Panasonic GH3: A Stills Review

Panasonic GH3 with 12-35mm f/2.8 lens

Introduction

The Panasonic GH3 was introduced in October 2012 with some fanfare, as the replacement to the highly regarded GH2. Now, I say “some”, and that is because the Olympus OM-D E-M5, which had been on sale some six months earlier, was already in the minds of many a photographer, the premier Micro Four Thirds camera. The GH3 with its slightly higher price and much larger size made some wonder why not get a proper DSLR then?

Because dammit, have you seen the sizes of the Micro Four Thirds lenses? Camera size is less of a concern for those of us looking at a full system, since the lenses always take up the bulk of the weight. Plus, Panasonic did market it as a professional camera capable of doing both stills and video, but everyone seems to be dismissing it as a video-only camera, forgetting (or not even noticing) that traditionally Panasonic always reserves the best sensor package for the GH series. If you don’t believe me on that, go and compare the contemporary comparisons of the G1 and the GH1.

So we stills photographers gave it a go, and what conclusion did we come to? Read on and find out!

Singapore Keppel Container Terminal

Handling, Ergonomics and UI

The GH3 is made from materials you would expect from a higher-end DSLR, with its mostly metal body mixed with a few solid plastic bits where approriate. Upon picking it up, one gets the feeling of a much larger camera, like a Nikon D300 or a Canon EOS 7D, minus the weight and bulk.

Pairing a large screen like that on what is still a relatively compact body does have its minor issues. There is simply less space on the camera’s rear for controls. For instance, where my thumb would normally take a short stretch to reach the directional pad on the D300, it finds the rear screen instead. If you are used to a much larger camera, be prepared to do some more thumb stretching than usual.

The controls themselves however, are plentiful for a camera of its class. Panasonic has offered a lot of customisation, with up to five buttons that freely allow functions to be assigned to. In a move I have been hoping Nikon would do, the ISO button is one of the three buttons behind the shutter button, ready for quick access when used in conjunction with the rear command dial. A very nice touch. Somewhat sadly for me, the other two buttons are White Balance and Exposure Compensation, which I have little use for. The former is irrelevant as a raw shooter (I suspect it is more useful for video shooters, as the camera offers no raw video format), and the latter is made redundant by setting the secondary command dial to change exposure compensation directly. It would have been nice if those three buttons were customisable as well!

Unlike other Panasonic Micro Four Thirds cameras, the GH3’s directional pad has no functions assigned to it, allowing direct autofocus point control to be assigned to it. I do much prefer this setup as it makes changing autofocus points a lot faster and less annoying.

Most of the other main functions are easily accessed. Drive mode is on a dial on the left shoulder, and a button can be set to call up the Quick Menu for less-used settings that are called up often enough in shooting situations. The autofocus mode setting is a switch on the rear of the camera that surrounds the Autofocus/Autoexposure Lock button, which I grew to like.

I still do think the camera could do with another button or two, but perhaps that can come in the GH5.

The menu system, on the other hand, is something I still struggle with. While everyone complains about the Olympus menu system, I much prefer that. At least the custom settings menu is organised into sections related to function, like that on a Nikon or Canon DSLR. In Panasonic cameras, including the GH3, settings are vomitted out between the shooting and custom menus. Really, what is wrong with creating another set of tabs so it is imore ntuitive and takes less time to navigate to the settings I want? It also means adding more custom functions without overwhelming the menus. The GH3 for example, still does not have the nice Olympus feature of setting the focus ring behaviour. Unlearning my Nikon habits is still a work-in-progress.

CK: The handling of the GH3 is pretty nice. The relatively deep rubberised grip makes it easy to hold the camera, even with one hand. Controls are well laid out and I have no problems reaching them. However, while testing the GH3, I find that the AF point tend to be randomly shifted sometimes. I later found this is most likely due to my palm brushing against the control pad at the back, thus shifting the focus point. This is a constant annoyance for me as I use the camera.

The GH3 is also a rather big for a Micro Four Thirds camera compared to its contemporaries, having a size more akin to a small DSLR like the Nikon D5100. This can be a pro or con depending on your personal preferences – if you are more used to handling DSLRs, then you might like this form factor better. Conversely if you are looking at it as a second camera to complement a DSLR, then you might want something smaller. That said, it’s still quite impressive seeing how small the equivalent of a 24-70mm f/2.8 lens (Panasonic Lumix G X Vario 12-35mm f/2.8) is on the Micro Four Thirds system.

David: I don’t know, I think it’s a little on the big side. Scratch that, it’s too big. The new Canon entry DSLRs are almost the same size, if not slimmer, and offer true phase detect AF as well as being a host to a huge arsenal of Canon EF mount lenses, plus legacy SLR lenses via adapters, so I did think Panasonic missed an opportunity here to offer something different. Granted, Panasonic doesn’t have a legacy DSLR customer base to protect, so the GH3 could be the equivalent of the entry level DSLRS from the big boys.

YS: See, this is where numbers only tell half the story: It’s similar in size to entry level DSLRs, but it handles (and feels) like a much better camera. The true comparison is to an EOS 7D or a D300. When you do that, it’s smaller.

Also, the GH3 is a system camera aimed at pros or enthusiasts. They are not people who belong to the one lens crowd. Once you take the lenses into consideration, the GH3 system will be much smaller. Why not go with a smaller camera? Because frankly, they may be cute, but many of us want something that is nicer to use as our daily driver.

On the Playback mode: This is where the UI really comes undone in critical areas. For example, unlike current mid-to-upper end Canon and Nikon DSLRs, there is no one-press zoom to 100% magnification. Then there is the fact that if you shoot exclusively RAW, the GH3 saves the embedded JPEGs as 1920×1440 images, a practice Panasonic have been doing for many many years now. As a result, checking for focus issues while reviewing images in the field is impossible. Also equally useless is the zoom level indicator. Does anyone really care if the zoom level is at 2x, 4x or 8x? How about 25%, 50% and 100% indicators, like in Photoshop any good image editor?

Another negative, as a Nikon user, is in deleting images. Deleting a single image requires four separate button presses: Delete, OK, left direction pad, OK. On Nikon cameras it is just pressing the Delete button twice. Never had an accidental deletion either.

CK: Indeed, the 4-step delete is super annoying. Having used a Nikon system for so long and getting used to double pressing the delete button to delete an image, anything more is a chore. That includes Canon’s Delete-Turn dial to select Yes-OK too. I am surprised at the number steps required to simply delete an image on many cameras! Maybe they don’t want you to accidentally delete (and regret it later).

YS’s Shutter Release Button Rating

YS: One thing never talked about, but makes a difference in shooting, is the way the shutter release button feels when pressed. Some of you might not care, but I do, because this can affect stability. How? Well, firstly, if you have ever used a camera, does the shutter release button, comes to a hard stop, then gives a clicking feeling as you press down to shoot?

Well, if it does, congratulations, that’s the bad kind.

The reason is simple – the extra pressure needed for that click means that once you actually proceed to take the photo, your finger is already exerting too much pressure on the shutter release button as it comes down from the “hump” because of the micro switch. End result is the inducement of a little more shake than normal.

Ideally, cameras should have shutter release buttons that behave more like the old spring loaded shutter releases – two steps of spring loaded linear switches, with the second one just slightly harder than the first. A high-end Canon or Nikon SLR normally has such a feel, and with good reason too.

So my verdict for the GH3’s shutter release button feel is:

AVERAGE

It has a large button, with a nice texture to it, but there’s still that slight click feeling upon taking a photo. It is not as pronounced as some point-and-shoots however, and is definitely softer than most. Still, it’s not my favourite. I could live with it as a main camera, but I definitely will be writing some Angry Mails to Panasonic. Or maybe just a sternly worded one.

Cranes at Capitol Theatre Rebuilding

Viewfinder/Screen

Let us get the positives out first: the live view feed on the GH3 is superb. It is fast, fluid, and has none of the jittery feeling from say, the Fujifiilm X-E1. The articulating rear AMOLED screen is nice to use, and I did not find the pentile arrangement to be a problem given the resolution. Only in the most blazing of Singapore sun did I find it an issue. Which is what the EVF is for.

The EVF however, is a mixed bag. On the “E” part, the electronics are good. Like the rear screen, the AMOLED unit is sharp, presents little tearing, and is not too contrasty for most use. The only problem is that with it being a 16:9 unit, it looks a little tiny when using it for 4:3 stills, with the sides blacked off. Unlike the previous GH cameras, setting the EVF on the GH3 to display shooting information at the bottom like the monochrome LCD of a SLR’s optical viewfinder results in a very tiny image.

What is really problematic, is the “VF” portion. The optics on the GH3’s viewfinder, is simply put, not very good. This is especially more so if you are wearing glasses. This is no high eyepoint viewfinder. Edges of the EVF blur or smear if your eye is not perfectly square and within the viewfinder’s small eyerelief range. This is a real pity, because in just about most other areas, the EVF of the GH3 is pretty good. I wonder if Panasonic worried that the EVF unit would not take to greater magnification well, or if there was no physical space for a better set of optics.

CK: I find the EVF rather annoying – edges are blurry and there’s the occasional “shimmering” effect when looking at it. The rather low eyepoint meant that I need to bring the camera very close to my glasses when using it. Under low light conditions, panning the camera results in very stuttery video on the EVF (probably due to it using a low shutter speed for the video feed). I’ve been very used to the excellent EVF of my Nikon 1 V1 which exhibits none of these behaviours and thus find the GH3’s EVF a major deal-breaker for me.

The articulated screen on the other hand, is superb. My first digital camera was the Nikon Coolpix 950 with a swivel body, and I love how it let me easily compose shots from awkward angles. The same can be done with the swivel screen on the GH3, allowing for things like ultra-low angle shots, for example.

YS: I am not sure, I do think the quality of the EVF is very close to the V1. Maybe it might be a little more stuttery in low-light, but it is nearly as good.

David: EVFs being what they are (aka substitute for the real thing), I actually don’t have much of a beef with the GH3’s viewfinder. Sure they are better ones out there in the market, but all EVFs are evil in some way to me – this one works well even if I prefer a true optical viewfinder. Besides, it’s admittedly better than the tunnel viewfinder of some entry level DSLRs (Canon I’m looking at you….)

Singapore Skyline

Autofocus and Camera Performance

YS: Panasonic, in my experience, has always delievered fast and competent autofocus with their Micro Four Thirds cameras, and the GH3 is certainly the best of the lot. The jitter associated with Contrast Detect Autofocus systems is kept to a minimum, and misfocusing is rare. Even in low light without the AF assist lamp, I generally did not have a problem with the camera in most circumstances.

Ah, but I hear you: It is continuous autofocus where CDAF trips up. Well, you certainly have a point, and the GH3 with the two f/2.8 zooms and their much faster sampling rates help (I used the 12-35mm f/2.8 for some close range basketball), and while it worked, my keepèr rate was definitely lower. Tracking still was an issue, with the camera getting confused far more easily than my Nikon D300. The inability to detect whether if the subject was behind or in front of the current focus point is still another weakness that CDAF is not likely to overcome with some help: With any significant changes in the camera-to-subject distance, the GH3 still misses a beat at times.

In other areas, the camera performs well in most places. Start-up time was minimal, and the camera exhibited little delays or lag in most areas. Continuous shooting was acceptable, except for viewfinder blackout. That took me back – it feels like using a much older SLR. Keeping track of subjects while panning and shooting is something that will need some adjusting. I’ve been rather spoilt by the D300’s 8 FPS and minimal viewfinder blackout!

CK: At the very least, unlike the NIkon 1 V1, it does not insist on playing back the last-shot image onto the EVF while you engage in continuous shooting. I guess for such scenarios, a real SLR with an optical viewfinder will be a much better choice. I also find the AF speed to be excellent, snapping to focus nearly instantly when the shutter button is half-pressed.

David: Not sure I qualify to comment here – my main camera now is one without any auto focus. Nevertheless, I find the AF competent, though I admit my expectations of AF from modern mirror less cameras have been tempered somewhat, having started with the original X100 and the Ricoh GXR. Yes, I’m due some credit for making them work! I can’t imagine anyone complaining about the AF of the GH3 in normal photography.

YS: I think for all the flak the X100 has gotten, it has been mostly related to the slow AF speeds, not its accuracy.

Battery Life

Let’s see. Some 300 normal photos. A few minutes worth of video. Over 1000 time lapse images. The battery indicator? Still showed full. I think this is the first mirrorless system camera with battery life that can rival that a of a DSLR.

David: Well, I agree with you about it being the first mirrorless system camera having a long battery life rivaling that of a DSLR, but then again, it IS the size of a entry level DSLR!

Other Notes

Silent Shutter: This carries over from the G5, in which a fully electronic shutter on the sensor is used instead. There are some limitations, like a max ISO setting of 1600, and as little movement in the scene and from the photographer as possible. Panning is definitely not recommended.

Panasonic GH3 electronic shutter image taken while panning

Wifi: Remote shooting with a phone was fun, and I envision a new style of street photography. Pose as some smartphone absorbed person while in reality the phone is acting as the viewfinder to that camera that is hanging on said person’s neck.

Unfortunately WiFi, after being in mainstream use for more than a decade now, can still prove to be finicky. The GH3 refused to log into my router’s network, meaning I was not able to test the GH3 in a local network setting.

The Panasonic Image Link app gives you a live view of the GH5 as well as let you control the camera remotely via WiFi.
The Panasonic Image Link app gives you a live view of the GH3 as well as let you control the camera remotely via WiFi.

CK: Remote WiFi shooting is a rather fun and useful feature and I was impressed when I first tested it out. It’d be ideal for setting up remote cameras and then triggering them from your smartphone.

DavidI agree about the remote possibilities, though I don’t see it being a major selling point. A useful feature nevertheless.

YS: Flash sync speed: Maximum rated at 1/160. 1/160? For a camera that has professional leanings, this is a real let-down.

SD card door: This the first time I’m complaining about a memory card door. It slides open smoothly, but it is a little too smooth. Watch out for accidental openings.

CK: Ah, that SD Card door. Now you reminded me. I lost count of the number of times it opened while in use. Some gaffer tape would be useful to tape that damn thing shut. On the plus side, like any professional camera (excluding the Leica M series), the door is accessible even when mounted on a tripod.

Image Quality

YS: First, let me state I have no special insight regarding the rumours of the GH3’s sensor manufacturer.. What I can say however, is that the images are very good. Indeed, I am hard-pressed to tell many differences between the images from a GH3 and say, a D7100 without head-to-head comparisons. It does seem to be a bit better at mid to high ISOs compared to my D300, which in fairness, is an old camera, predating the GH3 by five years at least.

The only niggle I noticed was the presence of some hot pixels in long exposures lasting in the minutes, even with black frame subtraction enabled. This appeared in one sessions, and without the benefit of trying it again, I am unsure if this is just an anamoly.

While we don’t really shoot test charts, here’s an ISO comparison (click for full 100% crop):

Panasonic GH3 ISO Test
ISO Comparison. Click for full-size.

David: The image quality is ok, which means it’s no different from the OMD EM5 to my eyes, and there don’t seem to be any major drawbacks. Panasonic has had time to refine their sensors and processing software and it shows. It’s a decent performer and totally adequate for the majority of users’ needs, forums whiners and complainers not withstanding. Just buy good lenses for that sensor!

CK: Image quality is excellent, even at the higher ISOs (1600 and above). I was able to get excellent images straight out of camera without much processing. The noise handling is great for a small sensor, and like YS says, it surpasses that of the D300. If you shot in raw, they’d just need a little noise reduction applied to get a nice clean image. I’d even go so far as to say that with the right lenses, it will outperform the venerable Leica M9 in terms of image quality. Here are a few photos I’ve taken with the short time that I have the camera. All of them were shot hand-held with the Panasonic LUMIX G X VARIO 12-35mm f/2.8 and straight out of the camera without processing. The POWER O.I.S. does a fine job of image stabilisation at low shutter speeds.

ISO 1600, 1/13 @ f/2.8.
ISO 1600, 1/13 @ f/2.8.
ISO 400, 1/200 @ f/4.0.
ISO 1600, 1/13 @ f/3.2.

 YS: Aha, but the better question is: Is it better than your D7000, CK?

CK: Unfortunately I did not do a side by side comparison of similar subject matter/lighting conditions. But from the looks of it, it performs quite on par with the D7000, and definitely better than the Nikon 1 V1.

Conclusion

YS: Conclusions can be tricky to write, especially for a camera like this that can be categorised in many ways. From the perspective of a stills photographer who is thinking of using this approximately US$1,300 as a professional tool, the GH3 is a camera that is just on the edge. Image quality is there, as is the autofocus performance outside of moving subjects, but the UI still feels a little lacking, and that viewfinder… so much to love, and so much to hate. For me, I think it just about shades it, but for others, I think it might well fall short.

Another perspective to consider is that of someone comparing this to the Olympus E-M5. I like the Olympus a lot, and that 5-axis in-body image stabiliser is really big selling point, but the cramped controls and little autofocus niggles (it has a habit of focusing on the background more than I like due to the larger AF box) means it is a camera I have more issues with in operation. I do like the greater degree of customisations, as well as the organisation of the custom functions. Again, my own personal preferences tilt it towards the GH3 here, but for many, it could well be the opposite. Note that there is no mention of image quality – I find they are close enough that a decision between the two does not rest on that factor.

CK: I have not really had extensive hands-on experiences with Micro Four Thirds cameras, but the GH3 is probably among the top of the class. A better EVF will make it very nice – not just on the refresh rate but also the optics. The shimmering/edge distortion annoys me to no end when using it. Photographers and filmmakers looking for a small, compact but high quality camera need not look any further than this.

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