Thursday, August 1, 2013

Launch Review: Impressions of the Panasonic Lumix DMC-GX7

Panasonic came out with a hit (by m4/3 standards) with the the GF1, moving the company's mirrorless offerings away from the pseudo-DSLR form factor of the well received GH1 towards the rangefinder-esque shape that is no so common, and arguably more suited to the m4/3 size. However, subsequent iterations of the GF-series moved more and more towards the point-and-shoot end of the spectrum; this combined with Panasonic not keeping in step with the sensor technology of their competitors led to the Lumix m4/3 lineup languishing in terms of shelf space and mind-share in the North American market.

2012 saw a reversal of that trend with the DMC-GX1, the true successor to the enthusiast-oriented GF-1. Looking like a scaled-up version of the LX7, the GX1 was a solid offering... and an under-rated one at that. In marketing terms, it was too little too late. While the Olympus OM-D EM-5 gets raves for bringing high quality 16mp resolution to the m4/3 world, the GX1 was nonetheless launched around the same time, if not sooner. Both cameras perform excellently, but outside of the mirrorless community, both still unfairly get saddled with the reputation of the prior sensors used in Panasonic and Olympus cameras, Panasonic more so.

Which brings us to the GX7. It's a handsome little beast. Fuji X-E1 fans are going to say that it apes their camera, but the X-series very openly borrows from Leica aesthetics... of which Panasonic is arguably so, since they produce a number of cameras for Leica. Note the familiar "L" at the bottom corner of the GX7... more about that later.

Headline Specs: 

  • Panasonic designed 16mp sensor, no AA filter  
  • In body sensor stabilization
  • Max shutter speed 1/8000s
  • Max fps 4.3s
  • Max ISO 25600
  • The price will be around 1000 EUR ($1000 in the US)
  • Very fast communication between lens and body
  • 2.76 million dot EVF
  • "Noiseless"electronic shutter mode

In keeping with current trends, the anti-aliasing filter is gone. The resolution remains at 16mp, which means that it is keeping pace with APS-C technology. (That is to say, if you take a 16mp m4/3 sensor and increase the area to APS-C size but keep the same photo-site size, you will have a 24mp APS-C sensor). In-body sensor stabilization is a welcome feature. Panasonic was never going to be able to pair down their cameras to realize the m4/3 size potential with using in-lens image stabilization only. They're image stabilization systems have been among the best, but that's optical stabilization we're speaking of, the GX7 uses a sensor-shift system, which is new territory for Panasonic. Interesting to see how Panasonic's new system will fair against the Olympus 5-axis stabilization system. Interesting to note that the communication speed between the lens and the body is a selling point. Panasonic and Olympus have not (yet) resorted to the trickery of applying phase detection autofocus elements to their sensors; they still use contrast detect. However, for still subjects, the current m4/3 cameras are just as fast, if not faster than the PD-detect cameras (Nikon V1, Fuji X-E1, Canon EOS M). This is because the m4/3 sensors are being read out at faster rates (240hz), meaning that contrast detect system is sampling the focus at a faster than conventional rate. Combine this with lens focus motors purpose-built for CD-AF, and you have very fast focus speeds.... for still subjects. (Here's a bet: for all of the hype surrounding the Canon EOS 70D AF system, my bet is that it still won't achieve focus-lock as fast as the fastest m4/3 cameras. Only a few weeks until I'm proven wrong....) However, the future is PD-AF; no matter how fast a CD-AF system is, it will still (theoretically) struggle with tracking erratically moving objects.

The max shutter speed of 1/8000s is a signal that the GX7 is meant to be taken seriously, as an alternative to the EM OM-D. The maximum number of frames per second is 5 with stills and 4.3 with continuous tracking. This more than enough for this type of camera, but pails when compared to the OM-D's 9 fps, albeit with pre-focusing.  As always, I would completely ignore the max ISO value and go with the standard figure of somewhere around ISO 1600-3200 being the highest I would be comfortable shooting in a care-free manner without having to think about post-processing.

Body and Design

The overall design of the GX7 is a little bit of new and familiar. Thew design language is still very much Panasonic, but it's not as distinctly "Panasonic" as the GX1 was. (Speaking of black faux-leather with a metal top plate, what does that remind you of?) By modern standards, the front of the camera seems unusually clean, and doesn't appear to have a front control dial until you look closer and see that it's been integrated in with the shutter button. As usual per other Panasonic cameras, the rear control dials is"clickable", meaning that you can go quickly back-and-forth between exposure control and EV compensation, or switch quickly between aperture and shutter speed. I still use my LX5, and find that I don't miss the second control dial. Ergonomically, the rear control pad and button layout are familiar, and include three Fn buttons. Customization is great, but it's hard to gauge how usable the layout is just by looking at it. However, if there is one complaint I have with Panasonic; their button placement is not a problem, but the consistency of the button functions is. Amongst the various Panasonic cameras, replay, ISO, AF/AE Lock etc can jump around, despite the button layout appearing similar. It's not as bad as Fujifilm, which I find to make odd choices for what they include as hardware buttons (e.g., white balance, but not ISO), but it's not as clean as some Sony designs.

The flip out LCD display is a given nowadays, but the inclusion of the titling EVF is a unique feature in today's camera market. I'm not sure what to think about it... I'm not a fan of complexity, but I can see a lot of creative potential by having both. I'm not mistaken, if you convert the "dots" terminology to the more useful term "pixels", the resolution is1024*768.

The front grip looks meaty and the rear thumb pad looks like it gives ample room to rest on, but as clean and broad as the grip surfaces seem, it doesn't appear that this would be a good one-handed camera. Note that the thumb rest doesn't have a "hook" to grab onto the right side of your thumb. Also, the strap lug is going to be in your way; to get to the shutter button, your right index finger will curl around the side of the camera, not the front as it would on a DSLR. Making the top plate flat keeps production costs down, but I think that the design could really benefit from having the shutter button angled forward to make for a more natural grip.

Also note that coming from the company that brought you the GH3, the GX7 is a bit of a letdown in terms of the video department in one area: no external microphone jack.

A Rose by Any Other Name

And on to the inevitable question: is this basis for another Leica Digilux camera? Probably... after all, that front grip doesn't look like it's structural or anything...

Leica would have a hard time surviving without selling re-badged Panasonic cameras. For all of the difficulties that Panasonic has had since the Great Recession, once can only imagine the pressures that a small company like Leica would face. Prestige is not performance, and Leica has been in trouble before. I would submit that the long delays getting the Leica M240 into the hands of customers is not a good thing. Delays because of overwhelming demand are one thing, but the lengths that some people have had to wait are beyond acceptable in today's modern economy. Quite simply, Leica can't survive on the M alone; they have neither the capacity nor the resources to keep pace with the Japanese companies.

Leica had a good thing going with the D-Lux series of cameras, which were re-badged Panasonic LX cameras. However, as Panasonic stayed at the 1/1.7" sensor size, Sony moved the conversation upwards with their DSC-RX100 and it's larger 1" sensor. The market is now awash in large-sensor compacts like the Ricoh GR, the Fujifilm X100s, the Nikon Coolpix A, et al. Even Leica can't guild the 1/1.7" sensor lily forever in the face of this market shift. Eventually they will look silly selling a camera that costs more than something something with a sensor 4-6 times larger.

Leica had an interesting product with the Digilux 3 in the past. It was a re-tooled Panasonic DMC-L1, and while it certainly looked the part of Leica's rangefinder heritage, I would call it a stretch to say that either camera was a memorable "keeper". This was the bad old days of Panasonic sensors, and the bad old days of the original 4/3 lens mount. Compared to a Nikon D80, the sensor was noticeably worse, and the size and weight weren't appreciably smaller. You really had to want one, because there was no rational reason not to go the mainstream route. Times have changed, and even the GX1 would have been a credible platform to revitalize the Digilux line.

Therefore, the answer would be to head higher up the hill. A new Digilux would give Leica the "volume" product that they would need, and basing it off of a credible Panasonic GX7 would not hurt one bit. This leads to an uncomfortable question.... how would such a camera be positioned against the ill-received X-Vario? Never mind that the X-Vario uses a larger sensor; we're talking about a modern 16mp m4/3 sensor versus an older APS-C sensor... I don't expect the GX7 to be as clean as the Nikon D7000, but if it's as good as the OM-D EM-5, the questions about the X-Vario's retail price are going to get even more uncomfortable. 

Looking Forward

Can the GX7 stem the rising tide of the X-Trans cameras? $1,000 USD for a body-only camera is a lot to ask for; that's DSLR territory. I would argue that all $1,000+ camera buyers are prospective DSLR buyers; anybody spending this amount of money will be knowledgeable enough to be looking at all available options; and purely on performance and versatility, it's hard to argue against a Nikon or Canon for this amount of money. The X-E1, the NEX-7 and the OM-D are all in the this club... and current trends continuing, it's been a hard sell moving this camera past their niche into the hands of D7100 and 7D users. Nonetheless, the GX7 looks interesting, and certainly has a desirability factor that any hot camera should have at launch.

One to look for when it hits the streets.

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