Panasonic GX8 Review
OK ------ so let me start this review with a confession.
I suffer from “small sensor syndrome”
STOP SNIGGERING ……. It’s a well documented photographic ailment !
So please let me first justify my affliction.
I come from a background of film, large format film, at a push medium format.
I was at the forefront of digital technology working for the big players (at the time) Kodak, KJP, Leeds Photovisual helping to shape the digital landscape that we have today. When I was working in the Commercial Studios of Manchester medium format camera backs were the de rigueur. So you see it has been ingrained over the years to the point of only 6 weeks ago I put my hand in my pocket and purchased a Sony a7r11 – I “needed” some BIG guns !!
Being a Canon shooter I could have gone for the Canon 5Ds but its high noise ruled it out for my work needs.
So now that is out of the way.
Lets talk about the Panasonic GX8.
A little powerhouse of a camera that goes against all my natural digital philosophies !!
What do I look for when camera testing ?
ALWAYS the same 3 criteria.
1: I don’t read instruction manuals so I want to be able to get around the controls with minimum effort. Sorry I am a “proper bloke” and would rather struggle for hours than spend 5 minutes with a manual.
2: The camera should feel like an extension of me.
3: Image quality.
….. no pressure then.
So as you can probably guess I am not known for “easy” camera tests and the GX8 will be no exception. Not only am I going to test it to its absolute limit, but also waaaaay beyond. By which I mean testing it back to back with the large sensor Sony a7r11! I realise some people will think this unfair, and yes I suppose it is but I am a working pro and I need my gear to do it’s job. In the real world the GX8 would be in a kit bag against my Canon 6D and Sony a7r11, and which I go for first (and for what reason) is what this test is all about.
So what type of work do I undertake and what would be expected of this (dare I say it “cute” camera)? These days most of my work is Book Cover Stock Photography, which tends to involve lots of travel, in VERY downtrodden areas, mainly in the small hours of the morning! Very similar to a war photographer really, I would say without the guns but that isn’t unfortunately the case at times!
I am not going to lie I was VERY pleasantly surprised with feel of the GX8 when I first picked it up and I was instantly impressed with the build quality. All the dials are metal with solid feeling movements. I did think the rear buttons and joypad would be too small if I am honest, but in use I never noticed; they were pretty perfect.
Both screens are OLED (rather than LCD) and it shows. The rear screen is an absolute joy, with its (frankly AMAZING) touch screen making for quick adjustments and viewing. A total revelation for me and something I would now find hard to live without! Being fully articulated is also something I have found waaaaaay more useful that I expected. Being a book cover photographer 90% of my work is vertical so screens that only move in one plain are useless to me --- but the GX8 --- O YES !
Again the EVF is also top quality, sharp crisp and clear, and also tilts. The pivoting action of the EVF I thought was a bit of a gimmick but I surprised myself on how much I used it. I also surprised myself how my shooting style changed with the GX8. I normally won’t lie on the ground to get “the shot” as I am far too old so I tend to miss low level shots, but with the GX8 this is a thing of the past!
I realise EVF viewfinders aren’t for everyone; but I love them!! I love the WYSIWYG which allows me to work unhindered and eliminates the need for chimping the rear screen. Also having the zebra pattern "live" to check highlights just makes bad exposures a thing of the past! The refresh rate is excellent with no lag AT ALL, and with just the occasional flicker in street lighting at night.
Being a glasses wearer I have NEVER had a good viewing experience with EVF's (Even with a small amount of sun coming in from the side necessitates me flagging the back of the camera with my hand) ----- that is until NOW !! On this one thing alone I would buy a GX8 in a heartbeat, the ability to see the EVF clearly, even on the brightest days! I realise people who don’t wear glasses won’t “get this” but honestly ------ it’s a deal maker!! My Sony a7r11 for example is actually unusable if in bright sunlight ---- and I mean chocolate fireguard unusable!
So what were the field tests I threw at this little marvel, and how did things fair ?
I always test cameras the same way, I don’t shoot test targets but I do shoot brick walls; stop groaning and asking why.
The reasons are really simple.
I actually shoot a great many walls for my work, although that isn’t the reason. I shoot walls at all focal lengths for zooms and at all apertures for the major steps on zooms (eg on a 24-70 lens I shoot at --- 24, 35, 50, 70).
Working this way I can see which is the strong end of a zoom and which is the weak. How lenses perform wide open and then when diffraction starts when stopped down. It is a great way to know camera/lens combinations and their “sweet spots”. So for example the Panasonic 12-35 f2.8 lens is strongest from 35mm to 70mm (full frame equivalent - remembering there is a X2 magnification factor on M43 sensors) . It is VERY sharp even at f2.8 (even in the corners). It’s strongest apertures are 5.6-11 after when diffraction starts to kick in.
THIS is why I photograph brick walls !!!
By the way the 12-35 ------ O YES ------ Tiny (and I mean ridiculously so) and incredibly sharp!
Not wanting to take the “wall test” (pardon the pun) too easy on the GX8 I then decided how would it “really” fair against the huge full frame of the Sony. So here are some examples of the a7r11 vs GX8 sized to both respective sizes (one sized up one down) …….. Yes the Sony “pips it” but not by much!! Remember this is an M43 sensor (albeit a 20MP version) being scaled up to 120 MB !!
What about noise?
I have always been a heavy critic of M43 with regards resolution (which we have just dismissed) and then my next issue has always been that of noise. The law of physics says that the smaller the sensor, the more heat it generates which in turn produces noise. Did nobody send the memo to Panasonic? The noise (or should I say lack of it) is nothing short of witchcraft! Take a look at the sample image. As I stated at the beginning this is a “working” test so I treated the file as I would any other. I ran it through Lightroom with minimum sharpening and no noise reduction. I then used Imagenomic Noiseware Professional (as in my opinion STILL the best on the market) and finally a homemade sharpening action to "crisp things up".
O by the way I forgot to mention ------- this image is 6400 ISO shot in a VERY dark garage!!
Out in the field there isn’t a great deal to add. I had already “set up” the camera to my liking with a couple of personal “tweeks”. I had adjusted both screens for brightness, contrast and colour. I had also set up my own Quick Menu, which is a joy to do, just drag and drop on that gorgeous rear touch screen. The GX8 was light and extremely comfortable in the hand. The EVF was excellent (if a little slow to swap from Rear Screen to EVF) --- am guessing because of my glasses but nothing that bothered me too much if I am honest. I did need to dive into the menu while I was out on location a couple of times but thankfully it is an absolute breeze -- (not like my Sony which is like learning the theory of relativity --- backwards).
I did encounter a couple of images that had “shutter shock” from the mechanical shutter (a well documented issue) but as soon as I swapped to electronic shutter this stopped totally. The only reason "if I am being honest" is that I swapped the default electronic shutter to mechanical as was I wanted to know how to get into Bulb mode. When using the electronic shutter the longest shutter speed available is 1 second, but with mechanical, 60 seconds and Bulb are available. (Hence the change from default)
As I mentioned a great deal of my photography is in extremely low light and the little GX8 performed extremely well. Yes, it hunted now and again but no more than my Canon 6D and much less that the Sony a7r11. The ability to choose your focus point with your thumb on the rear screen while looking through the EVF is hands down the best feature of any camera I have ever used! It makes focus hunting a quick fix rather a mass of button pushing.
White balance on the whole is extremely good (I actually prefer it to both my Canon and Sony cameras), it is however a little red in street lighting for my personal tastes.
Dynamic range was also something I expected to suffer with a M43 sensor, however I was pleasantly surprised with the level of detail that I was able to extract. Even with no adjustments straight out of camera RAWs were excellent and far exceeded my expectations. Not quite full frame, but close enough to know I can use the Panasonic on live jobs without a second thought.
I am used to cameras with image stabilisation (whether it be in body or in lens) but normally I can feel and hear it kick into action, not on the GX8. There were actually on a couple of occasions where I had to put the camera to my ear to see if was actually working ?!?
I won’t lie I did “play” with the 4K video a little, as I have seen what it can do when in the right hands – but – as I am far from an expert I am going to gracefully decline to comment on it’s capabilities compared to others. It looked extremely impressive to me but there are people who can give a far better insight than I can.
One thing I did use quite extensively was the mobile phone app for the GX8. Really simple to download, connect and get around. I found it much easier than the Sony and in a different league completely than the abomination that Canon have cobbled together.
As you can probably guess I am smitten with the Panasonic GX8!!
After 30 years in the industry, cameras come and cameras go but I can honestly say I have NEVER felt so in tune with a camera ---- EVER !
Is the GX8 perfect -– no – but it is seriously close !!!
What would I change ?
Without a doubt in bulb mode I would like a count up timer so I know where I am up to. I realise that the phone app has one, but the places I shoot I do not want to draw attention to myself and switching on a bright phone is just asking for trouble !!
It’s a simple firmware update I am sure so Panasonic pleeeeaaaaase !
A longer battery life would be nice, but as with all the mirrorless cameras I have owned I just buy a couple of spares to see me through the day.
What else ?
A personal selfish one this. As I shoot mainly vertical the exposure compensation dial and top mode dial would be better swapped over as the Exp Comp dial doesn’t fall to the thumb very easy in it's current configuration.
A bigger sensor maybe ;)
Only joking !
The GX8 punches WELL above its weight I can tell you!! I am actually thinking of selling my Sony a7r11 and purchasing the GX8 !
Because the GX8 was obviously built by camera engineers ----- the Sony feels like it was designed by a Kettle Designer!
For ultimate quality yes the Sony wins, but the GX8 is “unbelievably” not far behind !!!
The greatest praise I can give to the GX8 is that some of the images I took while testing the camera are already in my stock library ready to be sold! Also when I had a camera bag full of cameras the GX8 is the one I consistently went to!!
If Panasonic want this pocket rocket back they better be prepared to send around the heavies !!