Thursday, May 1, 2014

Canon PowerShot G1 X Mark II Review

The Canon G1 X Mark II is the kind of cameras that many people are looking for: large sensor, compact body. It's the camera for people who want to leave their DSLR's without leaving the image quality that DSLR's give. The headline specifications of the Mark II are:

  • 12.8 megapixel sensor
  • Digic 6 processor
  • 24-120mm f/2-3.9 zoom lens
  • 5 fps shooting
  • Touchscreen control
  • WiFi and NFC connectivity

A lot of what this camera represents is not only about competing in the current large-sensor camera market, but also about redressing the legacy of he first G1 X. It's hard to mention the current camera without mentioning that it's predecessor was lukewarmly received. The mystery to that is that on paper, the original G1 X should have been a hit because it was what people were asking for at the time... a large sensor in a small compact body. This was back in 2012, just when mirrorless cameras were staring to gain attention in the North American market. The most immediate problem with that first camera was that it was slow, both in operation and in terms of autofocus performance. A more frustrating issue for experienced shooters was that it was also limited in terms of minimum focus distance, being only able to come as close as 40cm at widest angle or a positively distant 110cm with the lens zoomed all the way out.

The problem with the original G1 X was that it was the type of camera that camera nerds were asking for, but in execution, it was an example of how specs aren't everything. If you didn't mind the bulk of the camera and its limitations, the G1 X delivered in terms of image quality. Funny, thing: with some many people clamoring for high ISO performance, wide dynamic range etc... things that camera people think will make a camera, it was the overall usability aspect of the G1 X that broke it. In other words, specs don't make the user experience. There's always room for a second life in the camera market; the original EOS 5D Mark I was a breakthrough for its time but it hasn't withstood the passing of time. Rather, it was the 5D Mark II that cemented Canon's place in the full frame market. To that end, is the G1 X Mark II the solid second act for Canon's large sensor compact efforts?

Body and Design

The first G1 X was large for its day, and even though the Mark II is smaller (no optical viewfinder), it still feels large compared to its contemporaries, especially considering how slimmed down the Sony RX100M2 is...  in fact, it's large in comparison to the NEX-5/A5000 or the NEX-6/A6000 cameras. 

The headline feature is the 1.5" sensor, which is larger than Micro Four Thirds, but smaller than APS-C. The effective pixel count has dropped from 14mp to 12.8mp, which is misleading, because the total number of pixels is the same. What's happening is that the G1 X Mark II uses a variable-aspect sensor output that produces different crops in the same way that the Panasonic LX-5/LX-7 or Leica D-Lux 6 do. However, what it the sensor does not have is phase-detection, which is present on the EOS T5i and SL1 Rebel cameras.

The lens specs have been updated to the current  numbers of 24-120mm full frame equivalent with maximum apertures of f2.0-3.9; this is an improvement in all areas over the original camera; it's wider and longer than the original camera and one stop faster at both ends of the focal length range. The lens extends by a considerable amount when the camera is powered-up; the balance of the camera tips forwards with the lens extended. If you want to use filters with this camera, you have to add the optional FA-DC58E adapter, which uses a 58mm thread.

In actual use, the activated camera is noticeably more front-heavy than a Sony RX100M2 or the G16. In combination with the large-ish sensor, the G1 X Mark II is capable of producing shallower depth of field than even its entry-level DSLR siblings at focal lengths above 50mm. (Refer to this chart by DPR). Focus performance is better than the original version of this camera, but because it it solely contrast-detection based, it is slower than than what it capable with the state of the art. In daily use, the initial-lock on is quick, but focus acquisition from near-to-far or far-to-near distances requires a bit of time for the system to lock on.

The minimum focus distance is an improvement over the previous camera, and can now focus to a minimum distance of 5cm.

Menu for programmable function rings.

The lens barrel is unmistakably a G1 X model, as it retains the metal-mesh texture of the Mark 1 camera. The inner control ring has click-stops, whereas the outer ring turns smoothly. The two rings are programmable; either you will think that it;s highly customizable or that it's overly complicated. The reason for why that is is because the ring functions vary depending on which exposure mode you are in, and those functions can be customized for each exposure mode. For example, in AV mode the inner ring naturally defaults to aperture control, but in TV mode it controls shutter speed. The rings can be changed to control other parameters such as white balance or exposure compensation; however, you can change this function to less intuitive functions such as dynamic range control, shadow correction or aspect ratio control. This has the potential to add to the usability of the camera, but one gets the sense that there is a bit of adjustment theater going on here. The outer ring controls manual focus, and if the AF mode is set to AF+MF you can manually override the AF after a shutter half-press, as you would with a USM lens with Canon's DSLR lenses.

Thankfully, the flash is a conventional built-in affair and not a clip-on part as in some other cameras (Sony NEX-5, Fujifilm X-T1, etc.) The flash is manually deployed from a switch on the left side of the camera. Echoing the long history of the G-series,the G1 X Mark II has lost the fully articulated swivel screen. (Wailing! Gnashing of teeth!)  Unlike the G15/G16, the screen can still articulate up and down, and in keeping with trends, it can be flipped 180 degrees upwards for selfies.

The G1 X Mark II has simple but effective touchscreen operation. Touch-to-focus is available, and will probably be the primary means of focusing if you prefer to move the focus point around when you shoot. This is a bold prediction to make, but it's based on the fact the controls cluster, while not small, is small in relation to the size of the body. The buttons would be the appropriate size on the G16, but on the large body of the G1 X Mark II, the buttons feel cramped. In fact, even with the large front rubber surface and sculpted thumb-rest, the general feeling is that there isn't enough grip for the amount of camera present.

If you've used a Canon compact camera before, then the menu structure will feel familiar. It's not particularly ground-breaking, but it is logical and efficient.

The officially-rated battery life is middling; the NB-12L only powers the camera to 240 shots per charge. This is one area where mirrorless cameras are not catching up to traditional DSLR's, and to be honest, this is a step back from what even small-sensor compacts are capable of.

Image Quality

The following is an ad hoc set of ISO samples using the pop refrigerators across from the camera store, using default JPEG settings out-of-camera, This test isn't directly comparable with other camera test done on this blog because of variable lighting conditions and differences in camera positioning, but it should give you an idea of how the camera performs as the ISO increases. Watch for noise in the broad colour patches, the definition in the bottles, as well as the harshness of the shadows and reflections. These were all shot at f/3.2, at 24mm equiv focal length; crops are taken from middle left of the frame. Click on each image to view at 100% crop:

ISO 100
ISO 200
ISO 400
ISO 800
ISO 1600
ISO 3200
ISO 6400
ISO 12800

Note: The ISO 12800 image is exposed 1 EV above the other samples, as the camera (Av) mode chose the same shutter speed (1/2500s) as in the ISO 6400 shot. Maximum shutter speed in (M) or (Tv) mode is 1/4000s,

These shots are spot-focused from roughly the middle left of the frame, and stopped down. Lens-sharpness off-center with the aperture wide-open is on the weak side of things. The folks at PC Magazine have noted the same with off-center image quality and at widest-zoom. However, one factor that may be playing into the subjective perception of sharpness is that we are used to seeing large-sensor cameras with higher pixel counts. The G1 X Mark II's EOS Rebel siblings are at 18mp, and the rival Sony RX 100 M2 is at 20mp. Unlike most APS-C cameras where the comfort cut-off point occurs between ISO 1600 and 3200, the threshold for care-free shooting is most definitely ISO according to this sample set. At that level, edges are still fairly intact and noise is unobjectionable. At ISO 3200, the camera's image processing is applying a fairly heavy dose of noise reduction; edges are still intact, but tight detail is gone and there is a mottled texture to the image. Anything above this would be only suited for emergencies or at small viewing sizes.

To give perspective to this, the image quality of the Canon G1 X Mark II is better than any small sensor compact, but it is at best merely equal to that found in mirrorless cameras, and compared to the state of the art in that market category, the G1 X lags, though not by a great amount. In fact, the small sensor-ed Sony RX100M2 would visually give the Canon a run for its money, as the per-pixel noise advantage that the G1 X Mark 2 enjoys because of its larger pixels would also disadvantage it against the higher pixel count of the Sony. If you've been conditioned to think that larger sensors win over high pixel counts, then putting these two cameras side-by-side might change your mind.


The G1 X Mark II is an odd duck to compare. In terms of price and size, it is more like a mirrorless camera, but in how it handles, it behaves like a compact. As you can see below, it dwarfs the Sony NEX-5T and RX100M2. It is significantly heavier than than either of these two, and is more akin to the Fujifilm X-E2 in terms of size and handling.

Sony NEX-5T, Canon G1 X Mark II, Sony RX100 M2

It's most immediate competition is the Sony RX100M2. Both are variations of the dedicated lens / large sensor / compact body formula. There's no question, however, which is the more pocket-able camera:

Left: Canon G1 X Mark II    Right: Sony RX100M2

If anything, the Canon is the first camera to truly succeed at making the RX100M2 look inexpensive... no easy feat. The Sony is an already pricey product, and the Canon... admittedly better in some regards... is especially pricey when you consider that it not only costs more than an entry-level DSLR, it costs more than mid-level consumer DSLR. The difference between these two cameras comes down to the Canon's lens and larger sensor size... if you value having a brighter average aperture over the zoom range and want to have meaningful development of bokeh, then the Canon is your camera. However, it's size and weight makes it feel more clumsy than the Sony; this is not a pocketable camera like the RX100M2... unless you count overcoat pockets.

Concluding Thoughts

Perhaps the largest competition that the G1 X Mark II has to face is not against other such cameras, but against its DSLR siblings. The problem with Canon (and Nikon) is that it is heavily invested in providing DSLR's; though some companies are able to diversify into multiple lineups, few can do so with consistent focus. That is almost certainly the case with Sony, which has taken a "see what sticks" approach to product planning, which has produced mixed results. Canon's internal incentives are in prolonging the dominance of the DSLR for as long as possible, and that priority shows  in how their mirrorless offerings have turned out. The EOS M, though popular elsewhere in the world, is now an afterthought in the North American market. The original G1 X should have been remembered as a precursor to the current mirrorless "revolution", but it is most often remembered for being slow. The Mark II solves most of the underachievement, but is noticeably deficient in one area: the sensor. There's no phase detection and the resolution is lower than what similarly priced cameras offer at the same image quality.

The problem that most people will have with this camera is the price, but at heart, that is also a problem with this camera's mission. Are people looking for a portable camera truly looking for something of this size and caliber? If you read the camera forums you might be lead into thinking that the answer to that question is "yes", but what people talk about and what they actually buy are two different things.Judged on its own merits , the G1 X Mark II is a good camera. If you are the sort use a DSLR but keep a small compact for light travel days, then this camera might be a candidate if you are looking to consolidate your gear. A person stepping into the G1 X  Mark II from a lesser camera might never feel compelled to upgrade to a DSLR afterwards because of the rich feature set and image quality. A technical tour de force, but not a camera that will appeal to everybody.

With thanks to Broadway Camera.


  1. amazing review, unbiased and informative !

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