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The Panasonic S1 2023 Review: When More is More

Wed, 2022-12-07 00:18

For at least a decade I’ve been a card-carrying weight weenie, obsessing over grams I thought I didn’t want to carry. But a while back I came into a battered old Canon 5D, the OG enthusiast full frame camera. The controls felt like a soggy diaper, but the heft of the body, the solidity of the grip, were strangely satisfying. It made me wonder: what new camera vistas would be open to me if I didn’t care so much about weight? And so today we’ll consider the Panasonic S1, a full-frame mirrorless L-Mount camera introduced in 2019. It weighs over a kilogram without a lens. It is, in at least some ways, a strange and marvelous beast.

I’ll refer you to contemporary reviews from the usual suspects for objective performance data, mostly restricting myself here to the hors piste details and digressions for which I am justly famous. I will say that the sensor was capable in 2019 and remains so today. Its origins are shrouded in mystery, but it could be made by a company then unfortunately called TowerJazz, now known as Tower Semiconductor (much better, guys). Like nearly all big sensors of the last few years, it’s wildly overqualified for taking pictures of your cats and kids, unless you keep them in a candlelit cave. And even then, it would do ok. By most metrics it holds its own against other sensors of its size and resolution in current models.

The S1 was generally well received by the photo press. The 2019 reviews boil down to: “Pretty great if you don’t mind the weight; too bad about the autofocus.” It cost $2,500, which seemed like a lot back then because we couldn’t see the future. Cost is part of what makes this camera particularly interesting now. If it came out today, MSRP might be a kilo-buck higher and its specs would hardly be different. Second hand, you can buy it all day on MPB for less than 1,200 EUR, and if you’re ready to poke around inefficient local marketplaces and do some unbundling, you can have it for under a grand. Meanwhile, contemporary competitors like the Sony A7 III go for hundreds more and lack a lot of the special sauce that makes the S1 interesting.

Plus, a side effect of the S1’s odd market position is that it’s easy to find one that hasn’t been abused. Most of these have not been smashed around in conflict zones or indy movie productions; they’ve been on a cruise or two, covered a few little league games, and spent the majority of their lives in a well-padded case. Avoid the few wedding veterans and you’ll be fine. Mine had just a thousand shutter cycles on the odometer.

Some Background

Leica introduced the L-Mount (originally called the T-Mount) on some quirky APS-C mirrorless cameras that the company released in 2014. Just a year later a full frame mirrorless model with the same mount appeared, suggesting that Leica had planned to accommodate the larger sensor all along (the old APS-C lenses work in a crop mode). The SL cameras are hideously expensive for what they offer, but the Leica fairy dust ensures that at least some people swear by them. I’m sure the lenses are optically outstanding, but they’re inevitably heavy and the premium pricing feels wrong on something with an RoHS label on it; the M rangefinder lenses that are just brass and glass seem more deserving. The SL line mystifies me, and it feels even more dentisty than the Panasonic S cameras.

I don’t know who asked who to dance, but at some point Leica teamed up with Panasonic and Sigma to form the L-Mount Alliance. Panasonic and Leica have a long and tangled history in the digital age: at one point Leica was selling red-dotted cameras that were essentially rebadged Panasonic models, so you paid the Leica premium for a camera that could also be had for much less in the same store, which seemed weird. Panasonic also licenses the Leica name to decorate some of its lenses, presumably an effort by a Japanese electronics maker to confer some cachet on its products. (Panasonic, a company so unsexy that it decided to write “Lumix” on its fake prism humps. Not “Nikon,” like Nikon does, or “Canon” like Canon, or “Sony” like Sony. ) I don’t know if that fooled anyone, but Panasonic’s camera division feels like it’s on stronger footing than some of the competition. In mid-2020, Panasonic and Leica made a vague announcement that they were collaborating on technology and branded the effort “L2.” The first fruit of that is apparently the processor in the new Panasonic S5 II, which I’m sure is fine but doesn’t exactly get the heart racing.

On the consumer side, Panasonic is best known as a maker of Micro Four Thirds hybrid stills/video cameras that lean into the video side, but it also makes broadcast video equipment, and TVs, stereos, shavers, air conditioners, in-car electronics, industrial HVAC systems, supply chain solutions, factory robots. Panasonic will be around long after the last camera aimed at enthusiast photographers ships. And I think Leica will, too. Leica will exist, selling rangefinders that need film that’s no longer made, a hundred years after people have stopped taking photos and have uploaded their minds to the cloud.

The third amigo in the L-Mount Alliance is Sigma, a company that I can’t help but love. They so crazy! Their lenses have kept the mainstream camera makers, who would otherwise gouge you mercilessly, a little bit honest, and they’re still made in Japan. Their own cameras, which normal people have never heard of, are certifiably bonkers. They used to have a proprietary mount, but now, thanks to the Alliance, you can put insanely expensive Leica lenses or rationally reasonable Panasonic lenses on your nutball Sigma camera, or mix and match as you see fit.

Recently, DJI joined the Alliance, but I don’t care about drones.

So, a Veblen-powered camera maker that popularized 35mm photography, an international electronics megacorp, and a substantial but quirky family business walk into a bar. Over sake and schnapps they hammer out the L-Mount Alliance, and we have a new (kind of) mirrorless full frame mount option. It joins Sony’s E-mount, the early mover that basically created the market, and Canon’s RF and Nikon’s Z mounts, woefully late to the party but already dancing sweatily. Is there room for one more on the dance floor?

To switch metaphors, I think the slowest wildebeest in this herd is pretty obvious. Camera buyers can smell fear. My guess is that the S1’s depressed resale value represents some justified dubiousness that the mount will remain supported for the long term.

Lucky for me, I’m not a long-term thinker. Since I started buying used, I try on systems like clothes off the clearance rack. I went all into Nikon’s full frame DSLRs a while back, viciously depreciated by the deathwatch tick of mirrorless encroachment, had a blast, then sold out. The whole experiment ended up costing about 100 EUR after transaction friction. Miraculous.

And sometimes, the lagging wildebeest has some surprises left in it. Let’s not forget that while Sony ushered in the full-frame mirrorless revolution with the A7 in 2013, it was actually Panasonic and Olympus that got the mirrorless ball rolling back in 2008 with the first Micro Fourth Thirds cameras. Olympus sold its camera division in 2020, but Panasonic soldiers on. Sigma cameras are acts of irrational devotion, and maybe loss leaders that are imagined to drive lens sales. Leica exists beyond the constraints of conventional economics. So who’s to say what the future of the L-Mount will be?

Matter Matters… Or Does It?

Even mainstream camera reviews, so often oddly aphasic on the issue of weight, reliably comment on the mass of the S1. It is the only single grip mirrorless body in production to top a kilo with battery and card. Yes, that’s over 10 newtons of force pulling you relentlessly towards the center of the Earth. The Canon R3, a double grip camera aimed squarely at professionals that costs over 5,000 dollars, is a shade lighter. Most cameras in the S1’s class weigh hundreds of grams less.

The lightest Panasonic lens adds another 300 grams. That’s a lot less than any Leica L-Mount lens, but it’s something. For perspective, camera and lens add up to a full bottle of wine, a corkscrew, and a small bag of crackers. Many are the times I’ve left home so laden, but coming back, my load would be considerably lightened. Not so with the S1.

The Panasonic S1 with a 50mm f/1.8 lens next to the Olympus OMD EM-5 III with a 25mm f/1.8. Nearly the same field of view. Both lenses are of modern design and moderate budget, far better corrected than the nifty fifties of yesteryear. Shot wide-open, the Oly will have a broader depth of field (historically a strength, in the current fashion a weakness), but will only grab a quarter of the photons for the same exposure. You probably shouldn’t care. Weights as shown: S1, 1,320 grams. EM5, 555 grams.

But is it really so much? Yes and no. I can wear my EM-5 III and the Oly 25mm 1.8 lens all day in my Osprey Daylite Sling and basically forget I’m carrying it. The S1 needs a little more room, but it does fit into my small Tenba shoulder bag. But for me, it turns out that one shoulder is not enough to comfortably carry the S1, even with a reasonable lens like the Panasonic 50mm 1.8. I was a little surprised — after all, that’s not even two and half times heavier than my Oly kit, and that seems to weigh nothing at all. Primary school math tells me double zero should still be zero, but no.

My first solution was to put the S1 in a backpack, which spreads the weight across two shoulders. This make a huge difference for transporting, if not shooting, and transporting is really the thing. I must also admit that my photography curriculum is less physically demanding now than it once was. In the old days I used to tramp around dusk til dawn with a camera, but now, with a brood of three in tow, there are lots of breaks built into even an ambitious outing.

My second solution was to reconsider the value of comfort and convenience. Maximizing these two factors is so deeply engrained in a culture broadly defined by consumer capitalism that, I realized, I have never even considered if they really mattered. Upon reflection, I think their importance has been overstated, perhaps even entirely misunderstood. Pretty much everything was less convenient and comfortable in pretty much every time before our own, but we do not seem to be massively happier for it. Carrying this banal assertion forward leads to an obvious deduction that seems largely ignored: further enhancements to comfort and convenience are not likely to make us happier.

Now, my mercifully brief exposures to actual pain, mostly bouts of tendonitis and back aches, leave no room for philosophizing; real pain makes life less good. It sucks the light right out of the afternoon. If you have to live with it you certainly can, but it’s better not to. Yet it seems to me that the worthy goal of minimizing pain has been conflated with the avoidance of slight discomfort; the later has been elevated to the position of the former in a way that’s a disservice to everyone.

Inconvenience has also been reframed as a dire symptom of inefficiency, that unquestioned root of all evil in an Amazon-ideal society. The notion that Amazon might not actually be ideal has been percolating for some time, but the discourse usually seems to stop at questions of homogenisation, monopoly, worker exploitation and the like, without drilling deeper into the assumptions that late stage capitalism works so hard to inculcate in us.

I write this, fully aware that I get enraged when someone pays with a check in front of me at the grocery store. I remain coated in the tar of our assumptions, even if I can see and smell the black sticky stuff. But I will now make what would have seemed a radical assertion to me just a few months ago: that an extra few hundred grams of camera and the attendant minor shoulder soreness it might occasion will not negatively impact my photography, the enjoyments of being out in the world with people I care about, or my memories of the moments I try to pin down in images. So far, my experience with the S1 bears this out, but I’ll check back with you when it gets hot again and sweat comes into the equation.

Room With a View

The fate of mirrorless hinged on whether electronic viewfinders and screens could replace the optical viewfinders of DSLRs. For most of photography’s history, viewfinding involved increasingly baroque ways of channeling the actual photons flying off the subject into your eye, and the screens on digicams were not a satisfactory replacement for that. The early EVFs, which started showing up in “bridge” cameras (digicams with DSLR aspirations) were a joke: low resolution, slow refresh rates, wonky colors, extreme contrast. I had one, a Konica Minolta A200, and only resorted to the EVF when ambient light made the rear screen unviewable. In those cases it was better than nothing, but it was more a rough composition guide than a way to see what an actual photo might look like.

The first impressive electronic viewfinder I experienced was the accessory EVF for the Sony NEX 5n, introduced in 2011. It initially retailed for half as much as the camera itself, but I bought a used one later on for a hunge and was impressed. It used an XGA OLED panel, which in EVF speak is 2.4 million dot resolution. I guess because early digicam screen resolutions were so low, marketers took to quoting the resolution in “dots” rather than “pixels,” with dots being the display’s subpixels, so you generally get three dots for every pixel.

My next mirrorless camera, the original Olympus E-M10, had a built-in EVF, but it was only a 1.44 million dot (SVGA) panel. Years later, during the pandemic, I bought an old Sony A7, which took me back up to 2.4 million dots, and then a much newer Oly E-M5 III, also 2.4 mil dots, but with an OLED panel for deeper blacks. A few months before Olympus unveiled the super-light, reasonably-priced E-M5 III, Panasonic dropped the S1, with a 5.76 million dot EVF, the highest resolution then available. At the time, I was not at all interested in an expensive, mammoth-sized full frame camera. But time has a way of changing hearts and whittling down the price of electronics, and so here I am, a proud owner of the best EVF money could buy in 2019. How good is it?

Pretty goddamn good. In normal indoor light, when the dynamic range of the scene is narrow and light levels are moderate, I dare say the EVF looks eerily like an optical viewfinder, except that corner-to-corner sharpness is better than what you’d find in an SLR because the viewfinder optics are dealing with a tiny display rather than a big slab of ground glass. In bright light, the EVF is dimmer than an OVF would be, but the substantial round eye cup does a good job of keeping extraneous light out of your eye so the EVF looks bright enough. In dim light, the EVF looks much better than an OVF because you can actually see what’s going on thanks to the efficient light sponge of a big modern sensor.

Of course when the dynamic range of the scene exceeds the sensor’s capability you’ll see areas blow out or go black in the EVF, but that’s arguably more useful, if less beautiful, than the cheerfully optimistic view of the world an OVF gives you.

The improvement from the 1.44 megadot E-M10 to the 2.4 megadot E-M5 III was very noticeable, but even the newer Oly leaves something to be desired. There is still obviously much less detail than you’d see in a good optical viewfinder. I can’t confidently say that of the S1’s EVF. Even more dots might look better, but I’m not sure, and it seems it will be quite a while before I find out. The S1 broke ground with its EVF, but the industry has not rushed to beat it; several years after its introduction the standard highish-end EVF resolution has settled around 3.6 megadots. Only the top-end cameras, generally costing a lot more than the S1, get the 5.76 megadot treatment. There are also a few models that leap up to 9.44 megadots, but these are outliers. My guess is that the upward trend in EVF resolutions is plateauing in the face of power consumption issues and diminishing returns. I don’t think most buyers are clamoring for more anyway — as usual, my obsession with this seems rather niche. It’s interesting that the best-EVF-specs record holder before the S1 was another L-Mount camera, Leica’s SL, introduced in 2015 with a 4.4 megadot panel (and a $6k price tag in pre-pandemic dollars). High res EVFs seem to be taking a while to trickle down, which is why it’s exciting that the S1 can be had relatively cheap used.

Knob Feel

I have mixed feelings on the knob feel front.

My first impression of the two main control wheels was pretty good: not too clicky, fairly well damped. Not super luxy, but satisfying enough. Over a few months of shooting, though, I’m having second thoughts about the rear (thumb) wheel. Each click feels like it subtends a pretty broad arc, and there’s something about the way the wheel starts and stops that bothers me. Stiction. As you apply force, the wheel doesn’t move at all, until it suddenly does. There’s almost no roll to the movement: it’s a bit herky-jerky. This reduces the confidence that I can move the wheel through a given number of clicks with a given input; I feel like I have to give it discreet pulses of force for precision. I don’t have the same beef with the front wheel, which has a more bell-shaped resistance curve to its clicks.

The third wheel, around the d-pad, feels a little dull. Acceptable but uninspired. The mode dial feels very nice: precise, with satisfying, broad-shouldered resistance and a hefty thunk as you change settings. I’m not a big fan of the center button that you have press down before turning the dial (why not make it a toggle so I can decide if I need it, like on my EM5 III?) but it’s not a dealbreaker.

The power switch flips with a nicely positive click. Solid, short throw. Ergonomics are good enough, but not as good as a well-implemented shutter button collar, which remains my ideal. The small size of the switch flirts with being fiddly, though probably just escapes it; it could be a little bigger. Turning the camera on is easy enough, but turning it off requires you to shift your grip in a way that you wouldn’t with a shutter button collar.

Speaking of that shutter button. Unlike every other autofocus camera I’ve used, the S1’s shutter release doesn’t have a detectable first stage. It takes a very light touch to press it down, and at some point the camera will take a picture: there’s no tactile feedback when you pass through the AF-on region to the shutter release point. I only use back-button focus so once I got used to the light touch (which resulted in quite a few accidental photos of the ground) I was fine, but this design decision is mystifying.

The other buttons are mostly unremarkable. They feel weather-sealed, which they are. They don’t offend me, but they aren’t exciting.

There’s a collar on the mode dial that clicks nicely between drive modes, and I also like the feel of the tiny S/C/M focus mode collar around the AF mode button, which is hard enough to turn but then locks neatly into the next position.

The battery and memory card doors spring open confidently, and the battery itself literally leaps out of the camera when you depress the retaining tab: be ready to catch it. I’d rather have it like this than an anemic spring that barely pushes the battery out enough to grab, but it really is like a projectile weapon.

The screen feels reassuringly solid when you lift it. And none of this flippy bullshit that reviewers and videographers seem to want; this is a proper tilting screen that you can pop up for quick look-down shooting. It also tilts out along the other axis, but you need to fiddle with a lock switch to do that.

Overall, I was expecting a bit more in terms of knob feel because of the S1’s weight and positioning, but the camera generally feels excellent in the hands, presumably due to its solid construction and good materials choices. I have to believe that the weight Panasonic put into the S1 plays a role here, because it’s really not clear what else it’s for. The S1 is large, but it’s not huge. It has a magnesium chassis under all that black plastic, but so does pretty much every other camera in its class. Is that magnesium just thicker? Do the optics in the EVF weigh a lot? Is it the muscular sensor stabiliser? All of the above? I don’t know.

Oh, I also like to touch on sonics in the knob feel section. The S1 has the quietest shutter I’ve heard in a full frame camera. Much, much quieter than the mirror slap of an SLR like the Nikon D750, but also far more discrete than the early Sony A7 series cameras I’ve heard. It’s amazing close to my Oly E-M5 III in terms of both quantity and quality of sound. Indoors even in a fairly intimate ambiance, it won’t distract people. On the street, no one will hear it over the typical city background rumble unless you’re so close that they’re definitely already aware of you. This is all a big plus in my book.

AF AF

Most contemporary reviewers seized on the S1’s autofocus performance as its most glaring weakness. They would have been primed to do so because while everyone else in the world had gone to on-sensor phase detect AF technologies, Panasonic in 2019 still clung stubbornly to contrast detect AF. Reading out a phase detection sensor tells the camera how far out of focus (and in which direction) the lens is. Contrast detection is relative: the camera looks for contrast in the image, and if it doesn’t find it, it refocuses and tries again. By trial and error, it hopefully finds a contrast maximum. In practice, this can happen extremely quickly for single AF modes, but things tend to fall apart when continuous AF is used on moving subjects.

Panasonic bet on a homemade flavor of contrast detection that it dubs “Depth from Defocus,” which involves jiggling focus quickly and analysing the out-of-focus areas to suss out more information about where the lens should be driven. In the S1, this jiggle happens at an impressively fast 480 Hz. You can actually see it in the viewfinder, especially in out-of-focus areas of the image. It seems to really bother some people, but me, not so much. I think it’s more of a problem if you’re shooting video since the effect would be recorded in the final output, but I haven’t messed with that.

As I was writing this, Panasonic announced the S5 II, its first camera with phase detect autofocus. I don’t know if this represents capitulation to reviewer pressure or an acknowledgement that DFD’s strengths don’t balance its weaknesses, but it’s safe to assume that the successor to the S1 will have on-sensor phase detect AF as well.

But back to this S1. Single AF is fast AF. And accurate. That’s not hugely impressive, though, since most cameras I’ve used in the last five years could claim the same.

Continuous AF, which I was prepared to be disappointed by, is fairly capable. It’s certainly much better than my phase detect-equipped Olympus E-M5 III, which can’t keep a kid running towards the camera in focus for love nor money. It might be as good as the Nikon D750 (with tried-and-true off-sensor phase detect AF) I had earlier this year, but I sold that on so I can’t do a head-to-head comparison. The S1 is most likely to drop the ball when the kid is closer, which makes sense since the depth of field drops with magnification.

Besides the basics of focusing on what’s under an AF point, we also now expect cameras to decide where that AF point should be. This is the first camera I’ve used that doesn’t just grab the closest big object and find faces, but also claims to detect whole people and animals, wherever they are in the frame. I was dubious that this would work usefully, but it’s impressively effective.

For example (depending on which focus mode is active), if the camera doesn’t find an obvious face, you might see an orange box around a whole person the camera has decided to focus on, with other people boxed in white. You can in theory redirect focus to other people with the joystick, but in practice this is fiddly even if you’ve left the joystick enabled, which guarantees other problems (see Dumb Stuff, below). But often it grabs the right person anyway, even when their back is turned. Sometimes it will also lock specifically onto a head, again, even if the head’s face is not visible. I don’t keep company with many non-human animals, but I tested the animal finding on some birds at the park and it seemed to work well enough.

Panasonic says all this happens thanks to “deep learning,” which, sure. I don’t know enough about what’s going on at the compute level in modern cameras to assess how powerful they really are, but the S1 seems ready to flex. I was initially dismissive of the fancy AF functionality claimed by OMD Solutions (nee Olympus) for its latest flagship camera, which involves similar advanced subject detection, but now that I see it can actually work pretty well, I’d like to see what tricks the OM-1 can manage. One day, when it’s cheaper.

So, look, I’m not versed in the very latest AF feats from Sony and Canon, but the AF on the S1 seems just fine to me. Maybe it’s because I’m using the camera with firmware version 2.1, while most reviewers would have tested the camera closer to launch. Maybe my standards are just low.

If you really care about AF performance, you should be prepared to do some reading before getting the most out of the S1. Panasonic published a 48-page PDF “guidebook” on the S-series AF system. Maybe because the distinction between menu options like “1-Area (Human Detection)” and “1-Area+(Human Detection)” is not crystal clear. This in addition to the 527-page printed (!) manual included with the camera. There are three independently adjustable AF parameters, and then four presets of those parameters that Panasonic offers for given situations, outlined in the guidebook. The examples can be surprisingly specific: “Hawk / Eagle” or “Dog / Cheetah” when “Enlarged in center. From the front” calls for preset 2, while someone swimming a breaststroke or butterfly warrants preset 3. I’ve mostly left it on preset 1, which covers not just children, but also bicycles, ballet, and horseback riding. But not equestrian jumping (preset 3) or “Horse racing: cornering” (preset 4). So, RTFM, or maybe just don’t.

Dumb Stuff

Every digital camera I’ve ever used has some dumb stuff: the kind of things that make you wonder if the designers actually use cameras to take pictures on a regular basis. These things are often totally ignored in normal reviews, so let me bitch about some here.

Deleting photos is dumb. By default, deleting a single photo take four presses on two different buttons. You can eliminate one press by setting the default choice for “Do you want to delete?” to “Yes,” but c’mon. I’m all for the nanny state, but nanny cameras should be hidden in teddy bears. Let me just press the delete button to delete something. I’m a big boy.

Compression for raw files is also dumb, at least compared to Olympus. The Panasonic files are too big, but not for a good reason. I found some people who seem to understand why, and you know what? I’m not going to even try to get my head around it. You’ll just need more hard drive space sooner than otherwise.

I initially thought the customization of the control wheels was totally dumb, but it turns out that it’s only a little dumb. I thought that you couldn’t assign exposure comp to the two main dials because the menu section for assigning functions to those dials does not allow it by default. I looked in the manual, and googled, to no avail. But finally with some more menu browsing I figured out that there’s another menu item called “Exposure Comp” which does let you assign it to one of the wheels. But you still can’t assign it to either wheel, i.e., so that whichever wheel is doing the A or S changing, the other wheel will be exposure compensation.

Another minor dumbosity regarding control configuration: the joystick. By default, its main job is to move the AF point around. And by default it will do so as you continually bump it while carrying the camera, so that when you pull up to take a shot you’ll find the AF point in some random place. You can turn this off, but then you can’t press the joystick to cycle through detected subjects. You can assigned about 800 functions to most of the buttons on the camera, but not that subject cycle command. To be fair, I find that all cameras now have programable function buttons that seem to offer limitless flexibility, but inevitably the one thing I want to do isn’t on the menu.

Anyway, I’m sure I could go on but you’ve probably already skipped ahead. I should have just written: Like every other digital camera I’ve ever used, the Panasonic S1 offers vastly more configurability than I need while not offering a few options I want, and is plagued by some annoying design decisions that I can easily live with if I don’t think about them.

Trappings of Luxury

There are subtle signs, beyond the apparently superlative build quality, that Panasonic pulled out the stops for the S1 in an effort to make a good first impression for its new line. There’s not just one printed manual in the box, but six, a veritable rosetta stone of camera guidance. Plenty of cameras today come with a quick-start sheet that points you to a pdf for the details. I don’t much care in practice, but the show of dead trees is weirdly reassuring.

Panasonic also includes a battery charger, which in the good old days would not have been worthy of comment, but you can’t assume these things any more. Not only that, it has a progress indicator that shows whether the battery is below 50%, between 50 and 80%, between 80 and 100% or full. Be still my beating heart. (It also charges via its USB-C port. With a Power Delivery-compatible charger, it’ll suck down 24 watts when the battery’s low, so you can get back in action pretty quickly. If you use some random old AC USB adapter, the trickle charge of 2.5 watts will take forever to juice up the battery.)

Adaptation

This isn’t unique to the S1, but one of the fun things about full frame mirrorless cameras is that essentially any lens made to cover 35mm film can be used with an adapter. There must be some obscure mount nobody makes an adapter for, but I haven’t found it. So you have a century of glass to choose from. This is partly how I justified buying an S1 (my day job sometimes involves verifying the functionality of old lenses). But I also think it’s fun, particularly with an EVF as good as the S1’s. When you’re manually focusing, a good EVF is key. It’s also just more fun.

Fun, but not all the time. Some people only use adapted lenses, but while I did that for a time back when I had my Sony 5n, ultimately I’ve become a nativist when it comes to glass. But I do get a big kick out of doing it occasionally, which is why I’ve illustrated this post with pics of the S1 wearing lenses of varying outrageousness.

In Conclusion

The Panasonic S1 presents an usual value at the beginning of 2023. Despite being a current model as of this writing, it is deeply discounted on the secondary market because of its age and stiff competition from brands with more traction in the full-frame mirrorless segment.

A used S1 is the cheapest route to a transcendent electronic viewfinder and it may remain so for some time to come. The last few years indicate that camera makers won’t prioritize EVF performance in any but the highest-end models anytime soon, and the cost of “high end” is climbing faster than the specs that define it.

If an S1 II should emerge, it could push S1 prices even lower, especially if the phase detect implementation is competitive. On the other hand, Panasonic might also introduce the S1 II at a higher price than the original, given the way of things, which would offset that effect.

But the future is the future, while we live forever in the now and the past that informs it. I think the S1 is something special because it was Panasonic’s first play for a piece of the full frame market. It had to be really good to have any hope of luring customers from more established systems, but the same pressure also compelled Panasonic to hold the price down. Given the S1’s qualities, this aggressive pricing must have eaten into the margins, but Panasonic presumably took the long view that you can soak customers later, once they’re committed. This is just my theory, but it feels right.

All of this being said, I still believe Micro Four Thirds is the most practical format for most people who care about photography, including me. The fetishization of “full frame,” a term I use in protest, is a sign of the the decadent end-times of amateur photography. But right now, I’d have to pay something like 100% more for an OMD OM-1 to get a viewfinder as good as the S1’s, which seems silly. And I wouldn’t be able to play with ancient lenses at their natural fields of view. Plus, I already have a nice Micro Four Thirds system, and what’s the fun in that?

For now, the rough trade of the S1 is too seductive to ignore. If its heft builds my core strength, so much the better. It’s a fun camera to use apart from the usual raft of niggles. It feels like quality. It smells of long-chain monomers. Its output looks good if you point it at interesting things. It’s quiet as an owl skimming over moonlit snow. When I lift it to my eye, I am simultaneously there and not-there, and isn’t that the point?