Panasonic GX1 review and user experience - First serious shoot and some interesting discoveries

Panasonic Lumix GX1 14mm f/2.5
Panasonic Lumix GX1 14mm f/2.5 Multi image panoramic stitch

No matter how many tests I run, the only way to assess any gear I use is to take it out to shoot "for real". Yesterday was an interesting December day, warm, sunny and 12 degrees. Last year at the same time, it was cold, covered in snow and about -4 degrees. The wonders of the British weather!

Using the camera was quite revealing. It confirmed some thoughts that were forming in my mind after trying out the camera, and indicates that the GX1 is somewhat more than a G3 in a retro designed GF1 body.

There was a recent Digital Rev review of the camera. In it there was mention of the excellent colour rendition. As I've repeated often, I like m4/3 colour very much. I continully use the word "glossy". Well in using the GX1 for the first time in sunshine, it takes this to new levels. 

Panasonic Lumix GX1 14-42mm
Panasonic Lumix GX1 14-42mm

This is the most "eye-popping" colour I've ever seen from a m4/3 camera. The images are very punchy, with good contrast. It is difficult to show this with images hosted on flickr sometimes, but the images on my screen are very saturated and also very realistic. I got an idea of this from the images I took previously, which were taken under leaden grey skies, but still looked very attractive. I should mention that this is all happening at the default settings. I'm not cranking up the saturation either in raw processing or in Photoshop.

Panasonic Lumix GX1 14-42mm
Panasonic Lumix GX1 14-42mm

Panasonic Lumix GX1 14-42mm
Panasonic Lumix GX1 14-42mm

There's also something else happening with the files. m4/3 is not known for being particularly good at handling a high dynamic range. However the latest Sony 16MP sensor in cameras like the NEX-5n, Pentax K-5, Nikon D7000 etc. has a reputation for allowing quite a lot of relatively noise free shadow recovery at low ISO settings. 
Much to my surprise the GX1 is pretty good at this too.

Panasonic Lumix GX1 14-42mm
Panasonic Lumix GX1 14-42mm

The jpg. image you see on the bottom of the image above might be considered as typical m4/3. Blocked out shadows and burnt out highlights in a contrasty lighting situation. But you'll have noticed the image on the top which shows neither of those problems. With some work in raw processing and Photoshop, I was able to "recover" both the missing shadow and highlight detail which is missing from the jpg. And no its not as good as the Sony APS-C sensor, but its a lot better than I've ever got from m4/3 before. In particular what is impressive, is that the lightened shadow areas are relatively noise free. Again not as clean as the Sony sensor but a significant improvement on what I've achieved before with a Panasonic 4/3 sensor.

So why the difference? Well I imagine that Panasonic have improved the processing engine. 

Small Diversion!!
One of the problems of all the initial reviews of any new gear is that the review sites work with pre-production cameras. The examples are mostly jpgs. or using the manufacturers often inadequate software. Judgements are made and impressions given, on what is often a pretty cursory look at a piece of equipment. These judgements are also made often by people who don't have a particular interest in getting the best out of what they are reviewing, i.e. they haven't used their own money to buy it!! One of the reasons I review as I do, is I like setting out on this "voyage of discovery". As you will be aware I often change my mind in these reviews, and discover new ways of doing things. This will of course be somewhat confusing to those of you who are reading this backwards!!, as often happens with blog post reviews. 

However back to the plot. It does seem to me that Panasonic have pulled off a very neat trick here, with the GX1. They have managed to create raw files that are punchy, saturated, with excellent colour depth and saturation AND at the same time made those files more "elastic" than before, with the capacity to handle a wider dynamic range. I also discovered that, by adjusting my raw file settings in Adobe Camera Raw, I could eliminate the luminance noise that is often present on these 16MP sensor files, even at low ISO's, without compromising the sharpness. The somewhat radical set of values you see below produces very clean, very sharp results.


Combined with the improvements in high ISO, I think Panasonic have produced a improved sensor here.

I normally treat new camera press releases with a large amount of skepticism. However I dug out the one for the GX1. I guess if I had read it at the time I would have regarded it as the same old BS, but it seems, on this occasion at least, there's actually some substance to it.



Now I'm not going to pretend that I understand most of that, but it sure sounds impressive!! I am however going to revise my opinion that basically stated that the GX1 was more or less a G3 in a GF1 body. The thing is, I don't remember my G3 having this level of saturation or such good highlight / shadow control. I even went back and opened up a few files to check. I was very impressed when I returned home yesterday and got the images up on my screen. I knew something was different and the files were very attractive to view, but it took a while to understand where the improvements were.

Panasonic Lumix GX1 14-42mm
Panasonic Lumix GX1 14-42mm

Panasonic Lumix GX1 14-42mm
Panasonic Lumix GX1 14-42mm

A few thoughts on the handling. Again I'm going to change something I thought. I was somewhat underwhelmed by the new handgrip, however in use its actually rather good. Someone mentioned on a forum that it looks very similar to the G3 grip, which I have stated that I found uncomfortable. However in practice it is different. Firstly its slightly larger than the G3 grip, and being rubberised and mottled, its less slippy and flimsy. Consequently what happens with prolonged use is that I don't have to grip it so hard, resulting in less discomfort.

In fact the camera handled very well overall. So much so that I can't think of anything to say about it. The whole trip went so smoothly and I was concentrating on taking the pictures so much. That usually means that I'm happy with the cameras handling and I think that is the case here.

I took out the kit lens and 14mm f/2.5 that came with the GF3 and the 20mm f/1.7 that arrived yesterday. I ended up using the kit lens most of the time, and again was somewhat surprised by how good the results were. Again proving to me that this is an improved sensor. Having said that, I have got good results from the 14-42mm in the past, as long as I keep it at f/8 and above. Its also much better at 14mm than it is at 42mm. 

I also shot some multi images that I stitched together later to see what I could squeeze out of the GX1 in terms of producing high resolution files.

Panasonic Lumix GX1 14-42mm
Panasonic Lumix GX1 14-42mm Multi image panoramic stitch

Panasonic Lumix GX1 14mm f/2.5
Panasonic Lumix GX1 14mm f/2.5 Multi image panoramic stitch

Panasonic Lumix GX1 14-42mm
Panasonic Lumix GX1 14-42mm Multi image panoramic stitch

Again I was pleased with these. After stitching together (usually 3 or 4) the images, I got quite big files, around the 100-120MB mark. My usual practice is to reduce these to take account of the softening effects of all that warping and stretching. I ended up with 60-70MB files. Easily adequate for even the most demanding of my stock libraries. I must say they also compared very well when I looked at a few native 68MB a77 files. In most cases the GX1 stitches looked sharper and also I have to say with better colour. Much as I like the results from my Sony cameras, I am bound to say that Sony's idea of colour saturation is a bit "tame" as far as I'm concerned. I always find myself increasing it in post-production. However thats just my taste, but certainly the GX1 produces files that need very little colour editing work as far as I'm concerned.

So a useful and somewhat surprising excursion with the GX1. I found that I like it, and more particularly the images it produces, more than I thought I would. Does it give me more than the G3 and E-P3 I had? Well yes I think it does. Despite all my efforts I had great trouble getting sharp yet clean files from both of those cameras. It seems much easier with the GX1, at least on this first serious outing with it. 

I will admit that how it looks was a very important factor in my buying it. As you will know I am a complete sucker for the retro rangefinder look, but it seems to be giving me more than that. The improvements I perceive are small, yet significant. If you shoot jpgs. only I doubt you would notice any difference. But as usual working with the raw files shows just what a camera is really capable of, and my experiences with the GX1 raw files shows a steady improvement in Panasonics ability to compete with larger and supposedly more capable sensors. 

This is a long way from the G1 and shows just how far this low key mirrorless / CSC / E.V.I.L revolution has come. This is now the 3rd. camera I've bought and used in recent months that produces quite wonderful images. 

Following on from the Samsung NX200 and the NEX-5n, I believe that these cameras, rather than DSLR's are setting the standards now. There's nothing I've seen in the DSLR's I've bought and used that betters the low ISO image quality from these cameras. That includes Nikon and Canon FF cameras and yes the Sony a77. The manufacturers seem to be able to let the quality of the lenses and the sensor capture come through. All the cameras I mentioned are reputed to have relatively weak anti-aliasing / low-pass filters and it does seem that sensor designers are finding ways to deal with with the issues that these filters seek to address, in different and less image damaging ways. DSLR's still seem to stick a pretty strong AA filter on regardless, probably in some kind of mistaken belief that thats what people want. 

Well I don't think I'm alone in wanting to state quite catergorically that thats not what I want. Indeed the buyers and owner of medium format digital cameras and backs don't seem to want it either, since virtually all MF cameras are AA filter free. There are even rumours that the future 36MP Nikon D800 will have an AA free option. 

 It seems strange that in order to get the image quality I want I have to use cameras that are often targetted at point and shoot upgraders, rather than a DSLR which would obviously appear to be the kind of camera most suited to my situation. However it seems that is the case. In reality it suits me very well, since these cameras are lighter, smaller and in most instances cheaper. Yes, the interchangeable lens camera is changing, and to my mind changing for the better. From what I've seen so far the GX1 is just another example of that.