When it came time to upgrade my beloved GF1, I waited for its true successor to be revealed. The GX1, not the GF2 nor GF3, is seen by most GF1 users as the camera that has had the GF1’s torch passed to it. I’ve spent two solid years with the GF1 and have finally felt that the current crop of mirrorless system cameras out there have upped the game enough for me to trade it in. I surprised even myself when I decided on the G3 over the GX1, NEX5n, EP3 or NEX7. A budget conscious option which I feel punches well above its weight. I’ve got some low light test shots, size comparison shots and the like. C’mon in and I’ll explain why I feel the G3 was the best option for a shooter like me…
If you’ve read any of my rants or ramblings over the last couple years regarding the mirrorless system cameras you’d be right to point out that I tend to criticize the dSLR “lite” style bodies as I find that they’re too bulky to be truly “compact” and because of this, I tend to feel the Rebels and D5100’s of the world are the best option due to the larger sensors and vast array of available (and more affordable) optical choices.
With the introduction of Sony’s killer NEX-7, integrated electronic viewfinder, 24mp APS-C sensor and its tri-navi enthusiast friendly interface, it is making well deserved waves in the market (as I’m sure the mere announcement of the Fuji XPro1 will also have enthusiasts drooling). Priced at or above comparably performing APS-C dSLRs (with a lens), it caters to a different market than I reside in though. I already have my big “serious” (and more budget challenging) cameras for my more demanding applications though, and I really don’t want to have to spend over two thousand dollars to get the NEX-7 with a good, fast prime lens, so I started looking at the Sony NEX5n, Panasonic GX1, Olympus EP3, Panasonic GH2 and to my surprise, the G3.
My main criteria in an upgrade was a bump in low light performance (both ISO and access to fast lenses) and noticeable IQ improvement (by way of resolution, color rendition, dynamic range, etc). Having already been happily married to the Lumix 20mm f/1.7 pancake since my union with the GF1, that set the standard that the Sony NEX system had to compete with, as far as the lens was concerned anyway. Buying another micro 4/3 body had the edge as I already had invested in a few adapters and lenses. While the NEX5n is a killer little camera, it still suffers from some of the same issues I had with the NEX5, namely the interface. The IQ and low light performance are top notch, but that isn’t as important to me if I struggle to quickly control common and (what I see as) necessary exposure elements resulting in a frustrating shooting experience (I prefer a more dSLR style interface, and less P&S automated interface ultimately). This is just my personal opinion and I know these things don’t matter to many out there. Anyway, with the 5n out of the running and the NEX-7 + Zeiss 24/1.8 necessitating the sale of a liver to justify the cost to my wife, I started to look squarely at the sub $900 m4/3 cameras.
I was very tempted by the GH2 price drops over the holidays, but decided it was the time to give, not give to myself, so I let it pass me by, plus I felt that it was just a bit too large for what I was looking for in my secondary compact. The GX1 and EP3 were my main contenders at first. I started to look at what either would cost with the add on EVF’s as I’ve come to rely on having one for use with my compatible manual focus lenses (which I see as one of the most beneficial perks of the m4/3 system) and this priced each of these cameras up around, or beyond $1000.
For comparison’s sake, I started taking a second look at the G3. I dismissed it upon its release based solely on its form factor. It wasn’t until I really looked at the specs that I noticed how compact it actually is. The G3 wasn’t the cool throwback rangefinder style body, but it houses the same sensor as the new GX1, has an integrated 1.44 million dot EVF and a few bells and whistles of its own (tilting/rotating LCD, good grip, stereo mic, touch screen, etc) in a body that, IF you could remove the EVF, is smaller than the GX1 or EP3 believe it or not, for nearly half the price (of the GX1/EP3 + EVF). Hmmm.
Well, I had a good look at the G3 in store after exhaustive online research and walked out with one. I couldn’t be happier.
Firstly, size wise… The GF1 was, in my opinion, the best balance of size and performance in the MILC category to date. I think the EP3, GX1 and NEX7 cater to the same crowd, and cater well, but the amount of direct control and snappy response times make the GF1 an amazingly responsive and capable camera, slightly ahead of its time setting the pace that others have had to catch up to in many respects. The GX1 looks to walk in its footsteps, so I feel the torch has been successfully passed in Panasonic land, and the EP3 is arguably one of the best mirrorless cameras available, but for the price, I found the G3 to be too good to pass on.
Next, the low light/high ISO performance… The resolution and dynamic control in the G3 is noticeably better than the GF1 and the S/N with high ISO shooting shows a two stop benefit vs the older 12mp GF1 sensor to my eye. Through a couple test shots, I found that the G3 defaults to controlling blown highlights and handles reds and skin tones much better (which was a challenge with the GF1 in my opinion) at the expense of the midtones being slightly shifted to the left at the same exact settings vs the GF1. Good news for me is when I add a third to two thirds stop of exposure comp when using the average metering setting in dynamically challenging scenes, the G3 still does well to keep the highlights under control but helps with the mids and shadows.
Below are some controlled test shots at varying ISO settings to help anyone else in a similar predicament see for themselves. I chose to upsample the 12.1mp 4:3 GF1 RAW files to the same pixel dimensions as the 15.8mp G3 RAW files to attempt to compare apples to apples. For those contemplating the GX1 as well, I’d imagine that the results would be near identical as these from the G3 as the brains and sensor are shared between the two cameras. As I found the GF1 to be very good up to ISO 400, I’ll share the comparison shots starting at ISO 800 and up. Click on any shot to see a larger version.
*All shots from both cameras taken from a fixed tripod, using the Panasonic Lumix 20mm f/1.7 lens @ f/4, Incandescent WB, 2 second self timer, and the scene was lit by one single 60w continuous bulb.
And of course, the G3 goes up to ISO 6400. While I doubt I’d attempt to use it unless I was really desperate, I do feel it still looks better than the GF1 at ISO 3200.
To my eye, the G3 has an almost two stop advantage in controlled conditions which compared to my previous tests between the Sony NEX5 and GF1 makes the G3/GX1 sensor better at handling noise than the original NEX3/5 sensor. Of course, the 5n sensor will gain the advantage again, but it still has the disadvantage of fewer fast proprietary lenses which negates the superior noise performance of the sensor from a pure exposure standpoint (unless of course you pony up for the Zeiss 24/1.8 – which, if you have the money, I think you should).
I’m very impressed with the G3 and this was exactly what I’d hoped for with the upgrade. Here are the 100% crops from the G3 @ ISO 3200 compared to the GF1 @ ISO 800 and 1600 for comparison sake to show the near 2 stop performance gap. First the ISO1600 from the GF1, then the G3’s ISO 3200, then the GF1’s ISO 800 shot just to show where I think the G3 compares favorably vs the GF1:
I think that the GF1 at ISO 800 has a slight (very slight) edge over the ISO 3200 from the G3, but something else to consider is that I found the G3 has much more accurate color replication when using the default incandescent white balance for this test (I haven’t tested pure color replication using other WB settings, or manually measuring and adjusting WB).
I feel that the ISO 1600 in the G3 is very, very useable and I’d not hesitate to use ISO 3200 at all where I’d cringe a bit if I needed to use ISO 800, and was unhappy if I needed to bump to 1600 in the GF1. The G3’s ISO 6400 shots are messy, but hey, better to have a noisy shot than no shot at all I guess…
The build quality, interface and grip of the G3 seem to have gotten a lot of negative attention. Well, the aluminum build (not plastic) of the G3 body feels close to as solid as the GF1 to me with both in my hands, if maybe a little more “hollow” for lack of a better descriptor. The battery door feels weaker, and with the tilt LCD (and any moving part really) I will keep a closer eye on it when shoving it in and out of bags and pockets. I wouldn’t hammer nails with it, or throw it off a building, but it’s solid enough for me to feel comfortable that I’ll get many good years out of it.
I regret that I lose the dedicated switch for drive mode from the GF1, but again, the cost savings and performance plusses have helped me get over that. I now have the touch screen Q-menu to change it, or a dedicated single button which I then have to switch on screen. Otherwise, the touchscreen interface is intuitive enough, and I still have enough direct buttons (along with two customizable function buttons) to get to my main exposure settings (WB, ISO, AF/focus area, drive mode, movie recording, etc) with a single push. The articulating LCD is awesome. I’ve never had a camera with one, but have been thoroughly enjoying this along with the single point AF which allows me to drag the AF point (literally, by touch) anywhere on the screen, not to mention change the size of the AF point. Seems gimmicky, but when I think about having to change AF points, or focus/recompose, this is an amazingly handy gimmick if I’ve ever seen one. Add to that, the ability to fire the shutter by tapping that AF point and now you can take all the discreet street type shots, or handle quickly materializing scenes to your heart’s desire.
All I can say for the grip is that it is exactly the grip that a camera the size of the G3 should have. I have much longer than normal fingers and larger hands overall and one only needs to grip the G3 the way they intend to see how clever it is. By wrapping your middle finger over and down the grip (see pic above), it puts your wrist upright, allows you to brace your right elbow against your body, and gets your index finger in the proper position to operate the shutter while allowing you to get a good, solid grip on the camera body comfortably. The buttons on the back are a bit too easy to unintentionally touch with your thumb or palm if I’m being honest, but that is a trade off I’m willing to take for overall size reduction (and the articulated screen), as a half shutter button press will reset the camera and have you shooting immediately. If you try to hold it like you would the GH2, or any smaller dSLR, it can feel awkward trying to hold on with fingertips, but compared to the ‘grip’ on the GF1, it is miles better in my opinion. If you have the hands of a normal sized human being, I’d imagine that you’ll have an even better fit than my large gargantor hands allow me.
After the high ISO/low light and IQ improvements, my main factor when looking for a GF1 replacement was for use with my legacy lenses. I held off purchasing the add on EVF for the GF1 for a while as I’d heard it was mediocre, which it absolutely is, but adds a third point of contact for stabilized shooting, and for manually focusing, it is very helpful. I was upset to learn that the new add on EVF for the GX1 is not backward compatible. Ridiculous in my mind as this smacks of Panasonic either A) not having the design foresight to make the GF1 compatible with an EVF that everyone wanted, even before the crappy EVF1 was released, or B) just wanted to push the hand of those wishing for a better user experience by having to buy a new camera to gain access to their add on accessories. BS as far as I’m concerned, but look at me, it kind of worked as I found myself buying a new camera, so congratulations Panasonic!
Anyhoo, as I am a fan of gear porn, here are a couple shots of the G3 with the stellar Contax Zeiss 45mm f/2 (thank you to my father in law Dan for the honor of babysitting this little gem) which has singlehandedly saved me from buying the Oly 45mm f/1.8 lens.
This all being said, I think I can safely say that I’m happy to retire my GF1. What I’ve lost in pure pocket-ability due to the integrated EVF on the G3, I’ve gained in IQ, resolution and high ISO performance which is exactly where I felt the GF1 was starting to fall short for me with all the recent advancements in sensor tech (all while getting the G3 for $300 less than I paid for the GF1 originally). I can still fit the G3 + 20mm pancake into a coat pocket so I really have only lost the ability to fit it into the back pocket of loose fitting jeans. C’est la vie.
Here is a quick example for SH Lew showing the noise from a 30 second exposure at ISO 160 and f/16. I know it is a horribly boring shot, but it was about 30 degrees out and I wasn’t feeling very inspired. First the Jpeg with the in camera NR off, secondly the Jpeg with in camera NR on and then the RAW file converted without any NR to Jpeg for comparison’s sake. You can click on any to see them at 100% (14mp 3:2).
I’m impressed by the in camera NR as the file with the NR turned off, while it handles the noise well, it is really, really soft and mushy. I thought I’d had it backwards when looking at these, but nope, the file with the long shutter NR on is sharper and retained lines and contrast much, much better. I haven’t done much in the way of long night exposure type stuff, but I am really impressed with the noise suppression in the RAW file and I’m sure with a run through Define, Denoise or Noise Ninja would be great. The Jpeg file with the NR on is pretty impressive to my eye as well and if I end up ever shooting long exposures in Jpeg, I will most definitely use it.
I’ve been lucky enough to have gotten to play around with the GX1, and there is no doubt that the GX1 and new EVF will be an amazing addition to the micro 4/3 family, but for my needs, I’m happy to have saved about $500 by grabbing the G3 and can say that I’m glad that I revisited the idea. While the G3 isn’t a perfect camera, I feel that it is an amazing value at the current prices and I’d put it up against any sub $600 camera (with lens) on the market right now. Sure the XPro1 or NEX7 will no doubt be the cool kids at school, with the NEX5n’s, GX1’s and EP3’s as the smart kids that try harder in class, the G3 is the little guy that ends up kicking the crap out of the class bully when no one expected it. At near half the cost and at a comparable IQ performance standpoint vs the GX1/EP3/NEX5n + EVF’s all while gaining access to the largest offering of lenses in a mirrorless interchangeable lens compact system, the G3 provides enough of an argument to not be ignored. It ends up, in my mind, as the poor man’s NEX7 or GH2, and I’m happy I saved my money.
As always, I’d be happy to try and answer any questions you may have, or do comparisons between these two cameras while I still have the GF1 🙂
Thanks for reading and happy shooting!
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