"Compact" Gets a New Contender

bythom panny s9frontred

Panasonic today announced the S9 camera, a 24mp full frame body with a bit of a difference: it's physically similar in size to the APS-C sensor Fujifilm X100VI, but with an L-mount out front. While Panasonic has made some claims about smallest full frame body, I think the Sigma FP comes in with slightly smaller volume. Still, the S9 is small. The price? US$1499 without lens (more on that in a bit).

bythom panny s9top

In essence, the S9 is a restructuring of the 24mp S5 II: far smaller gripless body (the L-mount barely fits on the front), no built-in EVF, no mechanical shutter, plus more features targeted a "creators" including different body colors (red, blue, green, orange, panda, as well as black; not every color is available in every market) and a LUT button. Surprisingly, the S9 has a large subset of the S5 II feature set, including things like sensor-based stabilization and open gate 6K recording, though the menus have been simplified. The drawback is that, given the small body size, video recording length will be limited to 10 minutes at 6K and 15 minutes at 4K (to keep from overheating).

bythom panny s9back

One new feature is the so-called LUT button. Panasonic is now allowing users to bring up pre-defined looks—up to 39 can be stored in the camera—quickly using a dedicated button on the back of the camera. Along with that function, Panasonic also released a new Lumix Lap application that helps you select, customize, and manage your LUT collection as well as provide direct downloading from the camera.

bythom panny 26mm

Along with the S9, Panasonic introduced a 26mm f/8 manual focus pancake lens for the L-mount, which makes for a nearly pocketable combination and a lot of folk saying "f/8 and be there" again. This lens has a nominal MSRP of US$199. Panasonic also introduced a new 18-40mm f/4.5-6.3 lens, but with no specs or pricing yet. Both these lenses won't be available until late September at the earliest, apparently. If you want an S9 today with a reasonable lens, the current kit will be with the Panasonic 20-60mm f/3.5-5.6 L-mount lens. At 3.4" (87.2mm) long and 12.4 ounces (350g), that lens is probably at the "big" end of what most would want to put out front of the S9. 

Commentary: the S9 is just the first competitor attempt to take the wind out of Fujifilm's X100VI sail. More are coming. The question is whether or not any have a real ability to cut into Fujifilm's market share. 

The S9 has a chance. With its fully adjustable touch LCD, small size, full frame sensor, and deep feature set, it may attract plenty of attention. Panasonic's really counting on a combination of things to get creators' attention, though: (1) near X100VI size but a full frame sensor; (2) a simple but customizable style (colors); and (3) the new LUT capability, where pre-defined looks can be created and pulled up with a button. Is that enough? 

Unfortunately, the Panasonic S9 is currently lens starved. The Sigma L-mount Contemporary primes, such as the 17mm f/4, 20mm f/2, 35mm f/2, 50mm f/2, or 65mm f/2 seem to make sense on the new camera, not only size-wise, but also price-wise, as well. But Panasonic doesn't have a great variety of lenses that keep the compact notion compact. Perhaps the 14-28mm f/4-5.6 macro and 85mm f/1.8. 

Once you're beyond 3" long and a pound in weight, I think you're stretching with the S9, I'd just get the S5 II. Panasonic really needs a line of pancakes for the S9 if it really wants to succeed in the "compact" arena. The lightest, smallest gimbals, which I'd want to pair this combo with if I were truly a "creator" only take about a four pound payload and are two pounds themselves. That's just do-able with the S9 and the right lens.

Long term, the right lenses are needed to make the S9 a real success. The Fujifilm X100VI's claim to fame is that it's a (nearly) pocketable option that you just whip out and start both making stylish stills and videos while looking (retro) stylish in doing so. The LUT ability of the S9 takes on Fujifilm's film simulations for the stylish stills bit, and the colors and simple body style take on the X100VI retro style. But for the "whip it out" thing to work requires the right lenses, which really don't exist yet.

One thing that's curious and which few are talking about is why Panasonic hasn't made such a camera in the m4/3 mount. Given that the G9 II is also basically the S5 II body, Panasonic could have made a 25mp G9mini following the same basic size/features simplification, but would have had a source for "small" lenses from day one.

Panasonic's aggressive pricing, as well as launch timing, work to their advantage. At least for the moment, while everyone in the press is still oohing and aahing over the S9. The question is whether things still work once all the announcement hyperbole has worn off and people actually start using the product with whatever lenses are currently available. 

Here in the US there's another problem: marketing and sales. Good luck finding the Lumix Web page without help. The full list of authorized Panasonic dealers is now down to 60, and that's including BestBuy, Buydig, Sky Mall, and a number of other not exactly camera stores. Indeed, one of the authorized dealers, Nebraska Furniture Mart, does not report any Lumix cameras for sale via their Web site. Fujifilm has a wider and more visible dealer set, so it's more likely you can stop by somewhere close and check out the X100VI in person than you can the S9. 

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