The Panasonic Lumix G3 breathes new life into the G-series system with a newly designed body that's 25% smaller and 10% lighter than the previous G2 release. Can this re-think revolutionise the Compact System Camera market for the better? The What Digital Camera Panasonic Lumix G3 review finds out...
Panasonic Lumix G3 review – Features
Here at What Digital Camera we’ve been lucky enough to be handed a boxed-up Panasonic Lumix G3 straight from the production line. Ahead of its summer-time release, we’ve got the full inside info on what to expect from the Panasonic G3’s release.
Almost a year on since Lumix G2 hit the shelves, the Panasonic Lumix G3 does far more than simply re-dress one or two elements. Indeed the Panasonic Lumix G3 is much more of an overhaul and introduces a whole new design: it’s 25% smaller and 10% lighter, plus benefits from the super-fast autofocus as found in the higher-spec GH2 model. The G3’s placement in the G-series lineup will see the end of the budget Lumix G10, leaving both the G2 and G3 models to run run side-by-side at initial launch.
At the core of the Panasonic Lumix G3 is a new 16MP Live MOS sensor, upping the resolution yet another step over the G2’s 12-megapixel offering. Although the G3 may have ‘the same’ resolution to that of the high-end GH2 the two sensors are quite different – the G3 doesn’t have the larger multi-aspect ratio capability of its bigger brother.
Many may question the choice to cram yet more pixels onto the sensor’s surface, particularly given the G2’s imaging limitations. However Panasonic has added a new noise elimination circuit at the sensor level for improved processing and the company’s experience in bringing top-spec image quality from the GH2 surely shows that there’s yet more to come from a Micro Four Thirds sensor.
The Panasonic Lumix G3 also features the same Venus Engine FHD (Full High Definition) as found in the GH2, capable of shooting from ISO 160-6400 at full resolution or capturing 1080i movies at 50 fields per second (60i for the US’ NTSC standard).
On the rear is a 3in, 460k-dot LCD screen, mounted on a vari-angle bracket for rotation through any angle and fitted with a touchscreen for hands-on touch sensitivity. The screen itself is the same as the G2’s, yet the holding panel has been made slimmer to fit in with the new design.
Above the screen and the G3 has a 1.44M-dot electronic viewfinder. This is large to the eye, bright and offers a 100% field of view. The viewfinder doesn’t have an eye sensor for automatic activation, however, instead requiring the LCD/EVF button to its left side to be pressed in order to toggle between screen and viewfinder.
Panasonic Lumix G3 – Design
The Panasonic Lumix G3 can boast being the smallest and lightest Compact System Camera to include a built-in viewfinder. Shaving some 25% away from the previous G2 is no small feat, but this latest design doesn’t suffer from becoming unnecessarily small. It still feels right in the hand and the grip is prominent enough for comfortable holding. Underneath its exterior is an aluminium frame that proves both tough and light, removing some 10% weight when compared to the Lumix G2.
However, with smaller size can come the odd penalty: In this instance it’s a downgrade on the battery front. A new battery was obviously necessary in order to fit the slimmer design, but its lower capacity now assumes 270 shots per charge – significantly fewer than the G2’s quoted 360 shots per charge. Throw in movie capture too and the battery will be quickly used up by avid snappers.
Secondly the smaller surface area means less hands-on controls. The drive mode and AF switches from the top of the G2 and the entirety of the AF Area mode dial have been lost in the transition to the G3’s latest design. It feels rathermore like a Lumix GF2 with a built-in electronic viewfinder in many respects.
Other small changes help to promote more ‘lifestyle’-orientated brand thinking: Panasonic has done away with its numbering system on the front of the camera, instead opting for a simple ‘G’ embelishment that shows to the front right-hand side. This is likely to be a mainstay for all future G-series models.
The Lumix G3 is also the first G-series model available in white (in the UK). This will join the more standard black finish, as well as a red option (other colours (chocolate confirmed but others to be confirmed) will be available throughout the globe, depending on various markets) and seems like a sensible choice of colour options in an ever-demanding consumer market – if a white iPhone is good enough for Apple then it looks like Panasonic could well be on the right path here.
In terms of layout the Panasonic G3 features a mode dial on top for quick access of main shooting modes, a d-pad to the rear with a display button (Fn1) above and Q.Menu button (Fn2) below. As well as a one-touch movie button there’s also a single-press iA button atop the camera to jump into the new intelligent Auto+ (iA+) mode. A rear thumbwheel doubles up as a button for main control adjustment of aperture, shutter and exposure compensation depending on selected mode. The thumbwheel feels a little taught and is rather small in rotation, meaning spinning through options can be slowed. A softer finish and slightly larger wheel would have been preferable.
The touchscreen element can override the need to use any buttons, and there’s even a touch-shutter option to focus and fire off a shot by simply pressing the desired area on the screen itself. The main issue with the touch panel, however, is its sensitivity. In a world where smartphones and tablets are coming ever-more to the fore, the type of ultra-sensitive platforms we’re used to isn’t upheld by the Lumix G3. A couple of taps and firmer presses here and there will certainly be required by comparison. Also the speed in which display screens pop up can have an ever so slight delay. Yet the touch element does introduce some great quirks: the quick menu is now user-definable as it’s possible to click and drag options in and out of its display. Clever stuff.
Panasonic Lumix G3 review – Performance
Set the Lumix G3 to work and it’s an impressive beast. Back when Micro Four Thirds was introduced in 2008 via the original Lumix G1 it was undoubtedly a great concept. A concept that, with subsequent releases and multiple manufacturers also releasing individual Compact System Camera products, has really hotted up competitively and gone from strength to strength. Sit the original G1 side-by-side with the latest G3 and they not only look like completely different cameras, the step-up in performance is quite staggering too.
It’s autofocus where true breakthroughs can been seen – the ‘light speed’ autofocus from the Lumix GH2 was the fastest contrast-detection system we’ve ever used and, hats off to Panasonic, this same system has been ported into the G3 too. In our tests, which included testing against a GH2, we found there to be no difference in terms of speed. The 0.1s response time feels almost instant and is highly accurate, subject permitting. The only shortcoming of the system, as per any contrast-detection system, is with limited contrast subjects. Block areas of white or black for example with no contrasting edge in the focus area are the most likely to kick up a problem that will cause the camera to fail to attain focus.
Not only has the G3’s focusing speed been improved, there’s also been development in the focusing types as well. While the same Face Detection, AF-Tracking, 23-Area and 1-Area options are available as per other G-series releases, a new ‘Pinpoint’ AF mode now also graces the camera. Defined by a small cross that can be dragged anywhere on the screen (or moved using the d-pad cursors) the allocated area zooms in to 100% magnification to affirm focus is made before the shot can be fired off.
But that’s not all: While all the focus modes’ of old had limited reach and were ‘bordered-off’, i.e. not all areas of the screen could attain focus, the G3 now offers edge-to-edge focusing. This means if you choose to drag the focus point to the very top left corner using a finger then it’s possible, and with the very same fast AF speed, to compose more creative and obscure shots than before. This is a great step forward that’s been lacking from the G-series until now.
It’s also with the touch sensitivity that the autofocus system can be adjusted and utilised differently. Although you don’t have to assign the G3’s focus point by dragging a finger on the screen, it truly is a super-fast way to set up a shot or to press on a moving subject to assign Subject Tracking AF.
A high speed burst mode of 4fps can capture up to seven frames before a pause, though a brief wait and the camera is available to use again. A ‘super high speed’ 20fps burst rate is also available – though this uses an electronic shutter and can only capture 4MP-sized images under greater compression.
As well as full manual control the latest intelligent Auto+ (iA+) adds easy on-screen sliders to select between Defocus Control, Brightness (exposure compensation) and Red/Blue colour cast (only these two colours, however). As per the original iA mode, iA+ also recognises the scene at hand and adjusts all settings accordingly for an optimum exposure.
However, using the G3 for an ongoing period of time and it does become rather hot in the hand. Not to the point of concern, but the outer shell does feel warm to the touch.
Panasonic Lumix G3 review – Image Quality
Panasonic G3 review: Tone & Exposure
There are the three standard exposure metering settings – evaluative, centre-weighted and spot. Exposure is generally accurate, though some scenes were towards the side of overexposed, leading towards a lean for bracketing shots.
Tones can be towards the darker side of the palette, though by default the ‘i.Dynamic’ mode gives a push to shadow areas for more equal exposure. This can be turned off or has three levels of strength as you choose.
When shooting in the iA+ mode the option to use a ‘Brightness’ slider adjusts exposure compensation but guises it under a different name. The +/-5EV compensation can be useful, plus it’s also possible to set Fn2 to become an exposure lock button which is of particular merit.
Panasonic G3 review: Colour & White Balance
Colour is rich and standout, though not to the point of looking ‘fake’.
There are also a variety of in-camera options to manipulate colour. Gone are the ‘My Color’ modes of old, replaced by new ‘Creative Control’ options – in essence the very same mode dressed up with a different name. This offers Expressive, Retro, High Key, Sepia and High Dynamic Range options and it’s even possible to shoot an original Raw shot in tandem should you want to ‘remove’ the effect after.
Photo Style is a secondary option that offers Standard, Vivid, Natural, Mono, ‘Scenery’, Portrait and Custom controls to adjust contrast, sharpness, saturation and noise reduction severity for yet more user-defined control.
White balance has all the usual presets and the Auto White Balance worked well in a variety of scenarios, including natural, fluorescent and flash lighting.
Panasonic G3 review: ISO Sensitivity & Image Noise
With 16-megapixels on that Micro Four Thirds sensor our initial assumptions were that the overall results may fall behind what the G2 achieves. However this isn’t the case. With an added noise elimination circuit at the sensor level the overall image quality is good.
From ISO 160-200 results are decent and although there is some grain-like structure to be seen throughout images it’s not to the detriment of quality. Enough detail is resolved from ISO 160-400, which then dips at ISO 800 where the JPEG processing begins to sharpen results more heavily. In studio testing ISO 1600 began to soften and break down detail, and this rose exponentially through ISO 3200-6400. The latter two also showed far more signs of colour noise seeping into the image, to the point of rendering blacks and shadow areas a little more red-tinged in colour (particularly in studio shots).
However, in real world shots, all snaps throughout the ISO range lend themselves well to a variety of settings. Now the G3 isn’t going to fight off a high-spec DSLR, but at less money than the likes of the Nikon D5100 and Canon EOS 600D, Panasonic’s offering holds up rather well.
Panasonic G3 review: Sharpness & Detail
The biggest letdown to image quality is really based on the 14-42mm lens. It lacks that pin-sharpness and close-up focusing isn’t easily within reach either. Thankfully there are plenty of other lenses out there to choose from, and we’d recommend looking into the considerable range.
Panasonic Lumix G3 review – Movie Mode
Panasonic G3 review: Movie/Video Quality
The Lumix G3 offers a 1080i movie mode, with a 50 fields per second capture and output at 25 frames per second (The US version is 1080i60 output at 30fps to correlate to the 60Hz NTSC standard). The interlaced capture format means that the even lines are captured on one sensor pass, followed by the odd lines on the next pass. In essence half the image is captured with each pass.
The G3’s sister model, the Lumix G2, offers a 720p movie mode. Here the ‘p’ designates progressive capture, i.e. that the full frame is captured in a single pass. Now, although the resolution is lower, progressive capture offers a particular benefit: reduced ‘tearing’.
To explain: Tearing can occur when fast moving subjects (or fast panning of camera) are captured in an interlaced format. As the sensor ‘sees’ subjects in two slightly moved locations with each interlaced pass (as the G3 suffers) it’s possible that the even lines may show the subject in a location that’s a few pixels different to the odd set of lines. As such, a 1080i image is inferior to a 720p capture overall and the G3 has no in-camera options to tweak resolution options to a 720p capture (only QVGA and VGA).
Theory put to one side of the moment, however, and the G3’s movie captures do look good. A high data rate (75Mbit/sec was sustained in our tests) means there’s plenty of detail on display and results are fluid in playback. True movie buffs ought to look toward the Lumix GH2 for the ultimate level of control.
Panasonic G3 review: Movie/Video Record Time
As per all European stills camera release, the G3 is only capable of capturing up to 29mins and 59secs or up to 2GB of recorded footage in a single take. At the full 1080i resolution this will max out far earlier however, as data (in Super High (SH) quality) equates to around 10MB/sec.
Panasonic G3 review: Movie/Video Focusing Modes
Movie focusing is dealt with very smoothly indeed, comprising of single (AF-S), full time (AF-C) or manual focusing options. The full-time focus is far slower and smoother than the rapid pace offered when shooting stills, but this means it’s also far more considered for movie shooting. Unlike many other Compact System Cameras and DSLRs, the G3’s movie focusing tends to glide into focus without missing the mark. This isn’t always the case for more difficult subjects, but it manifests positively in the final recording and looks all the more professional.
During capture it’s possible to flick easily between the autofocus mode, i.e. Subject Tracking, Face Priority and the like, without causing a break in capture.
Using a literal hands-on approach with the touchscreen is also one of its best uses, as the subtle focus transitions and subject targeting work very elegantly indeed.
Panasonic G3 review: Movie/Video Manual Control
Here’s where Panasonic has held back a little. Fully aware that its champion model, the GH2, is the pinnacle for movie capture, the G3 doesn’t offer much in the way of manual movie controls.
Options such as Photo Style and i.Dynamic can be set up before hand, and the same applies to metering and exposure compensation – though, oddly, the latter can’t be adjusted during capture.
Panasonic G3 review: Movie/Video Sound
In a similar vein to the limitations with manual control, the G3’s sound options are equally prescribed. By relying on its on-board stereo microphone the G3 captures high quality (16-bit, 48,000kHz) sound using Dolby Digital Creator, but fails to offer external microphone support for a more professional solution.
Value & Verdict
Panasonic Lumix G3 review – Value
The G3 with 14-42mm kit lens will retail for £629.99 – close to the G2’s original launch price. None too shabby considering all the technology on offer, and far less than the GH2’s £800 asking price (with the same 14-42mm lens). For a body only purchase, the G3 can be picked up for £549.99.
However, considering the wider Compact System Camera market and the likes of the Samsung NX11 can be picked up (if it can be found anywhere) for between £460-550, undercutting by a notable margin. There are also other more compact-style offerings including the Sony NEX-5 and Olympus E-PL2 that, although a slightly different breed without built-in viewfinders, may also hold some weight against the likes of the G2. None of these competitors can claim to be as technologically advanced or feature-packed however, so that’s surely the G3’s trump card.
Panasonic Lumix G3 review – Verdict
The Lumix G3 has a whole lot to like: it’s small (but not too miniature), neatly designed, has superb autofocus speed, a vari-angle LCD and decent built-in electronic viewfinder.
Even image quality has been slightly improved over the Lumix G2 model despite the increase in resolution. However, image quality’s not up there with the likes of the exceptional Lumix GH2 and, although the G3 has a 1080i movie mode, this too isn’t as high-spec as it could be; it’s more of a point-and-shoot mode. That said, the autofocus during capture eases into place, providing smooth transitions for excellent final clips.
The G3’s small design will appeal to many, but this has been at the expense of some of the older G-series’ external dials and switches no longer featuring on the exterior. However, the G3’s biggest issue its new battery’s lower power: smaller may be better sometimes, but not at the expense of longevity per charge. Also, considering we’re in the age of the Smartphone and surrounded by tablet fever, the G3’s touchscreen won’t feel quite as responsive as what you may be used to and come to expect. But get to grips with it and there are plenty of features boosted by its inclusion.
All in all the advances in autofocus make the G3 one super-fast, sleek-looking camera. It’s hard not to recommend and we can certainly see this being one more step towards Micro Four Thirds dominance.