Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH3 Review

4.5
October 25, 2012 | Mark Goldstein |

Introduction

The Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH3 is a new compact system camera that promises to offer both high-quality still images and movies. The exciting GH3 features Full 1080p HD video with bit rates up to 72Mbps, a 16 megapixel sensor, a 3 inch swivelling touchscreen OLED, built-in wi-fi connectivity, a weather-proof body, and an extensive ISO range of 125-25600. Read our Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH3 review to find out if it's the most complete video/stills camera yet...

The Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH3 is a new weather-proof Micro Four Thirds compact system camera with a 16.05-megapixel Live MOS sensor and 1080 60/50p Full HD recording, including AVCHD video with a bitrate of 28Mbps or MOV movies with 72Mbps in ALL-I. Successor to the DMC-GH2 model, the GH3 features built-in Wi-Fi connectivity, 0.07 second contrast-detect autofocus, a 1,744K OLED electronic viewfinder, a 3-inch swivelling and tilting OLED screen, a touchscreen control system with touch-based functions like Touch AF/AE and Touch Shutter, Optical Image Stabilisation to help combat camera-shake, ISO range of 125-25600, a completely silent electronic shutter, 6fps burst shooting and a Supersonic Wave Filter to remove unwanted dust. The Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH3 is available in black and costs £1100 / $1299 body only, £1600 in a kit with the 14-140mm lens and £2000 in a bundle with the Lumix G X 12-35mm f/2.8 high-performance standard zoom lens. A new battery grip (DMW-BGGH3) is also available for £249.

Ease of Use

Measuring 132.9 x 93.4 x 82.0mm and weighing 470g without a lens attached, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH3 is larger and heavier than the previous GH2 model that it replaces, mainly thanks to being the first LUMIX G camera to use a magnesium alloy frame, thereby signaling its intent as a more serious camera. Panasonic have wisely resisted the temptation to shrink the DMC-GH3 and make it as small as possible in order, instead doing the opposite to make it easier to handle for those with average to large sized hands.

On the front of the Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH3 is a small focus-assist and self-timer indicator lamp, lens release button, metal lens mount, flash sync socket and a sculpted, rubberised hand-grip. The majority of the GH3's exterior, with the right-hand and left-hand edges helpfully finished in a more tactile rubberised coating. T The DMC-GH3 continues the usual Panasonic approach of being extremely well-built, with a high quality metal chassis, lens mount and tripod socket that's in-line with the centre of the lens mount.

The GH3 ships either body only, with the 14-140mm kit lens, or the recently released 12-35mm lens. We predominantly reviewed the GH3 with the supplied 14-140mm lens. While the body of the GH3 is comparable in size and weight to other DSLR cameras, the lenses are where Panasonic have really shrunk the overall system. Given the 10x focal length on offer, the 14-140mm optic is relatively small and light, although it is almost as heavy as the GH3. The optional DMW-BGGH3 battery grip allows the Panasonic DMC-GH3 to shoot in excess of 1000 shots. There are three dedicated buttons for exposure, ISO and WB, a shutter release button on the top as well as front / rear control dials. The battery grip shares the same splash / dustproof design as the GH3 body.

The lens does extend a long way when zoomed to its maximum telephoto setting, making it a little conspicuous, but that's a small price to pay for such an overall compact package. The real downside from a specification point of view are the relatively slow maximum apertures of f/4-5.6, which limits the GH3's use in low-light conditions and makes it more difficult to effectively blur the background to help emphasise the main subject. If money was less of an issue, we'd probably opt for the excellent Lumix G X 12-35mm f/2.8 lens instead, although the 14-140mm is very well suited to video work.

Unlike a conventional DSLR camera which uses a phase detection auto-focus system, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH3 employs the same Contrast AF that is commonly used by compact cameras. The GH3 has one of the fastest AF systems of any interchangeable lens camera, be that a compact system camera or a DSLR, with a claimed speed of just 0.07 seconds when used with certain lenses. This is incredibly quick, and there were also almost no occasions when the GH3 failed to lock onto the subject, especially when using the centre AF point, resulting in a very quick and importantly reliable AF system. 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, AF Tracking and the new Pinpoint AF mode. The GH3 also has a useful Quick AF function that begins focusing as soon as you point the camera.

As with all Panasonic compact system cameras, optical image stabilisation is supplied via the lens, rather than being built-in to the camera body. On the 14-140mm lens it can be turned on and off via the Mega O.I.S switch on the lens barrel, with three different modes accessible through the Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH3's menu system. When enabled, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH3 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 three different modes, Mode 1 is on all the time including image composition, Mode 2 is only on when you press the shutter button, and Mode 3 compensates for up and down movements only (which in turn allows you to pan the camera).

In practice we found that it does make a big difference. 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. Thankfully leaving the anti-shake system on didn't negatively affect the battery life, with the GH3 managing nearly 500 shots using the supplied rechargeable Li-ion battery, a big improvement on the GH2's battery life.

The Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH3 has a different image sensor to the GH2, utilising a new 17.20 megapixel sensor that provides 16.05 effective megapixels. The GH3 offers four different aspect ratios for still photos (4:3, 3:2 and 16:9 and 1:1 square modes), but sadly the sensor is no longer multi-aspect as on the previous GH2, so the 3:2 and 16:9 format images are achieved by cropping down from a 4:3 aspect ratio picture, thereby reducing the overall resolution.

Found on top of the Panasonic DMC-GH3 are the burst mode/bracketing/self-timer dial, external flash hotshoe, stereo microphones, built-in pop-up flash, shooting mode dial surrounded by the on/off switch, shutter release button, new front control dial, handy white balance, ISO and exposure compensation buttons, and a customisable Fn1 button. There's also a tiny LED to indicate if wi-fi is on or off. The GH3 has both a traditional mechanical shuuter and a silent electronic shutter, which as well as not spooking your subject ensures that your subject is completely sharp by avoiding pixel shifting. The To new Delay Shutter option helps to remove the effect of hand-shake by releasing the shutter after a specified time (8, 4, 2 or 1 second).

Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH3 Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH3
Front

Rear

A traditional shooting mode dial lets you choose from the different exposure modes. The usual selection of Program, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, and Manual are available for the more experienced photographers. The more beginner-friendly Scene modes are also accessed via this dial. Additionally there are 3 custom modes, marked C1, C2 and C3, which allow you to configure your favourite settings and quickly access them, Intelligent Auto and a range of Scene modes for less experienced users, and the Creative Movie mode which provides access to all of the camera's extensive range of video options.

The Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH3's Creative Controls, denoted by an artist's palette on the shooting mode dial, offers 14 different options. 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 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 GH3 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.

The Function1 button, which as with the other four Function buttons on the rear of the camera and the two soft Function buttons on the touchscreen, can be configured to activate one of 38 settings, allowing the camera to truly be customised to suit your way of working (there are "only" 10 options available for the Fn4 button). The new row of white balance, ISO and exposure compensation buttons make it extremely easy to access the camera's key exposure controls, while the new front control dial makes it easier to use the fully Manual shooting mode than the previous GH2 which only had a read dial.

The relocated Motion Picture button, as you'd expect, allows you to start recording a movie with a single push of a button, and then stop recording by pressing the same button, regardless of which shooting mode is currently selected. This is a lot more intuitive than having to select the movie mode then press the shutter button, as on some cameras.

The Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH3 has a plethora of movie options, making it the most full-featured interchangeable lens camera on the market in terms of video. It principally offers Full HD 60p/50p (NTSC/PAL) with 30p/25p/24p options, bit rates of 50Mbps in the IPB and 72Mbps in the All-I compression modes, support for MOV (h.264), MP4 and AVCHD formats, and Timecode support in the MOV and AVCHD formats. It's capable of recording continuously for an unlimited time, or for 29 min 59 sec in PAL areas. The SMPTE-compliant Time Code makes it easy to synchronize multiple video footage or sound source in your post-production workflow.

The Creative Movie shooting mode, accessed via the mode dial on top of the GH3, allows you to set the shutter speed, aperture or both settings manually during recording (a Program option is also available). Changing the shutter speed is especially suitable for shooting fast-moving subjects, whilst the ability to control the aperture is convenient when there are several subjects at different distances. In practice this system works well, allowing some really creative effects, but there are a couple of drawbacks. Firstly the operating sound of the control dials is very audible in the movie, so you'll need to edit the soundtrack later to remove it or use the new Silent Operation mode which operates the zoom, aperture, shutter speed, exposure compensation, ISO sensitivity and mic level adjustments via the touch-screen. Secondly, you can't set the shutter speed to below 1/30th second, instantly ruling out more creative slow shutter-speed effects.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH3 Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH3
Front Vari-angle LCD Screen

The Frame Rate option allows the frame rate of the movie to be slowed down or speeded up (-40%, -48%, -80%, +160%, +200%, +300%). Available for both JPEG photos and movies, the EX Tele Conversion option extends the zoom by 2x for still images and 2.4x / 3.6x / 4.8x in video recording. This extends the 14-140mm lens from 10x to 24x for 1080p movies, 10x to 36x for 720p, and 10x to 48x for VGA. The DMC-GH3 can also take a 12 megapixel photo in the 16:9 ratio whilst recording a movie, and you can save a specific frame of a movie as a still image during playback.

The Panasonic GH3's Intelligent Auto mode also works in movies as well as for still photos. Simply select the iA icon on the mode dial and press 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.

Stereo sound is recorded during video capture via the internal mics on top of the camera, which is a big improvement on the rather muffled noises recorded by most digital cameras, helped by the wind cut function which blocks out most of the noise from background wind. You can also add an optional external stereo microphone (DMW-MS2) to enhance the sound further. The HDMI port allows you to connect the GH3 to a high-def TV set even during a video recording and pass through an uncompressed feed.

The new Wi-Fi function (IEEE 802.11 b/g/n) lets you use your smartphone to change the camera settings (focus setting, exposure compensation, ISO, WB and Photo Styles) and even fire the shutter button remotely (including interval video recordings), while the auto transfer function automatically backs up your photos onto a tablet. You can also use GPS data from your smartphone to record the shooting location onto your images. The Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH3 also has a time lapse function in which you can set the time interval and the number of images to take, plus a multi-exposure option that lets you combine up to four exposures in a single frame.

The rear of the Lumix DMC-GH3 is dominated by the large 3 inch OLED screen with 100% scene coverage. The rotating, free-angle monitor, which is hinged on the left side of the camera (looking from the rear), can be 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 GH3 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 614K 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 handy new level gauge indicates the two directions of horizontal lean and front/rear tilt. The high-res, free-angle OLED 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 Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH3 inherits the G3'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. New to the GH3 is a feature called Touchpad AF which allows you to move the focus point area with your finger on the LCD while you're looking through the EVF.

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 Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH3 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).

Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH3 Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH3
Side Top

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 Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH3 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 DMC-GH3 has a smaller electronic viewfinder. The OLED unit has a large 1.34x (0.67x on 35mm equiv.) magnification, 100% field of view, 1000:1 contrast ratio and 1,744K 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 a native rate of 60fps, twice the usual speed, which helps make it flicker-free.

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 GH3's Quick Menu, giving quick access to all the key camera settings while it's held up to your eye. The icing on the viewing cake is the 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. The electronic viewfinder on the GH3 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 GH3 is that we mostly used it by holding it up to eye-level, something that we wouldn't do unless the EVF was of sufficient quality.

On the rear of the Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH3, from left to right, is a Playback button, an LVF button for manually switching between the two viewing methods (useful if you turn the eye sensor off) which can also be configured as the Fn5 button, conveniently located AF/AE Lock button which is surrounded by the AF Type switch, the one-touch Movie record button and the rear control dial. This is used for, amongst other things, changing the aperture and shutter speed by turning from left to right and back again.

underneath are the Quick Menu/Fn2, Fn3/AF Mode and Display buttons. In shooting mode, the Display button alternates between turning the display off, the main camera settings as icons, no settings at all, and an Info Display which shows the current key settings in a clear graphical format. You can additionally press the Q.Menu button and then use the navigation pad to move between the onscreen options. The Q.Menu button provides quick access to most of the principal controls, including ISO speed, image size, image quality and white balance (there are 16 settings in total, depending upon the shooting mode selected). You can still access all of these options from the main menu system too.

The Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH3 has a traditional 4-way navigation pad system with a circular scroll wheel and Menu/Set button in the centre. Unlike other G-series cameras, the four directions on the d-pad don't have a specific function, other than to move through and select options, playback images etc. The new circular scroll wheel can also accomplish many of the same things, although we found it a little too soft and recessed into the camera body to be used precisely.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH3 Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH3
Memory Card Slot Battery Compartment

The Delete button underneath the navigation pad intriguingly has a second function - it doubles up as the Preview button. This cleverly toggles between showing a live preview of the effects of the current aperture (effectively a digital version of Depth of Field Preview) and the current shutter speed. The latter will prove especially useful for beginners, providing a visible way of checking how different shutter speeds will affect the capture of different subjects - running water is a good example.

The main menu system on the DMC-GH3 is straight-forward to use and is accessed by pressing the Menu/Set button in the middle of the navigation pad. There are five main menus, Record, Motion Picture, Custom, Setup, and Playback. Most of the camera's main options, such as white balance, image quality, auto-focus mode and ISO speed, are accessed here, so the Record menu has 27 options spread over 6 screens, the Motion Picture menu has 21 options over 5 screens, and the Setup menu has 26 options over 6 screens. As an indication of how configurable the GH3 is, the Custom menu has 36 different options, allowing you fine-tune this camera to suit your way of working.

The Panasonic Lumix GH3'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, we're 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. The HDR feature achieves the still fashionable high dynamic range look, although there's only an On or Off setting with no scope to tone down the effect.

The start-up time from turning the Lumix DMC-GH3 on to being ready to take a photo is impressively quick at around 1 second. The Contrast Auto-Focusing system is amazingly quick in good light and the camera achieves focus almost all of the time indoors or in low-light situations, helped by the AF assist lamp. The GH3 also doesn't have any notable problems locking onto the subject in low-light situations. The visibility and refresh rate of the 3 inch OLED screen are very good, with virtually no visible grain.

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 2 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 GH3 has a good Burst mode which enables you to take 6 frames per second for an unlimited number of JPEG images at the highest image quality, or 6fps for up to 18 RAW images. There's also a slower 20fps mode for up to 80 4-megapixel JPEG images, which takes advantage of the camera's electronic shutter.

Once you have captured a photo, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH3 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, add a sound clip to an image, delete Face Recognition data, 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.

On the bottom of the Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH3 is a metal tripod socket, importantly in-line with the middle of the lens barrel, and the battery compartment, and on the right side is the Remote port and SD/SDHC/SDXC memory card slot. On the left is the Remote/Mic socket for use with the optional remote shutter release or 3.5mm external microphone, and three connection ports, including a port for external headphones (again 3.5mm in size), HDMI port for connecting the GH3 to a HD television or monitor and an AV Out/Digital port.

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