Panasonic’s Lumix DMC-GF3 is less than a year old, but has already been replaced by the GF5. How much better is the new 12.1-million-pixel micro four thirds camera? Read the Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF5 review to find out
- 12.1-million-pixel, live CMOS sensor
- ISO 160-12,800 (extended)
- 3in TFT LCD with 920,00 dots
- 1080i full HD video, with MP4 and AVCHD
- Street price around £500 with 14-42mm kit lens, around £620 with 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 G X PZ Vario power zoom
There was a time when system cameras were replaced or upgraded every two years, or perhaps every 18 months. However, the introduction of compact system cameras has speeded up this process and now yearly upgrades seem to be the norm. Even so, it still came as a surprise when last month Panasonic chose to announce the Lumix DMC-GF5 as the replacement for the DMC-GF3. Since the GF3 was only launched in June 2011, that’s a mere ten months between upgrades.
Although the cameras share largely the same specification, the GF5 carries some very worthwhile improvements. However, with the GF3 and 14-42mm lens currently on sale for as little as £199 (including £50 cashback from Panasonic), are the changes enough to justify buying the new model with equivalent lens for a street price of around £500?
Although the specification of the Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF5’s sensor is based on the same 12.1-million-pixel live MOS sensor as the GF3, Panasonic states that improvements have been made to the sensor to enhance low-light performance. Also improving image quality is an enhanced Venus image processing engine and new Multi-process Noise Reduction (MNR). These improvements have led to an increase in sensitivity from ISO 6400 in the GF3 to ISO 12,800 in the GF5.
A much-needed boost has also been given to the resolution of the 3in screen. This is just 460,000 dots in the GF3, but the GF5 raises this resolution to the same level as its peers, with 920,000 dots.
The GF5 is compatible with the very latest SDHC UHS-1 cards. These SD cards are currently the fastest available, and despite being on the market for more than a year, there is still only a handful of cameras that can take full advantage of their maximum read and write speeds.
Reacting to the popularity of camera effects used in smartphones, Panasonic has more than doubled the number of in-camera effects from six to 14. Among these settings are high dynamic, cross process, dynamic monochrome, retro, expressive and star filter, as well as the now standard toy camera and miniature effect. These settings are a clear indication that the GF5 is aimed at the same market as the GF3 – those who want more control and better quality than is possible with most compact cameras and smartphones, but who may be put off by the bulk and perceived complexity of a DSLR.
With the entry-level user in mind, there is also a new scene guide mode. Similar to those we have seen on DSLRs, shooting in this mode not only selects a series of predetermined settings, but it also guides you through the process of shooting the best image possible. For example, when shooting a portrait it will advise the photographer to ‘fill the frame with the upper half of the subject’s body’ and to use a ‘bright’, telephoto lens. Although the scene guide mode isn’t as intuitive as using the equivalent mode in Nikon’s new D3200, it should be of use to the entry-level user.
First-time users aren’t the only people catered for. Video is now a staple of every new camera, and the GF5 has seen some improvements in this area. I will look at this in more detail later.
Build and handling
Although the body of the Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF5 is largely the same as that of the GF3, there is one significant improvement – the camera’s handgrip. The shape of the handgrip is the same, but it is now covered in textured rubber. Not only does the texture add grip, but the addition of the rubber also adds girth, making it far better to hold.
The only other addition is a single display button on the rear of the camera. This button switches through the various displays that can be presented on the rear of the camera, from a screen that shows no information to one that has more information than you know what to do with.
Like other Panasonic micro four thirds system cameras, the GF5 uses a touchscreen, and I found this screen easy to navigate and responsive to use. To stop the touchscreen from being permanently littered with virtual buttons, Panasonic has placed a tab on the right of the screen. When this is pressed, a sub-menu is revealed with four buttons, two of which are assignable function buttons.
Nearly all the settings that you would want to change when shooting can be found by pressing the GF5’s Quick Menu button. If you require more settings than are in the default Quick Menu, it is possible to add or remove items via the touchscreen.
Although the GF5 isn’t reliant on its touchscreen, it does help you change some settings more quickly. Personally, I would rather have seen a couple of extra physical function buttons, but a touchscreen is a great way to allow direct access while keeping the camera small.
One area where touchscreens are particularly useful is when focusing. I found that using the screen on the GF5 for autofocusing was especially intuitive. Simply touching it at the point you wish to focus kicks the AF into life. This was very handy with landscapes, as I was able to compose the scene and then touch to focus, rather than having to use the directional controls to change the AF point.
Also impressive is the speed of the contrast AF system. Panasonic claims 0.09sec under certain conditions, which would make it the fastest in the world. Obviously, this is hard to measure, but what I can confirm is that in good light the AF is as fast as any equivalent phase-detection system. It will certainly be fast enough in single-spot AF for the intended user, although with contrast-detection systems continuous AF is not as responsive as a phase-detection system.
For most of the test, I used the new 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 G X Vario PZ Power OIS zoom lens, which has a street price of around £620 when bought with the GX5. This double-barrelled optic collapses to such a small size that it isn’t much larger than a pancake lens.
Instead of a manual control, this zoom is controlled electronically with a toggle switch on the side of the lens. Although slower than manually twisting a lens barrel to zoom the short 14-42mm distance, it is comparable to what those photographers coming from a compact camera will be used to. Another benefit is that it ensures a smooth and less shaky zoom when shooting video footage.
There is a toggle for manual focusing, and while this is slightly slower than manually focusing using a ring, it is fairly precise. However, this feature will not get much use in a camera of this type, except perhaps for macro or still-life images where speed isn’t of the essence.
One problem I had with the handling of the new lens is that while the toggle switches are correctly positioned when shooting in a landscape orientation, switching to portrait format was a little more awkward. I found that when shooting in portrait orientation it is the focus toggle that sits perfectly under the thumb of the left hand, not the zoom control as would be expected. As a result, on a number of occasions I was left wondering why the zoom wasn’t working, before checking and realising that I was using the wrong control. Annoyingly, it is not something you get used to, as it is more of an ergonomic issue than user error.
On the whole, the AF system and the new lens work well together. Although the zoom and focus toggle switches could be better placed, the compact size of the lens, when not in use, makes it an ideal companion for the diminutive GF5.
The evaluative metering system of the Lumix DMC-GF5 performs very well, and I rarely had to touch the exposure-compensation dial. When I did, it was largely down to personal preference rather than any fault of the metering.
Images are bright and well exposed, and for trickier subjects centreweighted and spot metering are also available.
Image: Some highlight detail has been lost, as the metering tries to balance the foreground with the bright patch of overcast sky
White balance and colour
Like the metering system, the auto white balance (AWB) setting produces nicely balanced colours and images that are punchy and bright straight from the camera, even when in the default colour settings.
Greens and blues are particularly well rendered, and on a bright sunny day it shouldn’t be necessary to switch to vivid mode to get well-saturated images that are suitable for printing or presentation.
Image: Colour and metering in bright conditions are almost perfect. This image needed just the nearest hint of extra contrast in Photoshop
Noise, resolution and sensitivity
These images show 72ppi (100% on a computer screen) sections of images of a resolution chart, captured using the Panasonic Lumix G X Vario PZ 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 Power OIS lens. We show the section of the resolution chart where the camera starts to fail to reproduce the lines separately. The higher the number visible in these images, the better the camera’s detail resolution at the specified sensitivity setting.
With its 12.1-million-pixel sensor, the resolution of the Lumix DMC-GF5 just reaches 24 on our test chart, which is to be expected. Luminance noise is visible in shadow areas at ISO 400, but at ISO 800 the noise reduction really kicks in as shadow details take on a smudged appearance, with a slight hint of chroma noise in the form of purple and green ‘bruising’.
That said, noise is fairly well controlled. At ISO 6400, the sensor still resolves to around 22 on our chart, although there is a lot of noise reduction and subsequent sharpening taking place. Similarly, shadow areas have a green and purple tint to them. At the maximum ISO 12,800 sensitivity this is worse still and there are signs of banding.
When shooting images with high sensitivities I would strongly advise shooting raw rather than JPEG, as colour noise can be easily controlled and reduced. At lower sensitivities, slightly more detail can be squeezed out of raw files compared to JPEG images, but it makes little difference to the information resolved on our test chart. Instead, images just seem slightly sharper.
As expected from a micro four thirds sensor, the Lumix DMC-GF5 struggles a little with shadow detail, and highlights tend to blow out more easily compared to an APS-C-sized sensor. That said, the evaluative metering and contrast curve seem to compensate well for any slight restriction in dynamic range.
However, for those more used to a compact camera or even a mobile phone, the dynamic range of the GF5 will be more than suitable.
LCD, live view and video
The LCD screen of the Lumix DMC-GF5 is one of the most significant improvements over the GF3. Although it is the same size as that on the GF3, the increase from 460,000 dots to 920,000 dots is significant.
Reviewing images is far more pleasing on the GF5 than on the GF3,and fine details can be clearly seen. This is important because without an accessory socket you cannot attach an electronic viewfinder to the GF5 as you can with the enthusiast-level Lumix DMC-GX1 model.
Video has been a key feature of Panasonic micro four thirds cameras since the launch of the GH1 in 2009. The GF5 continues this legacy with 1080i full HD video, and both MP4 and AVCHD. Having both formats is a bonus for entry-level users, who may find the AVCHD format more widely compatible with image-editing software. Audio has also been improved, with the GF5 having built-in stereo microphones.
Although Panasonic has made just a handful of changes to the Lumix DMC-GF5 over the GF3, they are improvements. However, the changes aren’t significant enough to warrant GF3 users to upgrade their camera.
While higher-resolution compact system cameras are now commonplace, the image quality produced by the GF5 is very good, particularly regarding colour and contrast. With its Intelligent Auto feature, the GF5 is a great choice for those looking for their first system camera, particularly if size is a high priority.
The diminutive body and power-zoom lens are ideal for those more used to carrying a compact, so the GF5 may be a good DSLR alternative for anyone looking for a very small CSC to take travelling