It is pretty exciting news for Lumix fans that Panasonic is leading ‘The L-Mount Alliance’ of really well respected camera and optical manufacturers to take its fantastic handling characteristics and imaging technology into the full frame market. While the Lumix G cameras offer great portability and excellent image quality for most applications, physics limits how many pixels can be fitted onto a Micro Four Thirds sensor so photographers looking to create extremely large prints usually opt for a high-resolution full frame system. The announcement of the Lumix S1 and S1R cameras should bring with it a combination of top class image quality in the context of the Lumix feature-set and functionality.
Details are still quite scant regarding exactly what these cameras will do and how much they will cost, as they aren’t due to arrive until early next year, but at a meeting with Panasonic recently I was able to gather enough information to get an idea of whether I think this is a good idea or not.
Choosing friends carefully
I have been asking the company’s engineers to consider a full frame camera for a few years, but wasn’t expecting them to take the existing relationship with Leica so far forward to do so. The two companies have been working ever closer for some time, sharing compact bodies and even colour imaging profiles in the TZ200 and Leica C-Lux, but the level of co-operation involved now is something of a step beyond.
The relationship with Leica has been a very successful one so far for both parties. One of the first products Panasonic launched for the Lumix G cameras was the DMW-MA2ME adapter to allow Leica M users to mount their M lenses on the Lumix G1. At the time Leica didn’t have a decent or affordable digital M option, so many M users took advantage of the opportunity to fit their nice lenses on to a modern digital body. Later, being able to brand its lenses with the Leica name helped Panasonic to draw attention to the image quality of its top-end optics in a way that the previous X-Vario naming couldn’t, and it gained, and continues to gain, the system a lot of well-deserved respect.
Leica has also gained a lot of electronics know-how from Panasonic, and much of its touch technology and AF systems can probably be put down to the special relationship between the German and Japanese firms. Leica also has some of the best image quality on the market via a combination of the sensors it uses, its image processing and the lenses that fit on the front of its cameras.
The third player in this alliance is Sigma – a company that has elevated itself in recent years from a position of second-choice lens manufacturer for those who couldn’t afford marque branded optics, to today’s position as a company whose Art lenses, especially, photographers choose ahead of their camera brand’s own.
Bodies and sensors
There will be two new bodies to begin with, a high resolution Lumix S1R and a lower resolution video-hybrid in the S1. The Lumix S1R will have a full frame 47MP sensor while the Lumix S1 will feature a 24MP sensor. The two bodies will be practically identical on the outside, and both will feature dual memory card slots – one for SD and the other for XQD media – under a vertical door on the right hand side of the camera. The difference will be that the S1R will be designed as a stills camera with its high resolution sensor, and the S1 will be a hybrid in the vein of the GH5 and will offer 4K video at 60p alongside its ability to record stills with its high sensitivity sensor. It won’t use the Dual Native ISO system seen in the GH5s I’m told.
Designed with a pronounced hand and thumb grip, the Lumix S1 and S1R will be comfortable to use with long and big lenses, which is what all the Leica L-mount lenses have been so far – long and big. The 50mm f/1.4 lens I saw with the mock-up camera body was also what most would consider big.
The camera body design isn’t unlike that of the current Lumix G9, with a joystick control on the back for shifting AF points when the touch screen can’t be reached.
Both bodies will offer in-camera image stabilisation that can work in tandem with the lens-based image stabilisation systems of the Lumix L-mount lenses. The company hasn’t yet announced how many stops of stabilisation we should expect, but the current system in the G series cameras offers 5EV. As the Leica SL (Typ 601) doesn’t have any image stabilisation, yet at least, this will offer a major step forward for the L-mount, and will allow existing Leica L lenses to be stabilised on a S system body for the first time.
It is worth noting that the bodies will be completely sealed to protect against weather, dust and splashes, which will be useful for professionals and enhtusiasts alike. For those who like to shoot from unusual angles the cameras offer new three-axis flip-out screen to allow low and high viewpoints in both portrait and landscape orientation.
We don’t know too much about the AF system at the moment, but Panasonic has said the cameras will use a new Venus Engine designed for speed. I’m told the internal system will run at the same speed that we get in the G9, so we should expect fast reactions for the focusing as well as for touch functions. I was pleased to find out that Panasonic will stick to its DFD (Depth From Defocus) contrast detection system for these full frame bodies, and not divert to phase detection on the sensor as all other mirrorless manufacturers have done. DFD is a kind of phase difference system anyway, but I find it works well when shooting silhouettes and in challenging lighting situations that normal triangulation phase detection systems find difficult. The new lenses will have much larger elements to move, so some heavy duty motors are going to be needed – but Leica has already managed fast AF in its SL system.
The lenses announced with the camera are a 50mm f/1.4 standard lens, a 24-105mm and a 70-200mm. A mock-up of the 50mm exists and it is suitably big with a sizable front element. This will allow much easier avoidance of optical problems, such as chromatic aberration, and offers the potential for very high quality images. Leica has already paved the way on this front and has demonstrated what can be done with lenses like the APO 75mm f/2 Summicron that can be used wide open with seemingly no cost to quality.
Given that the 50mm f/1.4 lens is so big – and assuming illustrations of the two zooms have been made to some sort of scale – we should expect the two zoom lenses to employ much more moderate maximum apertures – I’d guess f/2.8-4 for the 70-200mm.
Panasonics lenses will be different to those already in circulation from Leica as they will feature optical image stabilisation – and will hopefully cost a good deal less.
Leica has eight lenses listed in its L-mount line-up, though some exist as forward planning items rather than useable optics on dealers’ shelves. Although Panasonic has told me that there won’t be an adapter for Micro Four Thirds lenses (as this would make the camera half-frame) it will follow the Leica SL with its compatibility with the Leica TL lenses to shoot APS-C format.
Leica also has adapters for its S medium format lenses, its old R lenses from the film days and for the new series of cinema lenses – which will be particularly appropriate for the Lumix S1. If you have Leica M lenses there is also an adapter that allows them to be fitted on an L mount body. In all these cases your Leica lenses will be able to experience image stabilisation for the first time. There are also a number of other manufacturers making lenses in the M mount, such as Voigtlander, so right from the off there will be quite a choice of optics – if not all ideal.
By 2020 Panasonic will have 10 lenses in its own L-mount line-up, and there’s a good chance that Sigma will also produce its own branded lenses – though those shown by Panasonic have more than a passing resemblance to the company’s Art series.
The large diameter of the L mount and the short distance between the rear element and the sensor will allow lenses to be designed with best quality in mind rather than miniaturisation and compromise, so it is going to be exciting to see what will come out. These aren’t optical designs with the same principles as those of the Lumix G lenses – for portability and light weight – but for ultimate image quality.
Something I did learn about the Panasonic L mount lenses is that they won’t carry the Leica name, as this would be too easy to confuse with Leica’s own. They may carry the Lumix X marker which denoted Panasonic’s premium lenses before the special relationship with the German brand came into existence. They probably won’t be named Summicron/Summilux etc either.
Both bodies come with a standard PC socket for cabled flash, and I am assured that they will be compatible with the existing Lumix flash system. If that’s the case users will already have a number of units available to them from the off, including the FL580L. Presumably, if the flash system is the same then the S models will also work with the existing third party flashes as well such as those from Godox, Hahnel, Metz and Nissin.
Best EVF on the market
Panasonic tells me that the electronic viewfinder will be much better than those used by the competition on their mirrorless cameras. For clarity I asked if that included not only Nikon and Canon but also Leica, which uses a 4.4-million-dot EVF on the SL. I was told ‘yes’ it will be even better than that. This EVF is going to be quite something it seems.
There were a lot of questions the Panasonic team wouldn’t answer, as the cameras are obviously some way off being finalised and things can change – and the company probably wants to keep it cards close to its chest. I was slightly surprised though that no one would confirm or deny that the cameras will use the 3:2 aspect ratio of most of what we’d call full frame cameras. It could be that this means nothing at all and that we will get the 3:2 ratio we’d expect, or it might mean that these models will follow the nice comfortable 4:3 ratio of the Micro Four Thirds system. I actually hope so, though I’d be very surprised if that happened. It would also be a neat way of marking the system out as different to the Leica SL (Typ 601).
Having persuaded the Micro Four Thirds system for ten years Panasonic has got pretty good at making small light cameras that punch well above their weight when it comes to reactions, handling and image quality. It has learnt a massive amount since it launched the Lumix G1 and has already more than dipped a toe into the professional arena with the G9, the GH5 and the GH5s – not to mention a wide collection of first-class lenses. It seems all of that learning, technology and development will be put to use in these new S models, and with Leica and Sigma on board a fantastic new system is about to be born.
With the difference in size of the Lumix G and Lumix S systems (bodies and lenses as well as sensors) the company will be able to run the two alongside each other with no fear of one cannibalising the other – a fear that has hindered development for some other camera brands.
Having what the Lumix G cameras can do in a full frame body will be very exciting, though of course these cameras will not be for everyone. If you are looking to downscale your heavy DSLR kit you are still going to be better off with a G camera. Trading a DSLR for an S1R will certainly be jumping from the frying pan into the fire.