On August 1st, Panasonic announced the new Lumix GX7 Micro-Four-Thirds (M43) body. Here in Canada, it will sell for $1099 as body only, $1199 for a kit with the new 14-42mm zoom and $1299 for a kit with the new 20mm f/1.7 vII pictured above. After carefully analyzing the features and ergonomics of the GX7, I had already decided that this would finally be the camera to replace my two-and-a-half year old GH2, so based on that analysis I had already ordered one for myself through work at Beau Photo, the kit with the new revised 20mm f/1.7 pancake lens. The GX7 is due to start shipping around mid September.
Then, much to my surprise, this last Friday I had an unannounced visit from a Panasonic tech-rep who actually had a preproduction GX7 on hand for me to see. I was able to play with it for about 45 minutes and even take some test shots with it. Following are my first impressions and comparisons to other Panasonic and Olympus cameras I have owned or shot with...
Over the last year or so, with the intent of possibly replacing my GH2, I have bought both a Panasonic GX1 body with its add-on electronic viewfinder (EVF), and also a G5 body that has, like the GH2, a built-in EVF. In both cases I was slightly disappointed in the cameras when compared to my GH2 and eventually sold them again. Let me explain.
As nice as the GX1 was, the promise of a very compactly sized camera was totally negated by the excellent, but rather bulky hot-shoe mounted EVF. For me, I absolutely have to have a decent eye-level viewfinder on any camera I shoot with. Holding a camera at arms length and composing with the rear LCD is only something I do if the situation warrants it, so high-angle, low-angle or otherwise awkward positions. I hugely prefer using a viewfinder so using the GX1 without one was not an option for me. With the EVF attached, the GX1 turned out to actually be taller than my GH2 and because of its protruding shape, it tended to catch on the fabric of the smaller camera bags I use with this compact system. In comparison, the GH2 slipped in and out of camera bags more easily and actually took up less room.
Then came the G5 body, which promised (and delivered) an improved built-in EVF, slightly better image quality and a slightly smaller and lighter body than the GH2. However, I never grew to love the ergonomics. For me, the biggest annoyance was that there was no full-time rear LCD information display. It was either off, or it showed a live-view, with important shooting info very small around the periphery of the live-view image. The GH2 has a wonderful full-screen status display on the rear LCD, clearly showing f-stop, shutter speed, ISO, exposure compensation and a myriad of other useful shooting info, most of which could just be quickly tapped to adjust the settings on the touchscreen. I really missed that feature on the G5 and in the end, it got sold too since I just preferred shooting with the GH2.
I skipped over the Panasonic G6 since it didn't seem like all that much of a functional upgrade over the G5 and the flagship GH3, while an awesome camera, was just a bit too large to qualify as a compact second camera, at least in my view. Another reason I chose to stick with the GH2, was that none of the newer bodies, the GX1, the G5, the G6, not even the GH3 had the wonderful multi-aspect-ratio sensor that I liked so much on the GH2. Well, sadly that is the one major disappointment in the GX7 for me: it too has a conventional 4:3 sensor and the 3:2 and 16:9 modes are simply crops in on the full image, not giving any wider horizontal FOV as they did on the GH2. However, I still feel that all the other advantages outweigh that one negative and with the GX7 predicted to have the best M43 sensor yet as far as image quality, I decided to take the chance, pre-order it and put my GH2 up for sale. Well "sold" actually, since it's already gone.
Some of you might be wondering why I didn't upgrade to an Olympus E-M5 body? After all, it is known to have the best image quality of any current M43 camera, it has a beautifully solid, weatherproof body, is quite compact in size, has an astoundingly effective 5-axis IBIS (in-body-image-stabilizer), very fast AF and more. Yes, the E-M5 body is fantastic, I have tested one quite extensively and indeed, the image quality is superb and the stabilizer is very effective... but for me, the ergonomics are terrible. Okay, maybe "terrible" is slightly too strong a word for it. Without going into too much detail, let's just say that for how I like to shoot and how I set up my cameras, I personally do not like the E-M5's controls, buttons and menus. Note that I do know many people who love their E-M5s, so you shouldn't dismiss that camera based on my comments here, you should definitely try one yourself!
By the way, for a random sampling of the many photos I have taken with all my different Panasonic bodies over the last few years, have a look at this gallery, one I prepared for a talk on M43 that I gave at the Burnaby Photographic Society last year: Micro-4/3 Presentation Samples
Some of you might also be wondering why I am even looking at another M43 camera! If you've been following this blog, you will know that I also shoot with, and love, the Fujifilm X-E1 and its lenses. Isn't the X-E1 all I need for a compact camera? Well I definitely enjoy shooting with the X-E1, appreciate its superb image quality and its lenses... but, unlike the Panasonic, the one thing it doesn't do well is video. Also, I have a large number of very good M43 lenses already, since long before I bought the X-E1, ranging from Panasonic's superb 7-14mm f/4 all the way up to their excellent 100-300mm zoom, so a 14mm to 600mm range in full-frame 35mm equivalent terms! Plus, I am using an IR-converted Panasonic GF2 as well, so I can't really sell off my lenses. It would be too expensive for me to have another camera converted to IR at this point, and it seems the company I've used for IR conversions does not convert the Fuji X-series bodies yet. So for the time being, it looks as though I will continue to use three full systems, Panasonic, Fujifilm and Nikon.
Anyway, back to the GX7. As you can see below, it is also available in all black and the image shows its unique integrated tilting EVF raised halfway. Me, I like the silver version shown at the start of this article, and that is what I ordered for myself. The EVF will lift to a fully straight up, 90 degree angled position too.
My first thought when handling the GX7 was that it was an absolutely beautiful camera, perfectly machined and finished, solid feeling with a great hand-grip. Not only do all the control detents and buttons have a perfect feel with exactly the right amount of resistance, but they all comfortably fall right under my fingers when the camera is held up to its shooting position. The front control wheel surrounds the perfectly positioned (for my hands at least) shutter release button and is easy to reach and turn. I only have to slightly pivot my thumb to the right, from its neutral grip position, to reach the rear control wheel and slightly pivot it to the left to reach the nice, big AF/AE-Lock button. No awkward stretching or reaching for controls that are slightly out of place like on many other cameras. The control feel is a definite step up from all the other Panasonic bodies I have owned. I would have to say that my first impressions of the camera's handling is that it may just be the best thought out compact body I have ever used when it comes to control positions and control feel. Note that I said "compact" body. There are certainly bigger DSLRs that have controls done right and for sure, Panasonic's flagship GH3 is also very well thought out (but actually larger than some DSLRs!), however most compact bodies seem to have compromised handling. Not so with the GX7.
And make no mistake, the GX7 is indeed very compact, especially considering it not only has a tilting rear touchscreen LCD but also the integrated flip-up 2.7 million pixel EVF! Not too surprisingly, it is noticeably smaller than the already very compact Fujifilm X-E1, which does have a bigger APS-C sensor after all, but it is even smaller overall than the diminutive Olympus E-M5. Despite its more substantial grip, the GX7 is only 1.6mm wider than the E-M5, but even though it has a far more flexible EVF, it is actually a whopping 19mm shorter in height! With its compact, smooth, rectangular shape, the GX7 should be the easier camera to slide in and out of a small camera bag too. Click for a comparison on camersize.com.
Likely due to the GX7 EVF's fairly short design, one that doesn't protrude towards the front like the E-M5's viewfinder, or indeed most other Panasonic viewfinders, I felt as though its magnification was a bit low, making for a slightly smaller image than some of its competition. The size constraints probably put a limit on what can be done with such a compact EVF's optical system. However it certainly wasn't too small in my opinion and it seemed sharp, had great colour, wasn't overly contrasty (still easy to see into the highlights and shadows) and it seemed to have a very fast refresh rate even in the dim, indoor lighting I was testing it under. I think the slightly lower magnification is an acceptable compromise to have such a compact and flexible design. Some have reported concerns with eye-relief but to me it didn't seem all that limited compared to other EVFs. If you wear glasses while shooting though, you'd be advised to try it out for yourself first to make sure.
The rear LCD is bright, crisp and has a capacitive touchscreen bonded to the LCD to avoid additional internal reflections and glare when shooting outdoors. The touchscreen is similar in feel to what you might find on an iPhone although that means you likely cannot use it with gloves. Also, it did not appear to be multi-touch. However, since the GX7 also sports a full complement of mechanical buttons, everything can be accessed without using the touchscreen as well. The rear LCD has a firm and strong feeling pivot mechanism, allowing you to effectively position it for high-angle or low-angle shots, however it does not swivel sideways like most other articulated Panasonic screens. Keeping the GX7 this compact and putting in an articulation joint would have meant either a smaller LCD or more crowded controls on the right, neither of which would have been ideal.
I would say that Panasonic did an amazing job of packaging this camera as well as they did, with a tilting rear LCD and a built-in tilting EVF, yet still keeping the size down to barely larger than the GX1 which had neither of those two features! Heck, the GX7 even has a tripod socket that is perfectly centred under the lens, allowing you to attach a small tripod plate without interfering with the battery/memory-card door, not something you often see on such a compact camera.
Typically for Panasonic, the camera is incredibly flexible when it comes to control customization. Not only are there four physical 'Fn' buttons you can redefine, choosing from a list of no less than 37 different functions, but there are an additional five virtual touchscreen buttons you can customize too. The two control wheels are programmable as well, being able to swap functions or selectively disable them. You can set the self timer or exposure compensation to be self cancelling (or not), you can set the camera to remember your position in the menus (or not), and much more. Heck, you can even program a hair-trigger shutter release, so it will fire on a half press instead of a full press! This is definitely one incredibly customizable camera.
From a shooting speed standpoint, it is middle of the road, offering a modest 5fps continuous frame-rate, however the shutter is significantly upgraded from previous models. The GX7 has a top shutter speed of 1/8000 second and even has a 1/320 second flash sync, both faster than any other M43 camera including the Olympus E-M5 and even Panasonic's own flagship GH3. There is a small popup flash that can manually be pivoted back to allow for ceiling bounce, presuming your ceilings aren't too far away of course.
A first for Panasonic is in-camera, sensor-shift stabilization. Unlike most of its competitors, Panasonic has always put stabilization in a select few of their lenses, just like Canon and Nikon do. This has been an area where Olympus had the advantage, especially with the excellent 5-axis IBIS introduced on the E-M5, offering very effective stabilization on any lens that is mounted, including old, legacy MF lenses via adapters. The GX7 now has sensor-shift stabilization too, although as far as I could tell, it seemed to be less effective than what is available on Panasonic's own OIS lenses or Olympus' IBIS on their latest cameras. The amount of image "float" visible in the viewfinder was quite minimal on the GX7, and that gave the impression that it wouldn't be as effective when you are really pushing the limits of hand-holdability. Keep in mind that I was looking at a pre-production camera though, so perhaps the final versions will actually have tweaked firmware and a more effective system. However even a small amount of stabilization is better than none I would say, so even if it turns out to offer only, for example, a one stop advantage, well heck, I'll take it!
The other comment I'll make is that I have seen both lens-based and sensor-based stabilization cause soft corners or edges in photos, especially if you are using a lens that doesn't have a generous image circle, like many wide-angle lenses for example. If you happen to take the shot right when the stabilization system is at full deflection, it could result in a soft edge or corner. Having a less effective sensor-based IS with limited deflection might actually help to minimize this potential problem! Of course one can always disable IS if that is a concern, the light levels are bright enough and if you feel stabilization is not necessary. However frankly, even I am sometimes too lazy to do that and have run into situations where I kicked myself for not turning IS off when I didn't actually need it to get a sharp photo. Maybe a more limited system will actually be a benefit for me, ha!
Autofocus on the GX7 seemed extremely swift and decisive, possibly the fastest I've seen on any camera. It is said to be able to focus down to an astoundingly dim EV of -4 (which I didn't test), so it should be able to focus on practically anything you can see with your eyes. How well it does at tracking moving subjects remains to be seen, but traditionally contrast-detect AF doesn't do this very well, even if it is extremely fast and accurate for static subjects. I'll take a wild guess that you won't want to give up your DSLR for sports and action work just yet.
As far as the GX7's 16 megapixel sensor goes, compared to the GH3's sensor, Panasonic has increased the efficiency of the micro-lens array with a 10% improvement in light transmission, made the photodiodes larger for an increase in dynamic range and also increased the sensor's signal-to-noise by about 25%. From a noise level, detail and dynamic range standpoint, the GX7 should easily be the best Panasonic yet. Whether or not it will equal or beat the excellent Sony sensor in the Olympus E-M5 is unclear, but my impromptu ISO sequence comparison with my Fujiflm X-E1 indicates that it might.
I shot both cameras from ISO 200 to 6400, raw files, and processed them in Adobe Lightroom 5. I had to edit the EXIF metadata on each GX7 raw to make Lightroom think the image came from a GH3, which seems to share an essentially identical sensor from a colour, resolution and demosaic requiremens standpoint. With equal processing settings, the GX7 held its own amazingly well against the X-E1, with only slightly more noise throughout the ISO range. Again, keep in mind that this was a preproduction camera and only a very quick, somewhat uncontrolled test, with no attempt to assess dynamic range either, so don't draw any final conclusions from my comments. That is also why I am not posting images from the comparison. However the GX7's image quality is looking very promising indeed.
Why I like mirrorless cameras! (screenshot of comparison to a D800 from camerasize.com)
The GX7 has some other tricks up its sleeve: built-in time-lapse capture, a stop-motion animation function, multiple exposures and of course, a slew of high quality video features. Full HD 1920x1080 video can be captured at 24p, 60p or 60i, at quite a respectable bit-rate too with full manual control if desired. AF during video works well and like other Panasonic bodies, you should be able to pull focus electronically by tapping on the rear LCD screen, resulting in a smooth, decisive focus pull between subjects. Note that I didn't test that feature but am assuming it is still there - I hope I'm not wrong! Also, if previous Panasonic bodies are any indication, video quality should be right up there with the best video capable DSLRs too. Two slight disappointments are that the in-camera IS does not seem to function in video mode, possibly due to the sensor's limited "float" and secondly, that it doesn't have an external microphone input, unlike virtually all other high end Panasonic bodies before it. This seems a strange omission, so you'll have to use an external recorder, like a Zoom H1, H2 or H4n for example, to capture high quality audio during filming.
Lastly, wifi is also built-in, allowing you to wirelessly connect the GX7 to your smartphone or tablet for remote capture, viewing and downloading. In addition, you can geotag images if you shoot while wifi connected to your phone and if your phone has a position lock. However I am disappointed the GX7 doesn't have a built-in GPS. Not only does using a GPS on your smartphone drain its batteries more quickly, but since your phone is usually close to your body or in your pocket, it won't have as clear a view of the sky as a GPS antenna in the top of the camera would.
Whew, okay that was a lot of writing! That's about it, finally (!), for this overview of Panasonic's latest model. I was intending this article to be much shorter but there were so many new features to talk about on the GX7 that it turned out far longer than I had anticipated. I am guessing you can tell that I'm pretty excited about this new body and I'm certainly eager to start shooting with it ASAP. All the things I liked about the GH2 (apart from the multi-aspect sensor) and all the things I liked about the G5 are combined in the GX7, which is an even smaller and better built camera. Will it replace my Nikon D800 kit? Of course not... well, at least I very much doubt it! Will I take the GX7 kit instead of my Fujifilm X-E1 kit when I want to travel light? Hmm... it is certainly too early to tell for sure, but if the image quality is as good as it seems to be, then it will probably see some significant time in my lightweight camera bag.
Looking ahead long term, I doubt I will keep both the Panasonic and Fujifilm systems, although you never know. However since I don't even have the GX7 yet and much depends on how good its sensor turns out to be and, for that matter, on how good several of Fujifilm's upcoming lenses prove to be, I think I will have both of these systems for some time yet, probably at least another year or so before I could possibly choose a definitive winner as my compact mirrorless system of choice. Fujifilm isn't standing still either and looking at what they've done in the last few years, continually pushing the envelope with excellent bodies and lenses, it will be an interesting fight for my camera bag...