This new, not-so-compact system camera offers the best of Panasonic’s digital imaging technology in practically every area. We get to grips with the company’s flagship Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH3. Read the Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH3 review...
Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH3 at a glance:
- 16.05-million-pixel, four thirds-sized MOS sensor
- Extended ISO 125-25,600 range
- 1.744-million-dot OLED EVF
- 3in articulated, OLED touchscreen
- Weather-resistant, magnesium-alloy body
- Optional accessories
- Street price around £1,000 body only
Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH3 review – Introduction
A compact system camera (CSC) is, as its name implies, small in size, so it is interesting to note that the best-selling CSC range – Panasonic’s Lumix G series – is one that includes a viewfinder and is therefore physically larger than others of its type. Even larger than the G series is the firm’s flagship GH series, and the latest camera in this range is the Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH3. This model is the largest we have seen from the company so far, being substantially taller than the GH2.
Such a bulky CSC suggests a serious photographic tool. Indeed, after a couple of press events and a Hands-on review (AP 6 October), we have been impressed by what the Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH3 offers. With its predecessor, the GH2, finding continued popularity among video makers, Panasonic has responded with the GH3 by introducing a vast number of improvements in this field, as well as ones that will appeal to stills photographers, too. In an obvious attempt to create a more ‘serious’ product range for professionals and enthusiasts, the company continues to label its CSCs as DSLMs (digital single-lens mirrorless). I’m keen to see if the product rather than the label does the talking and, if size is the point of a CSC, has Panasonic pushed things too far with the GH3?
Panasonic has again kept faith with its 16.05-million-pixel four thirds MOS sensor. The sensor in the Lumix DMC-GH3 is the same as that used in the G5, which has been revised from the previous version. The company claims the sensor has a better ability to collect light, and sensitivity settings extend to ISO 25,600. Coupled with the Venus 7 HD II engine and latest noise-reduction algorithms, users can expect a notable improvement in low-light performance.
On paper it looks as though Panasonic has attempted to tick all the boxes and thrown everything from its arsenal into the GH3. The camera’s build quality, autofocus system, rear screen and viewfinder are all excellent features that are explored in greater detail in the relevant sections of this review, while the impressive video capabilities are also outlined.
There are shooting modes aplenty for all sorts of situations and picture styles. Time-lapse has a selectable start time and intervals down to every second for up to 9,999 shots. Multiple exposure is possible for up to four frames, with the option of auto gain for the final exposure. HDR is undeniably useful, while other shooting modes include 14 creative control modes, such as high-key, impressive art, cross-process and ‘high dynamic’.
Using a standard Class 10 SDHC card, a high-speed burst of 18 frames can be recorded at 6fps for full-resolution raw files, with a write time of approximately 45secs. In JPEG capture, a 25-frame burst is possible with a write time of just over 10secs. The camera can be used again while files are being written, although not to the full high-speed burst potential.
As AP predicted last year, Wi-Fi is becoming the buzzword in the digital camera industry, and the GH3 is the first in Panasonic’s CSC range to offer the technology built-in. Unfortunately, the test sample we used did not have fully functional Wi-Fi so we cannot comment on its effectiveness just yet.
Alongside the launch of the camera, there have been some interesting additions to the company’s lens range, which now includes a 12-35mm f/2.8 (24-70mm equivalent) and a 35-100mm f/2.8 (70-200mm equivalent). I suspect these lenses will do more to convince photographers of the seriousness of Panasonic’s CSC range than the company’s DSLM branding. The additions bring the range to a total of 17 lenses from Panasonic alone, not forgetting compatible Olympus and third-party lenses, which adds up to a total of 40.
Image: In the highlight part of this low-light scene, detail is crisp up to ISO 400, respectable at ISO 1600, but ISO 25,600 should be avoided
The menu for the frame rate function (above left), and the available formats and frame rates when using 1080p capture
During the launch of the Lumix DMC-GH3, Panasonic outlined how it had responded to video users’ requests and implemented an abundance of changes for the GH2’s successor.
As before, full HD 1080p recording is possible, but here the frame rates are available at 50fps, 30fps, 25fps and 24fps, all with an improved bit rate of 50Mbps. In the All-I mode, broadcast-quality bit rates of 72Mbps are available. Each individual frame is compressed, and a frame-rate mode has been introduced for slow-motion down to 40% and fast-motion up to 300%.
Connectivity is comprehensive, with a 3.5mm jack, headphone port and synchro terminal. Through the HDMI output, files can directly be outputted to a hard drive rather than onto the memory card, which is handy for long videos.
Videos are still limited to 29mins 59secs. Any longer and legislation forces the device to be officially classed as a video camera, which would affect the cost of the unit to both the manufacturer and the consumer.
Build and handling
It may be the most substantial GH-series model yet, but the Lumix DMC-GH3 is still lightweight and slots into the hand comfortably. DSLR users will immediately feel at ease with it. The textured handgrip provides a solid hold, and many key controls are placed intuitively around the camera within reach without having to adjust one’s grip. The camera is especially well balanced with larger lenses in the system, such as the 14-140mm.
At 132.9×93.4x82mm, the GH3 is closer in size to an entry-level DSLR or even more enthusiast models such as Sony’s Alpha 65 than it is to a small CSC like the company’s own Lumix DMC-GF5. However, the compactness of a system is only in part about the camera body. I am really starting to see the true benefit of the four thirds format as a compact system camera. For the time I spent testing the GH3, I had it packed in the padded section of a small rucksack along with 25mm f/1.4, 45mm f/2.8 macro, 7-14mm f/4, 12.5mm f/12 3D, 12-35mm f/2.8, 35-100mm f/2.8 and 14-140mm f/4-5.8 lenses, and the whole lot weighs less than 2.5kg. Most of these lenses would be classed as professional in an SLR system. A full-frame DSLR camera and 70-200mm f/2.8 lens weighs the same as this entire kit, while packing the equivalent kit for a pro DSLR would weigh twice as much and require a much bigger bag. So not only are there plenty of lenses from which to choose, but one can pack both light and small, too.
One of the number of firsts for a Panasonic Lumix G camera is that the magnesium-alloy body of the GH3 is weatherproof, allowing it to withstand light rain and dust, so long as it is used with a weatherproof lens. To date, the new 12-35mm and 35-100mm lenses are the only units of this type. Optical stabilisation is provided through such lenses rather than in the camera itself.
For a camera at any level, the GH3 has a lot of buttons, including dedicated buttons for ISO, white balance and exposure compensation on the top-plate and five customisable function buttons (with an extra two via the touchscreen), most of which double as another control. Each of the seven function buttons can be set to any one of 37 controls, which cover virtually every one of the GH3’s key controls. It takes a good memory to remember a large number of customised buttons, but through these controls direct adjustments can be made.
The AF mode switch is in a handy position and offers the single, continuous and manual-focus modes. There is also a drive-mode dial for the high-speed shooting, exposure bracketing, single and timer modes. With no mirror and therefore no mirror shake (slap) during exposure, the camera merely needs its timer mode when mounted on a tripod for a steady shot. The camera also has an ‘electronic shutter’ for silent shooting. This is extremely useful when trying to take photographs on the sly, be it in a church during a wedding service or when on the streets within earshot of your subject. When the electronic shutter is activated, the controls on the camera are limited; for example, the sensitivity range is available up to ISO 1600 only.
The built-in flash has a respectable GN 12m @ ISO 100 output (equivalent), and now covers an angle up to 24mm. There is a hotshoe port to which an optional external flashgun can be attached, too. Other optional extras include, for the first time, a battery grip, which further makes the GH3 suitable for power-hungry videographers. With two batteries in place, the camera has a claimed 1,200-shot battery life. Even with one battery, the shot capacity has been improved from last time round.
All in all, the handling of the GH3 left me wanting for little more.
Image: To preserve highlight detail, the evaluation metering produces a dark exposure here, so brightening for the subject of
+0.5EV is necessary
The Lumix DMC-GH3 uses the same 144-segment multi-pattern metering system as its predecessor, which is no bad thing. In a number of situations the intelligent metering is reliable and predictable. For example, in bright conditions it is rare that any exposure changes are necessary.
In overcast conditions, however, where the difference in tone between the sky and landscape is greater than in bright conditions, the camera usually meters for the brighter sky area, maintaining highlight details and producing overall dark exposures.
At low ISO settings, it is then possible to ‘brighten’ the exposure up to +3EV before shadow noise becomes an issue. In the higher ISO settings, though, there is little room for manoeuvre with shadow noise, so one must be wary of dark exposures.
In a standard DSLR system, the D-pad or control wheel is used to scroll through the available metering points for spot metering. With a touchscreen that has 100% coverage, touch spot metering in the GH3 is a vastly more intuitive and quick method for achieving an accurate exposure for the subject. There is also an AF and exposure-lock button that resides next to the viewfinder, but this requires recomposing after the reading has been taken. So even though intelligent metering is reliable, touch metering ensures the subject is metered for quickly and correctly.
Image: In this very high-contrast scene, the evaluative metering wisely errs to the highlights. The JPEG exposure can then be brought back up to +2EV to reveal noise-free detail
Like the G5 and other Panasonic CSCs, the Lumix DMC-GH3 uses a contrast-detection-based AF system, which is extremely fast in good-contrast light and faster than many phase-detection-based systems used in DSLRs. It can snap into focus from infinity to its minimum focus distance with ease. In low-contrast situations, however, it’s a different story. These systems are not as effective as phase detection. At times in single-point continuous AF, the camera needs to hunt for its subject in low light.
I find that the touchscreen really improves the handling of the AF, because as with metering, coverage is over the entire frame. With a gentle press anywhere on the screen (that barely affects the stability of the camera), single-point and pinpoint AF are particularly effective. In single-point AF, the size of the spot can be adjusted from a mere 3% (approx) of the frame to around 25%.
The 23 areas in the multi-segment AF mode are placed around nine central ‘points’. A manual override is possible in this mode by pressing the screen for touch AF, at which point the camera identifies the closest of these nine points to the area touched on the screen and takes information from there.
As is the case with the G5, the touch functions of the rear screen are available even while the viewfinder is in use, which is an intuitive feature once you become used to it.
As a mirrorless system, full-time AF is possible during video recording. Face detection and tracking AF work well for slow-moving subjects, but increase the speed and erratic movement of a subject and the system often struggles to keep up. High-speed sports photographers are unlikely to be enticed by the GH3, but for all other purposes the camera works well.
By sticking with the same number of pixels and working on the efficiency of the sensor, Panasonic has claimed an improved dynamic range in the Lumix DMC-GH3. It has been a wise move. A four thirds sensor is small when compared to APS-C units, and consequently hinders the range of tones captured in a single frame. In real-world images, the GH3 is able to capture a wider range of tones than I would expect of a four thirds camera. There are still times when an overcast sky appears more like a white mass if the exposure is made for midtones, but I have not seen so much detail in the highlights from a Panasonic camera before. There are more discernible tones in bright skies and the shine on the skin in a portrait.
As is common now, there are options for HDR shooting and exposure bracketing, the second of which has a direct control on the drive-mode dial, while handily direct access to HDR can be set through one of the function buttons.
White balance and colour
In the Lumix DMC-GH3’s photo style, there are a handful of colour modes, including monochrome and a custom setting. When left in its standard photo style, the colours are pleasing if a little flat. I prefer working from flatter tones as a starting point, though, and making adjustments post-capture to saturation and vividness. Of course, these changes can be made pre-capture by using the vivid photo style, activating iDynamic (which increases contrast and therefore the brightness of colours), or by adjusting the parameters of the standard photo style to taste. The parameter adjustments available are contrast, sharpness, saturation and noise reduction.
Like most systems, the colour rendition produced by AWB is, on the whole, a little cool for my liking, but in most circumstances not noticeably so. Only when the correct white balance preset is used for the same scene and the results compared alongside the AWB image is it noticeable. There is space for up to four custom white balance settings, and assuming that one can remember which is which, it is comprehensive. All in all, it is possible to get some great results straight out of the camera.
Image: The dominance of green in this screen has tricked the AWB inot producing a magenta cast. Using the correct preset has sorted the colour balance
Noise, resolution and sensitivity
These images show 72ppi (100% on a computer screen) sections of images of a resolution chart, captured using the fixed 45mm f/2.8 macro 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 is at the specified sensitivity setting.
In keeping the same pixel count as its predecessor, there is no improvement in the level of detail that can be resolved by the Lumix DMC-GH3 in good light, which is up to the 27 marker in raw format at ISO 125.
This level of performance is equal to equivalent DSLRs such as the Nikon D7000. Where the performance has been enhanced is for low light, with the camera able to maintain the level of detail it can resolve further up the ISO range. At ISO 12,800, the GH2 reaches the 14 marker on our charts, while the GH3 is at the 22 marker.
However, that is not to say images are without luminance and chroma noise. The first real sign of luminance noise in highlight and midtone areas is at around ISO 1600, while images at ISO 800 are a little flatter in tone than the lower settings. Detail is still rather good even at ISO 6400, and it is not until ISO 12,800 and 25,600 that noise is a real issue in terms of quality of detail and depth of tone. As I would expect, the extended ISO 25,600 setting has severe chroma noise, too.
Overall, these results are a marked improvement from what has come before, and this sensor certainly provides the best low-light performance from a four thirds camera to date. Compare it to an APS-C sensor of similar spec, however, and the GH3 is not quite there yet.
Image: Shadow detail in this low-light scene is minimised by luminance noise at ISO 800, but it is more problematic at ISO 6400
LCD, viewfinder and video
The Lumix DMC-GH3 uses a new OLED EVF that has a 1.744-million-dot resolution and is supposedly 8x faster than the one in the GH2. As for quick panning, the response time has definitely been improved from last time round. We liked the display of the GH2’s screen, and the crisp detail of the GH3 display is even better, although not quite as good as the best in class.
In use, the eye sensor underneath the finder can be employed for switching between rear screen and finder when the camera is placed to the eye, and to perform AF when the EVF is initially in use. There is a short lag between putting an eye to the viewfinder and the display appearing, and in this respect the best Sony EVF still has the edge in response time.
The rear screen has all the three key features that today’s best screens offer. First, it’s an OLED type, which means the display is bright and crisp. Its resolution may well be a tad low at 614,000, but in practice this does not bear any discernible downside on the output. Second, the screen is articulated from a hinge point on the side of the camera, which aids viewing from a number of different angles. Finally, it is touch-sensitive.
I have been a fan of Panasonic’s touchscreens in its CSCs for some time, and here the GH3 goes one better, being a ‘capacitive’ type. Usually found in smartphones, these rely on electrical charges from your fingers to detect when and where on a display the user is touching. The touchscreens used in other Panasonic cameras are of the ‘resistive’ type, which requires a firmer push rather than a light touch. The screen really is responsive for touch shutter and touch AF, resulting in reduced camera shake. Navigating the menu is intuitive via the touchscreen, too, thanks to page breaks for skipping onto the next page, viewing images by pinching to zoom in and out, and swiping to go on to the next image.
With such a positive response to the GH2 from video makers, Panasonic has gone to town with refinements to the video capabilities of the GH3. For more details, see Video capture.
Image: Sony NEX-7
An RRP of £1,249 currently makes the DSLR-styled Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH3 the most expensive CSC on the market. It has some strong competition from other CSCs with built-in viewfinders, such as the Olympus OM-D E-M5, Samsung NX20 and the Sony NEX-7. The latter two have a higher pixel count and a larger APS-C-sized imaging sensor, and as such can resolve more detail than the GH3 while maintaining a strong low-light performance. The NEX-7 has a class-leading EVF, too, with a 2.359-million-dot resolution.
Image: Olympus OM-D E-M5
As for specification, the OM-D E-M5 is possibly the most similar to the GH3. Both use a 16-million-pixel four thirds sensor, have a weather-resistant magnesium-alloy body and optional extras such as a battery grip. Each camera also has a wide range of compatible lenses – more so than the APS-C models. The GH3 is far and away the largest CSC here, although its lenses are smaller than the equivalent ones in the Samsung and Sony systems.
The Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH3 is not designed to slip into a pocket, and it is interesting that as Panasonic clearly views its CSCs as a viable alternative to a DSLR system, they don’t need to be compact to sell. Taking a wise approach to the improvements it has introduced in the GH3, such as keeping the pixel count the same and instead improving the performance of the sensor, has led to better low-light and dynamic range performance. Also, its class-leading video features are sure to please those in that field. However, Sony’s NEX-7 still has the edge for image quality.
It is in its handling that the GH3 really excels. Weather-resistant magnesium alloy, a comfortable hold, lightweight lenses, comprehensive and customisable button layout, intuitive touchscreen use, crisp viewfinder and optional extras including a battery pack, are all key factors that make the GH3 a pleasure to use.
Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH3 – Key features
Optional extras that can be attached to the hotshoe port include a number of external flash units and microphones.
The eye sensor switches between the viewfinder and LCD display, and its sensitivity can be adjusted. Also, AF can be performed when the sensor switches to the viewfinder.
The control to switch between the focus modes has been moved to a handy place within thumb’s reach next to the viewfinder. The switch surrounds the AE/AF lock button.
There are seven function buttons, two of which are accessed via the touchscreen, one on the top-plate and four on the camera’s rear.
There has been a number of new accessories launched alongside the GH3, not least of which includes the DMW-FL360LE flashgun and DMW-MS2E stereo shotgun microphone.
As one would expect from a camera at this level, there is a good range of connectivity, including a 2.5mm remote input, 3.5mm jack for headphone output and for microphone input, audio output
and Mini HDMI.
The GH3 has a quoted battery life of approximately 540 shots. It is the first G-series camera to have a compatible battery pack in the form of the DMW BGGH3E. With a second DMW-BLF19E battery in place, the total battery life is over 1,000 shots.
As well as the creative control menu that includes picture effects such as dynamic monochrome, HDR and toy effect, there are 23 scene modes, which include bright blue sky, glowing nightscape and backlit softness.