Panasonic GX7 compared to Fuji X-E2 - The faux rangefinder discussed - Part 1 Image Quality

Has the faux rangefinder, the lookaleica had it's day? Well it does seem that the small 35mm film camera look is all the rage these days with the E-M1, A7 and X-T1 leading the way. However these are the two latest offerings from Panasonic and Fuji that still use the Leica design ethic and I thought it would be interesting to compare them. I'll go on to discuss the handling and options of both cameras but first I'd like to discuss the image quality. 

Before going into this in more detail I thought that it's about time I discussed the Panasonic ISO 'discrepancy'.

The three comparison shots above illustrate my point. The GX7 and all the Panasonic cameras I've used consistently give a higher shutter speed at any given aperture and ISO setting compared to other cameras. Plus though you won't see it from the above shots processed from raw with the levels adjusted, Panasonic cameras also tend to overexpose somewhat. Now this used to get a lot of attention, but for some reason it doesn't these days. In effect what is happening is that to a greater or lesser degree, and it does vary, the ISO setting on Panasonic cameras is somewhat 'variable' with the implication that when you select an ISO setting on a Panasonic m4/3 camera that's not what you are getting. At least compared to other cameras.

Let's look at this the other way round.

As you can see the GX7 comes up with a different result with the same focal length (approximately) and in the same light. The GX7 takes the picture at ISO 800 and is slightly overexposed compared to the others. This amounts to around 2/3 stop difference. This obviously 'skews' high ISO results.

Now you should be aware that some people think Fuji X cameras do the same thing, but from my experience they give me readings I would expect. There is also the issue that the above Sony shot was taken with the LA-EA4 adapter which simulates the effect of the fixed mirror on Sony's DSLT cameras. This is supposed to loose between 1/3 and 1/2 a stop. However, I've seen a recent article by someone who took the dramatic step of removing the mirror from his a99 and doing a before and after comparison. He found that there was in fact no loss of light at all. And certainly in the tests I performed I found the Sony and the Fuji were 'in agreement' on exposure the majority of the time, so that would seem to bear that out. 

Contentious? maybe. But after years of taking pictures I can guess pretty accurately what an exposure should be and I'm always changing what my automatic metering gives me. In my film days I did use cameras without meters and I got an almost 100% success rate without ever using an external light meter. These days with my digital cameras I usually set my exposure manually unless I'm working quickly in mixed light. And in all the time I've used Panasonic cameras (and Olympus, they do it too) I've always had shutter speed / aperture / ISO readings that were somewhat better than they should be. I've just assumed that's the way it is and accepted it. I'm quite prepared to believe it's something to do with the processing and for the most part it doesn't really matter.

So having gone through all that and in the context of this comparison, I will again make the following assertion. If you are concerned about shooting at high ISO settings then the X-E2 will give you less noisy results. I would also point out that you will see this 'disparity' with all the following examples. So the ISO setting on the GX7 should be regarded with suspicion.

OK. I'll move on.

Now there would have been a time when I would have had issues with the dynamic range of m4/3. But these days, processing from raw in Photoshop or Lightroom those issues are no more. The jpgs. are a different story and I've never liked Panasonic jpgs. (or Olympus for that matter) But I really don't see any significant problem with either camera. Regarding the above picture I have to say that the Olympus 17mm lens gave an excellent account of itself with regard to sharpness wide open. This compared with the much more talked up Fuji 23mm. But then it's my experience that Fuji gear does get 'talked up' somewhat more than other systems. And yes I know that happens to m4/3 as well, but sometimes Fuji lenses in particular are ascribed 'superpowers' that they just don't have. They are consistently good lenses, but from what I see not the 'wonder optics' some would have us believe. 

In terms of sharpness and overall detail, I personally like what both cameras come up with. The issues of Fuji raw processing and Photoshop / Lightroom are well documented and I'm not going into that in depth again. However it's certainly true that you can get a sharper (but noisier) rendition from a Fuji .RAF file if you use other raw converters. And it's pretty much the case that anything other than PS / LR will do this. The GX7 raw files however work very well in the Adobe software. I've come up with my own preset and I do get some superb conversions these days at low ISO's, sharp and noiseless. However as you move up the ISO range the differences between the X-E2 and GX7 start to get more marked. The X-E2 is great up to ISO 800, really top class clean files, but the GX7 files start to look noisy very quickly after leaving the lowest ISO setting of 125. And yes the files are better than m4/3 previously produced, but neither Panasonic or Sony who have made m4/3 sensors have come up with some magic formula that puts them on a par with the best APS-C sensors.

Now it goes without saying that all of this is my opinion, though in terms of my thoughts about the ISO issue, the exif data speaks for itself. I bought both the GX7 and X-E2 cameras and I use both. So I must like what they both produce, right?. And indeed I do. It is the case that I shoot very little at anything other than low ISO's and in the case of the GX7, the lowest, but as I've written before, with the X-E2 I can increase that without any serious loss of quality and that's an advantage for me in terms of shutter speeds, apertures etc. For me, it has always been the case that m4/3 cameras are great for outdoor photography in good light, but when the light drops they start to struggle. Though the GX7 is some way on from the original G1 in terms of this, it's still no great performer in low light. Whether it's good enough for you, only you can decide. Certainly if I was doing indoor event work again, the GX7 wouldn't be my camera of choice. Nor would any m4/3 camera. 

The bottom line for me is, if I have to pick a camera that 'wins' this image quality 'competition' then it has to be the X-E2. It's just so versatile. It's capable of producing great looking images under the most difficult circumstances and I would have no hesitation at using it up to ISO 3200. Which is not something I could say about the GX7. I do in fact hesitate about using it at anything higher than ISO 400 (or in Panasonics terms around ISO 320!!) At base ISO it's a camera that produces great looking files and for that I have to say that I do prefer what it produces over the X-E2. So if it's a bright sunny day then the GX7 may well be my camera of choice, particularly when I factor in other advantages that I'll be dealing with in part 2 of this. But ultimately, unless you are happy with noisy images, pretty destructive noise reduction at high ISO's and awful jpgs. then I would suggest if you are deciding between these two cameras, you might want to have a good look at the Fuji. If you shoot a lot in low light then it really is a no-brainer, the X-E2 is far superior in terms of IQ. But if you want glossy looking sharp noise-free images with great colour at low ISO's then the GX7 is a great camera. I'm really pleased with what I've shot with it so far and whether it stays around a while or goes off to a new home, I certainly don't regret buying it. And the pictures I've taken with it are proof of how good it is. 

Ultimately it's all our own personal choice and what we want our images to look like. There are certainly issues with the GX7's output and the mindless 'see no evil, hear no evil' attitude of the brand fanboys who clog up the photographic internet with their partisan prejudices is just that, mindless. It is possible to see a camera for what it is rather than what we would like it to be and still get great results from it. And yes I'm aware that the same blinkered attitudes exist in the Fuji camp also, but as far as image quality is concerned I really have to state my preference for the X-E2. That X-Trans sensor is something special.

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N.B. to see more on the cameras and lenses featured in this post click on the relevant labels (tags and keywords) at the bottom of this post.


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