The Panasonic GX1: All the camera you will ever need? By David Babsky
From Steve: This is NOT my review of the GX1. This is a user report from David Babsky. Figured you may enjoy it while I work on my review though by the time it is done we may end up with the same conclusion!
Panasonic’s GF series started out great as mirror-less compact interchangeable-lens pocketable “micro-four-thirds” cameras – with the GF1 – and then went a bit twee with the GF2 and the almost button-less GF3 ..they went all touch-screen and tiny, and ‘one-step-up-from-a-point-&-shoot’ instead of developing into a useful ‘system’ camera. (The GF3, for example, has no provision for a clip on electronic finder, nor an external-flash hotshoe.)
But the GX1 has now got Panasonic back on track.
The GX1 is a micro-four-thirds camera, like the other Panasonic ‘G’ series cameras (SLRs and ‘mirror-less-compacts’) and like the Olympus PENs. The GX1 is a bit smaller than the original GF1, and a bit larger than its successor GF2, with a bigger grip than either of them, making it easy to hold without accidentally thumbing the touch-screen and thus unintentionally changing settings – as often happens with the GF2 and even smaller GF3!
The GF1, GF2 and GF3 were (are) 12mpxl cameras, with a display screen on the back and an optional clip-on (low-res) electronic finder for the 1 and 2 – but not for the GF3. The GF2 was the GF1 shrunk by 18%, making it less easy to hold ..and the added touch-screen capabilities meant that the ball of your thumb (accidentally touching the screen) might engage Manual Focus instead of Auto Focus, or move the focus point or make any number of other accidental changes.
The GX1, like the GFs, is a descendent of Panasonic’s (and Leica’s and Olympus’) original ‘Four-Thirds’ cameras, which had – just like a film or digital SLR – a flipping mirror between the lens and the sensor: the mirror diverted the lens’ view into the optical viewfinder until the moment you squeeze the ‘shoot’ button, and then the mirror flips out of the way to let light straight through to the sensor. These cameras had – and do have – a sensor one quarter the size of a full-frame 36x24mm sensor (the size used in the Leica M9, Canon 5DMkII, etc) and slightly smaller than an APS-sized sensor. So the ‘crop factor’, or magnification factor, of a Four-Thirds camera is 2x ..meaning that a 25mm lens on a Four-Thirds camera behaves just like a 50mm lens does on a ‘full-frame’ sensor. Compared that with the (roughly) 1.5x factor when using an APS camera, on which a 25mm lens behaves like(approximately) a 40mm lens on a full-frame camera.
Removing that flipping mirror let Four-Thirds manufacturers reduce the distance between the back of the lens and the sensor, thus making the resulting ‘MICRO-4/3’ cameras much smaller, but keeping the same size sensor. With the mirror gone, the optical reflex finder was gone too, so Olympus and Panny provide electronic “live view” on the rear display, just like other pocket compact cameras, with an optional add-on electronic viewfinder (EVF) – bought separately – for easier viewing in bright sunlight (like a teeny camcorder finder) or when you don’t want to hold the camera at arm’s length.
Olympus quickly went to a hi-definition megapixel EVF, while Panny lagged behind with only a 460k screen and a 202kilo-pixel finder.
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Sony’s NEX, Samsung’s NX, Fujifilm’s X100, Leica’s X1 and other larger-sensor APS-sized cameras offer a bigger sensor than the micro4/3 cameras, thus potentially clearer low-light results and more detail, and with optionally shallower depth-of-field, but with generally bulkier lenses to match the larger sensor. Sony’s latest NEX 7 has an EVF built-in, instead of it being a fragile, optional clip-on. (The APS-size Fuji X100, with its built-in hi-def viewfinder, and the Leica X1, don’t, however, accept interchangeable lenses.)
These and other manufacturers’ offerings, both APS-sized and m4/3, provide very compact interchangeable-lens ‘system’ cameras, once known as ‘EVIL’ (Electronic Viewfinder Interchangeable Lens) but now generally known as ‘CSC’ (Compact System Cameras), which don’t have the bulk or the bulge of internal-top-mounted-viewfinder SLRs.
(Sensor sizes courtesy of Wikipedia.com)
Panasonic has raised the GX1’s resolution from the 12 megapixels of their GF models to 16 megapixels – matching the Sony NEXs and Panny’s G3 SLR, being only 2mp short of the Leica M9 full-frame sensor (..though the M9 has only manual-focus lenses, no zooms, no HDR, slow picture review, max 2500 ISO, no electronic finder, no “live view”, and – unlike most other digital cameras – can’t shoot video ..but the M9 has, remember, a FULL-FRAME sensor, capturing far better detail than the smaller m4/3 sensor, and offering shallower depth-of-field to make whatever’s in focus stand out from its background).
Adding pixels seems, at first, like a great bonus, but now do the math(s): the original GF-series sensor shot 4,000 x 3,000 pixels, giving a total of 12,000,000 pixels. The GX1 shoots 4,592 x 3,448 = 15,833,216 pixels. So it’s gained about 600 pixels across the width of the shot, and 450 pixels up the height. Not a great deal. But what it HAS gained is increased light sensitivity: max ISO of the GF1/GF2/GF3 models were 3200/6400/6400 ..the GX1 has doubled that to 12,800. But – as with all digital cameras – these ISO numbers should be taken with a pinch of salt; the highest USABLE number (without too much digital noise, and jpeg artefacts) is generally one notch down from the maximum.
The following images are all full size – click for full size
Lumix 14-140 HD zoom at 48mm (96mm equivalent on full-frame) hand-held at 160, 3200, 6400 and 12,800 ISO. Everything’s fairly good up to 6400, then banding and severe noise come in at 12,800, at least in dark areas. The 160 ISO shot was 1/10th sec, showing great in-lens stabilisation with the 14-140mm lens which – without stabilisation – would have needed at least 1/100th sec shutter speed.
The GX1 incorporates the features of the original GF1 with the addition of:
1 More pixels: 16mp instead of 12mp (max 4592×3448 [4:3] 4576×3056 [3:2])
2 Full HD video at 1920x1080i, up from 720p, with stereo sound (but no external audio input jack)
3 Higher resolution EVF: 1.4mp, up from 202kp. (but this is an added accessory)
4 Same 3″ 460k rear screen, but touch-capable focusing and shooting (as on GF2 and GF3) plus two extra touch-screen ‘virtual’ customisable buttons
5 Higher max ISO 12800 (though serious noise after 6400) up from 3200 on GF1
6 Incredibly fast – and accurate – autofocus, even in dim light, without any focus ‘hunting’
7 Newer RAW format – with same .RW2 suffix as GF series
16mp out-of-camera jpeg on a dull afternoon at ISO 1600 gives great detail, and just moderate noise.
In going ‘back to the GF1’-style, Panny’s put back a Mode dial on the top plate (P A S M, Custom1, Custom2, Scene and Palette [Hi-key, Lo-key, Sepia, Toy-lens, etc]), moved the Playback button back to where it was on the GF1, and added configurable buttons, but kept the GF2/GF3 touch screen (for focus region, touch’n’shoot) and also added an ‘artificial horizon’ for ensuring level shots, both vertically and horizontally. The chunkier On/Off switch, around the Mode dial, is workable with a thumb, or winter gloves, instead of needing a fingernail.
There’s also a quiet motorised short zoom (14-42mm) available – others to come – enabling smooth zooming while shooting, but this is mainly for video ..instead of having to (jerkily) twist a zoom ring while recording movies.
Ease of use? Similar to the GF1 (meaning “not as fiddly as the (primarily touch-screen) GF2”). Features and capabilities? Like the GF2, but enhanced and increased, and with far easier handling.
The new ‘LVF2’ slip-on finder for the GX1, compared with the older ‘LVF1’ for the GF1 and GF2, gives:
[a] bigger, brighter, ‘closer’ image – 1.4x magnification, compared with previous 1.04x (less like looking through a tunnel) almost like the superbly big and bright optical finder of an old Olympus OM1/2
[b] much higher resolution EVF – 1.44mp, up from 202kp – to see fine detail in focus (almost like the Fuji X100 finder)
[c] finder’s focus adjustment UNDERNEATH the tiltable EVF (so it doesn’t get accidentally nudged)
[d] activation button on the back, not the side (just as I’d got used to the position of the LVF1 side-button!) similar to the Olympus add-on EVF
[e] locks in place on the accessory shoe, so doesn’t accidentally slide off.
Sadly, the finders are not interchangeable, so the new, better, finder does not work on the older GF1 and GF2 nor on Olympus cameras (nor does the older Panny finder fit on the new GX1).
Looking through the old LVF1 finder on the GF2
Looking through the new LVF2 finder on the GX1. The superior resolution of the LVF2 is mainly because of improvements to the EVF, not just the (slightly) higher pixel count of the GX1.
The bigger, better grip for the right hand is really useful. The GX1 takes the huge range of m4/3 lenses available (including, via an extra adapter, the older, larger Panasonic/Leica lenses for the Panny L1/Leica Digilux 3 and early Olympus Four-Thirds cameras, although autofocus is much slower with these. Why use them? The big old Panny/Leica lenses offered 14-45mm f2.8 and 14-150mm f3.5 ..wider apertures than current m4/3 zooms.)
The Panny/Leica 25mm Summicron f1.4 Aspheric for m4/3 (NOT the same lens, or formula, as the Leica 50mm 1.4 Asph, but a reasonable approximation) works a treat with the higher-resolution and higher-sensitivity sensor of the GX1. Ditto the 20mm f1.7. I haven’t tried Olympus m4/3 lenses on the GX1, but they, too, should be great. The Voigtländer 25mm f0.95 also works admirably on the GX1, but – not having any in-lens stabilisation – may be more useful in dim light on an Olympus PEN m4/3, all models having stabilisation built into the camera.
In the garden, Panny/Leica Summilux 25mm at f1.6, Panny 20mm at f1.7, Voigtländer 25mm at f4, Voigtländer 25mm at f0.95 (..all unadjusted out of camera jpegs at ISO 400, except the Summilux, which has had its shadows lightened slightly).
Panasonic/Leica 25 1.4 at 1.6
Panasonic 20 at f/1.7
Voigtlander 25 at f/4
Voigtlander 25 at 0.95
The new, quicker autofocus of the GX1 is extremely fast: one half press on the shutter release and images are INSTANTLY in focus with all current Panny lenses; so fast that it doesn’t seem possible ..but there is, of course, plenty of computing power inside the GX1.
As with the previous GF series, pushing IN on the magnify/shrink left-right thumbwheel on playback (after zooming in) lets you click back and forth to previous and later images at the same degree of magnification – a feature of the Leica M8/9 and Canon 5DII, etc – which is handy for comparing a series of images at great magnification. No need to zoom out before moving to the previous or next image. Pressing IN with manual focus lenses, in shooting mode, magnifies the centre of the image, quicker than the double-push needed with Olympus PENs. (Magnification is automatic when Manual Focus has been pre-selected.) Pressing IN in shooting mode with autofocus lenses also – like the GF series – swaps from adjusting, say, Aperture (in ‘A’ mode) to adjusting over/under-exposure. Pressing IN again reverts to Aperture selection (or Shutter speed in ‘S’ mode). That dual-mode thumbwheel – as on previous GF series cameras – is twice as useful as the simpler, separate magnify and shrink buttons on the PENs. (But then again, with the Oly E-PL1, for example, once you’ve pressed the ‘Magnify’ button, there’s a continuous magnified view on the rear screen or EVF, whereas half-squeezing the shutter button on a Panny then drops the view back to full frame, and the magnified view disappears.)
Keeping architectural verticals vertical on the GX1 with an OM-1 35mm Shift lens and OM-to-m4/3 adaptor. Afternoon glow, 1600 ISO.
The GX1’s 4-way keypad buttons (up-down-left-right) have engraved metal icons to show which button does what, and they’re nowhere near as legible as the printed legends on the previous GF1, GF2 and GF3, though which button does what becomes instinctive after a while. It’s a real shame that the info engraved on each keypad button is pretty near invisible! Minus five for uselessness, Panasonic!
In ‘Palette’ mode (chosen on the Mode dial, offering Hi-Key, Low-key, Sepia, ‘Retro’ colours, etc) the push-IN thumbwheel allows Aperture adjustment, giving fine control over what’s in focus and what isn’t ..a real improvement over previous GFs, and really making use of that push-IN facility. However, Black-&-White has been dropped from the choice of creative colours. But ‘Monochrome’ is always available by pressing the Menu button and choosing from ‘Photo Style’ (Vivid, Natural, Monochrome, Scenery, Portrait, Custom, Standard) and each of the Styles may be varied by altering Contrast, Sharpness, Saturation, Noise Reduction to plus-or-minus two steps of adjustment each way.
This makes it far simpler to select colour, or creative, modes on the GX1 than on the previous touch-screen GF cameras, and is a small, but really useful, improvement over the original GF1.
The Voigt 25mm at f1.4 and 160 ISO, and the Summicron 25mm at f1.4 and 1600. No more visible ‘grain’ at 1600 than at 160 (but the Panny/Leica Summicron won’t focus as close as the Voigt 25mm).
The GX1’s handling is easier than the Olympus PEN E-PL3, which has no integral flash, and has slow and (to me) awkward menus. (The Oly E-PL1 and E-PL2 do, however, have a built-in flash, and are altogether more versatile than the E-PL3 ..in my opinion.)
The GX1’s handling is FAR faster than the larger-APS-sensor Sony NEX 5n, which has no top-mounted selection dial, so its one rear-mounted dial must be constantly reconfigured for different purposes via a Menu button, choosing otherwise by scrolling through touch-screen options. And there’s no pop-up flash on the 5n.
The GX1 has a dedicated button or dial for almost everything you may need to change quickly while shooting: ISO, White Balance, Single/Multiple/Self-timer shooting, metering mode, focus mode, aperture, over/under exposure – all without searching through menus. The beauty and usefulness of the GX1 is that everything you may want to change is instantly at your fingertips ..with four customisable buttons, and two dedicated pre-settable Customised Settings on the Mode dial, too!
1600 ISO, Panny 14-140mm zoom at 140mm, out-of-camera jpeg. Split-second accurate autofocus at maximum zoom and maximum aperture.
1600 ISO, Panny 7-14mm zoom at 7mm, fading light. Great range of subtle tone at 1600 ISO.
1600 ISO at sunset. 7-14mm zoom at 14mm.
Dusk, 1600 ISO. Excellent autofocus, maximum zoom, maximum aperture. Great range of tone without grain.
The GX1 – like the GF cameras – has no built-in steady-shot ..which the Olympus PENs do have. Various Panny lenses have optional stabilisation built-in, but not the shorter, wider-angles like the 7-14mm. There’s no stabilisation available for third-party primes, such as the Voigt 25mm or the Panny/Leica 25mm ..or, indeed, any Leica or Olympus OM or other-brand lens. Other-brand lenses which DO have stabilisation (e.g; Canon 28-300mm) may not be able to run off the GX1’s power for their stabilisation; it depends upon the contacts available within any relevant mount adaptor.
In the magic 10 minutes after dusk, 7-14mm zoom, wide open at f4 and 7mm. With a little addition of greater Definition (black and edge sharpness) and Highlight reduction in iPhoto to bring out the details of the shop window and the splash of highlight below the signpost. ISO 1600. 1/5th sec.
Man runsfor bus. Ditto. 1/4 second.
Without stabilisation you need steady hands at slow speeds in dim light. But wobble and shake are no more noticeable than with other non-stabilised cameras like the M9 or other mainstream SLRs.
Out in the garden in fading light, here are some shots at 3200 ISO with the GX1, and then the Olympus E-PL1, with the Panasonic 100-300mm stabilised zoom (with in-lens-stabilisation turned OFF when used on the Olympus!) to see [a] how in-lens and in-camera stabilisation compare, [b] to see how the GX1 16mp and E-PL1 12mp sensors compare at 3200 ISO ..all pics are RAW, at 1/60th sec. 1st the Panny, then the Oly..
GX1, blackbird, jpeg, 3200 ISO, Panny 100-300mm at 205mm f5, 1/60th, in-LENS stabilisation on
Oly E-PL1, RAW, 3200 ISO, Panny 100-300mm at 120mm f4.2, 1/60th, in-CAMERA stabilisation (not lens)
Oly E-PL1,3200 ISO, Panny 100-300mm at 218mm f5.1, 1/60th, in-CAMERA stabilisation (not lens)
In the three shots above, the stabilisation (in-lens with the GX1, in-CAMERA with the Olympus E-PL1) gives non-wobbly shots at 1/60th. Without stabilisation of either sort it would have needed about 1/200th or 1/250th to get a sharp shot. Both types work equally well (in-lens & in-camera) and give at least 2 stops’ worth of stabilisation. Notice, though, that the GX1 16mp shot is far less grainy than the two Olympus 12mp shots (all at 3200 ISO). Dim-light high-ISO noise is much reduced in this GX1 compared with the Panny GF and Olympus models.
The GX1’s little pop-up flash (Guide number 7.6 in metres, at ISO 160) has wide enough coverage to almost match the full width of the 7-14mm zoom (equivalent to 14-28mm on a 35mm full-frame camera).
Certainly good enough for fill-in flash, even at 7mm!
You’d expect that finely detailed GX1 images would not be up to the higher standard of APS-sensor cameras, or full-frame sensors, whose images can generally be cropped or magnified far more than the m4/3 pics before losing detail. Nevertheless, the variety of different lenses available for m4/3, the great low-light capability of the GX1, and the easy-to-use versatility of this Panny and its compact lenses, make it a far better ‘general purpose’ fast-focusing compact tool – for me! – than a single-lens APS, or an interchangeable-lens APS, or a bigger SLR or rangefinder.
My usual quick’n’dirty test for stability, clarity, sharpness and contrast is to shoot a set of noticeboards about 200 yards (metres) away, and to see how legible the results are. Here are the results, shot at maximum zoom with two lenses; Panasonic’s 100-300mm stabilised zoom, and a Tamron 18-270mm zoom (intended for EF-S-fit APS-sized Canon SLRs). The small m4/3 sensor, with 2x crop, means that these provide the equivalent of 600mm and 540mm on the GF/GX1 and Oly E-PL1 cameras, and about 430mm on the 12mp APS-size Canon Rebel T3/1100D. (The Panny zoom doesn’t fit on the Canon, as it’s designed for the smaller m4/3 sensor.) Without electrical connections on the Canon-to-m4/3 adaptor, the Tamron was focused manually on the Pannys and Olympus. With the Panny lens’s own stabilisation left switched on when used on an Oly E-PL1, stability was NOT achieved (the lens’ own stabiliser and the camera’s in-built stabilisation confounded each other). All cameras were on a tripod and fired on a two-seconds self-timer to avoid shutter-button shake.
All shots were taken at three steps down from the camera’s maximum ISO, to avoid digital noise.
CAPTION: Oly E-PL1
Canon Rebel T3/1100D. The 1st shot of each pair is taken with the Panny zoom, the 2nd with the Tamron.
And the winner of that rough test is.. well, it’s a very close call between the new GX1 and the original GF1! The GF1 RAW file with the Tamron lens is fractionally clearer and more legible than the GX1 pics and even the Canon with the APS-sensor.
Will I now use the GX1 instead of the GF1, or stick with the original? The GX1 is slightly easier to handle (a little smaller, but with a bigger grip), has a higher max ISO, has a slightly higher pixel count (but that didn’t mean a lot in this test) and has a FAR better clip-on EVF, far faster automatic focusing, four configurable buttons, and the handy artificial horizon.
So I’ll migrate to the GX1 and leave the GF1 & GF2 behind.. continuing with my existing stash of m4/3 lenses.
The GX1 is easier to handle than the (predecessor) GF series, and with a great mixture of the combined features of the GF1 and GF2. Like the Olympus PENs, it has NO swing-out tilt-&-twistable rear screen, so can only be shot straight-out-at-arm’s length (via the rear screen) or with the tilt-at-up-to-90-degrees hi-def clip-on finder (bought separately).
As m4/3 cameras go, it’s very fast to use, with a great assortment of creative options, high-end lenses, high ISO and good resolution (though only slightly better resolution than the original GF1).
The many dedicated buttons for instant access to shooting parameters, without having to first press a Menu button, make it quicker to use than most compact APS-sized cameras. Enormous attention has been given to rapid ‘usability’.
The rear screen (and EVF) show what appear to be better contrast & resolution than the same pics when viewed on a computer monitor, so some tweaking (in Silkypix 3.1 for GX1 RAW pics, Viveza 2, Lightroom, Aperture, Photoshop, iPhoto etc) may be needed to bring them up to the vividness which the camera’s display appears to show.
Rear-screen and EVF magnification with manual lenses is far simpler with the Pannys than with Oly PENs. However, the Pannys (including the GX1) have no built-in stabilisation, so in dim light an Olympus may be a better option (with its in-camera stabilisation). [Note that in-LENS stabilisation must be switched OFF for best results when using Olympus in-CAMERA stabilisation!]
The GX1 gave great results with the following lenses: Panny 7-14mm, Panny 20mm f1.7, Voigt 25mm f0.95, Panny/Leica 25mm f1.4, Panny 14-45mm, Panny 14-140mm HD, Panny 100-300mm, Leica-fit Canon 50mm f1.4, Leica-fit Leitz 75mm, Olympus OM 35mm Shift, Canon 28-300mm zoom. I didn’t use any Olympus m4/3 lenses.
Autofocus is faster, and more accurate, than with many Canon lenses on a Canon Rebel T3 (also known as an 1100D in Europe) APS-sized model, and faster than any lenses on a Canon 5DMkII (though they generally have further to travel when focusing) ..and is faster and more instantaneously accurate than any comparable-size camera.
A full-frame camera – such as an M9, or 5DII – can provide softer, melt-in-the-mouth disappearing background ‘bokeh’ at normal distances than the GX1 – or any m4/3 camera – because [a] the larger 36x24mm sensor uses longer focal length lenses for equivalent shots as an m4/3 (e.g: 50mm on full-frame = 25mm on an m4/3), [b] many m4/3 lenses don’t have such wide apertures as are available for, say, the M9 (for which there are several f1.4 lenses). Note that the Panny/Leica 25mm f1.4, although having the equivalent focal length to a 50mm (on a full-frame camera) has two stops DEEPER depth-of-field than a 50mm f1.4 on an M9, because the m4/3 25mm lens – being a 25mm lens – has greater d-o-f no matter what the aperture. (The Voigt 25mm f0.9 wide open on m4/3 has similar d-o-f to a 50mm f1.8 on a full-frame camera.)
Large range of useful m4/3 lenses and adaptors for non-m4/3 lenses
Extremely fast and accurate autofocus
Comfortable to hold, carry and use
Excellent add-on hi-res EVF (fits above the stereo mics without impeding audio)
External EVF locks in place (doesn’t slip out, as on previous Pannys & Olympus)
Built-in flash and also dedicated hot-shoe for external full-size flashgun
Higher ISO than previous models, up to 12,800 (but, realistically, 6400)
RAW and .jpeg files
Double-action thumbwheel, like previous Pannys, providing Aperture adjustment in various modes
Easier access to ‘creative’ functions than GF series and Olympus models
Engraved metal keypad buttons have almost INVISIBLE legends
Compared with Olympus m4/3 models – no in-camera stabilisation
Presently no external stereo audio input for video (might evolve as clip-on accessory)
For a little micro-four-thirds ‘system’ camera, with many different lenses to choose from, the GX1 is the absolute best value available today (though things change month by month, of course) unless you’re likely to need the in-camera stabilisation of Olympus models for shooting in very low light, say at wedding parties. But for those, you should be using a camera with a bigger and more sensitive sensor anyway!