumix S1 is the 24.2 Megapixel camera that is meant to be an all round professional camera for both videography and photography on a slightly lower price point (S1R is more expensive and targets purely professional still photographers btw). But priced at 2500 USD (body only), S1 is definitely more expensive than similar models of competing brands. However, there are some distinct advantages the S1 brings to the table.

At the outset, these are the main features of the S1 without really getting into jargon. If you want super technical reviews, I’ve linked to some at the end of this post.

  • High-speed, high-precision AF system - With the advanced Contrast AF system with DFD technology capture every moment with precise autofocus
  • High-Resolution Mode - In this mode, eight consecutive images are automatically shot while shifting the sensor using the Body I.S. (Image Stabilizer) mechanism. Later they are synthesized as one image.
  • HLG Photo - This allows images to be shot with a wider dynamic range and captures rich, precise color expression as close as possible to visual memory.
  • 4K HDR Video - Record breathtaking videos with the dynamic range and extremely fine gradations of light and dark.
  • 6 stops 5-axis Dual I.S. 2 - It can effectively compensate hand-shake movement and delivers pictures in pristine clarity.
  • High-Speed Video - This feature allows you to create a dramatic slow-motion video with superb image quality: 60 fps in 4K
  • Rugged design, reliability, and expandability - The sturdy design can sustain dust, water, and adverse environmental conditions.
  • 6K PHOTO MODE - 6K PHOTO makes it possible to capture unmissable moments at 30 fps by extracting the frame with the best timing out of a 6K burst file

But why so heavy?
And let me say it outright that if you’re interested in a mirrorless only because it will be lighter than a DSLR, then S1 is not for you. S1 is quite heavy, and looks bulky too. Not a typical image you’d associate with a mirrorless. But when I asked the Lumix representatives what was the reason behind the extra weight, I was told that it was decided so to provide exceptional Image stability primarily and also to balance to the weight of the lens and body. You see the S1 comes with 6 stops 5-axis Dual I.S. 2 which can effectively compensate hand-shake movement and delivers pictures in pristine clarity. The in-body image stabilisation in Panasonic is quite remarkable in that it expertly counteracts the hand shake. The body can also be paired with lenses that have optical image stabilisation giving extra scope to shoot sharp handheld images in low light or tricky conditions.

First impressions as I held the camera

I really like the camera’s clean and sharp cuts, a hark back to the older Pentax models. The magnesium alloy body and the rugged make gives it a solid and very pro-like look if you are into that sort of thing. The build quality and design is excellent! The body + lens both together weigh as much as a traditional DSLR but the design is ergonomic with intuitive controls. I operate an ancient DSLR that’s more than 10 years old but I had no problem quickly acquainting myself with the controls and customising it for my requirements. Both the lens and body are weather sealed. The sturdy design can sustain dust, water, and adverse environmental conditions. While I would’ve loved to test it in some extreme conditions as I usually do but the weather was quite warm and no rains or storms either this time where I was. But from the looks of it and Panasonic’s claims on this, S1 should easily work well in extreme conditions. I’ve put my old & not-weather sealed DSLR camera through an insanely lot already and have been constantly surprised by how much these cameras can take in general. Going by that experience, I think the actually certified weather-sealed S1 would do a whole lot better on that front.

Read the travel story & sample photos from this journey -  Life lessons on Uttarakhand's Mountain Slopes - A long story short in five acts
The Leica-Sigma-Panasonic alliance advantage!
“The L-Mount Alliance is a partnership between Leica Camera, Sigma and Panasonic, designed to provide photographers with one unified lens mount standard. Developed by Leica Camera, the L-Mount allows photographers to combine lenses and cameras made by any of the three partner companies. A new era of creative freedom has begun.” -

Panasonic has this big thing going for it. The Lumix S series cameras come with a L-mount, or a Leica mount. And what this alliance means is you can use any of the lenses (with an L-mount) between the three companies interchangeably. One of the biggest issues with mirrorless cameras is the restriction when it comes to lenses available for a particular body. As of now, Panasonic has released three lenses compatible with the S Series - 50mm F1.4, 70-200mm F4 and 24-105mm F4. But Sigma has promised a lineup of 14 prime L-Mount lenses that will be released over the course of the year and Leica has a number of lenses already compatible with Panasonic’s S series, a combined total of 42 native lenses between the three brands.

Things I absolutely loved about the camera
1. Insanely precise AF in lowlight + image stabilisation
The image I took in low light(L) and the cropped section(R) of the man's face, mostly lit by the ambient kitchen fire!

There is some chatter about the AF being a bit slow compared to other competitor models. S1 has a contrast based AF system that’s apparently slightly slower than the phase detect AF system that’s prevalent in most models currently. But these differences are in milliseconds and not likely to affect most of the usual workings unless you have a specific requirement to use continuous AF on a fast moving subject. Also, I haven’t tested anything else so I have no basis for comparison. Although, I was honestly surprised by how well the S1 autofocus functioned in extreme low light, especially inside the dark stone houses of Uttarakhand.

And the S1 claims it can offer 6-stop stabilisation, meaning you can go six stops higher than the shutter speed where shake and blur start to affect the image. I can't say for sure if I was able to see the 6-stop improvement but the image is tack sharp for a handheld shot taken while crouching in an uncomfortable position with only late evening ambient light and some kitchen fire inside the dark hut. I would give full marks to the image stabilisation too!

2. Wide dynamic range capture
I was shooting directly into the sun a lot on this trip. The June weather was particularly disappointing with haze and whatnot, and the sun was almost always right behind the mountains in a rather disappointing way. So I didn’t get a lot of clear blue skies and fiery red sunsets. I was shooting into the sun and the exposure difference between different parts of the scene was insanely high. But fortunately, with better HLG mode where images are shot with a wider dynamic range to capture rich, precise color expression as close as possible to visual memory, I was able to get quite creative despite the less than flattering lighting situations.

3. USB-C charging
The Lumix S1 sports a 3050 mAh battery that can shoot upto 400 shots according to the specs. I was going trigger happy in the meadows, and like clockwork exactly around the 400-image mark, my battery died leaving me sorely disappointed because I had just reached the area of the meadow that was full of wildflowers. I couldn’t do much at that point except shoot from my phone but as soon as I came down to the shepherd hut where I left my gear, I started fast charging the camera using my power bank and I was good to go for few more shots later that evening. And this feature is like a godsend for night and/or timelapse photography.

4. The sunbursts or sunstars
There’s nothing quite like a sharp sunstar to add drama to your landscape photographs. And I absolutely love sunstars. The trick to getting these is pushing the aperture to as wide as possible, usually f10 and above produce sunstars and the number of spikes or rays also depends on how wide the aperture is and the number of aperture blades. Alright, this has more to do with the lens rather than the body but with S1 + 9-aperture blade 24-105mm lens, there were sunbursts everywhere. Although, I haven’t been able to avoid bright blue dots in the sun flares occasionally, and they’re very conspicuous(see picture on right, right click -> open image in new tab). But I had a blast shooting sunstars almost every single day, just because I could. The sunbursts made a lot of these landscapes much more interesting and I love it!

Overall, I’m quite impressed with Lumix S1 and I think it makes for a great professional camera, especially for a travel photographer. And I don't know why I'm inordinately charmed by its looks but it looks so good!

Detailed Reviews on - | Digital Trends | TechRadar | The Verge

Note: This post has been written as part of a sponsored collaboration with Lumix. I was loaned the camera to experience it firsthand and the resulting opinions as always, are mine.

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  1. i was thinking to buy this camera. Thanks for sharing valuable information.


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