Panasonic Lumix DMC-G3 Review
The new DMC-G3 is the seventh camera in the now extensive Lumix G Micro System range from Panasonic. The G3 is 25% smaller and 9% lighter than last year's G2 model (which continues in the range), and at the time of launch it's officially the world's smallest and lightest compact system camera with a built-in viewfinder. In addition to its small size, the Panasonic G3 features a brand new 16 megapixel Live MOS sensor with 15.8 effective megapixels, the so-called Light Speed Auto Focus System that delivers a 0.18 focus speed with the 14-42mm lens, and a 3 inch articulated LCD that provides touch-based functions like Touch AF/AE and Touch Shutter. There's also 1080/50i Full HD video recording with stereo sound in the AVCHD format, Venus Engine VI FHD processor, sensitivity range of ISO 160-6400, new Photo Style and Creative Control filters, and 4 frames per second burst shooting. Available in white, red or black, the Panasonic G3 costs £549 body only or £629.99 with the 14-42mm kit lens.
Ease of Use
The Panasonic Lumix DMC-G3 looks very much like a G2 that's been shrunk in the wash, somehow managing to fit a 3 inch fully rotating, free-angle LCD screen and electronic viewfinder into its diminutive dimensions of 115.2 x 83.6 x 46.7mm. Weighing a svelte 336g without a lens attached, the G3 is tiny yet remarkably still a comfortable camera to use. A few compromises have been made to the design in order to make the body smaller than its predecessors (which we'll discuss later), but overall users with average-sized hands like mine will find that they can still operate the G3 comfortably. I found that I naturally gripped the camera with the thumb, middle and fourth finger of my right hand, whilst operating the shutter button with my fore-finger and supporting either the lens or camera body with my left hand.
Still very much in the DSLR mould, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-G3 is an understated, contemporary camera that looks a little more compact-camera-like than the G2, mainly due to its size but also because the G2's unique tactile rubber coating has been replaced on the G3 with a smooth, glossy plastic finish, presumably to help drive costs down. The DMC-G3 is still extremely well-built, though, with a high quality aluminium body, metal lens mount and tripod socket that belies its mid-range price point.
The G3 ships either body-only or with the 14-42mm kit lens (28-84mm equivalent in 35mm) that debuted alongside last year's G2. This optic offers a little less focal range than the previous 14-45mm kit lens and uses a plastic rather than metal mount. While the body of the G3 is remarkably small, the lenses are where Panasonic have really shrunk the overall system. The supplied 14-42mm optic is small and very light, the 20mm pancake lens has to be seen to be believed, and the 45-200mm is also pretty amazing when you consider that it offers an effective focal length of 90-400mm in 35mm terms.
The 14-42mm lens does extend quite a long way when zoomed to its maximum telephoto setting, but that's a small price to pay for such a compact package. The only downsides from a specification point of view are the relatively slow maximum apertures of f/3.5-5.6. Now that Micro Four Thirds is more established as a system, there are a wider range of lenses on offer including an ultra-wide-angle and a macro lens. You can also use regular Four Thirds lenses and even other 3rd-party lenses via optional adapters, but lenses that are not compatible with the G3's Contrast AF function can only be used with manual focusing.
Optical image stabilisation is supplied via the lens, rather than being built-in to the camera body, although the 14-42mm lens lacks the physical OIS switch of the 14-45mm lens. Instead it can be turned on and off through the DMC-G3's menu system. When enabled, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-G3 automatically compensates for camera shake, which is a slight blurring of the image that typically occurs at slow shutter speeds when the camera is hand held. There are two different modes, Mode 1 is on all the time including image composition and Mode 2 is only on when you press the shutter button. You don't notice that the camera is actually doing anything different when anti-shake is turned on, just that you can use slower shutter speeds than normal and still take sharp photos.
On the front of the Panasonic Lumix DMC-G3 is a small focus-assist and self-timer indicator lamp, lens release button, lens mount and rubberised hand-grip, which isn't as pronounced as the G2 but is still large enough to effectively aid your hold on the camera. On the bottom is a metal tripod socket, importantly in-line with the middle of the lens barrel, and the shared battery compartment and SD/SDHC/SDXC memory card slot. The G3 manages just over 250 shots using the supplied DMW -BLD10E 7.2V 1010mAh rechargeable Li-ion battery, a 100 shot reduction on the 350 shot life offered by the G2.
On the left of the G3 is the Remote socket for use with the optional remote shutter release, and two connection ports, including a HDMI port for connecting the G3 to a HD television or monitor. Unfortunately, Panasonic don't include a HDMI cable as standard in the box, which means that you'll have to purchase one separately to take advantage of this camera's HD connectivity.
Found on top of the Panasonic DMC-G3 are the flash hotshoe and built-in pop-up flash, complete with a small manual switch to open it, on/off switch, one-touch Intelligent Auto Plus (iA+) button for quickly switching to this beginner-friendly shooting mode, and a reasonably sized, tactile shutter button. The useful combined Focus mode and Focus Area dial and burst mode / bracketing / self-timer switch from the G2 have been sacrificed in order to make the G3 25% smaller.
There's also a traditional dial that lets you choose the different exposure modes, which again is physically smaller than the G2's dial and has less options to boot. This dial is a typical feature of SLR cameras, and enables you to quickly change between the various modes. The usual selection of Program, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, and Manual are available for more experienced photographers, while the more beginner-friendly Scene modes are accessed via the SCN setting. Additionally there are 2 custom modes, marked C1 and C2, which allow you to configure your favourite settings and quickly access them.
The G2's My Color mode has been replaced by the new range of Creative Controls, denoted by an artist's palette, with 5 options - Expressive, Retro, High Key, Sepia and High Dynamic Range - on offer. Some are more useful than others, and I'm not quite sure why these modes deserve their own special place on the shooting mode dial, rather than being grouped together with the Photo Styles in the Main Menu. It's presumably because you lose control of the exposure and other key settings when using the Creative Controls, whereas the 6 available Photo Styles still allow full control of the camera's settings.
The clever Intelligent Auto mode, selected via the button on top of the G3, tries to make things as easy as possible for the complete beginner, allowing them to point and shoot the camera without having to worry about choosing the right scene mode or settings. Intelligent Auto Mode automatically determines a number of key criteria when taking a picture, including selecting the most appropriate scene mode (from 5 commonly used presets) and ISO speed, and turning face detection (up to 15 faces), image stabilization and quick auto-focus on.
The Intelligent Auto Plus Mode also includes Intelligent Exposure, which increases exposure only in the under-exposed areas of the image, Digital Red-eye, which automatically detects and removes red-eye, and AF Tracking, which continually tracks a moving subject and keeps it in focus, without you having to hold the shutter button halfway down as on most other cameras. Intelligent D-range continually checks the ambient light level and adjusts the exposure setting as conditions change to prevent blown highlights and blocked shadows, while Intelligent Resolution mode makes a standard image look like a higher resolution one.
In practice the Intelligent Auto Mode system works very well, with the G3 seamlessly choosing the most appropriate combination of settings for the current situation. The 5 available scene modes are Portrait, Landscape, Macro, Night Portrait and Night Scenery, so obviously not all situations are covered by Intelligent Auto Mode, but it does work for the majority of the time. It makes it possible for the less experienced photographer to easily take well-exposed, sharp pictures of people, scenery and close-ups by simply pointing and shooting the camera. Also catering for the beginner are a total of 17 different scene modes, including the Peripheral Defocus mode, which despite sounding rather complicated makes it easy for beginners to achieve a blurred background / sharp subject effect without having to understand what apertures are.
The G3 ups the ante when it comes to video, improving on the G2's 720p format by offering Full 1080i HD 1920 x 1080 movies at 60/50 frames per second, and 720p HD 1280 x 720 movies at 60 fps, both in the AVCHD (MPEG-4/H.264) format. In addition it can also record Motion JPEG movies at 320 x 240 at 30fps, 640 x 480 at 30fps, 848 x 480 at 30fps and 1280 x 720 at 30fps, useful as this format can currently be shared more easily. AVCHD features almost double the recording time in HD quality compared with Motion JPEG, but software support is still a little thin on the ground. Panasonic describe it as the best mode for playing back on a HD TV direct from the camera, and Motion JPEG best for email and playing on a computer. There is a limit on the length of a movie of up to 29 min 59 sec in European PAL areas, and continuous recording exceeding 2GB is not possible when recording in the motion JPEG format.
Stereo sound is recorded during video capture and you can also fit an optional external stereo microphone, as with the G2. There's also a useful wind cut function which blocks out most of the noise from background wind. The thumb-operated dedicated movie button on the rear makes it simple to start record video footage at whatever quality level is currently selected. The HDMI port allows you to connect the G3 to a high-def TV set, but only if you purchase the optional HDMI mini-cable.
The Panasonic G3's Intelligent Auto mode works for movies as well as for still photos. Simply press the iA button on top of the camera, then the Movie Record button on the rear. The Intelligent Scene Selector automatically determines the most suitable Scene mode from five options - Portrait, Scenery, Low Light and Close-up or Normal modes. Face Detection automatically detects a face in the frame and adjusts the focus, exposure, contrast, and skin complexion. Intelligent Exposure continually checks the ambient light level and adjusts the exposure setting as conditions change to prevent blown highlights and blocked shadows. The Optical Image Stabilizer helps prevent blurring from hand-shake when using a compatible lens.
|Front||Swivelling LCD Screen|
You can use any zoom lens during recording with focusing set as for still images. On the negative side, you'll find that if you choose continuous auto-focus, areas of the video will be blurred before becoming sharp again as the camera tries to refocus. On a more positive note, the the G3 is quite fast at re-focusing (although not as fast as for still images), and having this system is much better than not being able to auto-focus at all, as with most current DSLR cameras that offer video recording. Hand-holding the G3 during movie recording inevitably leads to obvious shake, despite the optical image stabilizer on compatible lenses, so for best results you'll need a dedicated video tripod. One great benefit of the touch-screen control system is that Touch Auto Focusing is available in movie recording, enabling pro-level rack-like focusing simply by pointing at the subject on the LCD screen.
The rear of the Lumix DMC-G3 is dominated by the large 3 inch LCD screen. The rotating, free-angle LCD monitor, which is hinged on the left side of the camera (looking from the rear), can be rotated 180 degrees for side to side and flipped out and twisted through 270 degrees. You can use the screen as a waist-level viewfinder, holding the camera overhead, and even for turning the G3 on yourself for arm-length self-portraits. There's also the added benefit of folding the screen away against the camera body to protect it when stored in a camera bag, preventing it from becoming marked or scratched.
The 460K pixel high-resolution screen coped admirably with the majority of lighting conditions. This screen is a great improvement on cameras with the usual 230K dot resolution, even being nice to use in low-light. The Auto Power LCD function automatically detects the current lighting conditions and boosts the LCD backlighting by up to 40% when shooting outdoors in bright sunshine, helping to keep the screen visible. The high-res, free-angle LCD screen is much more than just a novelty - it's a lot more versatile than the usual combination of optical viewfinder and fixed LCD, providing new angles of view and enhancing your overall creativity. Above all, it's a fun way of composing your images.
The G3 inherits the G2's clever touchscreen interface. Panasonic have wisely restricted the amount of things that you can do by interacting with the screen, and indeed you can still operate everything on the camera without having to push and prod the LCD at all. You would be missing out on a lot of genuinely useful functionality, though, which really improves the overall shooting experience.
The most immediately noticeable function is the ability to use the 1-area AF mode to focus on your main subject simply by touching it on the LCD. If the subject then moves, the G3 cleverly follows it around the screen using the the AF tracking function. If the subject exits the frame entirely, simply recompose and tap it again to start focusing. Impressive stuff that makes focusing on off-center subjects fast and intuitive. It is a little too easy to accidentally press the screen and set the focus point to the wrong area for the current subject, but a simple tap in the middle of the LCD will center the AF point (or you can turn this feature off altogether).
The size of the AF point itself can also be changed via an interactive onscreen slider. If Face Detection is enabled, the 1-area AF point can be manually set to a person's eye to help ensure that the most important part of a portrait is in focus. If Multi-area AF rather than 1-area AF is enabled, then you can select a group of 4, 5 or 6 AF points from 9 different areas, again providing some manual control over what is traditionally a rather hit and miss affair.
When Intelligent Auto is switched on, the G3 changes the scene mode used when you touch the subject, for example selecting portrait mode if you touch a face and macro mode if you touch a close-up flower. If you prefer to manually focus rather than use the snappy AF, you can magnify any part of the subject by 1x, 5x or 10x by simply dragging the image around the screen. The final touchscreen ability from an image composition point of view is the ability to release the shutter, with a small icon on the right hand screen enabling this functionality, and then a single on-screen tap all that's required to take the picture.
Most of the menu options can be changed via the touchscreen interface, notably the Quick Menu and the Info Display menu - the main exception to this rule is the Main Menu, which is still mostly controlled via the navigation buttons. You can also control image playback by touching the screen, with the ability to tap a thumbnail to see the full-size version, scroll through your images by dragging them from side to side, and magnifying them up to 16x.
Instead of the bulky optical viewfinder of a conventional DSLR, the Panasonic G3 has a smaller electronic viewfinder. The electronic viewfinder on the G3 is identical to the G2's excellent EVF, which in turn was the same as the original G1. Despite its age this viewfinder is still on a par with any comparable system, with the exception perhaps of the Fujifilm X100's innovative hybrid viewfinder. It has a large 1.4x (0.7x on 35mm equiv.) magnification, 100% field of view, and a 1,440,000 dot equivalent resolution, resulting in a very usable display that won't leave you cursing. The EVF (and also the main LCD screen) operates at 60fps, twice the usual speed, which helps make it relatively flicker-free (although it is still noticeable).
As the EVF is reading the same signal from the image sensor as the rear LCD screen, it can also display similar information - for example, you can view and operate the G3's Quick Menu, giving quick access to all the key camera settings while it's held up to your eye. The various icons used to represent the camera settings are clear and legible. The G3 does lack the G2's clever built-in eye sensor, which automatically switches on the viewfinder when you look into it, then switches it off and turns on the LCD monitor when you look away. Instead there's only an LVF/LCD button for manually switching between the two viewing methods.
The main downside of the G3's EVF system occurs indoors in low light, as it has to "gain-up" to produce a usable picture, resulting in a noticeably grainier picture. In all other situations, however, the electronic viewfinder on the G3 is the equal of and in many areas better than a DSLR's optical viewfinder, particularly those found on entry-level models which are typically dim and offer limited scene coverage. The truest testament to the G3 is that I mostly used it by holding it up to eye-level, something that I wouldn't do unless the EVF was of sufficient quality.
Positioned to the right of the EVF are a Playback button and the afore-mentioned Movie Record button, which has unfortunately replaced the G2's very useful AF/AE Lock button, one of the few compromises that that the G3 has made to become smaller and more compact. Another compromise is the smaller thumb-operated control dial, which is harder to locate with your right thumb than on the older G2.
This grey dial is used for, amongst other things, changing the aperture and shutter speed by turning from left to right and back again. This is a common feature found on DSLR cameras, so you'll be right at home if you've used any DSLR before - compact camera users will need to get used to using this dial, although it is possible (but rather long-winded) to set the aperture/shutter speed via the LCD screen. The control dial can also be pressed inwards to switch to setting exposure compensation.
Below this is the Display button, which cycles through the various LCD views. As you can also access this via the touchscreen interface, I'd suggest that you change this to the Fn1 setting instead, which amongst other things can be mapped to the AF/AE Lock setting, or one of 16 other options. Underneath again is a traditional 4-way navigation pad system with a Menu/Set button in the centre. Pressing left, up, right and down on the D-Pad buttons selects AF Mode, ISO, White Balance and Burst mode / Bracketing / Self-timer options respectively.
The Q.Menu button provides quick access to most of the principal controls, including ISO speed, image size, image quality and white balance. Just like the shared Display/Fn1 button, as you can also access the Quick Menu via the touchscreen interface, I'd suggest that you change this button to the Fn2 setting instead, which again can be mapped to one of 17 options. This multitalented button also quadruples up as the Delete and Back button during image playback. The G2's Preview button, which cleverly toggles between showing a live preview of the effects of the current aperture (effectively a digital version of Depth of Field Preview), is now one of the options that can be selected for the Fn1 or Fn2 buttons.
|Memory Card Slot||Battery Compartment|
The main menu system on the DMC-G3 is straight-forward to use and is accessed by pressing the Menu/Set button in the middle of the navigation D-Pad. There are five main menus represented by large icons, Record, Motion Picture, Custom, Setup and Playback. As an indication of how configurable the G3 is, the Custom menu has 32 different options, allowing you to fine-tune this camera to suit your way of working. If you have never used a digital camera before, or you're upgrading from a more basic model, reading the easy-to-follow manual before you start is a good idea. Unfortunately Panasonic have only chosen to supply a basic guide in printed format, with the full manual only available as a PDF on the product CD.
The Panasonic Lumix DMC-G3's Intelligent Resolution mode makes a standard image look like a higher resolution one by processing the contour areas, texture areas and smooth areas individually. There are three available strengths - low, standard and high - and an Extended option which increase the zoom range. Despite all the clever behind-the-scenes processing, it's fairly easy to tell which image was taken with Intelligent Resolution turned on and which one with it turned off due to unwanted artifacts appearing, particularly if viewing onscreen at 100% magnification. While the difference isn't quite so apparent on a print up to A3 in size, I'm not convinced enough to recommend regularly using it.
Intelligent Dynamic adjusts the exposure setting to record more detail in the highlights and shadows, with three strengths available - low, standard and high. It's actually very effective for high-contrast scenes when the camera tends to blow-out the highlights and block-up the shadows. You can see some examples for both Intelligent Resolution and Intelligent Dynamic on the Image Quality page.
Unlike a conventional DSLR camera which uses a phase detection auto-focus system, the DMC-G3 employs the same Contrast AF that is commonly used by compact cameras. As with the EVF, experienced photographers will now be tutting loudly at the thought of having to use a traditionally slower system. I'm happy to be able to report that this decision hasn't resulted in a slow and unpredictable AF - quite the opposite in fact. Panasonic have published marketing data which suggests that the G3's AF is as fast, if not faster, than a typical DSLR camera's, with a claimed speed of less than 0.1 second when used with certain lenses, and a still impressive 0.18 second with the 14-42mm kit lens. In practice I noticed very little difference in speed between the G3 and a DSLR, and there were also very few occasions when the G3 failed to lock onto the subject, especially when using the centre AF point. There are a wide range of AF modes on offer, including multiple-area AF with up to 23 focus areas, 1-area AF with a selectable focus area, Face Detection, and AF Tracking. The G3 also has a useful Quick AF function that begins focusing as soon as you point the camera.
The start-up time from turning the Lumix DMC-G3 on to being ready to take a photo is very impressive at less than 0.5 seconds. It takes about 1 second to store a JPEG image, allowing you to keep shooting as they are being recorded onto the memory card - there is a barely perceptible LCD blackout between each image. Storing a single RAW image takes around 4 seconds, but thankfully it doesn't lock up the camera in any way - you can use the menu system or shoot another image while the first file is being written to memory. The Panasonic Lumix DMC-G3 has a pretty good Burst mode which enables you to take 4 frames per second for an unlimited number of JPEG images at the highest image quality, or 7 RAW images. There's also a faster 20fps mode, but the images are only recorded at 4 megapixels.
Once you have captured a photo, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-G3 has an average range of options when it comes to playing, reviewing and managing your images. You can instantly scroll through the images that you have taken, view thumbnails (up to 30 onscreen at the same time and in a Calendar view), zoom in and out up to 16x magnification, view slideshows, delete, protect, trim, resize, copy and rotate an image. You can also select favourite images, change an image's aspect ratio, divide a video and set the print order. The Display button toggles detailed settings information about each picture on and off, such as the ISO rating and aperture / shutter speed, and there is a small brightness histogram available during shooting and RGBY histogram during playback if enabled in the menu. You can also turn on guide-lines to help with composition and flashing highlights which indicate any over-exposed areas of the image.
In summary, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-G3 is a smaller and lighter evolution of the previous G2 model which thankfully doesn't make too many usability sacrifices in order to achieve its diminutive size. Can the G3 also take great images with its new 15.8 megapixel Live MOS sensor? Let's take a look on the next page...