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Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH3 review

CamerasReviews
8/10
, 10 Apr 2013Reviews
Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH3 review

Panasonic's G-Micro system was the first mirrorless camera system on the market, starting with the launch of the Lumix DMC-G1 back in 2008. Considering that it was breaking new ground, Panasonic got a surprisingly large number of things right with the G1. The SLR-like design meant good handling, and the specially designed Micro Four Thirds sensor and lens mount system meant compact lightweight lenses.

The design has stood up well to the tests of both time and competition, and the G-Micro system is still the best-selling mirrorless system in the world, as well as having the largest and widest range of available models. There are currently six cameras in the G-Micro system, ranging from the entry-level DMC-GF5, currently selling for around £375 with a 14-42mm zoom lens, all the way up to the flagship model, the DMC-GH3 which costs a hefty £1,200 body-only or just shy of £2,000 with a 12-25mm zoom lens. That's more expensive than a Canon EOS 7D, and not far off the price of a full-frame Nikon D600. It's easily the most expensive compact system camera on the market, so the big question has to be, can it possibly be worth the money?

Design and features

At first glance, the overall design of the GH3 doesn't look all that different from the GH2 or GH1 which preceded it, but in fact it's a very different camera. For a start, it now has a tougher weather-resistant magnesium alloy body instead of the plastic of the earlier models.

It's also significantly larger and over 100g heavier than the GH2, and feels a lot more solid, for want of a better word. Panasonic seems to have finally conceded that the Four Thirds system doesn't offer that much of a size and weight advantage over APS-C, because when you compare the GH3 to a mid-range DSLR, such as the Nikon D5200 for example, it's actually a few millimetres wider and deeper, and only five grams lighter - less than the weight of the lens cap.

Other features have also been upgraded. The viewfinder and monitor are now OLED screens; the monitor isn't particularly high resolution by current standards, a 7.6cm screen with only 614,000 dots, but the viewfinder is exceptional. It has 1,744,000 dots, and is certainly sharp enough for manual focusing, especially with automatic magnification. It's easily the best electronic viewfinder that I've seen.

Like most other high-end cameras the GH3 has a complex control layout, with five user-customisable buttons, two input wheels and a rotary bezel on the D-pad, as well as a separate dial for the drive modes and even a touchscreen interface, although that is mostly limited to AF functions. While this does provide a lot of control, if I'm honest I found it to be complicated, fiddly and un-intuitive. The D-pad isn't labelled, and the label symbols on some of the other buttons are small and hard to see in low light. One feature I was pleased to see however is a socket for connection to a studio flash system, a surprisingly rare thing these days.

The sensor is a Four Thirds Live MOS measuring 17.3 x 13.0 mm, with a final resolution of 16.05-megapixels. Unlike the previous GH models, it doesn't offer multiple aspect ratios at the same resolution; instead the 3:2, 16:9 and 1:1 ratios are cropped from the 4,608 x 3,456 4:3 ratio resolution. I have to wonder if Panasonic might regret its original decision to use the Four Thirds sensor format for its mirrorless cameras, especially since arch-rivals Samsung and Sony both went with the larger APS-C format. Having a larger sensor means lower pixel density, which usually means less noise and greater dynamic range. The GH3's 16.05-megapixel sensor has a pixel density of 71,365 pixels per square millimetre, compared to 55,021/sq. mm for Samsung's new 20.3-megapixel NX300, or 66,284/sq. mm for the 24.3-megapixel Sony SLT-A77, which both have APS-C sensors, and are both considerably cheaper than the GH3.

The GH series has always been as much about video recording as still photography and the GH3 is well equipped for both. It comes in a kit with the designed-for-video 14-140mm zoom lens, although that kit is nearly £1,600. It has built-in stereo microphones, with an external mic socket and optional clip-on stereo boom mic. It can record video in Full HD 1,920 x 1,080 resolution in multiple formats including MP4, MOV, AVCHD and AVCHD Progressive, with high data rates of up to 72Mbps. It supports time code functions for use with professional image editing software, and also features wireless control of video shooting functions. This goes some way toward explaining the high price of the GH3. This is a camera designed less for professional photography and more for professional broadcast-standard videography.

Performance

As you'd expect from a very high-spec camera like the GH3, its performance is exceptionally good. Like all the best DSLRs it can start up and take a picture in just under a second, assuming you can operate the controls fast enough. In JPEG-only mode, it has a shot-to-shot time of approximate 0.52 seconds, a speed that it can keep up for as long as you like. In Raw mode, it is a fraction slower, at 0.55 seconds, with a shooting buffer of 25 shots. After the buffer fills up it slows down to approximately 1fps, but even this is far from sluggish.

In common with all mirrorless cameras, the GH3's autofocus system is contrast-detection, but it is very fast and operates extremely well even in very low light. It is better than most contrast-detection systems at tracking moving subjects, but it's not as impressive as many DSLR phase-detection systems. The touchscreen AF point function has its uses, particularly for composing macro shots, but like most touchscreen systems on small camera monitors it's not very accurate and not a major selling point in my eyes.

The GH3 offers Wi-Fi connectivity as a selling point, and to be fair it does work well, with features such as live control, automatic backup and more. However as usual, unless you really need this as an option it's more of a gimmick, and something that you're paying extra for but will rarely use.

One particularly impressive feature is the built-in flashgun. It is very powerful, easily illuminating a large completely dark room, and can recycle from a full-power flash in less than two seconds.

Image quality

I will admit that I have always been a bit sceptical about the Four Thirds sensor format. In my opinion, it offers very little advantage in terms of size and weight over an APS-C system, while the smaller sensor size, with roughly two-thirds the surface area of an APS-C sensor, virtually guarantees lower image quality. However, the GH3 has gone some way towards changing my mind. At least in the matter of fine detail recording, the GH3 is a match for any of its immediate rivals. If you compare the sample shots accompanying this review with those of the Pentax K-01, Samsung NX200 or Sony NEX-7 you'll see what I mean. Maybe it's the superb Leica-branded lens, but the GH3 produces pin-sharp detail even on the overcast day on which I shot the samples. Dynamic range also confounds expectations and is likewise excellent, at least when shooting in raw mode. Colour saturation is a bit muted in JPEG mode, with a distinct tendency to wash out highlight colour, but again raw mode comes to the rescue, allowing rich well-saturated colours to be pulled out of the image.

The only area where the GH3 falls a few steps behind its competitors is the old small-sensor bugbear, image noise. It's by no means bad, producing noise-free shots at 800 ISO and usable images with minimal noise even at 3200 ISO, but when compared to the outstanding performance of most recent APS-C cameras it does unfortunately reveal its Achilles heel.

Verdict

The Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH3 is a very pricy camera by any standards, and compared to other mirrorless cameras it is quite breathtakingly expensive, but it does offer many toys for the money. It is exceptionally well made, with a strong weather-resistant body, and Panasonic has loaded the GH3 up with every feature it can think of, including Wi-Fi connectivity, a touchscreen interface, advanced video recording functions and more. The result is a tough and capable camera that can do practically anything you could ever want, and do it well; however it is probably more than you would ever reasonably need. Unless you have a pressing need to shoot Wi-Fi controlled full HD video outdoors in poor weather, there are cheaper cameras that offer equivalent performance and image quality for a lot less money


ISO performance

As usual these ISO test shots were taken using a table-top studio and tungsten studio lights, with tungsten white balance and +1EV exposure compensation. Below is the full frame scene at 200 ISO, the lowest setting. (Click it for the full sized version).

The images in the slideshow below are crops taken from the full size JPEG photos, shot at progressively higher ISO settings. 

f/8, 0.3 sec, 200 ISO. The image quality at the lowest ISO setting is undeniably excellent, with smooth gradients and zero noise.
f/8, 1/6th sec, 400 ISO. There's very little difference at 400 ISO, but a close look reveals a few blotches in the green area.
f/8, 1/13th sec, 800 ISO. 800 ISO produces a virtually identical result to 400.
f/8, 1/25th sec, 1600 ISO. Noise is beginning to show at 1600 ISO, with a few speckles in the green area, a roughening of texture in the red, and some loss of fine detail.
f/8, 1/50th sec, 3200 ISO. Noise is becoming a problem at 3200 ISO, but the image is still just about usable. Overall colour balance is still pretty good.
f/8, 1/100th sec, 6400 ISO. Colour reproduction is starting to break down at 6400 ISO, with widespread noise in all areas.
f/8, 1/200th sec, 12800 ISO. At the maximum ISO setting the image noise is pretty bad. You'd only use this setting in emergencies.


Detail

Here's my usual detail shot of the carved door of 10 Cathedral Close, Exeter. If you compare this picture to some of the other CSCs I've tested recently you will see why I'm impressed. The level of fine detail is outstanding. (Click it for the full sized version).


Distortion

The Leica-branded 12-35mm kit lens sold with the GH3 is an impressive performer, producing virtually no optical distortion even at its widest setting. Centre sharpness is excellent, with good contrast and detail. Corner sharpness is also very good, with no optical distortion or chromatic aberration. (Click it for the full sized version).


Dynamic range

In JPEG mode dynamic range is a bit limited, with murky shadows. (Click it for the full sized version).

Shooting in raw mode allows a lot more shadow detail to be drawn out in post-processing. (Click it for the full sized version).


Samples

Again in JPEG mode, colour rendition is a bit muted. These early spring flowers should look brighter. (Click it for the full sized version).


Shooting in raw mode and processing manually produces much richer colours. (Click it for the full sized version).


The GH3 is a good camera for general photography, although it's really a bit of an overkill in terms of features. (Click it for the full sized version).


The wide-angle 12-35mm lens is good for striking indoor shots. (Click it for the full sized version).


The flexible OLED monitor is good for capturing odd angles. This is the ceiling of Exeter cathedral, looking straight up. (Click it for the full sized version).


Specifications

Manufacturer and model

Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH3

Image sensor

17.3 x 13.0mm Live MOS, 16.05-megapixel

Max. resolution

4,608 x 3,456

Zoom

By lens

Focal length (35mm)

By lens

Maximum aperture

By lens

Shutter speeds

60 – 1/4000th + B

Autofocus

Contrast detection

Manual focus

Yes

Exposure control

P, A, S, M,

Exposure metering

144-zone multi-pattern

Image stabilisation

Power OIS available in lenses

ISO range

200 – 12,800

LCD monitor

7.6cm (3.0in) OLED, 614k dots, fully articulated

Viewfinder

OLED Live View, 1,744k dots

Flash

Pop-up, 1st/2nd curtain sync,

Drive modes

Single, continuous 20/6/4/2 fps

Image formats

JPEG, Raw

Video

Full HD 1,920 x 1,080, 60p AVCHD/MP4/MOV, manual exposure control, stereo audio

Memory card slot

SD/SDHC/SDXC

Supplied memory

N/A

Battery

1,860mAh Li-ion rechargeable

Ports

USB 2.0 hi-speed, mini HDMI Type C, stereo mic

Dimensions (W x H x D)

133.3 x 94.7 x 82.5mm

Weight (body only)

552g

Accessories

Neck strap, body cap, charger, software CD, manual

Software

PHOTOfunSTUDIO 8.5 PE / SILKYPIX Developer Studio 3.1 SE

Warranty

12 months

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