Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Canon G3 X Review

Canon G3 X

One of Canon's most popular compact cameras is the SX series (SX710 HS, SX700 HX, etc.). In a compact rectangular box form, you get lots of zoom... more than the competition even. The SX 710 HS and cameras like it  are generally casual shooter cameras, made for photographers who like the idea of a "big spec" camera but who aren't in love with the larger size requirements of a traditional DSLR-like bridge camera. Very often, the buyer of a big zoom EVF-less compact really only wants a compact camera, but is lured by the promise of the big spec number... E.g. "30x zoom, 50X zoom, etc.

To that end, the Canon G3 X is the high-end version of this concept, much like how the G7 X is the high-end embodiment of the S120. Canon, being the largest player in the camera market can afford to do multiple segments as such, whereas the rest of the industry is consolidating onto a few key products. From a casual consumer perspective, a smaller EVF-less large sensor camera seems like a good idea, but from an enthusiast shooter's point of view, the point-and-shoot style layout would be viewed politely as a brave choice. Given the sales success of the G7 X, can the G3 X do the same?

Design and Handling



The G3 X is stylistically similar to the recent set of high-end Canon compacts ( G1 X Mark II, G7 X) in that the camera is comfortable to hold but less comfortable to operate. This is a combination of having a comfortable thumb rest combined with  a condensed area for the 4-way controller/command ring and rear control buttons. The G3 X follows once again in this trend; the front grip is ample and nicely notched for your fingers to wrap into and the thumb pad is comfortable. Reaching back for the rear command dial puts a bit of strain on your thumb because of the cramped space. In all fairness, these are compromises that you would expect for a compact camera, but the sticking point is that the G3 X isn't that small.

The lens barrel betrays two design short comings. There is a manual focus override that is within easy reach of your left thumb, and a wide-field spotting button above it for when you are following objects with the lens zoomed out. Both are poorly implemented.  While the manual focus button is comfortable placed, the actual act of manual focusing is uncomfortable, as you have to hold the button down and turn the control ring on the lens barrel or the command dial on the back of the camera... both of which are awkward reaches.

The wild-field search button works  quickly; if you are zoomed out and press this button, the lens will move to a wider field of view so long as the button is depressed. The problem is that its position above the manual focus button is awkward. If you are using an underhand grip (camera resting on upturned left palm), it's a long reach for your left thumb to reach this button. if you use the common but incorrect overhand grip (left palm down, fingers curled over lens barrel) then this button falls comfortably on your index finger... except that you are now using an unsteady hand position.

Touch controls are a nice addition on a camera like this. With the screen taking up a large portion of the rear real estate, it makes sense to move some of the control off of the right quarters of the physical controls. Touch to focus isn't as successful, as the hand position makes holding the camera and fine-control operation of the screen a bit of an awkward affair.

All told, even if this is a lot of functionality in one package, it is the wrong form factor for a long zoom work. Though it is cliche, the best form factor for long-distance work mimics the traditional DSLR layout... 3 points of contact with both hands and the third "contact" point at an eyepiece. The G3 X, lacking an EVF, is the wrong form factor for using long focal lengths.



In total, the G3 X is a clean-looking camera that is somewhat divorced from the physical task of picture taking. If anything, it repeats the mistake of the G1 X Mark II, being technically capable in function but lacking in the charm that makes you desire to pick it up for a long day's use.

Zoom Lens


There is an ample amount of zoom to be had with the G3 X, however, not all of it is piratically usable. At the extreme end, the form factor does not lend itself to stable hand-holding, and as is always the case with long focal lengths, you are better off with a tripod. Even out to the middle of the zoom range, the camera is usable hand-held, but the image-stabilization system won't work miracles from mid to fully-zoomed... with the lens all the way out images will be usable at small viewing sizes, but noticeably lacking in fine detail due to hand shake.

ISO 2000, f/5

That's the key with a camera like this. You can pull wantonly on the zoom lever and be seduced into unfavorable focal length/shutter speed combinations. It's the difference between having an appropriately portioned dinner served to you and going to the buffet.... you'll have more fun with the latter but it's not going to be as refined and elegant.

Image Quality



The following is an ad hoc demonstration of the camera's JPEG output quality through the ISO range. Pay attention to the legibility of the soda bottles for detail retention (or lack thereof) as the ISO value rises, speckling in the broad colour patches for overall image noise, as well as the harshness of the reflections and shadows as dynamic range decreases. These samples are not directly comparable to similar samples found elsewhere in this blog because of variable ambient lighting conditions.

Naturally, there is more processing leeway in the original RAW files, but comparing RAW files from different cameras can give one a false sense of fairness. Because each RAW format is different, the best and most representative results depend on each file being processed for best results. Often, different RAW files are compared at default converter settings, which is a bit like comparing default JPEG settings. Hence, for quick comparative purposes we are using the JPEG files out of the camera, as they can give insight into how the competing imaging engineers view the output of their respective cameras. Click on images for 100% crop view.


ISO 125
ISO 200
ISO 400
ISO 800
ISO 1600
ISO 3200
ISO 6400
ISO 12800

Overall, there isn't much to differentiate the G3 X output from the other cameras using this sensor (Sony RX100M3, Panasonic FZ1000), except for how the JPEG rendition is tuned between Canon, Panasonic and Sony. ISO 800 is roughly the highest you can take the camera in a care-free manner without worrying too much about image quality; you can go higher if fine detail isn't a priority. Low light ability is further aided by the image stabilization system, which helps to keep the ISO level low... but it won't work miracles and becomes less effective the more you zoom the lens out.  All told, this isn't DSLR/mirrorless levels of image quality, but it is good enough for non-demanding users and much better than what you would have gotten from a traditional compact super-zoom.

ISO 640

The above picture of the onions is surprisingly typical of Canon output; healthy (but not excessive) amounts of sharpening, with strong "Canon-esque" reds.

ISO 400, f/2.8, 24mm equiv
Scarf rack in in flat low light. The colour profile is a little cooler and less contrasty than what a Sony camera with the same sensor would give. The original file shows a lot of detail smearing due to the high ISO setting, but resized to web-viewing, the impact is minimal.

ISO 2500, 1/125s

Again, with the above example (shot with the lens midway extended) the broad details are preserved by the image stabilization system. However, it's not perfect, as it can't cancel out all of the hand movement (loss of fine detail at 100% crop) and there is a loss of dynamic range because of the high ISO setting... you see it was the flatter texture of the jewellery, which would have a more nuanced  "sparkle"  at a lower ISO.

All told, for the causal user, there is more than enough image quality and flexibility. A serious shooter would be able to extract more image quality with improve shot discipline.

Comparisons


The most obvious comparisons are against the Panasonic FZ1000 and the Sony RX10. The problem is that both of these cameras are aimed at a more adept crowd than the G3 X is... and both are better designed for the task and have the benefit of being less expensive.

Left: Panasonic FZ1000     Right: Canon G3 X
In favour of the Canon, though not small it is more compact than either of its competitors. The menu system is at the very least consistent with the likes of other Canon compacts, and is much more intuitive than the deeper menu structure of the Sony.

Left: Panasonic FZ1000     Right: Canon G3 X

Neither the Canon not the Sony is as good with autofocus as the Panasonic is with its Depth From Defocus (DFD) technology. All three have similar noise/dynamic range characteristics on account of using the same sensor; the default JPEG rendition will vary according to the tastes of the different companies. Thr FZ1000 will produce the most neutral/natural looking rendition, whereas the Sony has the most  sharpening and contrast.

Left: Canon G3 X     Right: Canon EOS SL1

Perhaps the biggest competitor to the G3 X will be from its Canon sibling, the G7 X. For significantly less size, weight and cost, the smaller camera with the same sensor will be a more appealing choice for the vast majority of consumers. This is how the calculus works: the smaller size and lower cost of the G7 X are tangible and immediate benefits, whereas the extra long reach of the G3 X is a "what if I need it?" lure; for most, the first makes more sense.


Concluding Thoughts


On paper, the G3 X is a good idea, but putting so much zoom in an EVF-less compact form factor is basically having the wrong tool for the right job. One is left to consider why this form factor isn't more common outside of consumer-level point-and-shoots; the G3 X isn't a convincing case for it at the enthusiast-compact level. That said, merits and demerits don't exist in a vacuum; at its initial launch price the G3 X isn't compelling, but if priced below its EVF-equipped competitors, then it will make more sense. As it stands, the USD price before rebates and discounts stands like this as of summer 2015:

  • Panasonic FZ1000  - $797.99
  • Sony RX10             - $898.00
  • Canon G3 X           - $999.99

That's stiff competition to overcome; essentially Canon is betting that the slightly smaller size and longer zoom will make the G3 X worth more than its nearest competitors.... That said, ignoring price and looking at the camera on its own merits, yes it is a good camera if you aren't technically demanding and want something that can do a little bit of everything and which is better than an entry-level compact.

Pros


  • Lots of features in a moderately sized package
  • More zoom range than competition
  • Only 1/1" sensor super-zoom with touch-screen
  • Traditional simple/easy to use Canon menus

Cons


  • More expensive than the competition
  • Larger and bulkier than some mirrorless cameras
  • Awkward control layout for advanced shooters
  • Lack of EVF makes for less stable holding position at long zoom 




With thanks to Broadway Camera

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