When I began writing on photography almost 15 years ago the ‘digital’ camera as a daily device was in its infancy. There was much debate on the number of pixels needed to equal or better film. 15 Megapixels was regarded as the break even point. However, back then 3-5 Mp was considered high for a compact and 6-8 Mp was the norm in the higher end SLR world. With Canon breaking the 50 Megapixel barrier it worth thinking about what is now considered ‘low-end’.
For a long time the micro four-thirds manufacturers Olympus and Panasonic have used a 16Mp sensor. This has been a good middle ground. It meant that there was a good balance between the noise levels generated by the analogue sensors light gathering points (pixels), and the amount of detail. I wasn’t always satisfied with the final image quality of the Micro four-thirds cameras, but then we weren’t talking full frame sensors with professional grade lenses. When it came to buying a small go everywhere camera long term readers will remember I settled on the FujiFilm X-Pro 1. With which I’ve been very pleased with the image quality – even if some aspects dated rather quickly.
The point is that if we look back over the last 15 years, despite the recent large jumps in pixel densities of the Sony and Canon sensors, things have really slowed down over the past few years. We long ago surpassed colour film – although ‘digital’ is yet to beat silver-gelatine film and printing, so it was interesting to have a play with the Panasonic DMC-GX8.
The first impression of this camera is its size. The Panasonic DMC-GX8 isn’t as big as an entry level SLR, but it is substantial in that it compares well to my FujiFim in the hand. It’s built around a magnesium alloy body that makes it feel extremely solid. Panasonic also claims that the GX8 is now splash and dustproof. Nonetheless, the right thumb area is a little cramped, and I pressed the Menu and Display buttons a couple of times by accident.
Another thing to like is the LVF (Live View Finder). This has been substantially upgraded both in size and the panel used. It’s now a 2.36m dot OLED panel, rather than the field-sequential LCD used in the GX7. It’s also larger, with 1.54x magnification (0.77x in full frame terms). The eye-point (distance from the screen that allows you to see the whole panel) has been increased from 17.5mm to 21mm. Great for those like me who wear glasses. I still found the claimed 0.01 second delay somewhat annoying though, as this an otherwise fast camera. So for me, electronic view finders are still not as good as a straight optical finder. I’ll probably always feel a little disconnected with them.
Another interesting feature of the Panasonic DMC-GX8 is the dual system Image Stabilisation. This uses the I.S. of both the sensor and the the lens. Panasonic claims a particular benefit with telephoto lenses, but it should also help with those people who insist on framing images using the rear screen held at arms length. For the system to function, the firmware of the lenses will need upgrading. This rollout has a timetable finishing in February 2016, but three early lenses cannot be upgraded to this system. It will be interesting to see whether third party lenses can be made to work too.
I’ve already mentioned that the body is bigger with a great feeling of solidity, but I still like the old fashioned way of setting aperture and shutter with separate dials as per the X Pro 1. Interestingly, the concentric compensation/mode dial reminded me of the little G series Canon’s that have a wonderful solid feel to them.
Speaking of the Canon’s, the increase in pixel density to 20 Mp seems to have been handled well, and my test images have good noise levels – although it was a bright sunny day. So no worries about the sensor upgrade.
Other upgrades include an extension of the ‘Bulb’ mode from 2 to 29 minutes. The 29 minute limit also applies to the ‘burst’ mode when set to 4k resolution – although you’d be hard pressed to hold the shutter button down for that long as the camera doesn’t have a cable release on the shutter button as per the FujiFilm models. Likewise, Panasonic states that the “DMC-GX8 also offers Panasonic’s new autofocusing capability – Starlight AF – first introduced on the DMC-G7. This allows users to capture subjects like stars in the sky at night using Auto Focus. Shots like these have previously been very difficult for amateur shooters to achieve without the need for manual focus and a great deal of trial and error.”
I’m still yet to try 4k video, but this camera has been upgraded to that level. Interestingly, the Australian specs give a 29 minute recording limit. American reviews are suggesting this has been removed as it is linked to European tax laws – a throwback to VHS video recorders and copyright. The physical 4GB limit of Windows was been overcome in Windows 8, it is now 256 Terrabytes, so it is now an arbitrary and unnecessary limit. This camera does get a microphone input though, even if it is a silly 2.5mm one.
Overall, I think Panasonic DMC-GX8 is yet another great camera from Lumix stable. The problem is that I am still not convinced of the micro four-thirds format or electronic finders. The GX8 is on par with the FujiFilm X Pro 1 for size and weight, but the Pro 1 has a much larger APS sensor and some of the best lenses in the business. I just hope that FujiFilm does’t play to much with the concept with the rumoured Pro 2 and the rumoured 24 Mp sensor. However, if you are already a Micro Four-Thirds user, this is a more than worthwhile upgrade.