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Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Panasonic LUMIX GX7 review: a feature-packed compact camera

The Panasonic LUMIX GX7 caught our attention when it was announced — it’s got basically every must-have feature in a compact system camera, integrated into a body that’s properly compact. See all camera reviews.

With a 16-megapixel Micro Four Thirds sensor in an interchangeable-lens-mounting compact system body, the GX7 is the most technologically advanced camera in its class that we’ve seen yet. It combines a high-res 1,040K-dot touchscreen LCD with a 2,760K-dot electronic viewfinder, both of which can tilt within the camera’s body. See also: compact camera reviews.

The LUMIX GX7 isn’t a brand new camera — it’s technically a successor to Panasonic’s existing GX1, launched in the middle of 2012. It is an upgrade in almost every area of the camera’s design, though, with improvements that make the camera much easier to use and much more suited to the target photography enthusiast market. Take a look at Group test: what's the best compact camera?

The GX7’s body conforms to Panasonic’s trend of simple, flat, rectangular designs, measuring 123mm x 71mm x 55mm at its bulkiest dimensions. It’s a very solid camera, with no flexing or creaking when its body is stressed. Viewed from the front, there’s not a lot to look at — the Micro Four Thirds lens mount is off-set to the right, while a large, smooth textured rubber grip makes the camera much easier to hold one-handed than its predecessors.

Look at the camera from the top and back, though, and you’ll notice a lot of interesting improvements. There’s a built-in, pop-up flash and accessory/external flash hot-shoe, combination dial and shutter button, dedicated mode dial, a second dial, the standard complement of shooting buttons, an articulated 3-inch touchscreen LCD (640x480 pixel, or 1,040K-dot, resolution) and the tilting electronic viewfinder (1024x768 pixel, or 2,760K-dot, resolution). There’s a lot going on here, but we think that all these additions actually make the camera simpler and easier to use.

Being a Micro Four Thirds system camera, the Panasonic GX7 is able to use all the Micro Four Thirds lensesavailable from Olympus, as well as other third-party manufacturers like Sigma. Earlier MFT cameras suffered from a lack of variety in the lens line-up, but this has changed in the past year to the point that we don’t think it’s a point of negativity any more.

The GX7 also has integrated in-body image stabilisation, letting you use older, non-IS lenses without any worry of shaky hands spoiling your photos — with the MFT mount being popular for ‘vintage’ camera lenses, it’s a smart inclusion. The in-body IS de-activates whenever a lens with integrated IS is attached, deferring to the better system when possible.

The GX7 also includes one significant departure from the GX1 it is based upon — the inclusion of integrated Wi-Fi. You can connect the camera to your smartphone or tablet with an ad-hoc Wi-Fi connection, using the camera’s NFC chip (if your phone has the same) to speed up the connection process. It’s a theoretically useful feature, but we didn’t find ourselves using it — the necessary Panasonic Image App is a little clunky, the connection didn’t always work, and more often than not we wanted to view our photos on a computer before sending them to various social media or storage services. It’s most convenient when your Wi-Fi device is used as a remote viewfinder and shooting control, but you won’t use this often.

The LUMIX GX7’s 16-megapixel sensor may have the same resolution as the older model, but it’s much improved in its light sensitivity, with an ISO range of 200-25600 once ISO boosting has been enabled. We did notice a prevalence of colour image noise in ISO settings above 3200, with a shift in the white balance of photos and noticeable speckling. If you keep ISO boosting disabled, and hold the camera still for low shutter speed photos, you’ll rarely need to visit the less-impressive high-ISO notches. Video is generally equally clear and clean, and the kit lens’ HD moniker rings true with smooth and silent focusing for a pleasant overall result.

An ISO 200 photo taken with the GX7 and 35-100mm lens. There's nice background blur, and good detail on the lettering and zoom rings of the 14-42mm zoom lens in the photo.

An improved focus system means that in our testing, the GX7 was consistently quick to focus on static objects and scenes, with no significant lag compared to a mid- or entry-level digital SLR. It didn’t fare so well with moving objects, especially fast ones, only keeping a moving car in pin-sharp focus around half the time throughout our short testing period. A lot of this can be avoided through technique — taking a photo as soon as you’ve focused, for example — but it’s a slight annoyance. Another annoyance comes in the form of touchscreen focusing, which proved more trouble than it was worth in our testing. The hyper-sensitive touchscreen in the GX7 was often too eager to change the camera’s focus point, sometimes adjusting it by accident while we were gripping the camera with our eye up to the electronic viewfinder. It’s a feature we’d avoid entirely if possible.

This photo was taken with the GX7's HDR mode, capturing three photos at different shutter speeds and stitching them together to blend shadow and bright areas smoothly.

Detail from the new 16-megapixel sensor is great in outdoor and bright light settings, remaining good until ISO 3200 and higher. If you pair it up with some appropriately fast and high-quality lens glass — we were fortunate enough to try the GX7 out with a 35-100mm F2.8 zoom from Panasonic — you’ll be able to pull off some impressive photographs. The kit lens — a 14-42mm F3.5-5.6 wide zoom — is not as visually exciting, but it does a decent job for its compact size.

The GX7 retains lots of fine image detail until ISO 1600, and ISO 3200 shows evidence of colour image noise. During most use, the photos we took with the GX7 were clear and detailed.

We did notice that the GX7 tends to over-expose photos that are taken in bright environments, tending to try to bring out the detail in shadows rather than to maintain the highlights in skies or in bright areas. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but we do like our photos a little more even-handed, so we often found using the exposure compensation to under-expose photos by a stop or more in daylight found subjectively better results.

This photograph was taken with one stop of under-exposure, to retain detail in the blue sky -- the camera tended to exaggerate the brightness of shadowed areas, blowing out detail in highlights.

The LUMIX GX7 is the entire package for a prospective Micro Four Thirds camera buyer. The viewfinder is sharp, the tilting LCD is useful — save for the enthusiastic touchscreen — and the camera’s other features except Wi-Fi all contribute to a simple, powerful and versatile camera that we wouldn’t hesitate to recommend to the amateur or enthusiast buyer.

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