The G-spot, Take 7 - a hands on review of the Panasonic G7
Panasonic's G-line of cameras, starting with G1 at 2008, signaled the beginning of the whole Micro Four Thirds system; this was, after all, the first camera in the system being announced.
Full disclosure: I never managed to stomach the G-line of cameras, concerning appearance and styling. They always felt to me like they tried too much to look like smaller modern DSLRs. In fact, I already expressed my antipathy of this style in a previous article. Panasonic even tried to introduce the term "DSLM" based on this style; an effort that justifiably failed.
This line was improved immensely during all these years, and filled the mid-level "enthusiast" niche for Panasonic, while advancing crucial characteristics version after version. When I first saw pictures and then got my hands on the G7, thanks to the good folks at All About Digital Photo strore, I admit I changed my opinion on styling a little bit.
The G7 still resembles a small DSLR somewhat, albeit with a more angular look, and without being larger that it needs be. In a way, it reminds a bit of Pentax DSLRs, which I consider the only examples of the kind that retain a level of slickness, not resembling an Alien/Black Jellybean crossbreed.
In the hand the G7 pleasantly surprises with low weight which is also combined with great grip. Excluding those suffering from acromegaly, I can't imagine someone having difficulty handling it. Besides the comfortable grip, various buttons and knobs are, in my opinion, in quite ergonomic positions. Of course, the system also has larger lenses, where a larger body would give better control. In such a case, a GH4 or E-M1, especially with added grip, would provide extra handling ease. There is no add-on grip available for the G7.
I had the opportunity to use the camera for a little more than a week, and carry it around for hours. This is a very pleasant camera to carry around all day, virtually forgetting about its presence.
Although low weight usually predisposes for cutbacks in build quality, here the little Panasonic also offers a pleasant surprise. Very good build quality, easily better than most entry/mid level DSLRs, with little to zero assembly tolerances and a "secure" control feel. I suspect that the low weight is a result of the lack in weather sealing, which is of course common to other cameras in this category.
Which category I'm referring to? Without a doubt, the G7 enters the serious hobbyist market, without pretentions of semi or full professional dispositions. That said, cameras in this crowded market segment already offer remarkable features, which we couldn't find even in top of the line models a couple years back.
The G7 features -quite possibly- the sensor from the GF7 with a new imaging engine based on the GH4. In the meantime, it offers some features found only in Panasonic's top model. One of them concerns AF, which now includes Panasonic's DFD capability. Another is the inclusion of full, in camera 4K video capability, in fact with some added features over the GH4.
Speaking of the sensor, we all know that, in the last 2-3 years, image quality in smaller sensor cameras has improved dramatically. In fact, up to the point where, there is little to tell apart when speaking about same generation sensors. This is largely true of m43 and APS-C sensors, but also is valid for comparisons with FF sensors, when speaking of real conditions. If one is interested in practical image quality parameters, and real life Photography, and not so much about pixel peeping, this should be rather clear. That said, IQ from the Panasonic is excellent, and, probably, at the top of the m43 system right now, together with the Olympus E-M5mk2. It is possible that they share the same sensor too (which means this is a Sony sensor), because DR, color and noise characteristics seem the same to me (give or take, due to specific imaging engine parameters).
In use, AF is one of the first things one observes with the G7. It is, in simple words, blindingly fast, with any lens I tested it. I dare say the G7 is probably the fastest m43 camera and among the fastest regardless of system, as far as AF goes.
Wisely using the several available focusing modes, it would seem impossible to miss a click. Depth from Defocus, of course, only works with Panasonic's lenses and one will appreciate its value on moving subjects, coming towards the camera. But it's not a very big deal; see the picture of the little dog below, shot with the Olympus 45mm f/1.8 (without DFD, but with continuous AF enabled). Results are quite encouraging, given the subject (a hyperactive doggie, coming towards the camera): from about 12 shots, 8 were in perfect focus, even with this short telephoto at f/2.2. I think I actually missed a couple of shots due to my inability to follow the little monster!
In good light conditions, it goes without saying that the camera focuses almost by thought. But I wanted to test it on more demanding conditions, so I took it to a concert (because, you know, what can be smarter than using a camera you don't know in a challenging assignment? :-) ). Practically nothing changed. In live music shooting, light constantly changes and your subjects don't stay immovable for long periods of time. The G7 performed impressively well; also another revelation is how much Panasonic has improved their metering. I used the camera with Panasonic 25mm f/1.4 in this case.
Photos above are from Beth Hart's live concert in Athens, and, unlike the others in this post, which are OOC JPEGs, were converted from RAW, using Adobe's DNG converter. At the time of the review, there was no option to use LR or PS for RAW conversion, and the DNG converter has certain limitations (e.g. no color profiles or corrections). By the time you read this, there will probably be full support for the camera, and results should be better.
The second impression, is the practical ease of use, in combination with very good customizations. At this point, let me admit that I have near zero experience with Panasonic cameras, which actually makes me a perfect guinea pig on what a new user has to face. Panasonic always had a more "computer-like" interfaces in their cameras. It might be true that all of us belonging, more or less, to the Old Men's Photographic Club, will always have a soft spot to "traditional" interfaces (call me Fuji). But we cannot reject a modern approach as being less effective. And, of course, for a novice photographer, this would be a non-issue. Panasonic includes, apart from "real" function buttons, a number of "virtual" buttons on the back screen. The latter is, of course, a touch screen, with a multitude of practical functions. That said, the rear screen is very clear, with correct colors and the same goes for the EVF. As usual with all Panasonic G cameras, the back screen is tilt-able, great for a number of uses, especially video.
Considering the camera from the viewpoint of a totally new user (in other words, without making comparisons with what I use daily), I can say that a, somewhat serious, new user will learn how to use it quite fast. The drive knob on the upper left is self-explanatory, and I liked the 3-way focus mode switch on the upper back position, which also includes a AF/AE-lock button. The other buttons/knobs are in "rational" positions, which means you don't search for them in the dark. The flash is indifferent; it's in a fixed position, with no bouncing capability. The Quick Menu will be much more appreciated by the new user, reminding the logic behind Olympus' SCP, but with a more modern implementation. 98% of all day in/day out functions, can be carried out between this and the "real" controls.
The camera came with "yet another kit lens", which I honestly expected to stay in the bag, but I was proven wrong. Panasonic manages, in some way, to incrementally improve their kit lenses, and this one is worth a try, or two. Apart from including stabilization, it has, on paper, no really impressive characteristics. On paper. In practice, I'll go on record in saying this is probably the best low cost kit lens available in ANY system. Yes, it's a plastic little thing, yes, it doesn't appear to be competent, and, yes, you cannot compare it with "serious" kit lenses such as those found in FF DSLRs or Fuji's 18-55mm f/2.8-4. But it remains a jewel in its category, with instant AF, silent operation and impressive IQ for what it is, even at the edges. Absolutely no comparison with similar cheap DSLR kit lenses or what we were used to in m43 a few years ago. What's not to like?
Continuing to examine the technical characteristics, the camera has a 1/4000" mechanical shutter, a limitation one can overcome using the electronic shutter, going up to 1/16000". We have talked before on how important a faster shutter is for m43 cameras, when you need to shoot in bright light using shallow DoF. Needless to say, the electronic shutter has certain limitations on moving subjects, which one has to remember. Maximum bulb mode reaches 2 minutes, which might be limiting for some users.
The G7 deservedly wins the unofficial "ninja camera" reward (which I had also awarded to the Olympus E-M5Mk2), possessing remarkable discreet shooting features: silent shutter, touch focusing and shutter, while adding an eye-sensor AF feature (which starts the AF procedure the time you bring your eye to the EVF). Being smallish and with instant AF a given, it proves excellent for tactful street photography. With the kit lens, most people will think you are a tourist holding one of the typical smaller bridge cameras. With smaller system lenses, such as the the Panasonic 15mm and 20mm, or the Olympus 17mm, 25mm and 45mm, you have a quite small and light system, with great potential.
Most mirrorless cameras provide a number of "creative" features which open-minded users can take advantage of. One such example is bracketing: where most entry level DSLRs offer 3 frames, here we have 7. Another is timelapse, with ease movie creation in-camera. Unfortunately the G7 doesn't offer Olympus' impressive live bulb modes though. In order to facilitate bracketing and other features, the camera provides a 8fps burst rate, which is above average. Max rate for continuous AF is 6fps, which is also pretty good and useable.
Speaking of movies, this is where the G7 shines. The winning factor is of course internal 4K recording. This means that the G7 is one of the most economical "all in one" 4K cameras with interchangeable lenses. Furthermore, the G7 expands 4K capabilities with the 4K photo mode. The user can use one of 3 different methods to record a 4K movie, and then decide which frames he or she wishes to keep, in camera. Frames are, as we know, roughly 8Mp each, enough for online use and even smaller prints. The "movies" one records with this feature will most probably be short ones, but you can still use them as short clips later on. This is priceless for a number of photographic projects, including sports, dance and generally motion-oriented photography. Care should be taken to use the fastest shutter speeds needed to catch action effectively and avoid blurring.
Here is an example of this feature (many thanks to my friend Nasos!). Frames were selected from the short (~10-12sec) clip produced by the camera and C-AF and the kit lens were used:
While 4K is the star-feature of the G7, of course all "regular" video modes are present (up to 1920 x 1080 at 60fps). Many users hold that 4K is more a "marketing feature" at this point. I strongly disagree. Apart from the fact that 4K consumer devices are rapidly coming to the marketplace at affordable prices, 4K already offers many advantages including easier downsizing. There will soon be a 4K sample from the camera in this blog, please check back!
Having already spoken of AF in a most flattering way, let me say that the other end, meaning manual focus, is also pretty impressive. There is a number of focusing aids (peaking, magnification with ability to move the focusing area by touch-screen, etc) which leave practically nothing to wish for. These are very welcome while recording video, either with full manual lenses, or by manually focusing native ones.
Given that the G7 enjoys many of the characteristics, esp. on video, of the high end GH4, would someone ask what more the latter would provide. Asking this means you really don't need the GH4, the G7 is already a safe option. The GH4 is a professional tool for video and stills and a pro user shall appreciate features such as grip and video accessory integration and weather sealing.
So let's see who the G7 is for, by examining the competition in its category. I will exclude DSLRs, given my standard view that an entry or mid level DSLR is a total waste of money today and only DSLRs aimed at certain professional needs have any validity, while buying into a system from scratch (i.e. not upgrading to a better option in the same camera system).
Mirrorless competition for the G7 consists of the Olympus E-M10, Sony a6000 and Fuji XT10. Each provides pros and cons in relation to the Panasonic.
The E-M10 is older, in fact it is being replaced by a new model very soon. Its advantage is mainly IBIS (not as efficient as the one in higher end models, but still useful), and, in part, its smaller size. No real practical reason to choose it over the G7, except if you already have another OMD and don't want to mix systems.
Sony is also in the market for some time, but it still holds its own in terms of characteristics. The 24Mp sensor is one of the best in its category, it boasts an excellent AF system and provides a way into the whole E/FE Sony system. It loses to the G7 on video and a series of usability features, while Sony is still a bit behind in terms of native lens selection for their APS-C cameras. It is really a matter of investing into a system with the a6000, and for some Sony is a safer bet overall, for the future.
The Fuji is a new proposition, now offering a revamped AF system, with impressive improvements, esp. for moving subjects. Fuji already has an excellent lens line-up, though their lenses aren't cheap. There is no point talking about video with Fuji; you only buy it for still photography. IQ though is perhaps the best possible overall, of all the cameras discussed here, although it features a modest 16Mp sensor.
As a conclusion: I could happily recommend the G7 as a first choice for any serious hobbyist/enthusiast in need of a slick, flexible, highly useable and deep in features camera, for very high quality photography. It is also perhaps the best overall value for money for high quality video, if higher end professional features are not that important.
As a second body for m43 users it's also a quite splendid choice. It could be, for example, a video-centric camera for E-M1 users or a little sister to the GH4.
It is definitely not recommended to those in need of serious pro features and such users will be repelled by the lack of expandability, more dedicated function buttons and the whole plastic construction.
In general, we are talking about a camera that succeeds to a very large extend to reach its goals in the market it addresses. Personally I found it literally adorable in form, function and use. This, I believe, is its greatest success, and most important capability and I'm sure it will soon be thriving in sales.
Below is a small gallery of photos taken with the camera, using various native lenses.