Sometimes, having the best camera does not equate to having the best image quality. That is certainly true of the Micro Four Thirds cameras which trade sensor area for overall camera portability. However, giving up on outright image quality does not mean that a camera has to be any less usable, and to that end Olympus and Panasonic have created two of the most feature-laden mi-tier cameras on the market in the PEN E-P5 and the DMC-GX7. This review covers the E-P5 with the M.Zuiko Digital 17mm F1.8 prime lens and VF-4 electronic viewfinder along with the GX7 equipped with the G Vario 14-42mm/F3.5-5.6 lens
Design and Operation
Both of these cameras are metal-bodied and targeted towards the serious enthusiast photographer. The E-P5 is the heavier and boxier of the two; the GX7 feels noticeably lighter and will probably fit better in most people's hands due to it's more prominent grip. Compared to the Panasonic G6, the GX7 feels more substantial; the E-P5 even more so. The silver (metal top, black body,aka "Panda") version of the GX7 will likely be the more popular, but the all-black model is straight forward and un-fussy.
The optional electronic viewfinder is a nice touch on the Olympus, and gives you a large, comfortable viewing area that is comparable to the viewing area of a DSLR.... actually, it's comparable to a full frame DSLR. Resolution is high, and video lag is low. As well, it can tilt upwards in the same way that the GX7's builtin EVF does. Though it does add bulk to the camera, the size and overall usefulness of the VF-4 puts the E-P5 above the built-in viewfinder in the OM-D E-M1.
Mirroring design for design, both models feature flip-out rear touch LCD screens. Though once regarded as a gimmicky consumer-grade feature, touch control is increasingly becoming an important design element on cameras given its ubiquity in smart phones and tablets. In terms of usability, both cameras can display focus peaking as an aid to manual focusing.
Both the Olympus and the Panasonic are highly customizable, but some may find this rather frustrating. For example, there is no obvious way to change the ISO or white balance on the E-P5 without diving into the menus... unless you know that the lever by the thumb rest toggles the the control dials between aperture/shutter operation and ISO/white balance control. It can be further altered to control video shooting and focus modes. It's a nice way to save on button clutter on a small camera body, but it's rather un-intuitive for somebody picking up the camera for the first time. The GX7 is similarly highly customizable, with 3 Fn buttons. Thankfully, ISO and white balance (which are very often used in regular shooting) have dedicated and labelled buttons. The problem with going with this approach is that you tend to forget which function that you've assigned to what button. This is the downside of customization; it's a means to good functionality, but it's not an ends unto itself. Diving into the menus, the both cameras continue trends set by their respective corporate siblings. The menus in the GX7 are clean and fairly easy to navigate, while the menu structure of the E-P5 can be frustrating to the uninitiated.
If there is a big letdown with the GX7, it's that there is no microphone port and that the in-camera image stabilization doesn't work during video mode, at least not the in-camera kind. Video stabilization is available with lenses that have built-in stabilization, and in this regards, the GX7 would be no different than the GH3 in real-world use. Considering the plethora of features that the GX7 does have, the lack of video stabilization seems to be a glaring omission. The E-P5, being more photo-oriented rather than feature-oriented in outlook, does offer in-camera video stabilization.
Image quality-wise, both cameras are competitive with each other. The Olympus is using the same Sony-sourced 16mp sensor that the OM-D cameras use, whereas the Panasonic uses a brand-new design, also 16mp. Reading through Panasonic's literature, it seems that the gains that they made with this sensor came from shrinking the wiring interconnects in the substrate portion of the sensor. This effective increases the volume substrate that is available for capturing light, meaning that dynamic range and image noise performance benefit.
The GX-7 tends to produce a flatter, more neutral colours whereas the Olympus is stronger with red and blue colour saturation.... the rendition is a bit Sony-like and is more punchy but less natural-looking. However, these are default settings, and are, as always, adjustable to taste. This is the first time that Panasonic has used a sensor-shift image stabilization system, and it works well, but is perhaps not as solid as the E-P5's five-axis system. This means that for the first time, you can use the popular Panasonic Lumix G 20mm f/1.7 ASPH prime on one of their m4/3 bodies have image stabilization with it.
Here is what the image quality looks like as you move through the (reasonable) ISO range. This is an ad hoc test; watch for noise in the broad colour patches and edge definition in the bottles. As the dynamic range narrows, the reflections will get harsher. Apologies, as you can see,the owner of the convenience stand was staking stock of his coolers while I was taking stock of these cameras. (Beggars can't be choosers when testing cameras in limited conditions.) First, the Olympus:
|Olympus E-P5 ISO 200|
|Olympus E-P5 ISO 400|
|Olympus E-P5 ISO 800|
|Olympus E-P5 ISO1600|
|Olympus E-P5 ISO3200|
|Olympus E-P5 ISO 6400|
The Panasonic as thus:
|Panasonic GX7 ISO 200|
|Panasonic GX7 ISO 400|
|Panasonic GX7 ISO 800|
|Panasonic GX7 ISO 1600|
|Panasonic GX7 ISO 3200|
|Panasonic GX7 ISO 6400|
With both cameras, ISO 800 is the last point of care-free shooting; thereafter, the noise increase per ISO level becomes more pronounced. Also note the Pepsi sign on the right side of the cooler, as it is a good indication of the blue-channel noise. It's there in the ISO 800 shots, but it's definitely noticeable by ISO 1600 in both cameras. Though the differences between the two cameras are minute, the E-P5 seems to have slightly better edge definition than the GX7, and seems to hold on to low contrast detail better as the ISO climbs... but only by the slightest of margins. For practical purposes, the E-P5 and GX7 are essentially equivalent for real-world shooting.
A word about shutter-shock, the vibration caused by the dual-action of the shutter blades during exposure on a mirrorless camera. It is noticeably stronger on the Olympus, for whatever reason, there is a palpably stronger kick from the shutter motors on the Olympus, which is somewhat mitigated by the its heavier body. With the 17mm f/1.8mm prime lens, you don't notice it as much as you would at longer focal lengths, though. The five-axis image stabilization system works remarkably well, however, allowing for an aggressive reduction in safe hand-held shutter speeds if you have good technique. Olympus claims that a 5 stop reduction in shutter speed is possible; that would be pushing it, but the system nonetheless works very well at reducing camera shake.
As good as these middle weight cameras are, its tough to recommend them over other choices because of their price... and especially because of the E-P5's price. If you ignore outright image quality and focus on features and lens selection, then these are two very good enthusiast oriented cameras. However, the camera market is far from a vacuum, and for less money, the Sony NEX-6 and the out-going Fujifilm X-E1 are hard to ignore. At the time of writing, the prices (USD) of these and other comparable cameras were approximately:
- Olympus E-P5 with 17mm kit lens: $1,450
- Panasonic GX7 with 14-24mm kit lens: $1,100
- Sony NEX-6 with 16-50mm kit lens: $800
- Fujifilm X-E1 with 18-55mm kit lens: $1,000
This is, of course, comparing apples to oranges to pears but it does illustrate that for the price of either the E-P5 or the GX7, there are comparable APS-C cameras that offer better image quality for less money. It's a bit of an unfair comparison as the NEX-6 and X-E1 are both older models near the end of their retail lives; the Fuji will likely be hard to find as it will soon be replaced by the X-E2. However, the price of the m4/3 cameras becomes even more glaring compared to cost of the entry level Nikon and Canon DSLR's.
This goes to show that when outright image quality is sacrificed for features and usability, the target customer is no longer the general public but rather, somebody who knows what they are specifically looking for. Both the E-P5 and the GX7 will satisfy m4/3 aficionados. They'll also impress any m4/3 new-comers, but the price will be a barrier to converting interested shoppers into committed buyers. Cost aside, these two cameras are the proverbial enthusiast-oriented take-anywhere cameras that many serious shooters are looking for.
With thanks to Broadway Camera.