In this episode of All About the Gear, Frederick Van Johnson and I discuss the Panasonic Lumix GX7.
The GX7 is competing for top honors in the world of micro four-thirds (MFT) cameras, particularly against the Olympus OM-D E-M5 and the new E-M1.
Heritage The GX7’s lineage began with the entry-level GF1 nearly five years ago, and was eventually (late 2011) followed by the somewhat more serious GX1. It’s been a long two years, and Lumix fans have been chomping at the bit for an upgrade. Enter the GX7 in October 2013. The list price is US$1,000 for the body only or US$1,100 bundled with a 14-42mm kit lens.
- 16MP micro four-thirds (MFT) sensor
- Unique tilt-up electronic viewfinder (EVF)
- In-body sensor-based image stabilization
- Tiltable touch-sensitive LCD
- WiFi with NFC
- Highly configurable
Ergonomics & Usability My first impression of the GX7 was great. It’s a good looking camera and it’s responsive and fun to use. It’s one of the few cameras that actually generates comments from passers by who may or may not know what kind of camera it is. (Leicas and the Fuji X100s also attracted more attention than most others.) The controls are almost perfect. The tilting LCD is excellent, and its touch-sensitive menus are very intuitive. It’s one of the cameras that passed my “don’t need the manual” test, but not with a perfect score. That’s because there’s no dedicated exposure-compensation dial on the GX7. But Panasonic has implemented a feature that works nearly as well. You press the rear dial at the upper-right corner on the rear of the camera (the same one used for controlling aperture), then you rotate it left or right and see the EV change in the viewfinder or on the LCD. I sometimes like to use the wimpy little flashes built into cameras for fill flash, maybe one or two stops below normal exposure to make it less obvious. It took me a while to figure it out, but flash compensation is also easily accessible. Once you enable it in the menu system, you can use the front dial for this function. Panasonic is one vendor that has implemented a Quick Menu feature, and it works well here. The menus include a unique soft-button option that allows you to change which functions appear in the quick-menu area of the screen. I loved that feature. When it comes to controls and menus, I found the GX7 to be one of the most configurable cameras I’ve ever used.
ISO 320, Lumix G Vario 7-14mm f/4, 1/60 second, f/6.3, 14mm, Photoshop
Sensor & Shutter The GX7’s 16MP sensor is pretty much at the sweet spot for an MFT camera. Any more resolution and the pixels become awfully small and hence show too much noise. Like the Olympus OM-D E-M5 but unlike the E-M1, the Lumix GX7 has the standard low-pass anti-aliasing filter in front of the sensor. Panasonic hasn’t yet jumped on the no-AA filter bandwagon. (An AA filter reduces sharpness almost imperceptibly, but protects videos in particular from moiré effects.) The mechanical focal-plane shutter operates as fast as 1/8000 second, which is great for those of us who like to shoot wide-open in the daylight. You can also turn off the mechanical shutter and use only electronic shuttering, which turns the GX7 into an entirely silent stealthy camera. Sort of spooky! As far as image noise, I wasn’t all that impressed with the GX7, but that’s probably because I’m used to shooting with larger sensors. I found the images to be already a bit noisy at ISO 800 whereas other reviewers such as Steve Huff seem happy with it all the way through ISO 3200. You should check out the websites that run more detailed image or sensor tests or, better yet, rent a GX7 and try for yourself. One important new feature in the GX7 is in-body sensor-shift image stabilization. Until now, Panasonic has relied on in-lens image stabilization, so this is a first. (Olympus has always had in-body image stabilization which has meant that when you put an Olympus lens on a previous Panasonic/Lumix MFT body you don’t get any stabilization at all.) Panasonic admits that its sensor-based stabilization isn’t as good as what they can do in their lenses, so when you attach an image-stabilized lens to the GX7, it uses that feature in the lens and disables the sensor-based stabilization. The sensor-based image stabilization in the GX7 is only for still images. It’s unfortunately switched off in video mode, where it would probably be most valuable. I get the feeling image stabilization isn’t on while you’re composing an image, even when you depress the shutter release half way. At least I couldn’t see its effect while setting up a shot.
Autofocus I found the autofocus capabilities of the GX7 to be about the best I’ve used on a mirrorless camera that has only contrast-type autofocus. Okay, so what does that mean? It seems to focus faster than my Sony NEX-7 and the Olympus OM-D E-M5, both mirrorless, contrast-type only. Don’t quote me on that, since I didn’t test them side-by-side, but I thought the autofocus speed of the GX7 was good enough, particularly with prime lenses and good light. There’s a nice Pinpoint autofocus mode that lets you zoom in and manually fine-tune, and you can adjust the amount of time the camera remains in this zoomed-in view.
Manual Focus The GX7 is excellent for folks like me who sometimes like to focus manually. Here’s why.
- There’s a dedicated auto/manual focus switch, although I’d prefer it to be on the front or left edge like on the Fujifilm cameras.
- The focus peaking in the EVF and on the LCD are excellent. You can change the level and the color of the edges in focus.
- When you manually adjust focus, the camera zooms in to a designated portion of the image for fine tuning.
- You can reposition and change the size of the MF Assist area.
- A configuration I particularly like is the GX7’s version of rear-button focusing: Set the AF/AE Lock button to autofocus when pressed (instead of AF locking); press the AF/AE Lock button to autofocus; turn the focus ring to fine-tune the focus manually; press the shutter release half way to clear the MF Assist zoom (which remains on too long despite the minimum setting of two seconds); reposition for spot metering if necessary; recompose; shoot. That sounds like a lot, and it is when compared to “point & shoot”, but it’s something you can learn to do very quickly in just a day so long as you don’t keep changing cameras to review them like I do.
Another great feature for manually focusing is the MF Guide. Similar to what Fujifilm has implemented, this is a focus scale in the EVF and on the LCD that shows you the focal distance as well as the hyperfocal scale adjusted for distance and aperture. Love it. There are only two problems with manual focus on this camera, and they’re primarily just annoyances.
- I find I accidentally move the Focus Assist area because of the touch screen. On one hand, I love that it’s so easy to move, but on the other hand it won’t stay in one place when I want it to. Maybe my nose is too big and keeps hitting the screen!
- The MF Assist stays on for ten seconds after you quit turning the focus ring or until you press the shutter release at least half way. This needs to be configurable down to as little as 0.5 second. It feels like I’m working around a peculiarity of the camera (which I am) when I have to depress the shutter release just to recompose my image.
ISO 200, Lumix G Vario 35-100mm f/2.8, 1/1000 second, f/2.8, 41mm, Photoshop
Metering There’s nothing particularly noteworthy in the exposure department. I ended up with a few images I thought were underexposed more than they should be, but not enough to worry about. The GX7 does have one unique mode called Intelligent Auto Plus, which is like program mode on most cameras. In normal Intelligent Auto mode, the camera does pretty much everything for you, but in the Plus mode you can override exposure compensation, aperture (they call it Defocus Control) and color tinting.
Rear LCD The GX7’s rear LCD is one of the best out there. It’s the standard 3″ with 1.04 million dots. It tilts up and down, but doesn’t articulate fully like the LCD on the Canon 70D. The screen is touch-sensitive and supports actions like drag and pinch. In manual exposure mode (only!) it has a great Constant Preview option. Unlike other LCDs that auto-adjust to make the image look properly exposed regardless of how the recorded image will end up, this mode shows the actual effects of your selected exposure instead of showing you something that always looks as nice as possible. The screen auto-adjusts when you autofocus or adjust your focus manually, then returns to the more realistic view. Very cool. And because in Constant Preview mode the lens is stopped down to the same aperture that will be used for exposure, the LCD (and EVF) give you an accurate view of the depth-of-field as well. I found it a bit frustrating that Constant Preview was only available in manual mode and not when shooting in aperture- or shutter-priority modes. As for you histogram fans, Panasonic’s manual warns that “the histogram is an approximation in the Recording Mode.” But I found it to be a helpful guide. Better than in those Fujifilm cameras! (Intentionally snarky reference to my reviews of the Fuji X-E1 and X100S.)
Viewfinder The electronic viewfinder (EVF) is very bright and hi-res with 2.76 million dots. You can tilt the EVF up so that you look down into it. Sort of like shooting with a Rolleiflex twin-lens reflex camera, for those of us old enough to remember such a thing. The only problem is that if you want to use it to shoot from waist-high, for example, you need to bend all the way down to that level since you still need to press your eye up against the thing. I didn’t find I used it much at all, but it’s sort of a neat new gimmick in the MFT world.
WiFi & NFC Wireless connectivity for the GX7 is one of the best I’ve tested. You start by downloading the free Panasonic Image App for iOS or Android and connecting to your camera. If you’re an iOS user (no NFC), you’ve got to enter an unnecessarily long password, but just once. The mobile app supports camera control and image transfer. It’s simple to use and the lag in real-time image display is reasonably low.
ISO 200, Leica DG Summilux 25mm f/1.4, 1/500 second, f/1.4, Lightroom
Video The GX7 can shoot 1080p video at up to 60fps. Normally, that would hint at a camera that’s pretty good for video, particularly from a company whose roots are in that universe. But for some reason this camera is lacking both an external microphone input and a headphone output, although it does have metering and level adjustment for the built-in mic. If the internal mic is good enough for you or if you’re willing to record audio on a separate device, that’s fine. But for everyone in between, the lack of that external mic input is disappointing. I expect this problem to be rectified in the next version of this camera. Another weakness is that the new sensor-based image stabilization doesn’t operate in video mode, and video is probably where you’d want it most.
Lenses If there’s one primary advantage of the micro four-thirds (MFT) system, it’s the selection, compactness and relative low cost of the lenses. I was lucky to be able to test quite a few of them for this review. As a full-frame Nikon shooter, I know exactly what to pack when I want to cover as many situations as possible. I throw three f/2.8 zooms into the bag: the 14-24mm, 24-70mm and 70-200mm. Canon shooters have a similar set of their big-three zooms. Panasonic has copied this so-called Holy Trinity lens-family concept with constant-aperture lenses that offer the same field-of-view, adjusted for the MFT sensor size.
- Lumix G Vario 7-14mm f/4. (US$970 street) This lens is similar to (and almost as fast as) Nikon’s classic 14-24mm f/2.8. It’s an excellent lens, but isn’t quite the equivalent of the US$2,000 Nikon 14-24mm. Some have suggested the alternative of the Olympus 9-18mm f/4-5.6 (US$700), but I’ve personally never used it.
- Lumix G X 12-35mm f/2.8 ASPH (US$1,300 list, US$1,120 street). Here’s your mid-range 24-70 equivalent, constant aperture, image stabilized, weather sealed lens. I had a lot of fun shooting with this one and came home with some great images.
- Lumix G X Vario 35-100mm f/2.8 Power O.I.S. (US$1,500 list, US$1,350 street). Finally, here’s the equivalent of the classic 70-200mm zoom at a fixed f/2.8 aperture. The lens is fine, but as a dyed-in-the-wool 70-200mm f/2.8 wide-open fan, I was disappointed. Not in the optical quality, but just in the fact that my wide-open depth-of-field at 100mm looked more like using my full-frame 70-200mm at f/5.6. In other words, not enough shallow depth-of-field. We all know about this limitation of small sensors, but this is the lens that really highlights the issue. One solution would be to go for something like a 100mm f/1.4, which would bring back that shallow depth-of-field, but I’ve not tested such a lens for the MFT format.
Leica and Panasonic have some kind of branding relationship and two of the lenses I used are co-branded Leica. But I’ve coined a new label for them: LINO — Leica In Name Only. These lenses are very good, but they aren’t anywhere near the quality that one expects from real Leica lenses. This shouldn’t be a surprise, of course. They cost far less than the M-mount Leica lenses for Leica camera bodies.
- Panasonic Leica DG Summilux 25mm f/1.4 ASPH (US$630 list, US$530 street). This lens has the equivalent field-of-view of a 50mm full-frame lens, so it’s good for general purpose. It’s also good for some portraits so long as you don’t get too close. Remember, although it has a 50mm-like field-of-view, it still has the distortion of a 25mm lens. When I had multiple lenses, this is the one I kept wanting to put back on the camera. It was my favorite of all those I tested. As for the LINO business, the closest Leica Summilux-M lens I know is the amazing 50mm f/1.4 ASPH. That one costs $4,000, or more than 7x what you’ll pay for this “Panasonic” Leica. Here’s a case of you get what you pay for when it comes to image sharpness and contrast.
- Panasonic Leica DG Macro-Elmarit 45mm f/2.8 ASPH MEGA O.I.S. (US$900 list, US$720 street). I liked this lens quite a bit. First of all, it’s a macro lens, so you can get those great super-closeups. But remember that because of the 2x crop factor of the small MFT sensor, this lens has a 90mm equivalent full-frame field-of-view. That means it has a telephoto-like view yet the distortion of a slightly wide-angle 45mm. It’s an excellent choice for headshot portraits. For full-length shots, it’s great, but you have to get fairly far back because of the 90mm equivalence. Like the 25mm f/1.4, it’s a bit soft wide open, but it looked very good at f/4 and f/5.6. The closest real Leica Elmarit-M lens I’ve used is the tiny 28mm f/2.8 ASPH. It’s gorgeously sharp, but costs 3x what this LINO lens costs and doesn’t autofocus.
Don’t get me wrong. These two lenses are quite good for their costs. I recommend them both. but just don’t think you’re buying the same quality as what we know as the true Leica lenses. These are definitely LINO. I also shot with two other lenses that were neither in the “big three” zoom category nor LINOs.
- Lumix G X Vario PZ 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 ASPH Power O.I.S. (US$400 list, US$270 street). The good news about this lens is that it’s tiny and when ordered with the GX7 body, adds a mere US$100 to the cost. For those reason’s I’d buy the kit. The 14-42mm is a pancake-style “power zoom”. Personally, I prefer to change the focal length manually, but you can’t do that with this lens. It turns a very nice MFT camera into a slow-to-use point-and-shoot. If you’re a reader of this blog or a viewer of All About the Gear, I expect you’ll outgrow this lens almost immediately, but it’s nice to have.
- Lumix G Fisheye 8mm f/3.5 (US$800 list, US$640 street). Because of the MFT sensor size, this is like a full-frame 16mm, but it’s a real fisheye and a lot of fun to shoot with. I don’t own a fisheye lens myself, but I had a great time shooting with this little guy, getting in and focusing as close as 100mm.
Check around when buying Panasonic/Lumix lenses. There are often substantial “instant rebates” available, particularly for the more expensive lenses. And for the best recommendations of MFT lenses, check out Gordon Laing’s list on CameraLabs.com.
ISO 200, Leica DG Macro-Elmarit 45mm f/2.8, 1/200 second, f/2.8, Photoshop
Competition There are now quite a few choices for smaller cameras. If you’re interested in the GX7, you may have already decided you want to buy into the micro four-thirds system. Let’s start with those alternatives.
- Olympus OM-D E-M5. (US$1,000). For the same cost, the GX7 beats the E-M5 except for the latter’s superior in-body stabilization. The E-M5 however is dust- and splash-proof (depending on the lens), has its EVF centrally positioned, can shoot at 9fps vs. 5fps, but has no WiFi or NFC capabilities. The E-M5 and GX7 both feature 16MP sensors, pretty much standard for the current crop of best MFT cameras.
- Olympus OM-D E-M1 (US$1,400). I haven’t yet had an opportunity to test the E-M1, but reports from those who have suggest it’s outstanding. So should you spend US$400 more than for the GX7? It’s not really an apples-to-apples comparison. The E-M1 is a more advanced and “serious” camera. If you want the most/best technology in an MFT body, the E-M1 is your best bet today. But if money and size matter — the E-M1 is quite a bit larger — or if video is important, you might go with the E-M1. Remember, if you’re like most MFT shooters, you’ll soon spend far more on lenses than on your first MFT body, and those lenses will last a lot longer and retain more of their value. With the rapid advances in technology, bodies have relatively short lives. The E-M1 does feature (by comparison) Olympus’ in-body 5-axis stabilization, some amount of weather sealing, freeze proofing to -10C, no anti-aliasing/low-pass filter, 10fps shooting and hybrid phase-detect autofocus except during video recording.
- Lumix GM1 (US$750 with a 12-32mm kit lens). With the same sensor and processor as the Lumix GX7, but not the tilting LCD, this tiny — and I mean tiny — MFT camera is another way to get into this system. So far I’ve only held it in my hand, but I do look forward to taking it for a spin. It’s particularly interesting if you want to use one of the smaller MFT lenses like the 12-32mm it comes with. If you attach anything large, the GM1 looks almost silly.
- APS-C Mirrorless Cameras: Sony NEX-6 (US$750), NEX-7 (US$1,100), Fuji X-E2 (US$1,300). The question of micro four-thirds vs. mirrorless cameras with larger APS-C sensors is too complex to answer in this review. I can tell you that people who have MFT cameras generally love them, even fanatically so. Personally, I prefer the slightly larger sensors, but that’s just me and based on what I shoot and how I shoot it. Historically, the big argument in favor of MFT has been the availability of a wider array and lower cost of lenses. But with Zeiss now making great lenses for Sony and Fuji APS-C cameras, this is less of a differentiating issue.
Recommendations At US$1,100 list price with the tiny 14-42mm kit lens, the Lumix GX7 is an excellent way to dive into the world of micro four-thirds. If you’ve already decided you want to go with MFT, this is the camera to buy unless you need the more advanced features and can accept the larger size and weight of the Olympus OM-D E-M1, which costs 40% more (bodies only, list prices). Given how rapidly MFT cameras are improving year after year and knowing I’d be likely to upgrade to a new body within 24 months anyway, I think I’d rather save those extra dollars and put them towards the best lenses I could afford and know I’ll be happy to keep and use with future bodies. Availability and pricing notes:
- There’s a new 20mm f/1.4 lens that’s not available in the U.S. at this time. Where it is available, you can get it bundled with the body for the same price as the 14-42mm kit.
- The all-black model is available in the US only from B&H and only with the kit lens. Go figure.
- If you’re not in a hurry, look around for frequent bargains offered by authorized Lumix Professional Dealers. I’ve seen the body only for as little as US$849.99 and the kit for US$899.99, a savings of US$200.