Panasonic Lumix GH3 Review

No! I definitely won't start this review by mentioning the GH3's most obvious rival, it'll remain the elephant in the room for a good few paragraphs yet. Instead I'll lead off by saying that without a clear view of the branding this could easily pass for an SLR from one of the big two... briefly at least. There are the obvious cues like tall slopey shouldered dials and vast areas of textured black. It's not long before you'll be suspicious though because something is clearly afoot. Although it's smaller than their entry level models this is very clearly a top tier shooter.

The GH3 isn't small, at all. It is built to be handled, held and used. It's for people who want a bigger, more stable platform, especially for larger lenses and adds a bucket load of video on top. This flagship is Pro grade and no nonsense pushing Lumix higher up the market than ever before. It isn't light either, this is a magnesium bodied SLR killer and there's no tricksy retro styling here! Panasonic are gunning for SLR buyers as much as mirrorless converts. It is built like a tank, as is the lovely f2.8 12-35mm kit lens it came with (covered in a separate review).

Look at that body

Your average SLR owner could even pick it up and still not guess it's mirrorless... that move would however banish any lingering doubt that it was any plastic fantastic mid market reflex model. The GH3 is rock solid, metal heavy and deeply contoured – in camera conkers it's got winner written all over it. The body is magnesium alloy and it's Panasonic's first splash and dust proof G series. In every respect it appears to match big SLR sealing, to me it stops short of the best as the card door is very easy to open and not obviously protected. It's much bigger and better built than the GH2 – or any other G Series for that matter.

Wearing the 35-100mm X lens in a wintery wonderland

The biggest top tier clue is the very generous helping of direct access controls. Those controls are positive, almost to the point of being a test of manliness. The power switch is particularly resistant to accidental movement. That's a good thing, but it doesn't have the delicious tactility of some – no I still won't mention it by name! The body is studded with a total of 25 external controls in a pretty logical fashion and it doesn't stop there as the excellent twist and flip rear OLED is a multi-touchscreen which adds a further four virtual buttons - as well as focus point positioning. As if that wouldn't keep you happy, 7 of the buttons can also be reprogrammed to taste (5 physical and 2 touchscreen). Unusually the REC button can't be re-assigned, because they really, really don't want anything standing in the way of cinematographers. On the other hand the shooting menu (Q Menu) button can be re-assigned which strikes me as an odd thing to do, although I applaud the choice being offered.

There's an impressive array of rubber covers over a great suite of connectors. In these you start to see the strong video feature set which has always been a cornerstone of the GH range. Mic, headphone and live HDMI (for an external recorder) all testify to serious movie intent. If the very fibre of the GH3 is willing you to shoot video then the rattly, triangular strap rings are nothing but incongruous. They're at least sited to avoid interfering with your grip. Because this is a mirrorless body you can shoot video with the viewfinder or the swinging, twisting rear screen. When the viewfinder reaches your eye the magic of an SLM* kicks in. The screen is live with the current colour balance while surrounded and overlaid by your selection from a huge choice of information. You get your shot review brought to your eye as well of course. A lot of SLR users will quickly see the advantages of that – no more incandescent white balanced shots of the kids feeding the ducks!

* I'm trying SLM (for Single Lens Mirrorless) instead of mirrorless, what do you think?

Running away from the setting sun. 12-35mm

Dial me in

There are three dials which should share the jobs out but too often they're dormant. In P, and other Auto modes, none of them do anything without a button prod – not even exposure or shift. For me the arrangement of the Q.Menu is also an acquired taste. When it's active the choices run along both the top and bottom of the screen and to enter the parameters you have to move down from the top or up from the bottom – a jarring swap of orientation. Oh, and of course you can choose to have a 'dead' rear status screen' a la Canikon which doesn't response to any of the dials or pad until roused by a sweeping finger when all the dials and the pad will all act on it. It feels as though several teams worked on different parts of the user interface – without ever talking to each other!

Direct access to shooting settings AF here and burst on the shoulder

There's plenty to do in the menus and its pretty quick to get around but, if I had another whinge, they are in the prevailing fashion broken down to into few broad headings (camera, custom, system) with the parameters dumped in no real order within a total of 28 pages. It's a bug bear of mine that  Olympus often take a bleating for their menus but by adding another level to their extensive tuning options those can be sorted by heading then type so you can actually find focus functions, lens parameters or flash settings when you need them.  I think almost everyone despairs at some point when trudging through vast, unfamiliar menus and like you I dream of an imminent breakthrough that lets us navigate huge choices easily. In the meantime if you want exciting gear you'll just going to have to learn to use it... life is so hard! With all the processor muscle inside the only thing which seems a little tardy is the response to powering off. It looks as though it takes the time to tidy up after itself.

Movie News

SLRs have won a niche for low end 'film' but what suits someone aiming for Sundance may not suit the busy news gathering, wildlife shooting or family history man. Designed from the ground up as video AND stills cameras the GH Panasonics don't oblige you to load up with kludges and widgets...lens rails, gears and motors, or of course a loupe to make the rear screen into an eye piece. All are great in their place for staged, planned shooting but the GH3 can just shoot – like a really good camcorder. Being mirrorless means it will work as you'd expect it to, right from the box.

Even if the menu layout wasn't to my liking I can't pretend that I didn't almost wet myself when I found the video pages (remember I'm not familiar with the other GHs). These are clear, comprehensive and thrilling (sad I know). For long, sad years video has been relegated to the dank cellar of configuration. On the GH3 it has a tab to itself with four (and a bit) sub pages. So far, so what? Within those choices the recording formats are presented without shame or fear that a user will faint at the sight of jargon. It's as though having reached this hallowed sanctum you can be trusted to remain continent as the choice of FullHD (1080P and I) and 720P resolutions at frame rates up to 60 per second (as well as 24,25,30 and 50) are revealed. Not only that, Panasonic aren't shy of telling you what the bit rate will be (up to 72Mbit/s), which compression structure is used and will also let you choose the file format you prefer - MP4, AVCHD or MOV. Be warned, high rate AVCHD crippled my laptop and defeated most of the editing software I had. The bigger and faster the video you shoot the bigger and better your computer needs to be! Panasonic's heritage shows in the quality of the video codec though which is, bit for bit, just about the best. The EM-5 has a better image stabiliser so honours are fairly even. Victory goes to the GH3 for users who take the trouble to hold themselves steady.

The next James Cameron's sharp eyes might have noticed the 60P option. Panasonic (and Sony) are video to the core and have offered this ahead of Canon and Nikon who don't yet do so at the top end. 60P isn't just for fast moving subjects – most obviously sport – but also gives you the latitude to slow down to match a 'normal' 24 or 25fps dramatic production.

Hacked off – take note!

I should mention in that fresh from the box no 'stills camera' in Europe can shoot long durations. An arcane import tax on camcorder imports dating from the 80s can be avoided by limiting recording to less than 30 minutes. Now that's a tax choice I'd like to make myself, it irks to have my technology crippled by bureaucrats!

Shooting range

The GH3 feels great as you grab it to run for the door. The deep right hand grip and thumbpad make for a very positive handhold. Textured rubber coats most of the right hand side too. Big enough to be secure but no bigger than it needs to be. It has the same faithful hand tool comfort that my E-3 has (and I guess others will recognise it from their workhorse SLRs). It fills a hand's comfortable grip making for less fatigue if it'll be there all day. If you felt the E-M5 asked you to commit to too much squeezing here is your dream camera – it was a neat fit for my small but exquisitely wiry paws. What sets it aside from equivalent SLRs is the lack of overhang. There is no acre of body jutting beyond your hand. The weatherproof battery grip adds more size if you want it and portrait controls too.

The deep grip is well judged, the battery grip connector is normally covered

Focus is fast. From the off I reckoned the body was as fast as the OM-D but that the X lenses weren't quite as rapid as the latest MSC m.Zuiko glass. That gut instinct was right, with the Olympus 12-50mm focus is nigh on instantaneous – really, really fast. That may be because the speed of MSC is in part due to very light elements and the f2.8 X series pair I had to play with aren't light at all. These impressive f2.8 X lenses – 12-35mm and 35-100mm – cover the old school classic ranges 24-70mm and 70-200mm. I'm here to cover the camera but luckily for you I've been given more space to cover them properly elsewhere - so I won't say more here.

All the talk about video may give the impression that stills are a sideshow, don't believe that. In quality and character the GH3 is impressive with the one chink in its armour being a very, slightly less pleasing JPEG engine than the EM-5 which is often ranked as a yardstick. If you shot and process RAW then that look is yours to ape, ignore or improve upon – as many no doubt intend to.

Does my body look big on this

One downside of the SLR sized body is that some of the cute m43 primes look a wee bit tiny. The dark grey 14mm pancake looks miniscule and the silver 45mm looks like a laboratory attachment - which has no bearing on how well they work. Of course the converse is true if you mount a full size 4/3 lens and the GH3 proved a good match for my 1kg Zuiko 50-200mm. Panasonic's image stabilisation technology is in-lens so you give it up with off brand lenses. You might want to plan a matching Lumix tele if you're like me and find you rely on it these days. In a fairly unscientific test AF performance with full size (Olympus) 4/3 lenses was very leisurely – the Pen and OM bodies are much faster and more confident about focussing those. I didn't have a Panasonic 4/3 to try so this may be a matter of optimisation rather than fundamental property but the point is moot.

Viewfinder blackout seems longer than the OM-D and may jar with SLR folk. On an SLM the period doesn't have to be long but by default you get a 2 second chimping review and a bit of data handling rather than returning to your muse. The viewfinder itself has taken some niggly adverse comment and there is some room for improvement for glasses wearers, like me. The acceptance angle is quite narrow which means you need your eye up close to the window. With specs on I was further away than ideal which meant the edges of the picture were softer, not a big deal.

The viewfinder is 4:3 for photos but expands to 16:9 for video, another sign of a very video-focused camera. I like OLEDs, they're sharp and efficient - and I liked the viewfinder configuration and the variety of data on show. Keeping your eye on the scene as you adjust soon becomes second nature. Everyone who saw the on-screen level guides enjoyed them, apart from straightening up wide angle architecture it also feels like you're in a flight simulator if you walk around with it to your eye :)

Radio Free Europe - Wireless

While many cameras rely on wireless cards for a bit of networking the GH3 is loaded with on-board WiFi. I didn't have time to try it all but if you were used to the facilities of an Eye-Fi card, for example, you will be spoilt here. Like a Wi-Fi card you can download in bulk or as you go. The GH3 adds a chance to fire your photos at a telly and most intriguingly supports direct connection for remote control from a smartphone (and PC). I couldn't resist trying that and while it has limitations there is something somewhat magical about carrying a very passable live view of your camera on your phone. There is a lag of around a second so it is not as responsive as a simple wired remote – for which there's a socket.

The Lumix Link app can browse from the SD card remotely but its party piece is to shoot from your phone – AF point by touch too

The Lumix Link app can't be very demanding as it even worked well on my weedy waterproof Samsung. Range wasn't great and frame rate dropped from excellent with a clear line of sight to faltering after a couple of brickwalls. Colour and exposure were well rendered, at least on my phone, and much to my surprise it was even practical to fine tune manual focus. There's a good choice from the deeper menu as well as the photographic parameters for the mode you are in. (F number for A, Shutter speed for S, both for M) as well as global properties such as ISO and white balance.

Talking of wireless, Panasonic have at long last adopted the Olympus RC flash system. I say 'at long last' because since Lumix adopted every other aspect of the established E-Series hotshoe format it shouldn't really have taken this long. It offers the same facilities as Pens do – 3 channels - but the control is buried deep in those menus. The remote flash system is programmed and fired via the pop-up flash – built in of course, unlike the OMD which comes with a clip-on strobe toupee. I really liked the locking Lumix hotshoe cover, much better than the slip on Oly ones which I just leave in the box. I'd have 'adopted' it but the sides taper and it won't fit my Pen.

Longtailed Tit having a sit down. Triggered via app using 50-200mm

Good clean (HDMI) fun

Does anyone watch their footage direct from their cameras? I guess someone does but on serious HD video shooting bodies like the GH3 this option has a much greater significance. Before video is squashed into a memory card it is (briefly) beautiful and uncompressed. HDMI can let that goodness out. The GH3 can remove all overlays from this output so Stephanie Spielberg and Queenie Tarantino can hook up a recorder to the HDMI port. Wonder why you can't do that internally? Well, uncompressed 1080 60P needs 3Gbit/s of data (about 40 times more than the top internal recording rate) and even a 32GB card would last for only a minute and a half, IF it could cope with the data throughput!

Lots of sockets – Mic, Headphones and HDMI for cinematographers, AV and USB for mortals

If you're a normal human being this is of academic interest only. No school play audience is going to question your choice of framerate, bitrate or uncompressed recorder but if you want to shoot for the big screen this unlocks for motion what RAW files are for stills. Scope for adjustment is smaller for compressed video than stills because the compression is so heavy. Uncompressed recording opens up serious post processing. You can use it for external monitors too, that looks very professional :-)

With its love of high bit rate video  (72Mbit/s = roughly 1GB every 2 minutes) you will want some big fast cards with this camera. Don't be confused like some reviewers and think that the 'All Intra' video modes are uncompressed, they aren't, so called I (Intra) frames are just individually compressed rather than sharing data from other frames which saves more space. That makes for easier editing at the cost of bigger files. As an aside, Panasonic's RAW files are uncompressed and eat disc space at 19MB per shot, its 'fine' JPEGs are generously chunky too at nearly 9MB a pop.

I have the power!

One area the GH3 has its closest rivals by the sensitive danglers is battery life. The big grip lets it host an SLR sized battery, it doesn't rival really big SLRs until it is wearing its macho battery grip but naked it gives the OM-D and NEX-7 a bit of a slapping with a 1860mAh pack which gives 500 shots (OMD 1220mAh, 360 shots). The charger is a little weird, the light starts green and goes off when it's done – OK once you know.

After the cleverness of Panasonic's past multi aspect sensors, it's a wee bit disappointing that the otherwise spectastic GH3 has 'only' a normal sensor outline – it serves the standard (4:3) aspect ratio. Other aspect ratios are crops of the total res. All indications are that this sensor is a very close match for the chip in the OM-D. Whether they are identical to each other or not they both seem to be on noise par with the latest APS-C sensors. That appears to be by matching technology and pixel pitch with the latest generation. Sensibly neither fights on total pixel count which suits me. I want better pixels, not more of them!

I've played with in-camera HDR before but haven't seen such a practical implementation of internal combination. The last I tried was on a Canon G12 where the slow burst rate made the facility worthless without a tripod. The GH3 machine guns off 3 shots and does the rest itself... it doesn't even lock you out from shooting another which is very civilised. You have to hold still, but not impossibly so. As ever the risk with HDR is that you take dramatic lighting and flatten the drama out of it – I wasn't sold on the results but it certainly pulled detail out of what would have been deep shadow and utterly toasted highlights.

Internal HDR works well (right) but loses natural drama (left)

Another handy inclusion is time lapse shooting – great fun for wildlife, building work or tracking relatives who raid your fridge and snork down chocolates you've been saving since Chrimbo for a special occasion. You can set any interval from 1 second to 99m:59s and a start time up to 24 hours ahead, it even tells you when the whole performance will be over. “Hang on!” I hear you say, “Even the dimmest badger or teenager will hear the shutter!” D'oh, well they would if you didn't engage electronic shutter mode! The electronic shutter isn't for every situation but it does make the GH3 silent (if you turn off the focus lock beeps, etc.) which is great for times when the thunk of a shutter is unwelcome. You can't use flash and your choice of shutter speeds is restricted but I found it useful on many occasions and didn't see any real quality penalty. Another feather in this Lumix's already well fledged hat.

Conclusion

Those already won over by the strengths of micro four thirds will rush to ask, GH3 or OM-D? Both try very hard to offer the biggest, fattest feature lists. In many ways this, the GH3, more than the OM-D, feels like a successor to my E-3. It's bigger and more straight down the line than the OM-D and it's easier to see it snaring existing SLR buyers than the Olympus which is such a statement piece. The photo performance of the GH3 is as near as dammit the same as the OM-D which means it's certified suitable for all (no matter how picky)! Generic folk should extend the leading question to include 'or an SLR?'

At the end of my OM review I said what it had over the NEX-7 and X-1 was form and function, backed up by a hoard of lenses. Now the OM-D has a bruising cousin that is all business without the wiggle in its walk. Another micro-four thirds tour de force, this time wearing 'enemy' colours! This isn't a panegyric – I've never liked the Lumix UI – but the GH3 is an excellent camera, a stellar camcorder, a great film makers tool and workhorse in all those roles. Perhaps the OM-D is slightly too beautiful to take over from my E-3. That was a camera I never worried about having to put it down in mud, snow or rain. The GH3 feels like that. It doesn't feel like a treasure, more like a workmate. Perhaps it hasn't the character of the OM-D, but it has its own hard working 'camera of the people' vibe going on, which is rather endearing.

Ratings

Performance 8.5/10 Rapid AF, snappy UI, but not a burst fps demon
Still Images 9/10 Without the Oly JPEG engine needs RAW to extract the best
Video vibes 10/10 Awesome – would get 11 with that recording limit removed
Build 9/10 Impressive, big SLR stylee
Handling 8.5/10 Physically great, user interface not my cup of tea

Overall score:

A werewolf to the OM's vampire* – both have their own style.

*Not wimpy, waxed Twilight style, proper Universal monsters :-)