One Year Testing the Panasonic Lumix GH3
I’ve had one year testing the Panasonic Lumix GH3, which all began with the Blog entry, Testing the Panasonic GH3, during a shoot in Kenya, Africa. Overall, during that first review, I came away feeling the GH3 was quite impressive, especially when you take into consideration it’s reasonable price, superbly appealing size and weight and the fact it produces professional quality images in a seriously small package.
Since this test began I’ve taken the GH3 to Argentina, Chile, Peru, Panama, Ecuador, Ireland, South Africa, Brazil, Uruguay, Antarctica, Japan and several trips to Yellowstone in winter. Overall I’ve shot more than 100,000 images with the GH3 using the 7-14mm, 12-35mm, 35-70mm 45-175mm and 100-300mm zooms, the additional battery grip and the dedicated Lumix DMW-FL360L wireless flash. It’s been quite a ride hauling two complete systems around the world, one Nikon, one Panasonic, negating the size and weight benefits that first tempted me to test the new Lumix Micro Four Thirds system. However, it’s all been worth it since I now know even better what this new camera system can do.
In a nutshell, I’m still very impressed and I find myself picking it up more than my Nikons. However, there are limitations that only the larger, more expensive Nikon equipment can overcome. Below are some of my thoughts on the ongoing Pros and Cons for those who are interested as well as any Panasonic or Nikon engineers who might be reading.
With that bit of history in place, lets move on to what I’ve experienced over the past year with the GH3.
GH3 Positives – Things Done Exceptionally Well
Size and Weight
Without a doubt, my number one attraction to Panasonic’s Micro Four Thirds mirrorless cameras is their small size and weight. I’ve been shooting pictures professionally for over thirty years and I’ve become weary of such large, cumbersome bodies, lenses and additional accessories. The Lumix GF1 was the first camera I found that was small, had interchangeable lenses and a large enough sensor to produce extremely high quality photos. I tell people all the time that photography is supposed to be fun. If traveling with so much gear becomes painful, that reduces the fun factor and I’m all about having a good time with my photography at this point in my career. I’m not unique. I hear from many of our NE Explorers they are tired of the large, heavy equipment. The GH3 helps bring the fun back.
Keep in mind that there are numerous mirrorless cameras out there and many of them are amazing in their own right. The new Sony full frame cameras are very tempting but with a full frame sensor comes big, bulky lenses. When Panasonic and Olympus first created the Micro Fourth Thirds consortium, they did so knowing full well there would be some compromises to a system with a smaller sized digital sensor. But they also knew there would be many benefits. One of the downsides to a smaller sensor is they typically produce more digital noise. Something similar to grain many of us know from the film days. The plus side to a smaller sensor is the ability to build smaller, lighter lenses and bodies. The physical characteristics of optics can be reduced when coupled to a smaller, digital sensor.
Although there are many mirrorless cameras on the horizon, I currently feel the Micro Four Thirds group of cameras, with their smaller sensors, have allowed Olympus and Panasonic to hit a sweet spot in relation to the sensor size and lens combinations. The Micro Four Thirds sensor allows for very high quality images with lenses that are much smaller and lighter than say, the full sized sensors in the new Sony mirrorless cameras. The biggest contributor to size and weight of cameras has been the lenses. If the lenses have to stay the same size and weight due to a full frame sensor, we’ve now negated the benefits of a smaller, lighter mirrorless body.
So that’s a bit of back history and information on how and why the GH3 came to be. Lets move on to the ins and outs of shooting this camera I’ve experienced this past year.
Fabulous Ergonomics-Almost Perfectly Placed WB, ISO & +/- Buttons
Overall, these buttons are well placed and make their operation extremely efficient. These three controls are options I use every time I pick the camera up. Nobody in the camera business today has thought about the location and use of these buttons better than what I’ve experienced on the GH3. However, they could be even better with a slight tweak. The tweak would entail Panasonic moving the front command wheel below and to the front of the shutter button. This would then allow the WB, ISO & +/- to be moved a bit forward from their present position to eliminate a slight difficulty in moving the shooting finger back towards the rear of the camera.
Nikon could take a lesson in giving us the same often used options in a similar fashion. In every Nikon camera I shoot, the D4, D800, D600, D7100 and others, the WB, ISO & +/- button are scattered in different places for each camera. None of them have all three of these buttons in a close proximity to the shutter release. On the D4 the WB and ISO are at the bottom of the camera, the D800 the ISO and WB are on the top deck, left side. The D600 buttons are along the left side of the camera bunched in with many other, similar, vertically placed buttons. Panasonic’s placement of these very important and often used options is virtually perfect and better than any other camera on the market that I’m aware of. The GH3 is simply the best I’ve ever seen or used when it comes to the layout of the buttons in their well thought-out design and placement.
On and Off Switch
This sounds like a simple thing, but it’s amazing how many camera companies try to reinvent the wheel with their placement of the On and Off switch. The Olympus OM-1D is a case in point. Why put the On and Off switch on the left, top side? When you pick up the GH3, the ON switch is on the right, top deck, in easy reach of your right thumb with one handed operation. On the Olympus you actually need two hands on the camera. This reminds me of Canon and their reinvention of the On and Off switch that is placed on the upper, left corner of the top deck on some models and lower right corner of the body on others. Why? Is it easier than what Nikon and Panasoinc have done? I don’t think so. When camera makers change some of these controls, it’s as if they are fiddling with things just to be different. That’s what I like about the GH3, the controls are very logical and well thought out. Panasoinc hasn’t changed things that don’t need changing. When things work well, leave them alone like an On and Off switch, top side, right where your thumb can reach it. Nice job Lumix.
The additional battery grip on the GH3 is a superb addition. I love the small size and compactness of the GH3 but sometimes I want a bit more to hold on to. Panasonic has replicated, on the battery grip, the well thought out WB, ISO and +/- buttons that are so conveniently placed on the camera. The grip also includes the AF/AE Lock button which I often change to Auto Focus start. My only gripe with the extra battery pack is the fact the additional battery compartment takes the same size battery as the camera. I would love to see Panasonic give us a longer lasting, more professional sized battery that would easily fit in the battery compartment of the add on grip. Nikon has a larger battery option and their bigger batteries last for days. Currently I have to charge my GH3 batteries every day.
The Lumix Wireless flash system is a phenomenal first attempt. The DMW-FL360L works without fail and has some fabulous features I’ve not experienced on any other flash system. One of those features is the flash’s ability to know when I want wireless and when I’m using it on top of the camera for direct TTL Auto. In my Nikon’s I have to switch between TTL and Wireless even if I attach the strobe to the camera. The GH3 understands when I want TTL by seeing the flash is attached to the camera and switching to Wireless when it’s off camera. If I want something different, I can make the change, but it’s these two settings I regularly move between and the GH3 makes it so quick and convenient. This feature also eliminates a regular mistake I make with my Nikon’s where I accidentally leave the camera in Wireless Mode even though I’ve placed the flash on top of the camera. Leaving my Nikon’s in Wireless and shooting on camera, thinking I’m in TTL, produces defective exposures. I often miss photos due poor flash results until I remember I need to reset my camera menu back to the TTL setting. It’s so effortless with the GH3 it’s hard to believe.
External Flash FL360L’s LCD Video Light
One of the major features on all Lumix cameras is the ability to produce professional quality HD video. Often when shooting videos I’m required to shoot so called talking heads, interviews, etc. Panasonic has built in to the FL360L flash a relatively bright LED light for video production. It’s not going to illuminate a room, but it does a very adequate job in interview situations where a small amount of quality light is needed for recording a conversation. It’s a very nice feature to not have to carry additional lights for the incidental times I need a light for video production.
Professional Grade Lenses
Panasonic recently introduced two new lenses that have their highest quality glass and design targeted at the serious photographer. The two lenses are the 12-35mm F/2.8 and the 35-100 F/2.8. With maximum F/2.8 apertures, these lenses fall in to the category many professional and serious apertures look for, bright and sharp.
Remember, with the GH3 being a Micro Four Thirds camera, you need to multiply all of your lens ranges by 2 to get what is the equivalent range in the typical 35mm full frame cameras. That being the case, the two Lumix lenses above are equivalent to my Nikkor 24-70mm F/2.8 and my 70-200mm F/2.8 zooms. The huge difference between the Nikkor lenses and the Panasonic lenses is size and weight. The Lumix 70-200mm equivalent is probably 60% smaller than my Nikkor 70-200. The Lumix 24-70mm is probably 40-50% smaller than my Nikkor 24-70mm. It’s a huge and welcomed difference when carrying the GH3 with professional quality optics.
While on the subject of optics I would be remiss not to mention the GH3’s ability to use Olympus lenses due to Panasoinc and Olympus both being Micro Four Thirds cameras. Olympus is producing some very high grade, professional optics such as their 75mm F/1.8. They’ve also announced a 300mm F/4 (600mm FF equivelant) as well as their soon to be released 40-150 F/2.8 (80-300mm FF equivelant). Two very attractive lenses built to pro standards. The only down side to using the Olympus lenses on Lumix bodies is Olympus does not include image stabilization (IS) in their lenses. Olympus builds their IS into the camera body. Unfortunately, that is a huge downside and I’m hopeful either Olympus starts adding IS in their lenses or Panasonic starts offering a high quality IS in the body, equal to the excellent 5 Axis System Olympus currently uses.
Back of Camera AF Operation
The Lumix has it. This feature is unknown to many Nikon and Canon shooters but it’s one of the most efficient ways to use Auto Focus. Way back in 1990, Canon invented this feature which they included in the revolutionary EOS 1 film camera. The idea behind it is to remove the AF activation from the front shutter button and move it to the rear of the camera. On many of the Nikon and Canon cameras there is a dedicated AF Button on the back, right side, just below the top LCD panel which your thumb easily reaches. This is an extremely efficient way to use Auto Focus for those who understand how it works.
Nikon Professional Services director, Bill Pekala, recounted a story to me in the mid 90’s, relating to how important this feature is to the professional photographer. The story goes like this. Nikon had sent out a survey asking professional photographers what they wanted to see in a new Nikon professional camera which would eventually come to be the Nikon F5. The number one feature request was the ability to separate the AF operation from the shutter button and move the AF start to the rear of the camera. Professionals came to know and love this feature based on Canon’s EOS 1. Bill was at a late stage design meeting in Tokyo discussing the coming features of the soon to be released F5 film camera. It was the second to last meeting brain storming design considerations and the prototype F5 still did not have a rear, AF Start button. As I remember the story, Bill couldn’t believe the engineers had not yet added this highly requested feature. Bill became a bit animated and commenced beating the table with his very large and powerful fist, (Bill’s a big guy) demanding this feature be included. The engineers got the message and the F5 was released with a back of the camera AF button. It’s since become virtually the only way I use AF on all my Nikon’s and the good news is Panasonic has this option as well. On the Lumix it’s just a matter of setting the AF/AE lock button to AF as well as turning the Shutter Button AF to off in the Custom Settings menu.
A Buffer That Just Keeps Going
Even at six frames per second, in High Speed Continuous, I can’t recall a time I’ve ever had the GH3 buffer stop me from shooting full sized RAW files. It allows for 26 full size RAWs to be shot before the buffer fills but they’re moved off the card so quickly I’ve never had the camera stop shooting due to lack of buffer space. The speed it writes to the card just seems to be superior to any other camera I’ve ever shot. It’s hard to believe. I just never wait for this camera to catch up on buffer space even though it shoots at 6 Frames Per Second. It does help that I use Sandisk’s fastest cards the Extreme Pro series with a read/write speed of 95Mb/s. That being said, it’s the same cards I’m using in all my cameras.
Touch Screen Technology
The GH3 has it in spades. Once you have the option of making selections on the LCD menu, via a touch screen, everything else seems prehistoric. I use both the buttons, dial and touch screen.
Most of the time, when I find myself reverting to the dials and buttons, it’s due to forgetting the GH3 has the touch screen capabilities. Since I can’t do any of this on my Nikon’s, I regularly forget about this feature. My favorite touch screen option is being able to activate the AF point via the back LCD screen with my thumb, while holding the camera to my eye. This allows me to move the AF spot at will, anyplace in the viewfinder, by simply touching the back, blacked out LCD and moving the AF spot. It’s absolutely brilliant. The only problem I have is it’s not available while using normal gloves. There are gloves being sold that do allow the touch screen to work and they’re the same as gloves used to navigate an iPhone. The video below shows the feature mentioned above. I created this video for some people I was trying to explain this feature to through emails. The video details it in a much better way.
Having an electronic viewfinder gives Panasonic the option to include a lot of information you just can’t get in a traditional DSLR. Without listing all the times you can see in the EVF, I’ll just say, virtually any setting you make in the camera can be seen on the back LCD or in the EVF. Including, my favorite of all digital tools, the HISTOGRAM. With the GH3 I can constantly be watching the histogram, BEFORE I take the photo, to make sure my highlights and shadows are not being clipped. It is so nice not to have to constantly shoot an image, check the histogram, adjust and reshoot. With the GH3, you know before the photo is taken, exactly where your exposure is. This is immensely beneficial.
Respectable High ISO Capabilities
Even though the Lumix GH3 is using a sensor that is much smaller than full frame, there have been many situations where I’ve been astounded at the quality of the files at ISO settings higher than I would expect. I was recently working as a photo coach on Seabourn Quest where we spent nearly two months along the coast of South America and Antarctica. I had hundreds of photo opportunities including theatrical performances that provided the right mix of lighting and motion to test the GH3’s capabilities at higher ISO’s. The image below was shot at 2500 ISO. Obviously this image is a small jpeg that’s won’t show the true quality in a blog post. However, I was very happy with the fact I could see no noise whatever. The blacks were clean and there is infinite detail in the entertainers face and hair.
Even the above situation was better than I expected; there have been times I’ve shot pictures of animals, things with hair, at 2500 ISO and I was less than happy with the results. I’m not sure why it would be so different in these two situations but it may be noise artifacts suppressing the fine details in the animal’s hair. I’ve limited my ISO settings to 1250 and find staying in this range provides exceptional results.
Recently Panasoinc’s update to the GH3 was announced, the Lumix GH4, and early tests are showing about 1 stop increase in low light capabilities. Even though that’s not going to match a Nikon D4, it’s still pretty amazing for a Micro Four Thirds. Admittedly I seldom shoot my D4 over 2500 ISO. The sample below is from SLRLounge Blog which is the first Blog having tested the new GH4 and GH3 in a comparison test for high ISO capabilities. I have to admit, based on this test it’s looking substantially better than what I was able to pull from the GH3 at 1600 ISO.
GH3 Negatives-Additions or Fixes Needed
For a traveling journalist, GPS information is imperative. Especially for my work with scientists and biologists who are doing their important studies in very remote locations. The exact GPS data on where the studies are carried out is very important for present and future data collection. Admittedly, documenting science is not something the general public would do, but everybody takes their cameras during their travels and many love to record the exact places they’ve visited. Apple’s Aperture is a fabulous program that uses Geo Location information beautifully, allowing you to create maps of your travels, showing locations on Google Earth and embedding the GPS data in slide shows, books and other materials. My cheapest Nikon underwater camera, as well as my cheapest Lumix point and shoot, has GPS built in to the camera. Why does a professional model not have the same capabilities? An external add on is not a good option. My current Nikon professional bodies take this route and I’ve spent hundreds of dollars on external, add on GPS devices that have all broken. That includes Nikon’s own devices as well as some of the cheap versions from third party manufacturers.
Menu Item for Custom Settings Selected
I would love to see a section in the main menu that keeps track of all the Custom Settings I’ve made to the GH3. Panasonic has done a fabulous job of laying out a wonderful Menu system and in fact it’s very similar to Nikon’s well thought out menus. But on both systems it’s impossible to remember exactly where some items live. I find myself going to the same settings to turn on or off. One could make the argument that you could solve some of this problem by using the Custom Control Modes and I’m exploring that myself. But the additional menu item would be a welcomed addition for those having numerous Custom Settings they may want to access and change at a moments notice.
Rubber Eye Cup with Lock
Since my first trip to Kenya, Africa with the GH3 I’ve lost the removable eye piece just short of six times. Thankfully, it was found in a camera bag, on the hotel room floor, on my bus seat, etc. but just last week it finally disappeared without a trace. I now have two GH3’s and they both are prone to eye piece loss. To solve this problem I’ve now equipped my two wonderfully designed camera’s with a chunk of thin, well placed, piece of black Duck Tape to hold the darn eye piece in the place it was intended. It works great but not in the way it was intended.
Diopter Dial Lock
The little, knurled wheel placed just behind the eye piece is called the diopter adjustment. It’s made for people who wear glasses and want to adjust the EVF for their eyes. Nearly all cameras today have this feature but only a few, like Nikon, lock it down so it doesn’t’ get accidentally moved. I find myself constantly having to adjust this feature, especially when using one of my GH3’s that’s missing the rubber eye piece. I’m amazed how many cameras have this dial without any way to lock it down and I regularly find it set improperly on almost every students camera I pick up. Virtually all students have no idea it’s improperly set and they actually don’t seem to realize the image in the viewfinder looks fuzzy. They often tell me, “I’ve just always thought it was my eyes”. When I fix it, they’re elated to see the viewfinder now looks like it’s sharp and in focus. All camera manufactures would earn tremendous good will to lock this down so their customers aren’t always wondering why they’re camera’s viewfinder looks so fuzzy. Engineers are fortunate that most new photographers blame themselves for almost all the problems they experience with their cameras. Locking this dial could add a tremendous amount of positive feelings about the product with little or no effort since users would no longer look through their camera and think their eyes were bad.
Depth of Field Preview Button
Once again, I like where Nikon has their Depth of field Preview button which resides on the front, right side of the camera, to the left of the grip, right next to the lens mount. There are already so many buttons on the back of the GH3, it would be nice to move one of them. I think Nikon’s placement of Depth of field Preview button is far superior.
Better wireless connectivity
It’s well known in the camera industry that the iPhone and other cell phone devices are heavily effecting the sales of small cameras. Much of the cell phone popularity is due to the instantaneous ability to instantly share photos. The GH3 does have a wireless connection which I applaud. However, I’ve not found it very useful. It’s slow to respond, complicated to figure out and isn’t nearly as easy to use as my iPhone. When I shoot a photo with my iPhone 5 it can be shared in seconds. The GH3 wireless is plagued with misconnections and slow response times. It would seem this would be a fairly easy issue to fix. Lumix just needs to concentrate on this more and it will be a nonissue.
Much, Much Better Electronic Viewfinder Needed
This one I just don’t get. My guess is that it’s all about cost which is normal but if mirrorless cameras don’t up their game in this department, cell phones will become even more dominant. The GH3 needs an iPhone retina screen or something similar. The user experience of the GH3 EVF in 80% of the shooting situations is OK. The other 20% it’s nearly unusable. Compare that to all of my Nikon viewfinders that are superb 100% of the time other than maybe total darkness. Two weeks ago, on our way across the Drake Passage, we had an opportunity to photograph large groups of Pintado Petrals that were backlit against bright ocean waters glistening with the sun. With such intense light, the GH3’s EVF, virtually closes down to mimic the F/16 aperture it’s going to shoot at. The screen became so dark, details were nonexistent. All I could see were the silhouettes of these beautiful little birds that soared just feet above the frothy waters. I pulled out my Nikon D600 and the scene opened up, clearly showing the details of reality. Why can’t we get an Apple iPhone retina display in an EVF?
Higher Quality Zoom Super Telephoto
Panasonic’s most powerful lens is the 100-300mm F/4-5.6 zoom. It’s amazingly sharp for a lens that costs $499.00. The value of this lens is hard to beat and I use it regularly. However, as good as this lens is, it’s not nearly as good as my current favorite lens, the Nikkor 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6 zoom. If Panasonic hopes to capture the sports and natural history shooters they have to give us something with similar optics, build and design as found in the new Lumix, professional grade 12-35mm and 35-100mm lenses. I would love to see the 100-300mm get a redesign that eliminates barrel extension when zoomed out to 300mm, a design similar to the current 35-100mm. While they’re at it, lets change the speed of this lens to F/4, throughout the zoom range, as well as add higher quality ED lens elements and nano coating for less lens flare. These changes would add bulk, weight and price but it would still be fractions of the size and cost of my current 600mm F/4 which is what the Lumix 100-300 is equivalent to at it’s longest telephoto setting. It would increase the price substantiall but I feel it would be worth it for those of us who need and want a truly professional quality zoom/telephoto.
Battery Grip, Rubber Gasket Holder
When attaching the additional battery pack you have to remove a rubber gasket, on the bottom of the camera, that protects the gold contacts. This is a similar design to what Nikon uses. The additional battery grip has a cutout the little rubber gasket fits into giving you a place to store it so it won’t be lost. It’s a great idea, but the cutout isn’t small enough and the rubber gasket easily falls out. I’ve lost two of these little rubber items due to a less than perfect design of the cutout hole. This obviously could be fixed very easily.
Rear Dial and Front Dial Slipping
Over this past year the one GH3 that I’ve been using has developed an issue with the Front and Rear Dials. These are the dials that you use to change shutter speed, aperture and other things. Both dials will sometimes spin without the click stops that were there when I first got the camera. It doesn’t happen all the time but enough to be bothersome. When they spin freely they don’t actually change anything. I use the Rear dial constantly when using the Program Mode where I regularly change the shutter speed and aperture. I use the Front Dial to dial in +/- for the strobe. My Nikons have virtually the identical dial system and are used in the exact same way. With years of use, I’ve never had my Nikon’s develop the slipping I’m experiencing in my GH3. Nikon’s dials are much larger and larger dials on the GH3 would be a nice upgrade. Additionally, the Nikon dials have superior click stops. Panasoinc needs to substatially upgrade these dials. Mine actually need to be repaired.
Final Thoughts on the Panasonic Lumix GH3
So that’s my current thoughts on the GH3 after using it for nearly a full year. It’s an amazing camera on it’s own and as a system it’s even more impressive. When I think back to how this all began I find it hard to believe how quickly Panasonic has joined the digital photography game and how far they’ve come in such an incredibly short time. I recall seeing Lumix point and shoots at our local Costco store and thinking, “Hmmmm…. I didn’t even know Panasonic made cameras.” That was probably ten years ago. Five years later came Panasonic’s first Micro Four Thirds camera the GF1 and I’ve been adding new Lumix gear to my bags ever since.
I’ve recently realized that my enjoyment and use of my Panasonic Lumix system seems like Deja vu. It reminds me of the 2003 when I first started shooting with the Nikon D100, Nikon’s first serious DSLR for the masses. I bought one to put in my camera bag and as I got to know it, I had a hard time forcing myself to shoot my Nikon F5 and F100 film cameras. I found myself constantly reaching for the digital, D100, even though at the time, the common consensus was, “digital just wasn’t here yet”. I remember hearing this over and over again, yet, I saw it differently. I found the quality was every bit as good as the Velvia & Provia film I was shooting. The only problem I encountered was getting the Nikon D100 to keep up with the action and speed many of my wildlife subjects demanded. With a buffer of only 4 RAW files, I was regularly waiting for the camera to recover in fast paced circumstances. If the brown bears where standing still I was shooting the D100. If they began chasing salmon I quickly reached for my Nikon F5. The minute the action stopped I found myself picking up the D100 again.
Interestingly, I’m experiencing virtually the identical behavior with my Lumix GH3. When the action is fast and furious, I have to pick up the faster Nikon’s. When things slow down, I have a hard time not reaching for the Lumix.
Additionally, the comments I hear from photographers today, regarding the quality of the smaller sensors, also remind me of the early days before digital cameras became the norm. It is true, there are times that my Nikon FX, full frame cameras, are superior to the smaller Micro Four Thirds sensors in the Lumix GH3. However, most photographic circumstances it’s a non-issue. History seems to be repeating itself and if the large, well known camera companies don’t get on this mirrorless band wagon they may well experience an unwanted Kodak moment.
UPDATE: Panasoinc recently announced an update to the GH3 in the new GH4. I had a chance to see and hold the new GH4 in Tokyo recently. Updates to the high end Lumix include 4K video capture, better images in the higher ISO range, an improved Predictive AF system, up to 12 FPS, 7 FPS in Predictive AF, a new accessory for capturing professional sound. Additionally, several of the negatives I mentioned above are mentioned as having been fixed or improved. CAn’t wait to see if it lives up to the current hype.
Final Note: The other camera that’s hot, hot, hot is the Olympus OM-D EM-1. I just got a note from my friends at F11 Photo that Olympus is sending me and OM-D1 with the new 75mm F/1.8 and the 12-40 F/2.8 lenses for my upcoming shoot in Cuba. Stay tuned and thanks Olympus for giving me a chance to see the other options out there.