Review by Carl Weese
This will be the first of several short posts detailing some of my reactions to the newly introduced Panasonic Lumix DMC GX7 camera.
Quick background: I began using Micro 4/3 format with a Lumix GF1 about three and a half years ago. I thought it would be a supplement to the APS-C system I was using, more appropriate for some of the work that I do with digital capture (I still do some of my work with large format film, which is something to bear in mind when you consider my comments). Instead, I quickly found I only used the previous digital system to access lenses I didn’t have equivalents to in Micro 4/3. As the (rather few) lenses I needed in the format became available and I got them, I stopped using APS-C entirely, not so much as a conscious decision, as that it stopped being something I needed. I preferred the results, for many reasons, from the slightly smaller format cameras.
About a year later, I got on the B&H waiting list for the Lumix G3 when it came out, because I wanted the integral EVF. When it arrived, I found that the build-quality wasn’t as nice as the GF1, but the EVF was, as expected, much better, and more convenient than the accessory EVF for the earlier camera. They had bumped the MP count from 12 to 16 without losing exposure range (a.k.a. dynamic range) or noise performance, though without improving either.
Then, I was, in digital age terms, patient. GX1, G5—many offerings of ever smaller cameras, which are for a different audience—while all along Olympus was keeping up or jumping ahead with their own new cameras. Until the GX7 was announced.
It had always been obvious to me what I wanted from Micro 4/3—a digital experience as close as possible to my decades of using M Leica film cameras. When the GX7 was announced, I got on the waiting list. This past Halloween, as dusk set in, there was no Trick (we live far enough out in the country that there are no kids on patrol) but a definite Treat. A new tool delivered by a weary UPS driver.
Storm Fronts, Ancramdale, New York, 11/17/13. With my earlier Micro 4/3 cameras I would have needed to do a lot of work in Adobe Camera RAW to hold the wide range of subject brightness here. With the GX7, an exposure with no plus or minus compensation held the range so easily that I had to raise the contrast in ACR to convey the drama of the scene.
All the talk about this camera seems to center on the "retro" styling. In fact, the new design of the body and controls really is a big deal and will be the subject of subsequent posts. But for now I want to talk about the capability of the sensor. No graphs or charts, because what I care about is how much subject information the sensor provides that, after RAW processing, I can make into convincing detail and tone in a print.
There's plenty of data in a RAW file that you can't print. RAW file processors can also invent data that wasn’t recorded, based on an algorithm analysis of existing data (that's also known as "guesswork"). I don’t find this convincing—RAW processing is easy to overdo. Nothing new about this, of course. The Zone System and similar traditional techniques were all about the fact that film can handle vastly more data than printing paper. The trick to controlled exposure and development is to limit the film’s data content to a range the printing paper can handle. That well-controlled combination of film and paper can handle a range of subject brightness that still exceeds the ability of digital capture; but capture keeps on improving and catching up.
Compared to the G3 (I haven't seen results from any intermediate releases) the GX7 has a big gain in exposure range. Not a tweak, but more like nearly 2 EV of usable, convincingly printable exposure range. Scenes that would have strained the ability of the earlier camera fit so comfortably that they look a bit "flat" at the ACR defaults and need to have their range expanded in RAW processing. As a side effect, many scenes that would have required minus exposure compensation to avoid clipping the highlights are fine without compensation. This is good because if you haven't lowered the overall exposure to save the highlights, you won't have to pull the darker values back up in RAW processing, and that can mean richer, smoother dark values in the final print.
The other sensor issue everyone cares about is high ISO noise. I'm old enough that I'm just amazed at how much better digital capture is, even with smaller sensors, than 35mm film ever was. Still, comparing again to the earlier Lumix G3, I'd call it a one-EV gain: 1600 looks like 800 used to; 3200 looks like 1600 used to. That means that in "available darkness" I won't hesitate to use 3200 and will expect results I couldn't get close to with 35mm film.
Next, camera body style, features, and handling.
©2013 by Carl Weese, all rights reserved
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Featured Comments from:
Sam: "Yay! Carl's back! Can't wait for more posts, and more pictures hopefully? I always enjoy looking at my lovely print of yours of the Bon Air Motel."
Steve G, Mendocino: "An excellent start and I'm very much looking forward to the rest of the series. I currently have a pair of G3 bodies and was happy with them, but your observations on the dynamic range of the GX7 vs. the G3 have acted like a shot of starting fluid on my GAS!"