Six weeks with Micro Four Thirds and the Panasonic GX7

wpid-IMG_20131123_124734.jpgI’ve been shooting with the Panasonic GX7, my first Micro Four Thirds camera, for six weeks now and I’m able to share some thoughts on the camera and the Micro Four Thirds system.

As I discussed in a previous post, the main motivation for this pretty large photography purchase was my dissatisfaction with the lens offerings for the Sony NEX system rather than any particular camera needs… but I also took the opportunity to get the best interchangeable lens body I could find.

Full-frame was out of the question; the cameras and/or lenses are simply too large for my needs and I actually prefer the extra depth of field that cropped sensors provide, especially when the light gets low and it becomes necessary to shoot wide-open. There is of course one full-frame camera which is small and has small lenses: a Leica… but that’s silly money (the dentist’s camera, as someone called it) and in some important respects the Leica is less flexible than many cheaper cameras.

I briefly considered a Fuji X-Pro1 or X-E1 but decided against because of the slow autofocus, problematic sensor, lack of lenses and the fact that the 23mm f1.4 was way too pricey. I was thus left with the obvious choice of a Micro Four Thirds camera, which in the end came down to a close-run thing between the Olympus OMD EM5 and the GX7 (the EM1 is simply too big, not to mention the fact that it’s a shed-load of cash).

I chose the GX7 because it offered a number of things that the EM5 didn’t (wireless, 1/8000 shutter speed, tilting viewfinder, focus-peaking) and also because I preferred the rangefinder shape to that of the mini-SLR styled EM5. In most respects I have not regretted my decision. In use I have found the GX7 to be a responsive, flexible camera with good image quality. Best of all it is fun and instills the desire to go out and shoot. It is also discreet and non-threatening, in fact I chose the silver version not just because I like the retro look but also because it makes the camera look less “Pro” which is important when street shooting.

wpid-IMG_20131123_125042.jpg

The tilting viewfinder is genuinely useful, not only does it allows you to take shots from a lower angle whilst using the viewfinder but if you tilt it just a little it keeps your nose away from the LCD screen. This is especially important because a great feature of the GX7 is the ability to change the focus point by dragging your finger across the LCD (which can be done while using the viewfinder) and you really don’t want to accidentally change the focus point with your nose.

In terms of sensor performance the GX7’s dynamic range is impressive. There’s a little more visible noise than the Sony NEX at higher ISOs but it’s not a massive difference.

I only have two significant complaints about the camera. Firstly, the battery life is appalling. I doubt if even two batteries would be enough for a full day of intensive shooting. Frankly the battery life is borderline unacceptable in a camera of this class. Secondly, there is no auto ISO option when in manual mode. I was aware of this issue before I bought the GX7. This is a serious omission and a real shame. I came close to rejecting the GX7 because of it and I know a number of photographers who actually have. I may still in the long run be forced to move over to the EM5 because of this feature, but time will tell. This is very short-sighted on the part of Panasonic, especially as they have been told countless times that it is sorely missed on other models.

The subject of auto-ISO in manual mode is often misunderstood and some photographers, who clearly don’t understand what it might be used for, get very high and mighty about how it isn’t necessary. It’s really very simple: there are a number of situations where you will need to set both the aperture and the shutter speed. Obviously if your subjects are in motion then you will need to set a high shutter speed. Now, if you also need a large depth of field (because you simply want everything to be in focus or if you are zone focusing) or if your lens has a sweet spot at a certain f-stop then you will also need to set a fixed aperture. At this point there is only one parameter left to control the exposure: ISO. If you’re taking a shot of something static, or you’re in a studio you can manually set the ISO and all will be well but if you’re outdoors in rapidly changing light conditions, perhaps moving frequently from bright sun to shadow then, if you can’t set the ISO to auto, you’re going to end up spending a great deal of time fiddling with your ISO setting – and YOU WILL MISS SHOTS as a result. (The street photographer Jonathan Auch, who demands of any camera that it offers auto ISO in manual, has pointed out that when working in New York on a sunny day there can be a 4 or 5 stop difference when moving in and out of the shadows of tall buildings.) I simply can’t understand why this simple fact escapes Panasonic and those hostile photographers who appear on forums whenever auto-ISO in manual is discussed. There really is no viable alternative; Aperture priority is not an option because it may drop the shutter speed too low, and shutter priority will likely choose a too wide aperture. You might be able to get by without auto-ISO in manual if you could specify a minimum shutter speed when in aperture priority but, guess what… you can’t do that on the GX7.

There are a number of other supposed issues with the GX7 that have repeatedly come up in reviews and forums so I’ll address those here:

(1) It feels plastic and hollow.
To some extent this is true. I noticed it when I first picked one up in the shop but I don’t notice it anymore; it feels perfectly solid and is certainly of a reasonably high build quality. It’s primarily made of metal not plastic. The initial feeling may have been the result of me having a Nex-5N and Nikon V1 both of which are very solid and heavy bodies.

(2) The viewfinder image is small.
This is also true. I certainly noticed this initially when compared with the lovely Sony FDA-EV1S but again I do not notice this anymore. I am perfectly happy with the viewfinder image now, though I am primarily a street photographer; other photographers may have more of an issue with it.

(3) There are “tearing” or “rainbow” artefacts in the viewfinder.
I’ve never seen these – and I even tried to generate them by moving my eye rapidly around the view. It’s now becoming clear that some people are more sensitive than others to the effect, which is a consequence of the field sequential technology used by Panasonic, where the different colours are displayed in rapid succession. One thing I will say is that the colours in the viewfinder are great.

(4) The eye sensor is too slow and there is a long lag before the viewfinder image is displayed. I do not find this and the image comes up faster than it does on my NEX. There is a lag – but it is small.

But enough of that! the GX7 is a wonderful camera and I don’t hesitate to recommend it – just make sure you try the viewfinder before parting with your cash.

And the Micro Four Thirds lenses? Just perfect. I bought the Panasonic 14mm f2.5, the Olympus 17mm f1.7, the Panasonic Leica 25mm f1.4 and the Olympus 45mm f1.8.

wpid-IMG_20131123_124112.jpg The 45mm, 25mm and 14mm with hoods.

The lenses are tiny, with the exception of the PanLeica 25mm. Just look at the next picture which puts the Sony 50mm f1.8 alongside the Oly 45mm. These are both portrait-length lenses (75mm and 90mm equivalent respectively):

wpid-IMG_20131123_124523.jpg

The 14mm is average optically, though very useful, but the other lenses are stunning, especially the 25mm and 45mm. I’m using the 17mm a lot because it’s a 35mm equivalent, my current favourite focal length, and has the pull ring which reveals distance markings and allows for easy zone focusing.

And best of all, the GX7 and those four lenses can, with a squeeze, fit into a tiny bag that measures 24cm by 15cm by 12cm.

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4 thoughts on “Six weeks with Micro Four Thirds and the Panasonic GX7

  1. Hi Chris. As yourself I used to shoot sony nex. As a matter of fact, I still shoot my rx10. My question is about this camera in low light. I had found that it doesn’t perform well after iso 800. I mean I can see a lot of noise at 16, and 3200 (I haven’t tried above that because I am not satisfied with the previous iso so why bother going higher). What had been your experience? Thanks.

    • Hi Jose,

      Most of my photography is at low ISO, so noise is not much of a concern for me.
      The only time I shoot at ISO 1600 or 3200 is when doing street photography if I want a very high shutter speed… and some noise in these circumstances is fine.
      I did notice that the GX7 had slightly more visible noise than the NEX5N, you would expect that because of the NEX’s larger sensor, but the difference was not as significant as I expected. It’s good enough for me – though it’s certainly pushing it at 3200.

      If noise at high ISO is a big concern for you than I would say that you probably won’t be happy with anything less than a full-frame sensor.

      Chris

      • Hi Chris: thank you so much for your reply. Two things: first, I had shoot with sony A7 with not such a good result… so in that sense if you haven’t shoot with that full frame… you haven’t miss anything… Second my problem with the noise, is particularly evident with zomm lenses. If I shoot with the panleica 25 close to the subject is fine at 1600. But seriously, I wasn’t expecting that my rx10 would produce better results at those high iso… Could it be the glass? Cause under such cirumstances those factors come to play too.

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