Thursday, 23 July 2015

Lumix GX8

Panasonic recently released the Lumix GX8. So what is it all about?

The Lumix GX7 was a ground breaking camera. The first from Panasonic to feature in-body image stabilization (IBIS) through moving sensor, and the first to have a "rangefinder layout", with the eye level viewfinder on the top left side. The Lumix GX8 is essentially the same camera, but brings the specifications up to date, and becomes the first Micro Four Thirds camera with a 20 megapixel resolution.

CameraLumix GX7Lumix GX8
AnnouncedAug 1st, 2013July 16th, 2015
PriceUS$650 incl lensUS$1200 body only
Flash X-sync1/320s1/250s
Max shutter speed1/8000s1/8000s (mechanical), 1/16000s (electronic)
Resolution4592 x 3448 (16MP)5184 x 3888 (20MP)
Max video resolution1080p4k
Built in flashYesNo
Weight402g487g
Dimensions (mm)123 x 71 x 55133 x 78 x 63
In-body image stabilization (IBIS)YesYes



Camera body


The original GX7 is a quite big and heavy camera, and the GX8 becomes even bigger. However, it grows to give room for better ergonomics, which I think is a good choice. While the GX7 has an oddly shaped and not very useful front grip, the GX8 has a proper grip which gives much better handle on the camera. It also gains a fully articulated LCD screen (which is actually based on OLED technology), and the camera becomes weather protected.


Eye level viewfinder (EVF)


This camera has both an articulated OLED viewfinder screen, and an electronic eye level viewfinder (EVF). There is a sensor which detects when you want to use the EVF, and automatically switches between the two. Compared with the GX7, the GX8 has a higher eyepoint, which essentially means that you can see the whole image frame from a bigger distance, a plus for people who wear glasses.

One reason for using the EVF is bright light: On a sunny day, you may find that it hard to see anything at all on the rear screen. However, for the EVF to be any better, it has to be protected by some rubber cover to keep the sun out. Here is an illustration showing the difference between then Lumix GH4 EVF (bottom) and Lumix GX7 EVF (top, the GX8 has the same design):


As you see, the GX7 (and GX8) has a much smaller viewfinder cover, which makes it less useful on a bright, sunny day.

And, just like the GX7, the GX8 also has a tilting EVF. Sure, I can see that this can be useful some times. But it is hardly a feature which has been in very high demand.

Some enthusiasts crave rangefinder style cameras with the EVF on the left side. This style is often associated with classic Leica M cameras.

However, real coupled rangefinder cameras like the Leica M have the viewfinder on the left side for a reason: The rangefinder mechanism, which is very complicated and requires skilled calibration to work, relies on being placed at some horizontal distance from the window which extracts the depth information. Hence, it needs to be placed on the side of the camera for the "rangefinder base distance" to be sufficient, see this illustration:


When looking in the viewfinder of a classic rangefinder camera, there is a centre split image you can use as a focus assist: Overlap the images, and the object is reasonably in focus:


Modern cameras like the Lumix GX8 of course have autofocus, and this type of split image focus assist is not relevant anymore.

Reasons for preferring the left side viewfinder, even when it is not technically needed as in the old days, are typically:

  • When using the right eye to look into a rangefinder style viewfinder, you can keep the left eye open to see the surroundings at the same time. However, this is also possible with all SLR style cameras I have tried. I have not yet used a centre viewfinder camera which is so bulky that you cannot see over the left shoulder of the camera body with the left eye.
  • With a rangefinder camera, you don't need to press the camera body into your nose. I can agree that nose smear on the LCD screen can be annoying, but on the other hand, being able to press the camera towards your face gives a more stable position, good for taking sharp images or recording a stable video clip.

Anyway, the rangefinder style looks like classic Leica M rangefinder cameras. So you often find this style among expensive cameras with a premium ambition, e.g., the Fujifilm X-Pro 1 and Fujifilm X100.

Clearly, this is not the camera to go for if you want the smallest possible kit. That would be the Lumix GM5. But given that you want a rangefinder style camera with good ergonomics, the new body style of the GX8 will be a better match for most users.

20MP resolution


The Lumix GX8 will be the first to feature the new 20 megapixel resolution Four Thirds sensor. Most likely, this is the sensor announced by Sony in April. I would have guessed that the sensor would first be seen in a Mark II of the Olympus E-M1, due for an upgrade soon, given Sony's closer cooperation with Olympus.

The sensor is quoted to have a maximum framerate of 27FPS for the full sensor readout. As only the 16:9 crop, 75% of the whole sensor area, is used for 4K video, it sounds likely that this sensor is capable of delivering 4K video of up to 30FPS, as would be required by a new premium camera today. But it sounds like the sensor would be quite prone to rolling shutter artifacts in 4K mode, with this readout speed.

Is 20MP enough in todays market? Sadly, I think the answer is no. Most competitors are now up to 24MP resolution. One could argue that the Lumix GX8 market segment are more knowledgeable enthusiasts, who may think that a high resolution is not that important. But still, with most cameras still at 16MP resolution, Micro Four Thirds is clearly at a disadvantage. The huge lens lineup of M4/3 is an advantage, but to a consumer visiting the store, this is not so easy to see.

Are you going to notice any significant difference when going from 16MP to 20MP? This corresponds to 25% increase in resolution, and conventional thinking says that this is sufficient to be noticeable. But you should not expect any huge improvement. It corresponds to an extra 450 pixels of vertical resolution, so no big deal.

And are the lenses up to the task of rendering details at 20MP? I have tested a number of Lumix kit zoom lenses using the high resolution mode of the Olympus E-M5 Mark II here. This shows that newer kit zoom lenses are indeed up to the task. Avoid the first version of the Lumix G 14-140mm superzoom lens, as the second is much better (see a comparison here). If you want a compact zoom lens, avoid the Lumix PZ 14-42mm pancake, as it is not very good optically. Rather, go for the newer Lumix G 12-32mm f/3.5-5.6, which is much better.

Most Micro Four Thirds lenses will handle the 20MP resolution just fine.

Video


As you would expect from a premium camera today, the Lumix GX8 of course has 4K video. Unlike the Lumix GH4 (my review) it uses the whole sensor (in 16:9 crop) for the 4K video. The GH4, in the other hand, only does so at a 1.3x crop, which is of course a disadvantage. The illustration shows the GH4 4K recording area (red/blue), and the GX8 4K recording area (yellow):


Still, the GH4 does trump the Lumix GX8 in one area: It can record video at both PAL and NTSC framerates (25/50 FPS and 30/60 FPS). This mode switching is quite useful. For example, even if my Lumix GH4 is a PAL version camera, I mostly use it in 30 or 60 FPS. This is to match the framerates of my other cameras, which tend to only support 30/60 FPS, even if they are bought in Europe (Nikon and Olympus).

4K Photo


Just like all other recent Panasonic cameras, the Lumix GX8 has the 4K Photo mode. Read more about the 4K Photo mode here.

In essence, this mode aims to change the way we photograph. Rather than taking one single exposure, using the 4K Photo mode, the camera will capture a stream of 4K resolution video frames, about 8MP each, at 25 or 30 FPS, depending on it being a PAL or NTSC area camera. You can then later go through this stream of images, and select the one you like. Or you can use it as video.

The downside is of course the lower resolution, only 8MP, rather than 20MP in photo mode. Also, you lose the opportunity to use the RAW image file, which would have provided better adjustment possibilities later. If you need to change the white balance later, this is much easier with a RAW file.

Image stabilization


With the Lumix GX7, you had to decide which stabilization technique to use: In-body image stabilization (IBIS) or optical image stabilization (OIS). The Lumix GX8 can use both at the same time, for the best effect, especially with tele lenses.

However, this is only possible when using Panasonic brand lenses with OIS, after a future firmware upgrade. Some older lenses are not going to be compatible with this combined stabilization mode: The Lumix G 14-45mm f/3.5-5.6, Lumix G 45-200mm f/4-5.6, and Lumix G 100-300mm f/4-5.6. The lens firmware upgrades, needed to support this feature, will be rolled out until February 2016.

It remains to be seen if this provides a significant real life improvement. So far, Panasonic cites that it will improve the effectiveness of long lenses, especially.

Olympus has come a long way with their in-body image stabilization, which has a staggering effect during video recording. See a comparison here. I doubt that the Panasonic system will give you this level of stabilization.

Conclusion


The Lumix GX7 was already a big and heavy camera, and the GX8 becomes even larger. To get a size advantage, you need to take into consideration the generally smaller size of M4/3 lenses, compared with lenses for competing APS-C sensor cameras.

It does gain significant upgrades in features and resolution, but is it really worth the premium price point? I guess this comes down to your preferences. If you like the rangefinder layout, and are mostly into photography, then it does make sense. If you are into video, then the Lumix GH4 still has better features and more options.

And if you are not into the "rangefinder look", you can go for the more competitively priced Lumix G7, which has almost all the features of the GX8, bar the 20MP sensor, and the in-body image stabilization, in a more compact body, still retaining a good ergonomics.

The older Lumix GX7 is still a good camera, and can be gotten at a good price now. Again, for those who like the rangefinder layout and don't care about the 4k video, this is still a good deal. Image quality wise, the GX7, while two years old now, is still close to state of the art for Micro Four Thirds cameras. The development has not gone very fast recently in this area.

At the asking price, the Lumix GX8 is not an easy sell. It is close to that of the Sony A7 series, and then you get a full frame camera, at a similar size. It is only when you start adding lenses, that the Sony system will be significantly larger.

Staying with Sony, there is also the Sony a6000, which also has a rangefinder layout, similar to that of the Lumix GX8, but at half the price. The Sony a6000 has a 24MP APS-C sized sensor, which is very good, and most likely superior to that in the Lumix GX8. In terms of video, though, I would say the GX8 is probably better. On the negative side, the a6000 has an eye level viewfinder which is not so good, and the 16-50mm power zoom kit lens is inadequate, see my test here.

13 comments:

  1. Slightly off topic, but your review reminded me of it. My left eye is dominant - it's the one I use for preference. I would dearly love a camera with the viewfinder on the right side. How hard would it be to build a camera with hotshoes on both sides? Then an external EVF could be placed to suit me, and easily swapped back to suit the majority.

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    1. There are some cameras which have a user optional EVF with a specialized hot shoe, e.g., the Nikon 1 V3 and Lumix GX1.

      I don't think it would be difficult to make a camera with one EVF hot shoe on either side. But this would be a niche option with a very small market, so I think it is very unrealistic that such a camera would materialize.

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    2. I have read that more than 1/3 of us are left-eye dominant. That surprised me, but if it's true we are hardly a niche market.

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    3. But keep in mind that those who want an EVF are already a small niche nowadays. Most people want to use the rear screen only. When I see DSLR carrying tourists, they often use the camera in live view mode only, not looking through the optical viewfinder at all.

      Which camera style do you think fits you best, with your left eye dominance?

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    4. The GX7 is pretty good. I can raise the EVF to stop my nose rubbing the rear screen. The Olympus Pen range with add-on EVFs are good for the same reason. For me the only reason for not having an EVF or optical viewfinder would be compactness. It's just too difficult to use the rear screen in bright sunlight.

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    5. Good to hear that the tilting EVF feature of the GX7 is useful. It puzzled me previously, how this feature was supposed to be used.

      I agree that an eye level viewfinder is important. Without one, the camera feels more like a toy to me. But I can see that I may be in a minority here: Most people are happy to use the rear screen only.

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    6. David, I don't know your reason for liking the tilting screen but for me it allows me to tilt it horizontal to the ground and use the camera at waist level like a Rolleiflex tensioning the camera strap to stabilize the camera - almost as good as a monopod - and allowing me to shoot pretty freely in the street and not attract the attention of those who just don't recognize the twin lens reflex shooting stance. I suspect they think I am fiddling with the knobs. I have the first OM-D EM5 and am curious about the new EM10 Mark II because it retains the tilt screen rather than the videocentric articulated screens which I do not want. At 72 my eyes are bad enough that I can't really compose on the back of the camera at eye level but the waist level gets me far enough away from the image to see it whole. I can see a critical moment on the street and capture it. For more critical composition in landscape work I can see through the EVF clearly if I get the diopter setting right with my multifocals. Without autofocus I'd have to give up photography.

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  2. It almost sounds like you think the M43-system is doomed Fredrik! Should we switch to Sony A7II R...

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    Replies
    1. No, but I think the GX8 is a tough sell at the asking price. It will be popular among some few enthusiasts only. For many, it will be hard to understand why it is worth twice that of the Sony A6000, for example.

      The lower end of the market is also a tough sell, as the megapixel resolution is more important here, and the customers don't easily see the advantage of the large lens catalogue.

      Sony A7 will probably give a better image quality, but it is not the right answer for everyone, as the kit size, with lenses, is rather big.

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    2. And the A7 II is even worse. I had that camera, with the 55mm f1.8 and 24-70mm zooms and the kit was huge and heavy. Tried the 70-200mm zoom and that was just enormous. I had kept my E-P2 as a backup and ended up using it more than the A7 II, so I sold it and now am enjoying my E-P5 with a large number of lens and still have a kit which is lighter and more portable, so I can take it along more often, because if you don't have the camera with you, you can't get the picture...

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  3. Ja til en pris på 13 000 (yiiikes) for kroppen er det mer en det dobbelta av hva du får en gx7 med kit objektiv for. Snakk om å prise seg ut av markedet.

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  5. “However, real coupled rangefinder cameras like the Leica M have the viewfinder on the left side for a reason:[…]”

    Of course real SLR/DSLR cameras like the Canon EOS 5D Mk III have the viewfinder directly above the lens for a reason too: the pentaprism and mirror box assembly rely on a relatively short, straightforward, uninterrupted path from the lens through the mirror and prism setup to the viewfinder. This need for locating the viewfinder above the lens in a trapezoidal, pyramid like structure is no longer present in mirrorless cameras. That is also a retro design.

    “With a rangefinder camera, you don't need to press the camera body into your nose. I can agree that nose smear on the LCD screen can be annoying, but on the other hand, being able to press the camera towards your face gives a more stable position, good for taking sharp images or recording a stable video clip.“

    I don't have much trouble shooting stable video with the rangefinder style GX7 the way I hold it, and I wouldn't be quite so dismissive of the idea that it's nice not to constantly smear up the back display and occasionally activating touch controls (though the GX7 can turn off the display and touch controls when using the viewfinder) with your nose.

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