The new Panasonic Lumix S system – features in depth

Lumix S

Branching into full frame territory with a new large and professional camera system is a very big deal for Panasonic, and a dramatically different additional market for Lumix to jump into. In introducing the Lumix S system though, the company has demonstrated how far ahead of the game it is in terms of offering sophisticated technology and features. These let the S system leapfrog the competition to position the brand at the forefront of the market. New-comers are supposed to edge in quietly, but Panasonic has arrived on the full frame mirrorless stage with a massive bang.
The idea of the Lumix S system is to produce a camera system that puts image quality before all other considerations, including size and weight. The Lumix G system provides a haven for those looking to move away from big,  heavy systems, but the S series recognises that in some professional areas size and weight are not as important as producing the best picture quality possible. The Lumix S cameras are not aimed at the current Lumix G users, though that’s not to say some won’t use both, but at photographers with a different set of requirements.
This article intends to give you a little more depth on some of the more important aspects of the new Lumix S cameras. In the coming months we’ll be able to test these models and provide examples of what they can do.

Just three impressive world firsts!

  • 47.3MP – The highest resolution full frame mirrorless camera
  • 5.76-million-dots – World’s highest resolution viewfinder
  • 1/320sec – Industry’s fastest flash sync speed

Lumix S The mount
The central elements of these new cameras are the larger lens mount and, of course, the full frame sensor. The mount used is the Leica L mount, as introduced in the Leica T camera in April 2014. The Leica T uses an APS-C sensor, but the mount was adopted and re-named Leica L when the full-frame Leica SL (Typ 601) was launched in October 2015. What is special about the mount is the width of its throat and the short distance between the rear of the lens and the sensor.

Being 51.6mm in diameter the mount allows lenses with a very wide rear element. That means that light passing out of the lens can strike the large sensor closer to 90 degrees. A small rear element requires the light travel at a sharper angle to reach the furthest corners of the sensor. Light traveling perpendicular to the sensor has a much better chance of traveling into the pixel wells and recording at full intensity. This helps not only to avoid the obvious corner shading/vignetting but also the production of false colours at the edges of the frame. More light being channelled into the pixel wells also makes the system more efficient and the pixels well fed with plenty of light.
New micro lenses on the surface of the sensor also do their bit to help channel the light more effectively to the photodiodes so the pixels maximise their sensitivity and allow us higher ISO settings with less noise.
The distance light has to travel from the lens to the sensor is also important, and in this case the mount sits only 20mm in front of the sensor – just 0.5mm further from the sensor surface than in the Lumix G series.
As the L mount is shared with Leica, any lenses that Leica offers for the SL (Typ 601) will fit and work perfectly with the Lumix S1 and S1R, just as the Lumix S lenses will work with the Leica camera body. At the moment Leica lists five prime lenses and three zooms for the SL, so in theory when the S1 and S1R come on the market in March there will be a collection of 11 lenses ready for them. Sigma is also a member of the new L-Mount Alliance, and will be bringing lenses to the market at some stage.
Leica has adapters for all its other lens mounts to allow them to fit on the SL, but Panasonic will only support the full frame models. The Leica L lenses that have actually come to market so far for the SL have proved themselves to be remarkably good, but they also cost a good deal more than the listed Panasonic models at the moment. Leica’s Summilux-SL 50 f/1.4 ASPH, for example, costs in the region of £4000, while the Panasonic Lumix S Pro 50mm f/1.4 will be just above half the price, at £2300.
While the Lumix S camera bodies are somewhat larger than the Lumix G9 and GH models, it is the S lenses that will create the additional bulk and weight. The size of the lenses allows their designers the luxury of space and room to make the correction of optical issues the top priority. Engineers don’t have to worry so much about squeezing the elements and air gaps needed into a compact construction of small diameter glass.

Lumix S

High resolution sensors – and High Resolution mode
The High Resolution mode of the Lumix G9 is remarkable enough with its 80MP output from a 20MP sensor, but both of these models can significantly outdo that achievement using updated technology alongside their increased pixel counts. Panasonic hasn’t said yet if the shift in the sensor between exposures is the same half-pixel distance as it is in the Lumix G9, but it can’t be more than a pixel. Controlled shifts of such a tiny distance are extraordinarily difficult to manage, especially when the sensor in question is full frame instead of Micro Four Thirds.
When the 47.3MP sensor of the Lumix S1R is shifted to create eight separate exposures the outcome is an astonishing 187MP and an image that measures 16,736 x 11,168 pixels. If you use the 300ppi rule for photographic quality this file will print to 55.8 x 37in which is 4.65 x 3.08 feet or 1.4 x 0.9 metres. The prospect is quite mind-blowing. Not only does the Lumix S1R have the highest resolution of any full frame mirrorless camera, but with its High Resolution mode it can out strip almost all medium format cameras as well. That the capability for such pixel counts is possible in this first model of the S system gives us perhaps some clue about resolving power of the new line of Lumix S lenses. Not any lens will be able to get the most from an 187MP image.
A very interesting option developed for these new models is the new Motion Blur Suppression setting. However it works, it is designed to remove the ghosting and double-exposure effects that can often be seen in these 8-shot images when there is something moving in the scene – such as a plant blowing in the breeze. I can’t wait to see how this works.

Lumix S

Incredible viewfinder
At the first announcement of these cameras Panasonic promised the resolution of the viewfinders would out-perform any other model in use at that time. I clarified with the engineer that they were including the spectacular 4.4-million-dot viewfinder of the Leica SL. They hadn’t forgotten about it, and said that ‘yes’, the viewfinders would be better even than that in the SL. And they have delivered! The 5.76-million-dot OLED finder in both the S1R and the S1 has about 30% more resolution than that Leica class-leading unit, and offers well over 50% more resolution than the viewfinders of other recent mirrorless full frame cameras. Not only does it display an incredible amount of detail it can also refresh an amazing 120 times per second. That means motion will appear very smooth in the viewfinder and that what we see will be a real-time representation of what is happening in the scene – which is essential for fast moving subjects. This also helps us to feel more connected to the scene and what is going on, so that we can react quickly enough to capture what we want.
As with the Lumix G9, the viewfinder is big and easy to view but when the occasion calls for a smaller view it can be switched from 0.78x to 0.74x or 0.70x – making life easier for glasses wearers for example.

Lumix S

6-stop image stabilisation
We have become used to excellent image stabilisation in Lumix cameras but the system in the Lumix S1 and S1R take a step ahead of what we might expect. The in-camera sensor-shift image stabilisation has been improved to allow shutter speeds of up to 5.5 stops longer than we would usually be able to use hand held without incurring the effects of camera shake. Panasonic has added extra measuring points to the system to detect the characteristics of vibrations more accurately, and now uses not only the in-body gyroscope sensor but also a new accelerometer in the camera as well as shake information gathered by the imaging sensor itself. I have yet to discover exactly how this works, but it could be information about the motion of the subject from the picture recording data the camera receives.
When a lens with image stabilisation built in is mounted on the camera the in-body system works in tandem with the in-lens system to refine the correction of shake and vibrations so that we can use shutter speeds even longer without danger of shake spoiling the image. This Dual IS ll offers a massive 6 stops of compensation – so a 50mm lens might be safely used hand held at a shutter speed as long as a whole second. This is pretty amazing, and will be a great assistance not only to stills photographers, but also to videographers looking to create smooth footage free of shakes and wobbles.
In these models Panasonic has included a display that allows us to monitor the activity of the image stabilisation detection system, and current vibration levels are output on a graph on the screen. It may be interesting but not so useful for handheld work, but when used on a tripod the system can help us wait until vibrations have died down before we take a picture to make the most of the sensor’s resolution. This would be useful if the tripod had been knocked, for example, or if a train had just passed and we wanted to be able to see when the vibrations in the ground had calmed down.
The kind of steadiness we will be able to achieve is critical for optimising conditions to gather detail effectively with that 47.3-million-pixel sensor – and especially when the 187-million-pixel High Resolution mode is in use.

Faster AF
With a communication system that runs at 480fps the camera’s sensor can drive the lens to find focus in no time at all. Using contrast detection for absolute accuracy and Panasonic’s Depth From Defocus (DFD) technology the system is able to find, focus and track subjects with a new level of speed and precision. In the distant past contrast detection systems were slow, but by combining more powerful processors and more advanced technology Panasonic has been able to produce a system that is more than a match for the best competition. The frequency of communication between the sensor and the S lenses is a critical part of this, and while the Lumix G9 can run at 480fps as well not all the Lumix G lenses are able to keep up with such a rate. The Lumix S lenses however are designed to operate at this speed and will provide instant reactions and swift acquisition while being able to respond to changes in the subject immediately.
Panasonic has introduced an element of subject recognition that it calls Advanced Artificial Intelligence Technology which identifies not only where the subject is but also whether it is a human, a cat, a dog or a bird. Based on this information it is better able to predict the movement patterns of the subject and determine what might happen next so that the subject can be tracked more accurately. This is a step up from the standard face and eye detection systems that are becoming more common across the market, and with the implementation of a rapid processor the system has more power to make complex calculations.

Panasonic DMW-BGG9 battery grip for the Lumix G9

Where does this leave the Lumix G system?
Although they share some elements of styling and a good deal of technology, the Lumix G and Lumix S systems are entirely different propositions. The G cameras and lenses are redesigned to be small and portable, as well as excellent quality, while the S system is designed for image quality and handling. There will be enthusiasts that decide to buy the Lumix S system, just as many professionals use and will continue to use the Lumix G system, but the S is really designed to appeal to a level of photographer new to the Panasonic system. There is enough of a difference in the quality we’d expect from a 47.3MP full frame sensor and what we can achieve from 20MP on a Micro Four Thirds sensor that there isn’t too much danger of cross over, of people struggling to decide which will suit them best and of one taking away market share from the other – they won’t compete. This means the two systems can run alongside each other very happily and that Panasonic will continue to invest in and develop both markets. Lumix S does not spell the end for Lumix G, and in fact we can already see how the technology that has been developed for Lumix S might benefit the Lumix G system too. I expect to see the drip-down of features that Lumix G might otherwise not have seen so soon. The Motion Suppression option for High Resolution mode, for example, and the intelligent AF system might come the way of the smaller system, not to mention the improved Dual IS ll features.
Lumix G will continue and thrive in parallel with its new big brother.