With their G, GF, and GH series of cameras, Panasonic aims their three-pronged attack at three different types of users, a tactic that no other mirrorless cameras manufacturers have attempted so far. Leading their stable is the GH2 -- a world-class video camera capable of challenging the mighty Canon 5D Mark II that also happens to capture great stills.
At the bottom of the rung is the new GF3, which could fool plenty of buyers into thinking that it's a point-and-shoot, if it weren't for the interchangeable lenses, great image quality, and the huge price tag. It competes directly with the popular Olympus PEN and Sony NEX lines.
And then in the middle, aimed at the amateur enthusiast crowd, there's the G3. It packs on some added bulk in exchange for added features. Its electronic viewfinder and tilt-swivel screen bring it closer to the GH2’s physical profile, while its touchscreen interface places it on the user-friendly level of the GF3.
The G series has some substantial history behind it. The G1 ushered in a new era in digital photography as the first Micro-4/3 camera ever released. The G2 improved on the original by slimming down its physical dimensions, improving its high-ISO capability, and adding video recording. Now, the G3 arrives as an incremental update, bumping up the resolution to 16 megapixels, taking video recording to 1080p, and cutting a few more millimeters and grams from the G2’s already svelte profile. Let's see if it takes the line to anywhere new.
Body & Design
The G3 is a very slim, lightweight, yet still substantial camera. It’s not pocketable by any means (except maybe in a cartoonishly large parka), but it won’t leave you with arm cramps after a long day of shooting, either. Since the G1 days, the line has lost its dSLR-style grip, and now has just a vestigial protrusion where the grip once was. Still, it’s more substantial than what the GF3 and other truly compact system cameras offer, and just enough to give you a sturdy hold. Aside from the grip and the built-in flash/hotshoe area, the camera is essentially a rectangular box, just like its smaller sibling.
On the front, the G3 is devoid of any button other than the lens release. The built-in flash is set directly above the lens mount and pops up quite high to clear the bundled 14-42mm kit lens. The flash release lever has a nice tension to it and the flash itself swings up with a reassuringly solid thwack. Between the flash and the hotshoe you’ll find the stereo microphone (another new addition).
Generally speaking, the build quality of the G3 is okay; weighed against other cameras in its class and at its price point, it’s really quite good. No one would confuse it with a pro camera, but then again it’s not going for anywhere near pro price. The exterior is high-quality plastic over a lightweight aluminum alloy frame. There’s a tiny bit of flex in the body and compartment doors, and the rear buttons have a typical amount of play, but this is definitely a well-made machine.
As a result of the G3’s aggressive weight-loss plan, several vital controls have been moved around or removed entirely (usually to reappear on the new touchscreen interface). Notably, on the top plate the AF Mode, AF Point Selection, and Drive Mode dials have all disappeared. The dedicated video recording button has been shifted to the rear, which we found to be an ergonomic improvement, and the Shooting Mode selection dial has lost a number of its dedicated scene settings, all of which are now accessed via the touchscreen GUI.
On the rear, the AF/AE Lock button has also gone missing and the four-way control pad has shrunken. Finally, the G2’s eye sensor -- which automatically switched the display from the LCD to the EVF when it detected an eye (or anything, really) against the viewfinder -- has been excised, probably as a cost-cutting measure. Users now have to manually press the EVF/LCD toggle button, which is a moderately annoying extra step.
Speaking of that LCD, its resolution (460,000 pixels), size (3 inches), and tilt-and-swivel design remain unchanged from the G2 -- but like many other parts of the camera, the bezel is smaller, which has the effect of making the screen look bigger in comparison. Though it’s only a resistive panel—you have to physically press it, rather than just touching -- the touchscreen is pretty responsive. Occasionally it took a few jabs at the on-screen play button to get a video to start playback, but we couldn’t tell whether this was down to the screen or the software behind it.
The battery is another casualty of the new design -- the G2’s 1250mAh / 360-shot Lithium Ion cell has been replaced with the same 1010mAh / 270-shot unit used in the GF2. Under the side flap, eagle-eyed consumers will notice that the G3 has foregone its predecessor’s external microphone jack (though of course it’s added on-board stereo recording).
Cumulatively, these changes signify a shift in Panasonic’s target market away from the enthusiast demographic and toward entry-level buyers. (This same shift can be noted in the progression from the GF1 to the new GF3, which makes the G3's shift toward the mass market seem unnecessary.) The loss of dedicated physical dials, buttons, and input jacks -- along with the move to a touchscreen interface -- allows for a smaller chassis, but also makes the camera less usable on the fly. The G3 is much more of a point-and-shoot than its predecessors.
Performance & User Experience
Like most modern interchangeable lens cameras, the G3 is up and ready to go less than a second after tripping the power switch. Response times for both button presses and touchscreen user interface elements are negligible (assuming your touch on the screen is registered). Activating sub-menus on the touchscreen within the Quick Menu takes maybe a full second, and most of that lag is due to the animation effect used by the GUI. That’s as slow as the interface gets.
In good light, autofocus speed is superb and the focus accuracy could scarcely be better. The LCD refresh rates are fast and fluid, giving you a very good idea of what kind of shot you’re going to get. In bad light, the refresh rates plummet and the AF will search a bit, but it remains as accurate as ever and rarely fails to lock onto a subject.
The tilting/swiveling screen is a plus in many situations, allowing you to take photos at odd angles (self-portraits, shots around corners, etc) with relative ease. However, the screen is highly reflective, which negates a lot of its utility outdoors in bright light. In those circumstances you’ll probably find yourself reaching for the EVF/LCD toggle to get a clearer view.
The G3 offers five AF Modes, including Face Recognition, AF Tracking, 23-Area, 1-Area, and Pinpoint. Face Recognition detects human faces and tries to guess which one you want to focus on. AF Tracking lets you tap-to-select a subject, and then does its best to track it as it moves in the frame. 23-Area is your average camera-knows-best mode, but with a twist: you can set it to choose from a specific 4- to 6-Area zone by tapping that area of the screen. 1-Area has the user designate a specific focal zone anywhere in the frame, and even set its size/accuracy. Finally, Pinpoint takes AF accuracy to a whole new neurotic level, inviting you to tap any point on the screen, which it then magnifies by 8x where a tiny crosshair indicates the exact focus point. This last mode is fantastic for macro and eBay-style product shooting in particular.
Shooting modes are your standard fare, from full manual to full auto -- or as Panasonic likes to call it, Intelligent Auto (iA). The dedicated iA button sits adjacent to the shutter release, always on standby to whisk you away into a land of computer-controlled, point-and-shoot shoot bliss. It’s actually a handy feature even for experienced photographers, because in those split-second moments when you can’t afford to think about your aperture and shutter speed settings, you can simply jab the iA button and shoot away. It doesn’t matter if you’re in full manual mode; the camera simply sets your settings aside for later use. The results you get with iA might not be your finest work, but they’re pretty much guaranteed to be ideally exposed. The iA button glows bright blue when activated, so you can't forget that you’ve turned it on.
A variety of grid lines can be chosen to help with shot composition. These lines show up in both the LCD display and the EVF, and are really quite helpful for framing your shots on the fly. The viewfinder information display can also be configured to suit the photographer’s taste, shifting the shutter speed, aperture setting, ISO value, and so on above or below the recorded image. Images can also be recorded in a variety of aspect ratios, including 4:3, 3:2, 16:9, and even the square 1:1 format.
As with all electronic viewfinders, the EVF on the G3 displays 100% of the recorded image, guaranteeing that you’ll get what you want in the frame. The EVF itself is par for the course among recent mirrorless compact system cameras, offering 1,440,000-pixel equivalent resolution and 1.4x magnification (roughly equivalent to 0.7x magnification on a 35mm film camera or full-frame dSLR). The EVF’s refresh rates typically mirror those of the LCD; in good light they’re very good, and in bad light they get pretty bad. We still haven’t come across an EVF we like as much as a good optical viewfinder, but as such things go, the one used in the G3 is pretty decent.
The camera’s menu system is neatly divided into five categories -- Rec, Motion Picture, Custom Menu, Setup, and Playback -- and for the most part the distribution of functions into those various categories makes good sense. Like most good camera interfaces these days, the G3 uses tabbed menu pages, so you always know where you are in a list of options. The Q.Menu can be accessed either via the touchscreen or by pressing the Q.Menu/Fn2/Trash/Return button (they really do stack up the functions on those few remaining hard keys). This menu provides theoretically quicker access to vital shooting controls (picture format and quality, video quality, focus mode, flash mode, etc), so you don’t have to delve through the multiple pages of the main menu. In a neat little flourish, the G3 also allows you to customize the Q.Menu by dragging and dropping your favorite functions onto the array. Out of 24 possible functions, 15 can be chosen for the scrolling Q.Menu.
Video shooting is a very stripped-down affair on the G3. There are a total of five video format options. Two use the advanced AVCHD format (1920 x 1080 / 60i and 1280 x 720 / 60p), while three use the older Motion JPEG codec (1280 x 720, 640 x 480, and 320 x 240, all at 30fps). The camera has no dedicated movie setting on its Shooting Mode dial; to shoot video, you just press the bright red record button, regardless of what mode you’re in. Like the advanced/enthusiast GH2 and unlike its predecessor, the G3 lets you shoot stills while shooting video, which is a nice bonus. Shutter speed or aperture can be set before recording if you’re in S or A modes, but you can’t choose both and you can’t change them once you’ve begun. Moreover, the camera treats these settings as a suggestion and can override them without telling you, if it feels like the exposure could be better.
Focusing during video recording showcases one of the touchscreen’s best attributes: the ability to tap to change focus subject mid-shot. In the film biz, this is known as “rack focus,” and combined with shallow depth of field it can provide a very intuitive way of isolating a subject at critical moments. (For example, if you’re recording a conversation you can easily switch focus between the two speakers as they take turns talking.) The G3 also provides continuous AF, in which it guesses at what you want to focus on, and does it for as long as you record. It’s pretty good at it, too.
Image & Video Quality
The new 16-megapixel sensor in the G3 is a definite step up for the consumer end of the Micro Four Thirds market. Though it tops out at the same max ISO (6400) as the G2, it preserves more detail at high ISO, even with its 4 million additional pixels.
The camera’s JPEG processing engine uses fairly aggressive noise reduction, and employs it even at pretty low ISO. At the base ISO of 160 you won’t notice it much; images are sharp and crisp and you have to zoom to 1:1 to notice a very faint “smoothing” of the pixels. By ISO 800 the noise reduction techniques are more apparent, and at 3200 and 6400 there’s a definite loss of fine detail. For evidence of this destruction of detail, have a look at the patterning in the orange patch behind “Guide to Writer’s Homes” in our ISO test shots -- the pattern is clear as day at ISO 160 and virtually gone at ISO 6400. That said, the noise reduction algorithms employed by the G3 produce a generally pleasing image all the way up to ISO 6400, balancing noise suppression with detail retention very elegantly. It’s one of the best implementations we’ve come across.
RAW files, which are not processed in-camera, show significant noise -- both of the more desirable luminance (film-esque grain) and more annoying chroma (splotchy colored pixels) varieties. However, they also retain remarkable detail even at ISO 6400. Using a RAW developer like SilkyPix (which is provided with the camera), the user can apply optional noise reduction algorithms to produce results better than the camera itself can when shooting JPEG. However, SilkyPix’s NR engine is not as adept at filtering out chroma noise as the camera; perhaps Adobe Camera RAW will be better when it adds support for the G3’s files, but at this point that’s only speculation.
As noted above, the G3 is capable of producing bitingly sharp shots with the right lenses mounted. The 14-42mm kit lens is quite competent, but being a kit lens it’s something of a compromise in terms of sheer optical ability. The Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 prime, on the other hand, is a stupendous performer. Paired with the G3, it’s a joy to use. The Micro Four Thirds mount also allows for the use of a variety of third-party lenses with cheap adapters. So long as you don’t mind manually focusing, you can use a huge array of excellent glass, both new and decades old, with this cutting-edge camera. During our testing we mounted a Nikon 135mm f/2.0 manual-focus lens on the G3 and shot with it for a while; the results were staggering, though it wasn’t the easiest lens/camera combination to handhold.
The G3’s metering is pretty much dead on, all the time. In general it will meter to preserve highlights, but rarely did we get an underexposed shot as a result (this was even without the shadow-boosting i.Dynamic setting enabled). Speaking of the sensor’s dynamic range, we found it to be quite good for a Four Thirds sensor. Adjusting the exposure bias of RAW files in SilkyPix showed that images shot at base ISO could be pushed or pulled up to 3EV and probably a little further without significant image degradation. This is very good news for post-processing enthusiasts.
The G3’s JPEGs are quite contrasty straight out of the camera on default settings, and in fact this became a problem when shooting in New Mexico’s harsh sunlight. In combination with the camera’s accurate but highlight-preserving metering, the added contrast in super-bright light created areas of overwhelmingly deep blacks anywhere a shadow fell in the frame. However, contrast can be adjusted in the camera’s Photo Style menu, and the i.Dynamic setting will also help to alleviate it. Shooting RAW and adjusting exposure in post-processing is the best solution, but also the most time-consuming.
We had essentially no issues with the G3’s automatic white balance in natural light. Colors were very true to life -- well-saturated without being over-the-top, and without any noticeable color casts. In dim incandescent light the G3 tends slightly toward warmer colors, but that’s a symptom common to virtually all CMOS imaging sensors and it can be easily corrected in post.
Video quality is excellent for a consumer-oriented camera; in terms of sheer image quality it’s probably very close to the GH2’s equal, though it lacks that camera’s manual controls and extra video-related gizmos. Focus transitions when using the touch-focus ability are pleasingly smooth, and thankfully there seems to be a minimum of the rolling shutter (aka “jello”) effect when the camera is moved from side to side. The audio recorded by the onboard stereo mic is surprisingly clean and crisp, particularly for dialog, making it a very good choice for home video duty. Wind noise can be a problem, but a three-step “wind cut” setting helps to filter it out.
As you’ve probably gathered by this point, we think the G3 is an exceedingly competent camera. In fact, considering its price point and competition, it’s really very good. The build quality is as sturdy as it needs to be, the design is slim and sexy, and the user interface is simple enough that anyone can pick it up and start shooting. For more advanced users, the camera may be a bit frustrating in its lack of physical controls, but once you’ve shot with it for a few days the touchscreen and menu-driven interface becomes second nature.
The G3 does have its flaws -- a glare-prone LCD that reduces the tilt-and-swivel design’s usefulness, a very weak battery compared to most interchangeable lens cameras, and a few missing elements from previous G-series cameras (such as the sensor to automatically toggle between LCD and EVF usage). The LCD resolution is a little weak in an age of 920,000-pixel screens, and the EVF is still a poor substitute for a proper optical viewfinder. But really, these are all fairly minor concerns. What matters is that the G3 is capable of taking superb photos, and is a great camera for amateurs to learn on and grow with.
Much of the G3’s value depends on what it offers relative to the competition. However, the mirrorless compact system camera market is surprisingly diverse, and it can be difficult for consumers to puzzle out which cameras offer which advantages. Below is a quick rundown of the G3’s main competition.
The most direct challenge to the G3 comes from Olympus’s PEN series, currently represented by the enthusiast-oriented E-P3 and newbie-oriented E-PL3 (with the even simpler E-PM1 to follow). Since both Panasonic and Olympus’s cameras use very similar sensors, the differences between them are largely to do with ergonomics and user interface. Olympus’s offerings sport a classical rangefinder style, similar to Panasonic’s own GF options, with more of a retro flare. Their major technological advantage over the Panasonic models is that they include in-body image stabilization, while Panasonic employs in-lens optical stabilization on only some of its more expensive lenses.
Another competitor is Sony’s NEX line, most notably the NEX-C3. Typical for Sony, the NEX cameras offer stunning industrial design with a super-slim profile. More importantly, they utilize current-generation APS-C sensors like those found in dSLRs like the Nikon D7000 and Pentax K-5. These sensors are largely than the Micro Four Thirds sensors used by Panasonic and Olympus, theoretically providing superior image quality.
The G3’s own stablemate, the GF3, is one last obstacle. The two cameras share a clear engineering lineage, and they’re on the shelf at a similar price point. Sure, the GF3 is smaller and lighter, and sure, the G3 includes some extra bells and whistles, but they're still fairly similar. Realistically, the GF3 is only slightly more pocketable than the G3, and despite its added features the G3 doesn’t come close to matching the raw power of the GH2. But very significantly, the GF3 uses what is presumed to be the same 12 megapixel sensor as its predecessor, the GF2, and it doesn't hold a candle to the G3's stellar performance. Some buyers will also be turned off by the lack of an accessory port on the GF3.
Long story short, the G3 is a winning effort that is sure to attract some "step-up" point-and-shoot users looking for a sensible and easy upgrade, and will likely grab the attention of a number of enthusiast shooters as well. It offers a great mixture of excellent image quality, feature-rich design, and reasonable pricing, and most important of all, it’s fun to use.