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Panasonic Lumix DMC-G3 Review
by Jim Keenan -  5/23/2011

The Lumix DMC-G3 becomes Panasonic's "smallest and lightest digital interchangeable lens camera with a viewfinder" following its May 2011 introduction. Anytime a camera successor pops up a year after the previous model my first question tends to be whether the new model offers more than a modest re-work or is being offered primarily as a marketing exercise. The Lumix G2 has actually been out a bit longer than a year, but the time frame is still within my window of wondering.

Panasonic Lumix G3


A quick glance from a distance at both the G2 and about-to-arrive G3 might suggest the modest re-work theory has some merit, but a closer look indicates that while Panasonic didn't start with a clean sheet of design paper, the new camera is not merely a re-badged G2. That "smallest and lightest" tout is our first clue - the G3 comes in at 4.54 x 3.29 x 1.84 inches versus 4.88 x 3.29 x 2.91 for the G2, and ready-to-shoot weight with the 14-42 lens has dropped from 593 grams to 544. There are subtle contour changes to the body, which Panasonic notes is made of aluminum (but seems to have some composite woven into the mix) and the focus controls that occupied the top left portion of the G2 body are gone; the handgrip area of the body is less pronounced as well.

The big changes include a resolution increase to 16 megapixels (the basic user's manual provided with the camera says 15.83 megapixel effective resolution) on the camera's Micro Four Thirds system CMOS sensor and the inclusion of full 1080HD video, along with a dedicated video capture button that provides one-touch video capture from any shooting mode. The G3 features a new Precision Contrast LightSpeed AF system that allows the focus point of the camera to be positioned anywhere on the monitor by touch (with that point following the subject if it moves via AF tracking), a new Pinpoint AF option that allows extremely fine positioning of the AF point, as well as a more conventional 23 focus point capability.

The articulating 3.0-inch LCD monitor has picked up a bit more range of motion compared to the G2. The G3 will be offered in kit form initially, paired with the Lumix 14-42 zoom lens - and with a $700 MSRP that comes in $100 lower than the G2 when it was introduced. The camera will also be available as a body-only for $600. Here's the view at both ends of the kit lens:

Panasonic G3 Sample Image
Wide Angle, 14mm

Panasonic G3 Sample Image
Telephoto, 42mm

That MSRP puts the G3 head-to-head with Nikon's D3100 and right in the middle of Canon's entry-level fleet of six Rebels. The G3 can accept SD/SDHC/SDXC memory media and Panasonic includes a battery charger and battery, body cap, AV and USB cables, a shoulder strap, stylus pen, CD-ROM software and printed basic user's manual with each camera.

I've reviewed the Panasonic GF-1 and 2 for this site, but this is my first outing with a plain "G" model, and I'm as curious as you to see how it does.

BUILD AND DESIGN
"Smaller and lighter" seems to be a driving force at Panasonic with regard to their mirrorless interchangeable lens products - the GF-1 and GF-2 went that route, and now the G3 comes in slimmed down a bit from the G2.

Panasonic Lumix G3

The basic mini DSLR-like profile hasn't changed, however, with a pronounced handgrip on the right front of the body and the elongated bulge top-center that houses the electronic viewfinder (EVF) and built-in flash. The metal construction gives the camera a solid feel and fit and finish seem appropriate for the price point. The fashion-conscious will no doubt rejoice that the G3 will be available in brown, black, red or white versions.

Ergonomics and Controls
All of the mirrorless interchangeable models from various manufacturers are small - that's one reason for their very being, and folks with large hands should definitely check potential purchases to make sure they can live with such a compact instrument. In the case of the G3, the exterior finish is fairly smooth and it doesn't feel like your grip is completely secure. Even the patch of material placed in the handgrip area feels the same as the rest of the body.

Panasonic Lumix G3

The saving grace here is the camera is so small that the little finger of my right hand has nowhere to go but wrap around under the front of the body while the camera back sits in the fleshy part of the hand just near the bottom of the thumb, and this helps encase the camera in the right hand. Some really tacky rubber stuff to replace the slick, plastic-feeling handgrip material would do wonders, though.

Otherwise, control placement seems logical and Panasonic has arranged them so as to present little potential for inadvertent activations - the thumb of the shooting hand sits nicely on the open space provided on the camera back and is adjacent to the rear control dial while the forefinger naturally finds the shutter button.

Panasonic Lumix G3

And speaking of controls, in addition to the dedicated and conventional controls such as the mode dial and dedicated cursors and other buttons, the G3 continues to provide a touch screen interface that appeared on the G2 (and I first encountered with the GF2). Coming from an SLR/DSLR background, making camera settings via external controls is pretty well ingrained, but just as with the GF2, I found the G3 touch screen interface to be a viable alternative.

You can bring up the quick menu on the monitor by touch, and depending on your specific shooting mode this menu can allow access to focus mode, picture setting, motion picture setting, image quality, flash, metering mode, AF mode, ISO sensitivity, white balance and drive mode. You can then makes changes and selections via touch, and using a finger instead of the supplied stylus provided good results. Some of these settings have dedicated controls or access via internal menu so there is a degree of redundancy, but the touch screen makes the G3 fairly user-friendly for folks who make frequent changes to their basic shooting settings.

Menus and Modes
Menus in the G3 tend to resemble those for a DSLR - there is a 5 page record menu, 3 pages for motion picture, 7 pages for custom settings, 5 for setup and 3 for playback. As mentioned earlier, the quick menu option can summon up to 10 functions depending on your specific shooting mode at the time. Once in any particular menu the choices are straightforward and intuitive, but there is one sub-menu: the playback menu is 3 pages, but if you select "playback mode" on page 1, you're taken to a 2 page menu of choices.

Shooting modes are what we've come to expect from high-end compacts and entry-level DSLRs: auto and scene modes accompanied by full manual controls.

Display/Viewfinder
The 3.0-inch LCD monitor on the G3 rotates 180 degrees and tilts 270 degrees up or down. Composition is 460,000 dots and the monitor is adjustable for 7 levels of brightness. The monitor returned a low peak brightness level of 261 and a somewhat low 407:1 contrast ratio on the monitor values that we'd like to see at or above 500 for each value. Despite the low scores, the G3 monitor did fairly well outdoors, at least in part thanks to its articulating ability, but it could be overwhelmed by the right combinations of brightness and sun angles. Coverage is about 100%.

Panasonic Lumix G3

The EVF has a 1,440,000 dot composition and offers about 100% coverage. There is a diopter adjustment for varying degrees of eyesight and the image through the EVF is large and bright - the viewfinder is the way to go when shooting the G3.

PERFORMANCE
Being a hybrid or bridge camera, we'd expect the G3 to outperform high end compacts and approach entry-level DSLRs in many performance parameters. How does the new Panasonic measure up?

Shooting Performance
The G3 presents a focus point about 0.75 seconds after power up, quicker than the compacts but slower than most DSLRs. I was able to get off a first shoot in about 1.25 seconds - again, better than a compact but trailing the DSLR. Single shot-to-shot times ran about 1.25 seconds with shutter lag coming in at 0.01 seconds and AF acquisition time at 0.23 seconds.

Shutter Lag (press-to-capture, pre-focused)
Digital Camera Time (seconds)
Olympus E-PL2 0.01
Panasonic Lumix DMC-G3 0.01
Sony alpha NEX-5 0.05
Samsung NX10 0.05

AF Acquisition (press-to-capture, no pre-focus)
Camera Time (seconds)
Panasonic Lumix DMC-G3 0.23
Sony alpha NEX-5 0.39
Olympus E-PL2 0.41
Samsung NX10 0.50

Continuous Shooting
Camera Frames Framerate*
Panasonic Lumix DMC-G3 18 4.5 fps
Samsung NX10 12 3.3 fps
Olympus E-PL2 16 3.2 fps
Sony alpha NEX-5 2.6 fps

*Note: Continuous shooting framerates are based on the camera's fastest full-resolution JPEG continuous shooting mode, using the fastest media type available (300x CF, SDHC, etc.). "Frames" notes the number of captures recorded per burst before the camera stops/slows to clear the buffer.

The shutter lag surprised me, as the camera doesn't feel like it fires that quickly. There's some shutter noise associated with tripping the shutter, but apparently capture is accomplished without being necessarily tied into the noise, so the camera sounds slow but shoots fast. AF time is good by compact standards, but toward the slow end of the spectrum for a DSLR. Our AF time was a bit slower than the 0.18 seconds claimed by Panasonic for the 14-42 lens; their time puts the G3 in the hunt with entry level DSLRs.

We also got a 4.5 fps continuous shooting rate at full resolution, 0.5 fps faster than Panasonic advertises. Our full resolution JPEG continuous string ran to 18 frames before the buffer needed a break; Panasonic claims a 7 shot capacity when capturing in RAW. In continuous mode there was a brief blackout between each frame in the EVF, much better than most compacts and a bit worse than a DSLR. You have to anticipate a little bit with the G3; a lot with a compact and hardly at all with a DSLR.

The G3 built-in flash has a guide number of 10.5 meters at ISO 160 - with the maximum apertures of f/3.5 and f/5.6 at the wide and telephoto ends of the 14-42 zoom, that translates into a range out to about 10 feet at wide angle, and about 6.25 feet at telephoto. The camera has a hot shoe to accept an external flash gun. Recycle times on the flash varied from around 2.75 seconds to almost 6 seconds - compact digital times at best, and not really competitive with a DSLR.

Leaving the lens hood on the 14-42 when shooting flash invites casting a shadow on images, particularly with the lens zoomed toward the telephoto end. The 14-42 is an external zoom, which means the lens barrel extends as you zoom toward telephoto, and with various permutations of focal length and distance to the subject, the hood can cast a visible shadow onto the frame in flash shots.

Panasonic G3 Sample Image Panasonic G3 Sample Image

Leave off the hood for flash work and all's well.

Battery life is a disappointing 270 images - down from the 350+ images listed for the G2.

Lens Performance
The Lumix 14-42mm zoom turned in a pretty good performance overall - with the 2x crop factor of Four Thirds/Micro Four Thirds sensors, the lens shot at 28 to 84mm in 35mm equivalents. The maximum apertures of f/3.5 and f/5.6 are typical for kit lenses on entry level DSLRs, and the 14-42 showed just a bit of barrel distortion at wide angle, with an equally slight pincushion distortion at telephoto. There is chromic aberration (purple fringing) in about equal doses at both ends of the zoom in some high contrast boundary areas - in some cases visible at 100% enlargement. Even so, enlargements in the 200 to 400% range are more apt to show the problem.

The wide end of the zoom shows some softness in the corners, but is not bad otherwise - the telephoto end seems a bit sharper in the corners and is likewise not bad elsewhere.

As mentioned up in the flash section, the 14-42 is an external focus lens that changes barrel length when zooming, but the front element does not rotate so filters such as a polarizing filter are not impacted by zooming.

Video Quality
Video quality out of the G3 was quite good overall - among the best I've seen out of a still camera with a video component. Full HD video is only available in the AVCHD format, which requires compatible equipment in order to view. The more universally recognized Motion JPEG (MPEG) format is limited to 720 HD resolution.

Audio is recorded in stereo. Maximum recording time for an AVCHD clip is 13 hours, 3 minutes and 20 seconds, subject to battery and memory media limitations. MPEG captures are limited to 2GB in size. The one button video capture is seamless, and when set for continuous AF the G3 is quite good at adjusting focus as subject distances change during capture. Audio proved to be susceptible to wind noise, but there is a wind cut feature available via internal menu.

As good as the G3 did in video production overall, it also served up a fairly distinct dose of rolling shutter effect with relatively modest pan speeds. Rolling shutter effect is a characteristic of the CMOS sensor that can produce a skewed image of vertical lines as the camera is panned across a field of view. The effect was present and noticeable in our G3 (both AVCHD and MPEG formats), but the camera still has a very capable video component.

Image Quality
Default images out of the G3 are very good with regard to color fidelity and sharpness in the IA/IA+ modes - in part, I suspect, because the camera employs features such as Intelligent Resolution in the mix of settings for auto shooting. IR basically identifies portions of the image consisting of outlines, high detail areas and soft gradation areas and optimizes edge sharpness and detail areas while smoothing the gradation areas. Here's a couple of default auto shots at the mission:

Panasonic G3 Sample Image

Panasonic G3 Sample Image

IR is disabled as a default in the manual modes, but may be user enabled. I found shooting aperture priority with default settings a bit too soft for my taste. Here's a shot in aperture priority at default settings, then with IR set to standard and then high levels, and finally with IR set to high plus additional contrast and sharpening:

Panasonic G3 Sample Image
Default
Panasonic G3 Sample Image
IR Standard
Panasonic G3 Sample Image
IR High
Panasonic G3 Sample Image
IR High with additional sharpness

The IR shot with the additional inputs gets my vote.

The G3 presents a "photo style" color palette consisting of standard, vivid, natural, monochrome, scenery, portrait and custom options. Here are the first four:

Panasonic G3 Sample Image
Standard
Panasonic G3 Sample Image
Vivid
Panasonic G3 Sample Image
Natural
Panasonic G3 Sample Image
Monochrome

In addition, there's the "creative control" shooting option that offers expressive, retro, high key, sepia and high dynamic looks:

Panasonic G3 Sample Image
Expressive
Panasonic G3 Sample Image
Retro
Panasonic G3 Sample Image
High Key
Panasonic G3 Sample Image
Sepia
Panasonic G3 Sample Image
High Dynamic

The G3 also features Panasonic's intelligent dynamic range (IDR) settings to attempt to broaden the camera's apparent dynamic range. Here's the mission breezeway in aperture priority with no IDR enabled, then again with high levels of IDR. While IDR seems to have some effect, there's not much to choose from between the standard and high settings.

Panasonic G3 Sample Image
IDR Off
Panasonic G3 Sample Image
IDR High

While the 14-42 isn't going to get you too "close" to distant subjects, the 16 megapixel sensor will allow for some fairly aggressive cropping to chop out some of that distance. The original shot comes out of the G3 at 15.31 x 11.48 at 300 dpi - while the first crop measures out at 12.77 x 8.52 inches at 300 dpi. The second crop goes really aggressive and ends up at 11.09 x 7.4 at 300 dpi.

Panasonic G3 Sample Image
Original

Panasonic G3 Sample Image
Crop 1
Panasonic G3 Sample Image
Crop 2

Auto white balance was used for all the shots in this review and did a good job in most light, but shot warm with incandescent lighting. The G3 offers daylight, cloudy, shade, incandescent, fluorescent and flash presets, 2 custom settings and a temperature option spanning 2500 to 10000 degrees Kelvin in 100 degree increments.

Panasonic G3 Sample Image
Auto White Balance, 5500k fluorescent light

Panasonic's multi metering mode did a good job overall with normally lit scenes, but did clip some highlights on occasion in high contrast scenes. A lot of the shooting was done with our typical "May gray" weather pattern here in southern California, and the overcast can make for some horrendously bright skies that play havoc with metering when they intrude into a scene. There are center-weighted and spot metering options available.

When he reviewed the G2 back in June 2010, DCR contributor Andy Stanton commented that the G2's high ISO performance might have fallen a bit short of DSLRs at the time. Since then cropped sensor DSLRs have raised that bar, with both the Nikon D7000 and Canon 60D I've reviewed turning in excellent high ISO imagery. As a Four Thirds sensor camera, Panasonic starts the ISO fight almost with one hand tied behind its back - the Four Thirds sensor is larger than those found in even high end compact digitals, but smaller than the APS-C sensors residing in everyone else's DSLRs but Olympus. All else being equal, with similar resolutions on different sized sensors, the larger sensor usually wins the noise race.

The good news for Panasonic fans is the G3 appears to deliver better high ISO noise performance than the G2, even with a resolution increase from 12 to 16 megapixels. The not-so-good news is it still seems to fall a little short of the newest generation DSLRs. I don't think it's as good as the D7000 or 60D, and I think the D3100 just edges it out at 3200 ISO (there's no 6400 ISO in the D3100).

Breaking things down, I don't see much to choose between 160, 200 and 400 ISO - all look virtually identical. Even 800 looks very similar at first blush, but a close inspection shows that fine details are beginning to suffer, even though the overall image doesn't seem to show much increase in grain.

Panasonic G3 Sample Image
ISO 160
Panasonic G3 Sample Image
ISO 160, 100% crop
Panasonic G3 Sample Image
ISO 200
Panasonic G3 Sample Image
ISO 200, 100% crop
Panasonic G3 Sample Image
ISO 400
Panasonic G3 Sample Image
ISO 400, 100% crop
Panasonic G3 Sample Image
ISO 800
Panasonic G3 Sample Image
ISO 800, 100% crop
Panasonic G3 Sample Image
ISO 1600
Panasonic G3 Sample Image
ISO 1600, 100% crop
Panasonic G3 Sample Image
ISO 3200
Panasonic G3 Sample Image
ISO 3200, 100% crop
Panasonic G3 Sample Image
ISO 6400
Panasonic G3 Sample Image
ISO 6400, 100% crop

ISO 1600 shows a slight but distinct increase in noise with more pronounced grain, although fine details seem to hold their own at this step. ISO 3200 shows a fairly dramatic drop - more grain and fine details getting almost smudged. ISO 6400 is another steep drop off, lots more grain and fine details becoming more indistinct.

Additional Sample Images
Panasonic G3 Sample Image Panasonic G3 Sample Image
Panasonic G3 Sample Image Panasonic G3 Sample Image
Panasonic G3 Sample Image Panasonic G3 Sample Image

CONCLUSIONS
I've had the good fortune to review a number of the new mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras as they appeared - Sony's NEX 5, the Samsung NX10, Panasonic's GF1 and GF2, and now the G3. Mirrorless interchangeables are an exciting new breed, and it's always a treat to get my hands on one and see where the technology has advanced to. With DSLRs being my camera of choice (and reading glasses now a way of life for close up work), I tend to appreciate viewfinders all the more. So it comes as no surprise that the G3 is my clear favorite mirrorless to date.

There's a lot to like about the Panasonic G3, starting with the viewfinder. It's big and bright and features diopter adjustment. The camera itself is small and light, virtually an afterthought compared to my D3s with a 24-70 zoom. Image quality is very good - the sensor is the same physical size as Olympus DSLRs and the Lumix lens does a pretty good job of getting the image to the sensor with minimal distortion.


AF performance beats a compact and rivals an entry level DSLR, even when working in dimmer conditions. Shutter lag subjectively seems a bit slow, but our stopwatch objectively says otherwise. High ISO noise performance leaves compacts in the dust and gets in the ballpark with the current generation DSLRs. Video performance is among the best I've seen in a still camera. And all this can be yours for the price of an entry level DSLR with kit lens. Is there anything not to like? Battery life isn't so hot, and flash recycle times tend to be compact digital slow. And perhaps near-DSLR performance at a DSLR price.

For someone considering a camera to improve upon compact digital image quality, the mirrorless interchangeable lens genre is a slam dunk. The hard decisions come when you have to decide whether to just keep on going past the mirrorless and jump in with both feet to the wonderful world of the DSLR. The mirrorless models have their size and weight going for them, along with image quality that is in the DSLR league. The DSLR is still a bit more refined, starting quicker, shooting continuously a bit better, and taking no backseat in terms of image quality. But if size and weight become the driving force, then make mine a mirrorless, and make it a G3.

Pros:


Cons: