The GH3 is the largest mirrorless camera we’ve laid hands on but is it ready to take on DSLR competition?
Panasonic Lumix GH3 – Features
Those familiar with the Lumix range will be aware the GH3 is the flagship model in Panasonic’s lineup. Just like the GH2 it replaces, the GH3 is equipped with a 16MP Live MOS sensor that’s been modified to provide a wide dynamic range and a 1EV gain at the high end of the sensitivity scale. The ISO range runs between 200 and 12800, however if you turn the extended ISO function on it’s possible to shoot at a setting that’s equivalent to 125-25,600.
The GH3 offers a PC socket at the top right corner of the body.
The Venus image-processing engine has also been renewed to attain high-speed and high-quality signal-to-noise processing. Without a mirror that has to flip up to allow light to pass through to the sensor, the GH3 is competent of shooting at breathtaking speeds. An impressive burst of 20 frames per second can be achieved in the Super High speed mode, provided you shoot in the JPEG format. Switching to Raw or Raw+JPEG lowers the frame rate to 6fps and when you consider some DSLRs at the same price point can’t shoot this quickly, the GH3 ticks the boxes when it comes to the speed at which it shoots. What’s more, if you require a slower continuous burst rate, 2fps and 4fps settings are also available.
The Panasonic GH3 is supported by the BGGH3 battery grip (£249).
The GH2 gained a reputation for being an excellent tool for video as well as stills, and there are now more movie formats and bit rates to meet videographer’s needs. These include full HD (1920×1080) settings at 50p, 50i, 25p and 24p. There’s the AVCHD format but also MP4 and MOV recording formats too. One of the main gripes on the GH2 was the non-standard 2.5mm mic port. The good news is that this issue has been addressed by fitting it with not one but two 3.5mm ports. These allow you to attach a microphone and a set of headphones to record audio and monitor sound simultaneously. Settings are also offered to control contrast, sharpness, saturation and noise reduction. A microphone level display can also be switched on from the motion picture menu to monitor sound.
An external microphone can be attached to the GH3’s hotshoe and plugged in to the 3.5mm microphone port at the side.
The GH3’s AF system is labeled High-Speed AF and this contrast-detect AF system supports AF tracking, face recognition as well as Touch AF where you can tap any area of the screen to instantly set your focus point. The screen measures 3in, swings out effortlessly by 180 degrees and tilts by a maximum of 270 degrees – a feature that lends itself to self-portraits as well as high or low-angled shots. The resolution of the display has been improved from 460k-dot to 614k-dot, while the viewfinder now offers an impressive 1.7million dot resolution. It offers a 100% field of view and is now the OLED type, which implies it should have a faster response rate than the GH2 with improved colour and contrast.
The GH3’s screen is the pull out Vari-angle type, however it doesn’t lie flush to the body.
Adopting the tried and tested 144-zone multi-pattern metering system as found in the G5, GH2 and GX1, the GH3 provides +/-5EV control of exposure compensation. Not one for lagging behind the times, Panasonic has also integrated Wi-Fi connectivity for the first time on any interchangeable Lumix camera. This has fast become a regular feature on the most newly launched Compact System Cameras and it not only lets you send images to mobile devices, it allows you to control your camera remotely without the need of a cable release.
While the GH3 might share a few likenesses to GH2 in terms of its features, the design is very different. For starters the GH3’s footprint is significantly larger leading to it having a chunkier handgrip that’s more akin to a DSLR. The body is more curvaceous too and the way the tactile rubber grip stretches all the way around to the rear of the camera makes it feel like you’re holding a more refined piece of kit. An added advantage of the chunky handgrip is a larger space to accommodate a bigger battery. The new rechargeable Li-ion battery now prolongs use for up to 540 shots which is an improvement on the GH2’s 340-shot stamina.
The GH3’s battery is bigger than the batteries found in previous G-Series CSC’s.
Ergonomically, there have been many changes across the body and other than the mode dial and positioning of the On/Off switch around the circumference there aren’t many similarities. Interestingly, Panasonic hasn’t opted for a single command dial to control aperture and shutter speed. There’s now a twin command dial arrangement that lets you set up exposure settings just like you would a DSLR. The independent White Balance, ISO and Exposure Compensation buttons are neatly arranged in a line for quick index finger operation, and instead of having to arch your index finger to fire the shutter it now rests more comfortably over the shutter button.
The shutter button now lies at a 45 degree angle, improving comfort and operation.
Alterations at the rear of the camera see the playback button moved to the left of the viewfinder. In its place lies a superb thumb switch to change AF mode between AFS, AFC and MF. The movie-record button has also been repositioned alongside, but the nature of the vari-angle screen and the way it sits slightly proud of the body results in your thumb touching the corner of the screen each time you record a video, but it’s not a major problem.
The AF switch at the rear of the camera is perfectly positioned for thumb operation.
Because there are so many external buttons and a Quick Menu to instantly access the most commonly used settings, you’ll find you won’t load the main menu too often. When you do though it’s very well laid out. The white text on black background is clear to read and existing Panasonic users will be familiar with the task bar layout on the left hand side.
With the 12-25mm kit lens attached to the GH3, the combination weighs 855g.
If there’s one word that’s best to describe the GH3’s build it’s superb. It’s the most robust Lumix model we’ve ever held and though the weight of the magnesium alloy die cast body could put off those that are looking for a lightweight camera, it really does contribute to a superbly balanced camera in the hand. Coupled with the 12-35mm kit lens, the combination weighs 855g. Not content by making the GH3 feel great, Panasonic’s inclusion of weather seals further enhances the build quality and sanctions it to be used in demanding shooting environments.
In use, the first obvious improvement is the GH3’s touchscreen. Rather than having to press the screen hard to change the position of the focus point, or repeatedly tap it to do what you want it to do, it’s much more responsive to a lighter touches. The responsiveness is so good that it’s now on a par with smartphone and tablet touch-screens. Caught out in a heavy downpour, we knew the weather sealing would protect the camera’s internals, but expected the droplets on the screen to play havoc with screen operation. Surprisingly it continued to work just as well as when it was dry. The other benefit of having a more responsive touch screen means you can make more accurate setting changes when using the Quick menu, plus it’s much easier to swipe through images and use pinch and zoom gestures in playback mode.
Shooting in heavy rain didn’t affect the performance of the GH3’s touch screen.
The combination of Touch-AF and a superb screen has vastly improved AF operation. AF speed lives up to our high expectations and no sooner have you half depressed the shutter button or touched any part of the display the AF beep confirms focus has been made. Coupled with a selection of Lumix lenses during our tests we experienced lightning fast lock-on speeds with little or no sign of hunting or hesitation either in single or continuous AF modes. Setting AF to AFF mode lets the camera constantly adjust focus in live view or video mode and again there weren’t any complaints to be made. Being able to flip out the screen, tap it and focus so quickly makes for a very intuitive and pleasing operational experience.
We did notice however two omissions with our review sample. In playback mode the camera would occasionally freeze – a fault that we could only put right by removing the battery before reinserting it. Despite our sample being downloaded with the latest firmware, we expect another firmware release very soon to put a fix to this. The only other criticism we had was the electronic viewfinder. It seems slightly smaller than the GH2’s and the far corners didn’t appear as sharp as the centre of the frame. We used the dioptre control to try and correct this but it didn’t seem to have any affect.
The eye sensor activates the electronic viewfinder when the camera is lifted to your eye. There is the option to switch this functionality off if you desire.
Loaded with a SanDisk Extreme Pro 8GB SDHC card and set to its fastest super-high continuous mode, the GH3 fired a very impressive 80 JPEG’s at full resolution at 20fps. You can then view these images one by one or in a succession in playback mode. Switching the file format over to Raw automatically selected the high-speed burst mode (6fps) and we rattled out an impressive 20 frames before the buffer slowed, which was one frame more than when the format was set to Raw+JPEG. Panasonic has produced the DMW-BGGH3 battery grip for the GH3 but unlike some DSLRs where it can increase the burst rate, it merely prolongs battery life up to 1000 shots.
As for the Wi-Fi functionality, you’ll need to install the Lumix Link app onto your iOS or Android device. Not only does it allow you to work remotely, but a live feed of what the camera sees is transmitted to your device with an option to shoot and even zoom when the camera is used with a power zoom lens. The layout of the app is very clear and concise. When you’d like to view images you head to the playback menu and beside this you’ll find options to setup your wireless access settings. It sounds complex but in truth it’s quick to learn. Our iPhone connected to the camera without fault and refreshed the screen feed fairly quickly as the lens was operated but didn’t allow us to fire the shutter or playback the images. Speaking with Panasonic, they admitted that the GH3’s Wi-Fi connectivity wasn’t finalised on our review sample and by the time you read this, the Wi-Fi issues we mentioned above should have been remedied and fully operational.
Tone & Exposure
We were provided with excellent exposures when we went out shooting with the GH3. The 144-zone metering system coped with tricky scenes very well and wasn’t put off by a stark contrast between bright highlights and dark shadows. Exposure was so accurate that the maximum amount of exposure compensation we dialled in was 0.7EV, but if you wanted to get creative with your exposures there’s a dedicated button on the top plate that lets you set it between -5EV and +5EV.
White Balance & Colour
With our daylight balanced lamps shining down on our Datacolor Spyder Checkr chart we were able to get a better understanding of how accurately the GH3 renders colour and White Balance. Just like the chart itself, our results between ISO 125 and 1600 were vibrant, punchy and rich in colour. There were no signs of the saturation decreasing as we increased the ISO range, that was until we reached ISO 25,600 where the colours were slightly more muted compared to those at 12,800.
Sharpness & Detail
Using a physically smaller sensor than an APS-C sized chip, the GH3 has its work cut out if it’s to compete with the larger sensors used by other CSC and DSLR manufacturers. Shooting our test chart revealed the 16MP sensor was capable of rendering 32 lines per millimeter at ISO 100 when coupled with the 45mm f/2.8 Macro Leica D Vario-Elmarit lens. While this is very impressive for a Micro FourThirds chip, APS-C sensors have scored slightly higher in the past.
We started our ISO testing by expanding the GH3’s sensitivity to its maximum 125-25,600 equivalent range. Clean, noise-free images are produced between ISO 125 and ISO 800 but as we noticed, noise begins to creep in at ISO 1600. The results at this setting and ISO 3200 are certainly useable, but if you plan on printing your images at a large size then be aware it may be visible to the naked eye. Push past ISO 6400 and noise starts to degrade image quality so try and avoid ISO 12,800 and 25,600.
Raw vs JPEG
Comparing an unprocessed Raw file up against a processed JPEG revealed subtle differences. JPEG files are slightly brighter in dark shadowed areas whereas Raw files resolve more detail in the highlights. Side by side we noticed JPEG files have fractionally more contrast applied and at 200%, in-camera sharpening was clearly obvious in JPEG files with some image noise control applied.
Value & Verdict
Operationally, the GH3 has come on a long way from the GH2. With a larger handgrip, improved arrangement of buttons, bigger battery and superb touch screen we don’t have any regrets in saying the GH3 is one of the most intuitive CSCs we’ve used.
The camera is well supported by a fine selection of lenses and there’s no less than seventeen Panasonic G-series lenses to expand the system from wide-angle 7mm lenses right through to 300mm telephoto zooms.
With Wi-Fi now built in to the camera it’s also possible to skip out the step of uploading your images to your computer before attaching them to an email or posting to social media channels. What’s more, the idea of being able to see exactly what the screen displays on your phone or tablet is fantastic and this could really catch on with wildlife photographers who like to work as discreetly and as quietly as possible.
The GH3 challenges DSLRs at a similar price point in the way it handles and operates, but what about image quality? In isolation the detail that’s resolved by the 16MP sensor is very respectable indeed and it’s not until you compare the results side-by-side with a camera that uses an APS-C sized sensor that you realise there’s fractionally less detail in the GH3’s files at 100%. The highest sensitivity setting we’d be confident of shooting at is ISO 3200 and ISO 6400 at a push with some noise reduction applied.
So getting back to our initial question of whether the GH3 is ready to take on DSLR competition, our answer to this is yes. Both photography and video is a pleasing experience with the GH3 and with a 92% overall score it comes away with a WDC Gold Award.