Professional photographer Jacob James takes the Panasonic GX7 on an 18-day road trip through rural Romania
Jacob James is an internationally published photographer, writer, photo educator and keynote speaker specialising in travel, humanitarian and cultural documentary photography. You can read more about his wide and varied career on his personal website.
It’s three days until my departure to Bucharest. I’m in the middle of packing and preparing my equipment for an 18-day road trip through the heartlands of rural Romania. I’d been contemplating a move to a smaller mirrorless compact system camera for a few months, but it was only now, 72 hours before departure, that I had finally got my hands on the Panasonic Lumix GX7.
I had originally planned to take the GX7 alongside my Nikon gear, but after mulling it over for a few days, I decided there was no better place than Romania to throw myself in at the deep end and learn how to get the best out of Panasonic’s micro four thirds system.
“For a cultural documentary photographer such as myself, it is up there with the best Europe has to offer.”
Romania is one of those countries that doesn’t often feature on people’s must-visit lists. In terms of tourist attractions it’s rather bland – for one thing, it doesn’t have the stunning architecture of many other European countries – so it can often be neglected. But what the country lacks in major attractions, it makes up for in buckets of character, culture and tradition.
My plan was to spend most of my 18 days there photographing some of the last remaining traditional people in Europe – a community that still makes woollen jackets for shepherds, cuts hay by hand, and transports its goods by horse and cart.
Guidebooks state that Romania, and especially Maramures in the north, is home to some of the last remaining medieval-esque peasant cultures in Europe. For a cultural documentary photographer such as myself, it is up there with the best Europe has to offer.
Lightening the Load
It’s a reasonably short flight to Bucharest from London and so, after our early morning departure, we arrived in the Romanian capital just before lunchtime; a quick stop to collect the bags from the carousel and I’m off to meet up with my fixer, Paul.
The first thing I notice about my new Panasonic system is how much lighter it is. With my bag jammed full with the GX7, GH3, GH4 and five lenses, it is still around half the weight of my equivalent Nikon gear.
The saving of 2-3kg might not seem much, but when you have to get it through the ever-decreasing luggage allowance restrictions on budget airlines, it can be easy to find yourself cutting it tight and often exceeding the limits. For the first time ever, for this trip I have somehow squeezed the whole of my bulging gear bag under Ryanair’s 10kg restriction.
“…it becomes immediately apparent how much less intimidating the GX7 is.”
After a quick discussion with Paul about the plans for the day, we jump into our hire car and hit the road, heading towards a large Roma settlement outside Bucharest that Paul has visited in the past. This is going to be my first real day of shooting with the GX7 and so, as with anything new, I’m expecting a bit of a learning curve to get into the swing of shooting.
I’m an all-or-nothing kind of guy, so taking it easy on day one was never on my mind. Two hours after my plane touches down on the tarmac, I’m already photographing in the home of an elderly Roma man. I’m always cautious of rushing into a stranger’s house with a bag full of gear and a translator, trying to shoot, but it becomes immediately apparent how much less intimidating the GX7 is. My subject is comfortable with me shooting almost immediately, which makes my job so much easier.
My normal shooting routine when I see something interesting is to ask the subject politely to continue doing whatever they were doing when they caught my eye. With a DSLR, this normally works for a shot or two until my subject becomes camera shy from the ‘clunk-click-clunk-click’ as the mirror in the camera flops up and down.
As I start to photograph the elderly gentleman using the GX7, I realise that while playing around with the settings during my flight, I had inadvertently left the camera in silent mode. This happy accident works in my favour, as I notice the camera is now much less distracting for my subject.
“…the thought suddenly hits me that I can use the built-in EVF to review all my images.”
As I make some portraits against a window, I begin to realise just how useful combining the live histogram feature with the live view of the EVF really is. Having used an optical viewfinder since day one, I have been secretly hesitant about EVFs without actually trying one out in anger.
But now I’m finding that nailing the exposure is a breeze, and I’m consistently getting it spot on – even before firing the shutter. This is really helpful when you are in a situation like this, where trying to explain test exposures to my subject through a translator is likely to be pointless.
After I have made a few portraits, I say my thanks and leave my subject to get on with the rest of his day. Moving through the Roma settlement, I find myself in a familiar scenario. It is the middle of day and the sun is bright and high in the sky. As I try to review my images, I’m struggling to see any real detail on the rear LCD. This isn’t a GX7-specific problem, but one that affects pretty much every camera LCD I’ve ever used.
Then the thought suddenly hits me that I can use the built-in EVF to review all my images. As a result, I am no longer struggling to see the images clearly on the rear LCD; instead I am able to easily zoom in and critically check focus almost instantly, even in the brightest of Romanian midday light. This electric viewfinder is suddenly starting to make sense to me.
Before I left for Romania, I spent many months researching the Micro Four Thirds format. While browsing internet forums and photography websites, there were two main pre-conceptions about micro four thirds that I kept hearing as reasons not to buy into the system. Firstly, many people believe that small sensors are, firstly, poor in low light, and secondly, unable to record decent bokeh. It isn’t until exactly one week into my trip that I get to really test these theories out.
When the opportunity arises, we are driving back along the winding mountain roads towards our hotel after a great day’s shooting. The sun has set and the ambient light is almost completely gone. As we round a sharp hairpin bend, I see a flame in the distance.
“As I carry on shooting, the GX7 never misses a beat…”
Upon our approach, it is clear to see that we have happened upon a community of nomadic Roma – quite a rare sight in an age where rural Romanians are building houses left, right and centre. However, if I want to take any pictures, then the only light source available is the small dwindling fire around which my hosts are seated. I look down at my exposure and it’s not an encouraging sight – even at f/1.6, I’m struggling to get 1/20sec at ISO 12,800.
I start photographing, but almost immediately something surprises me. My Nikon D7000 has very poor AF in low light so I’m used to a lot of hunting and misfocusing – in fact, I’m expecting it. But as I depress the shutter button, the AF kicks into life and locks onto my subject’s eye almost immediately. Wow! As I carry on shooting, the GX7 never misses a beat, and is accurate even in the harshest of conditions. The AF is not the fastest with moving subjects, but for semi-static and static subjects, the speed and accuracy are on a whole new level to what I am used to. Even in almost non-existent light, it nails focus every time. You can’t ask much more than that.
High ISO, High Performance
After spending the evening with the Roma, I’m packed up and back relaxing in my hotel. I begin to flick through my images from the night, having already resigned myself to the fact that the shots aren’t going to be of great quality.
As I start to look through the images closely, I’m surprised to see really clean files that actually look better than those from my larger Nikon, at the same ISO.
Amazingly, the images shot at ISO 12,800, lit with just the dying embers of a fire, are not just usable but quite impressive. I didn’t expect that kind of performance from a small-sensor camera.
In the morning, we head back to the nomads to try to get some images in better light. Many of the children have striking blond hair that really stands out against their slightly dishevelled appearances.
No Compromise on Depth of Field
I decide to grab the Nocticron 42.5mm f/1.2 lens and begin to make some portraits. At f/1.2 I can get some really nice shallow depth of field that accentuates my subjects’ eyes. In comparison to larger-sensor systems, it’s true that at the same apertures there will be much less depth of field from an APS-C or full-frame sensor. There is absolutely nothing you can do about that – it’s physics.
However, in real-world situations, I find that at f/1.2 it’s very easy to get a nice shallow depth of field and, as I don’t know if I have ever purposely shot with ultra-shallow depth of field, f/1.2 on Micro Four Thirds seems to give me a good result that covers my needs.
The underestimated benefit of having a little more depth of field at apertures such as f/1.2 and f/1.4 is that when shooting in low light, you have a much more usable field of focus. This is great when you are shooting images in almost non-existent light.
As my trip draws to a close, I start to think about how my photography has changed over the last 18 days. The one unexpected benefit of bringing the GX7 along was the enjoyment factor I have got from using it.
“It just works and allows you to concentrate on making the images you want to make.”
For the first time in recent memory, I was excited to get out and shoot with a particular camera. I’ve thought long and hard about why this may be, but I can’t pin it down on any particular feature.
It’s more of an overall user experience that makes creating images exciting. It’s lightweight, so I’m not worried about carrying it around, and it’s discreet, so I’m not intimidating my subjects. Plus, it shoots great images so I’m not compromising image quality in any way. It just works and allows you to concentrate on making the images you want to make.
I don’t want to wax lyrical about how this camera is the best I have ever used, because that wouldn’t really prove much to anyone else. I’m not a prolific gear hoarder and I’m fairly simple in my requirements from a camera. I just want something that will allow me to concentrate on creating the image and not take up my time working around a set of compromises.
With the GX7, I no longer have to worry about exposure because the information is right in front of my face; I no longer have to worry about AF because, for my subject matter, it nails it every time; and low light noise is good, which means I can comfortably shoot in most lighting conditions. Having a camera that takes a back seat, remains discreet and silent, and which allows me to get on and shoot is like a breath of fresh air.
‘If you are shooting high-end studio stuff I doubt it will be the camera for you, and neither will it be if wildlife is your gig”
It certainly isn’t the lightest camera, or the fastest, and it doesn’t have the best image quality – and certainly not the best ISO performance – but it is one hell of an all-rounder that I can see myself using for some time.
It’s not going to be the camera for everyone. If you are shooting high-end studio stuff I doubt it will be the camera for you, and neither will it be if wildlife is your gig – but if street or travel photography is your thing, I wholeheartedly recommend giving it a go.
The discreetness of the GX7 is something I have come to value a lot. Its retro rangefinder styling gives it a much thinner and less hefty profile compared to a classic DSLR-style camera. The ability to switch the camera into silent mode using the electronic shutter makes shooting images of people, for candid street work or even with their permission, much easier.
The only downside to the electronic shutter for me is that you can occasionally experience banding when you shoot under artificial lighting. I don’t shoot all that much indoors in places with much artificial lighting, but it’s something to be aware of if you ever find yourself in that scenario. You can also set many of the main functions to the ‘Fn’ touchscreen menu, which means that you can change these settings without clicking a physical button, again enhancing the discreetness of this camera.
The tiltable LCD makes it easy to shoot from the hip while out on the street. By tilting the screen so it’s facing upwards, at 90° from its original position, allows you to shoot and occasionally glance at the screen to check composition. This isn’t the classic method of shooting from the hip, but when combined with the silent shutter, I find it works really well because most people are still very oblivious to the camera’s presence.
You can read more about the GX7 in our Panasonic GX7 review
Panasonic GX7 Key Specs
Tiltable electronic viewfinder
One of the interesting features of the Panasonic Lumix DMC-GX7 is that it was the first to feature a tiltable EVF. With a resolution of 2.76 million dots, the GX7’s EVF is bright and clear. In addition, it boasts field sequential technology rather than the OLED technology used by many other EVFs.
This benefits the camera by allowing approximately 100% of the Adobe RGB gamut to be previewed, but it also suffers the disadvantage that it has a slower refresh rate compared to OLED.
This offers quick access to a selection of the GX7’s main shooting controls.
Manually activated via a switch on the body, the pop-up flash on the GX7 offers a guide number of 5m @ ISO 100.
This versatile tool is accessed via the menu, and allows the highlights and shadows in your shot to be independently adjusted, while also offering selection presets.
The capacitive-type touch display delivers one of the best user experiences we’ve had from a touchscreen-based CSC, with only light touches and gestures required.
One of the few arrangements to be carried over from the GX1, offering hard-wired access to ISO, AF, drive and white balance, with a menu/set button at the centre.