From one to seven: the Panasonic Lumix GX7 looks to turn up the dial on the premium yet small compact system camera (CSC) market thanks to a bulging feature set and build quality that will hold plenty of appeal for enthusiast photographers. Pocket-lint got to play with the most advanced Lumix G camera yet several weeks ahead of its announcement, both in Panasonic's headquarters and while out and about at Longleat Safari Park to get a real feel for how the new camera handles.
But before we get started, let's address that question of the name. Although this camera logically follows the GX1, it borrows from all over the G series, to result in a camera that's very different. Panasonic said that there could have been a GX2 or 3 or 4, but the aim was to make this the very best possible. So the name is designed make the point that it's a large step beyond the GX1, not just an incremental upgrade.
The moment we picked up the Lumix GX7 it was the presence of its built-in electronic viewfinder (EVF) that caught our attention. Not just because there is one - a rare thing among CSC models - but more because it's the first one we've seen mounted on a tilt-angle bracket to appear built-in to a body. Secondly, the 2760k-dot resolution is not only huge, but it also looks great. It claims to deliver almost 100 per cent of the Adobe RBG colour gamut for heightened colour accuracy.
It might not be OLED, but the Panasonic engineers are convinced - as they told us - that the field sequential colour LCD viewfinder in the GX7 offers better sharpness and colour reproduction, even if its response time can't quite match up to OLED. We'd need to do some more side-by-side testing to get a real feel for how different this EVF is to others, but first impressions are that the colours are very good, so things look natural and the lag is minimal when in use. It's also small and unobtrusive, sat to the top right corner of the rear of the camera which maintains that small, non-DSLR design.
There's one aspect to the viewfinder we're not sold on. It has an eye-sensor so that it switches automatically from the LCD to the EVF. That's great, but when we used the GX7, we found a noticeable delay in it switching over. That's not so good when you're lifting the camera to snap a shot of something that's happening in front of you. There may be settings to govern this behaviour, so that's something we'll look for when we have the camera in for a full review.
There's full-tilt elsewhere too: the GX7's rear 1040k-dot LCD screen is also mounted on a tilt-angle bracket, although rather than flipping from flat to 90 degrees up like the EVF does, it offers an approximate 45-degree up and down-facing tilt that's useful for overhead or waist-level work. The screen itself - which is the same as that found in the G6 - isn't bulky in depth though, and despite the GX7 being notably larger than the GX1, as a full package it sits well in the hand.
The earlier GX1's main play was that it had a premium finish. The GX7 takes that idea and multiplies it out to the nth degree thanks to a magnesium alloy body which looks and feels sturdy. There are two finishes: an all-black model (pictured here) or a silver topped version that has that retro feel of the Fujifilm X-series or Olympus OM-D about it. The latter camera has proven successful and we get the feeling that the GX7 is Panasonic's answer, looking to appeal to those who want to pair looks with performance.
The GX7's build quality brings with it a larger physical size. If it fits more comfortably in the hand - which the GX7 does - then we're all for it. Miniaturisation has reached saturation to a certain extent, and the GX7 sits sensibly between the small and the mighty.
Physical size does bring some weight, however. But at 402g the GX7 couldn't be accused of being heavy, it's just got that reassuring mass when a lens is attached - a positive for a camera of this type as there isn't the plasticky finish found at the budget end of the scale.
Using the camera feels natural; there's that feel of other current G series ease of use with stacks of customisation and plenty of function buttons that can be customised for quick access to settings. There are an awful lot of options on this camera, as there are with previous G series models so if you have a particular demand you'll probably find support for it here. That will probably force you into finding a happy medium of deciding what you'll be using all the time and things that'll be left to one side.
While on the left, pass the GX7 over to a left hander and you might find that when they lift the camera to the eye, they operate the touchscreen on the back. That could see them changing the focal point with the tip of their nose, but a tilt of the EVF can avoid this. The solution might be to switch off touch entirely (which we did), as the GX7 will still let you access all the different controls though conventional menus and buttons.
There are some neat touches though for those who want control. We've mentioned those customisable function buttons, but you also have two dials for changing settings, as well as the conventional four-way controller on the back. You'll soon feel your way around, but we're more impressed by simple things, like the switch to move from auto or manual focus on the back. The focusing on the GX7 is very fast, but, if you're struggling to focus exactly where you want, a flick of the switch and a twist of the focus ring on the lens will see you sharp.
There's plenty we didn't get to play with during our time with the camera, but focus peaking was one of the features we were particularly interested in, especially when you're trying to perfect that focusing as we've mentioned above. You can select the colours that your in-focus edges will be highlighted in and we found it a nice quick way to confirm focus.
Under the hood the GX7 has a brand new 16-megapixel Live MOS sensor. It has not been used in any current G series model and, according to Panasonic, it's the best they've made yet.
To give a little background, the latest sensor is the same size as found in all other G-series cameras, but Panasonic engineers have shrunk the circuitry and so each photo diode site is larger than in previous generation models. The latest semiconductors are also employed for optimum signal transmission. This can deliver 10 per cent greater saturation compared to the G6 and, according to Panasonic, reduces signal to noise ratio by -6dB for around a 10 per cent improvement compared to even the GH3.
Combined with the Venus Engine 8 the results that we've seen are impressive. Side-by-side comparisons to similar competitor models - and despite no control of the images on our behalf - presented low noise results even at the higher ISO 3200-6400 settings. While the image noise reduction system is clearly a success, the GX7's shots did appear to lack the more colourful punch of some competitors but, as Panasonic continued to emphasise, this is a pre-production model.
Although we're allowed to share some of the shots we took ourselves, we can't use the full resolution as the firmware isn't final and these were taken on a pre-production model. But we have looked at the full resolution images and found plenty of detail packed in, for example, the water droplets on the flowers above is nice and clear. We're impressed with the authenticity of the colours we've got, as well as how natural some of the skin tones have come out, and the low light noise control. We need to do a lot more testing, but first impressions are good.
Another interesting feature that will have some impact on images is the introduction of sensor-shift image stabilisation. We didn't expect to see this here, as the majority of longer Panasonic lenses include preferable lens-based image stabilisation. What the company has spotted is the number of higher-end users who will invest in a body such as the GX7 and also buy an adaptor to use third-party lenses, including those from Leica.
But in-body stabilisation doesn't knock out your lens stabilisation. The camera will switch automatically from one system to the other depending on the lens you attach.
The latest sensor can also capture movie clips at up to 1080/50p using 28Mbps MP4 compression. There are also 25 and 24fps options at 24Mbps maximum.
In addition to features such as Wi-Fi and NFC (near field communication) for sharing images, Panasonic has targeted other key areas. A top mechanical shutter speed of 1/8000th sec is a definite pro feature, while improvements to Pinpoint autofocus and the inclusion of focus peaking improve the manual control experience.
The familiar "Light Speed AF" autofocus reins supreme as ever, now with an updated Pinpoint autofocus which shows up an image-within-image magnification around the focus area for greater clarity of full compositional preview. The same magnification box also shows up during manual focus, albeit with the addition of up to 10x magnification as adjusted by the main dial.
In-camera filter effects add new monochrome options - including rough and silky mono - where even the level of grain or various coloured b&w filters can be adjusted and applied in camera. For those who want to add drama to the mundane or hunt out that retro style, these options mean you can stick to your camera and leave your app-filled smartphone in your pocket. Still no raw file capture available when such options are included, however, which is a letdown.
A new feature called Highlight Shadow also adds additional control over the gamma curve, making it possible to adjust shadow and highlights independently by +/-5 to pull additional or less detail out of the available dynamic range. Similar to that of the Olympus E-P5, only with a more hands-on and customised approach.
READ: Olympus Pen E-P5 review
All these features do come at a price: £819 for the body alone might sound a lot, but compared to the GX1's £750 launch price - and considering the GX7 has a built-in EVF - it's a fair price. Kit options extend up to £999 for the 20mm lens package, which while not cheap sure does stand shoulder-to-shoulder with similar Fujifilm competitors. Perhaps the X-E1 will get a run for its money.
READ: Fujifilm X-E1 review
Overall we're impressed. The aforementioned Olympus E-P5 is much the same price, but doesn't include the built-in viewfinder. That, surely, gives Panasonic the upper hand and makes this luxury interchangeable lens compact system one of the most desirable forthcoming cameras.
Panasonic may still not have totally cracked the continuous autofocus department yet - at least not compared to a decent DSLR - but otherwise there's everything here that a camera lover could possibly want and more. We will be bringing you a full review of the Panasonic Lumix GX7 as soon as we can.