Panasonic GX1 Review

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What is It?

The Panasonic GX1 is the "missing GF3." Wait a second, the GF3 isn't missing at all, how can that be? 

The rangefinder-style Panasonic cameras (GF1, GF2, GF3, and now GX1) did a strange little twist. They started with a very competent and enthusiast-targeted GF1, but then quickly downscaled into more entry level models with each iteration. The GF3 is a nearly buttonless camera clearly targeted at an entry user, while the GF1 has quite a few buttons and controls that appeal to a higher-level shooter. The GF2 fell exactly in the middle of those two.

The GX1 restores us to where the GF1 was, but with the 16mp sensor that's in the G3 DSLR-style camera. Indeed, comparing the GX1 and G3 is a good starting point, as they have a great deal of commonality to them.

The specification list is impressive: a 16mp m4/3 sensor is at the GX1's heart, which provides 4592 x 3448 pixel JPG or 12-bit raw images. Up top we have a pretty standard Mode dial with extra positions for Art Filters, Scene Modes, and two Custom User settings. The shutter release is big and easy to find (though ever so slightly wobbly on my copy), and Panasonic has used my favorite power option: an on/off switch (located around the Mode dial). There's a hot shoe centered on the lens axis, and a pop-up flash to the left of that. The primary top-side differences between a GX1 and a G3 are the location of the flash, the lack of the viewfinder hump on the GX1 (though you can get an external EVF that slips into the hot shoe and accessory connector), and the fact that the record movie button is up top on the GX1 while it's on the back of the camera on the G3.

The back of the camera provides a full set of controls, including Panasonic's push dial that enables one dial to handle two things (e.g. aperture setting and exposure compensation in Aperture-priority exposure mode). Curiously, the GX1 has three extra buttons on the back the G3 doesn't (AF/AE LOCK, AF/MF, and the Fn1 and DISP buttons are not combined, but separate). 

The big news on the back is the 3" 460k dot touch sensitive LCD, which is fixed in place. We don't get the swivel flexibility of the G3, but we do get the touch capabilities. I wouldn't call the LCD bright, but it's reasonably usable outdoors. The new optional LVF2 EVF that slips into the hot shoe and accessory slot is clearly better than the older model, but so far it only works on the GX1.

While shooting you can set crops of 4:3, 3:2, 1:1, and 16:9. However, unlike the GH2's sensor, which has extra space to make the camera shoot close to 18mp at all aspect ratios, the GX1 instead always crops from the 4:3 at 16mp. Thus, at 16:9 you get a bit less than 12mp output. The sensor itself is basically the G3 sensor with some tweaking (it has 120 fps sensor readout which makes focus a bit faster than the G3). 

Other features of note are a tripod socket centered on the lens axis (useful for those trying to do panos, amongst other things), and a very large plastic grip sticking out the right front side of the body. As with most Panasonic cameras, the camera strap lugs are aligned so that the camera doesn't hang cocked off a neck strap. That last is a small point, but it's one that a lot of cameras miss, and it's one of many examples that shows that the Panasonic engineers are photographers and understand how those small things can add up into a customer negative experience.

The GX1 is no GH2 when it comes to motion, but it does have some reasonable video specs, including 17Mbps 1080i/60 (NTSC regions; PAL users get 1080i/50). 

In terms of performance specifications, the GX1 is a mid-pack shooter: 4 fps at full resolution, 7 shot raw buffer (unlimited with JPEG with a fast card), 1/160 flash sync speed, 1/4000 top shutter speed. ISO starts at 160 and can be set to up to 12800.

Differences between the GX1 and G3 are few, but nothing earth shattering: a higher top ISO value, an onscreen horizon level, the powered accessory slot versus the built-in EVF, the location and size of the flash, a few button changes, some differences in the touchscreen controls, and visual differences in the menus. As you might guess, the primary decision factor between the G3 and GX1 is whether you want a built-in EVF and a slightly bigger camera (G3), or an optional EVF and a slightly smaller camera (GX1). From the standpoint of image quality of the built-in (G3) versus optional (GX1) EVFs, I see no differences. 

If you're looking at the differences between the older GF1 and the GX1, they're modest but important: improvement from 12mp to 16mp both in pixel count and a bit in image quality, added touchscreen, higher ISO capability, better video specs (including a built-in stereo mic), and two new function buttons. There are some minor feature additions, too, plus the screens and menus have been cleaned up some.

The overall impression is of a very solid successor to the GF1. It now appears that GF is entry level, GX is enthusiast level for the rangefinder style Panasonic cameras, GH is the high level cameras, and G is the basic platform, but no guarantees on that, as Panasonic's naming conventions are definitely confusing and appear to shift over time.

 

How's it Handle?

One of the nice things about Panasonic's higher end designs (and even some of their lower models) is that someone who photographs actively must be involved in the designs. I write that because the GF1, GX1, GH1, GH2, and G3 models all share one attribute: controls fall nicely in natural hand positions, aren't missing or in impossible-to-use positions, and most things you want to set while shooting are available either directly or with very little hassle.

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To some degree, the GX1 may be the best of the bunch other than the top-of-the-line GH2. The extra buttons compared to the G3 are very welcome in shooting. As much as I don't like the record video button up top next to the shutter release (some do, though), I do like the AF/AE LOCK button we get by moving the video button from the G3's position. The record video button is also recessed on the top plate, which makes it more difficult to accidentally trigger. Heavy still users will like that, while heavy video users might not.

Panasonic has pretty much perfected the Quick Menu concept. On the GX1 you have only one way of triggering it: the QMENU button. This is a curious departure from the G3, which has a touchscreen trigger (we'll get to the changes in the touchscreen in a minute).

At button-level or in the Quick Menu you can set aperture, shutter speed, exposure compensation, focus mode, movie settings, picture settings, image quality, flash options, metering, focus area mode, ISO, white balance, and frame advance. Plus you still have function buttons, both real and on-screen virtual, left over to assign. That's what I mean by user direct control. You don't do a lot of menu-diving while shooting with the GX1, and that's just the way I like a camera. 

The touchscreen control design has changed considerably from the G3, which is surprising. Normally we don't see the touchscreen "buttons," but rather a little tab that you can touch to bring them out from the right edge. When you're done, you can close the tab and de-clutter the screen. I wish the G3 had this. Just a small difference like that makes a dramatic difference in how you perceive the screen real estate, and it doesn't really slow you down much to do the two-step to get touch screen controls visible.

I wish I could say the menu system was as direct or as simple. The Shooting menu is 5 pages long, the Movie menu 3, the Custom Settings 7, the Setup menu 4, and the Playback menu 3 more pages. While the organization is decent (FORMAT is at least at the top of a page, so I can leave my camera set there much of the time), the font used, the over reliance on icons, the upper case only names, and the sometimes cryptical names will definitely give you pause sometimes. The flip of the menu default to white on black (as opposed to the G3's black on white) was a wise choice, though. It's a small step towards reducing the annoyance. 

The image displays while shooting are still a bit cluttered looking. Add a histogram, the virtual horizon, and some grid lines and I've seen less complex heads up displays on fighter jets. The view through the optional EVF, fortunately, is a little better.

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The GX1, like the G3, has a few other small touches that I like rewarding designers for: a real on/off switch that's difficult to accidentally trigger; a stiff Mode dial that doesn't tend to accidentally reset with rough handling (though it's more vulnerable to this than the G3); a centered tripod socket and flash hot shoe; camera strap lugs that are near perfectly positioned and balanced; a front grip that actually serves as a grip (though it really should have a different surfacing). These are all  signs of a photographer driving design. The tripod socket is a little closer to the battery compartment door on the GX1 than the G3, though, which is going to dictate the kinds of mounting plates you can use.

My one smallish physical design complaint has to do with the size of the rear command dial. It's most recessed and it's a small control on top of that. With thin gloves on, I don't always find it and can't always engage it correctly.

Finally, I should comment about the 14-42mm X lens on the GX1: this makes for a fairly compact, not quite shirt-pocketable combination. It's a nice jacket-pocket combo that isn't too heavy or big. 

For a small rangefinder-type camera, the GX1 handles quite well. A little better than the G3, in fact. If it weren't for the G3's swivel LCD, it would be a clear win, especially since you can always opt to add the EVF to the GX1.      


How's it Perform?

Battery: At least Panasonic has been consistent amongst a generation of cameras with batteries for a change. My GF2, G3, and GX1 all share the same battery (BLD10). Unfortunately, it's a smallish battery (1010mAh). The GX1 does better on a single battery than the G3. But if you use the optional EVF, that reverses. Still, you need to carry extra batteries, no matter which of the two cameras you choose: they aren't out-all-day-on-one-battery cameras. Since low-cost, third-party batteries are available, that shouldn't be a big deal. Still, it would have been nice to have a couple hundred more mAh.

Flash: Surprisingly useful, though not powerful. The GN of 7.6m at base ISO means only f/2.5 at about 10 feet (3m) in complete darkness. My measurements say it doesn't quite achieve that, but it's not far off. You're at a level where adding flash will make a meaningful difference in most situations you'd try to use it for fill. With fast primes on the GX1 you've got enough horsepower to light even small groups at night when they're as much as 20 feet (6m) away (f/1.2), at least if there's a bit of ambient light.  

Focus: It didn't help that I was evaluating the GX1 while I was also testing the Nikon V1. Nikon definitely raised the bar for mirrorless camera focus performance, and that was clearly evident to me using the two side by side.

For initial acquisition of non-moving targets, the GX1 is perfectly fine and even a little better than the G3 (Panasonic says 10% better, and I'll not quibble with that—seems about right). Not quite as snappy as the V1, but close enough to make it a race. It's when subjects start moving that things change. It's actually not that the focus system doesn't respond quickly on the GX1, it's that it doesn't track solidly. The faster or more disjointed the subject motion is, the more you see the focus system undershoot or overshoot where it should be, then struggle to catch up. This has long been the Achille's heel of contrast-based focus systems, so it isn't a problem unique to the GX1. I tried to find a difference in tracking between the G3 and GX1. I couldn't reliably come up with anything that indicated to me that the GX1 was consistently and measurably better, but anecdotally it felt there were times when it did indeed hold track a bit better than the G3. If Panasonic was right about the 10% improvement, that could explain it, as I have no way to set up a reliable test that will allow me to measure that while tracking (I could for static subjects, though).  

Some of my disappointment is that in the first generation of mirrorless, Panasonic was at the forefront of focus performance. I would tend to characterize the GH1 with 14-140mm lens performance as state of the art for contrast focus at the time of its introduction. Part of that was the video refresh speed of the sensor, part was the type of motors used in the Panasonic lenses. Both were a step forward for contrast focus. Unfortunately, I can't really say that a lot has changed two generations later: initial acquisition is still reasonably fast, follow focus works on slower motion (though with occasional hunts), and birds in flight are near impossible, especially for continuous shooting. In other words, no pragmatic progress even though we've had some modest overall improvement. I can't reliably shoot things now that I couldn't shoot before, though I do get a few more keepers overall.    

Image Quality: Let's get the good news out of the way first: if you like detail, the GX1 very well may deliver what you want. It seems to have a lax anti-aliasing filter, because I'm seeing clear (false) detail above the Nyquist frequency in raw files. Coupled with the good m4/3 lenses, the GX1's 16mp sensor can produce quite a bit of detail. It resolves slightly above its class.

On the other hand, in JPEGs some of that "detail" isn't detail at all, but over aggressive sharpening. The GX1 is definitely a camera I'd consider moving away from the defaults on if I were shooting JPEGs. 

Interestingly, noise seems to play into the resolution appearance on the GX1. Panasonic has finally played down the color noise while letting luminance noise stay. That's a technique Canon and Nikon have been using to advantage for a long time in their DSLRs. A little bit of noise, a little bit of over sharpening, a lazy AA filter, and 16mp go a long way to making it appear as if the GX1 does better than the 12mp m4/3 cameras (including their own). Some people will like that. Unfortunately, it makes for a slightly grainy appearance, even at low ISO levels. 

I can also see the detail destruction in JPEG images beginning at ISO 800 and coming in pretty heavy handed, at that. I find myself clearly preferring the results on the 12mp Olympus cameras as early as ISO 400, but certainly by ISO 800. Note that NR +2 is just too severe on the GX1. The Venus processing engine still isn't up to the same level of subtlety I see from Canon's DIGIC, Nikon's EXPEED, or Olympus TRUPIC. That said, there is a slight improvement over the G3, which uses the same sensor. You can clearly see this at ISO 6400, where the balance of detail destruction and noise is better handled on the GX1 than the G3. But it's present at all ISOs to a smaller degree. Curiously, most of that difference appears to be in the green channel, not the red and blue channels. When examining the raw files shot at the same time, I can't find any differences in the G3 and GX1 ones that can't be attributed to very small sample or testing variations.

The interesting thing is that I don't see a big falloff in the sensor's capability in raw files until I get to ISO 1600. Put another way, I find that I can generate better JPEGs out of my ISO 800 raw files than Panasonic is getting out of the camera. That's not good (for JPEG shooters, at least). I'm not sure I can recommend ISO 3200 in raw, but I'm sure that I can't recommend ISO 6400: the dynamic range is crushed, the color noise if you remove it will kill detail but if you leave it will change colors. Do note that Panasonic appears to cook their raw files if you've got NR +2 set: you'll get a dramatic loss of detail if you set that with raw, at least at ISO 800 and above.

Dynamic range is not the GX1's strong suit, though it is reasonable for a small sensor camera. I don't yet have a final calculation for photographic dynamic range, but it looks like it's about a stop worse than the APS cameras I've been using.

Overall, the GX1 is capable of producing some very good results, especially if you're looking for detail at lower ISO values. I still think the VENUS image processor is behind the state-of-the-art, though, so JPEG shooters need to make sure that they really like the output the camera creates when set to JPEG. But I found raw files from ISO 160 to 800 to be quite usable and I was able to extract very high quality images from the GX1 in that range.

You may note that these remarks are basically the same as those in my G3 review. I actually tried very hard to find some tangible difference that couldn't be explained just by sample variation. In terms of almost all measurements, the GX1 and G3 test the same. The one place where I did find a small—and I mean small—difference is in high ISO results, but even that didn't amount to a third of a stop of difference in the GX1's favor. For all intents and purposes, I'd consider the image quality of these two Panasonic options interchangeable.  


Final Words

Just as with the G3: Love the camera, like the output. I'd rather have it the other way around, but the GX1 is not to be scoffed at: it produces credible results under almost any scenario you'd throw at it, good results if you shoot raw and pay attention to camera settings and are reasonable good at raw conversion, great results within a very narrow range (moderate contrast scenes at base ISO converted with care). 

I should point out that I've now sold my GF1 and adopted the GX1 as its replacement in my camera collection. There's enough to like here that I've chosen to make the switch, even though it comes with some penalties (the accessory slot changed, so you need a new external EVF if you use that).

The question some of you are asking: G3 or GX1? If your camera hangs from your neckstrap all the time: G3. If you want to shoot from ground level, above your head, or even around corners: G3. If your camera goes into your pocket all the time and size is important: GX1 plus 14-42 X or small primes. If you shoot from a tripod all the time and don't mind framing via LCD: GX1. 

It's actually a really difficult choice. Maybe the real choice is to buy a G3 and a GX1 as your backup body. Common battery, (mostly) common controls, similar performance, and the best of both worlds in terms of how you shoot. 


Drawbacks

  • New Accessory Slot kind of makes the GF1 folk not so fast to upgrade, doesn't it?
  • Venus JPEGs — Panasonic's JPEG quality isn't as good as the camera could deliver. Good, but not as good as it could deliver from this sensor.

Positives

  • Great Handling — even some of the tiny nits I had about the G3 were addressed. Nicely done, and plenty of controls for the control freak.
stars4

Features — No real complaints here, definitely above average

stars3

Performance — Better JPEGs and a bit more autofocus performance would push us above average

stars3

Value — Is it really worth more than a G3? (Yes, a bit, but not a lot)

Highly Recommended

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