Panasonic Lumix G5 review

4 out of 5
£749

For

Fast autofocus, touchscreen responsiveness, decent image quality, detailed electronic viewfinder, body-based zoom toggle to control power zoom lenses

Against

Continuous autofocus still not quite there, power zoom lenses won’t suit all, power zoom also adds to price, little image quality improvement compared to G3, high ISO performance won’t see off the APS-C sensor competition

Panasonic’s latest G5 compact system camera shows that the company’s power zoom lenses are here to say. Why? Because the camera now has a compact-esque zoom toggle, though there’s also the option to use more traditional twist-zoom or focus lenses too.

It’s an interesting prospect as the G5 loaded up with the 14-42mm power zoom lens feels more like a high-end compact camera or superzoom, albeit one that promises bigger, better things on the image quality front.

Does the G5 lay down the electro-powered framework that will seed its way into future Micro Four Thirds releases, and is it the right step forward for this compact system camera series?

Design

Often referred to as a "step up" camera, the G5 succeeds in being the most hybrid camera that we’ve used. It looks like a shrunken-DSLR, and functions much the same, but the electronic viewfinder (on account of the mirrorless design, as per all compact system cameras) and the new zoom toggle just behind the shutter button to control the power zoom lenses gives a different overall feel.

As much as we may have moaned about the power zoom lenses in the past - we felt that the 14-42mm didn’t feel right on the GF5 body as it was a bit tricky to handle - the G5 makes a lot more sense.

The 14-42mm power zoom lens included in this review kit still has its wide-tele zoom toggle on the lens itself, but the inclusion of the G5’s on-body duplicate control sits in a far better position for more integrated use. The choice between the two is up to you.

Compact camera users looking for better quality images or more controls will feel at home with the G5 in hand, as will DSLR users looking to downgrade in size terms. There’s a light-up "iA" (intelligent Auto) button to jump straight into point-and-shoot auto mode, while all the usual manual controls sit on the main mode dial atop the camera. No less than three physical function (Fn) buttons also grace the body as well as a quick menu (Q.Menu) button.

The 3-inch, 920k-dot LCD screen on the rear is not only mounted on a tilt-angle bracket for repositioning, but is also touch-sensitive for quick and easy focus point adjustment, menu selection and even actions like firing the shutter if desired. In conjunction with the Q.Menu nothing is far out of reach for speedy adjustment.

Compared to its G3 predecessor the G5’s grip is far chunkier and the slight repositioning of the rear thumbwheel gives extra room for the thumb to rest on the rear. However that thumbwheel does feel a little sideward positioned; it’s not difficult to use as such but we feel it should be a little more flatly aligned.

Overall though the G5 has hit the nail on the head - although the inclusion of the electronic viewfinder means it’s not the tiniest of system cameras. The collapsible power zoom lens does go some way to keeping the size down though.

Performance

If there’s one thing that’s impressed us in recent Lumix G-series releases then it’s the speed of autofocus. The G5 is no different: it’s just as speedy and accurate, much like the GF5 model.

There are few other compact system cameras that can keep up, though with the introduction hybrid autofocus sensors such as the Sony NEX-5R and Nikon J2 there are certainly some hot competitors out there.

In addition to the automated 23-area autofocus option, there are face detection, AF tracking, 1-area and pinpoint options also available through the quick menu or a left press of the d-pad.

The automatic arrangements focus towards a more centralised circle of the screen, whereas the 1-area modes, including pinpoint, allow for full edge-to-edge control of the focus point. It's that full edge-to-edge control that's unusual, yet very welcome, and when matched with a responsive touchscreen it's a doddle to position a focus point with some accuracy.

The pinpoint mode is particularly cool too - tap a finger on the screen and the small crosshead will then zoom into a 100 per cent view to show precise focus.

The only moan we have is with the continuous autofocus’s (AFC, and therefore AFF at times) ability to keep up with moving subjects. This is an area that compact system cameras as a whole, not just Micro Four Thirds or Panasonic, are yet to solve with accuracy. If you want to shoot fast action, then irrelevant of how fast the processing engine, burst mode and so forth are, if the autofocus can’t keep up then shots will be missed.

Accessibility of settings is also on point. Whether you want to use a combination of the d-pad and three function buttons on the rear, or prefer the quick menu and hands-on touchscreen sensitivity, nothing is more than a press or two away. Once the camera is set up how you like it taking shots is effortless.

The G5's electronic viewfinder is identical to that found in the G3 model. Its 1.44m-dot resolution is detailed and the size of the finder is large too thanks to the 1.4x (0.7x equivalent) magnification. There might have been room for a higher-resolution OLED finder, and that may have added to the improvements, but we suspect it would have also added to the price.

The viewfinder's eye-level sensor fires it up when approaching the camera (which also deactivates the touchscreen to avoid any issues) but we’d still like the activation to be more instantaneous. This is a problem with all electronic viewfinders though - if they’re always on then they eat battery life for breakfast. There is an LCD/EVF button to switch between the two if you’d prefer manual control however.

Image Quality

Although the G5’s 16-megapixel sensor may sound the same as the G3’s, it’s not. The G5's redesigned sensor and Venus Engine 7 FHD are said to deliver better results than the predecessor, although we think you’d have to squint pretty hard to see the difference.

At the lower ISO settings there’s some slight improvement, but at the higher ISO settings we couldn’t spot the difference.

In general that’s good news: the G3 had already achieved a decent level of quality that reinforced the Micro Four Thirds position on the map. The G5 still won’t outperform most APS-C sized sensors at the higher ISO settings, but it’s really not as far off as you might imagine.

The camera’s native ISO 160-12,800 settings are usable up to the ISO 3200 point, where after things get all a bit "crunchy" with image noise and colours look more washed out.

But it’s the lower ISO settings - the ones that will be of most use most of the time - that impress. ISO 160-400 offer the most detail and are the most vibrant, colourful shots of the bunch. ISO 800 shows a teeny bit of softness from processing, and this increases through ISO 1600-3200 - but even these higher settings are useable, despite a slight lack of depth in the blacks.

Movie capture-wise there's one quick-access red button to dive into recording. When shooting at 4:3 the 16:9 ratio does "jump" into a slightly different composition, but this can be corrected for if pre-setting the camera to 16:9 stills. It's a bit of a long work around, but if videography is your main focus then it might be worth doing.

During recording the touchscreen is available in full effect to re-focus, though we found it slightly less responsive than when shooting stills. The camera also has a tendency to briefly lose focus when zooming or adjusting the focus point, despite the improved steadiness offered by the zoom toggle.

Quality comes in two main flavours: 1080p at 25fps in the MP4 format, or 1080p at 50fps in the up to 28Mbps AVCHD format. Our readers across the pond will get 30fps and 60fps respectively to tie-in with NTSC standard. It all looks good to us, but we do wonder why there's no 2.5mm or 3.5mm microphone jack? Sounds like you'll have to wait for the GH3 if more pro-grade video capture is your focus.

Verdict

When compact system cameras first hit the shelves it was hard to know what to call them. The term "hybrid" was banded about for a while, but was never quite the accurate fit. The G5, however, marries together DSLR-like features with some more compact-esque ones thanks to the power zoom lens and on-body lens zoom control and, therefore, has made us reach for that word again.

We mean hybrid in a good way though: the G5 will be usable by any level of user, yet the inclusion of full manual controls, lots of function buttons, the touch-sensitive LCD screen and a built-in electronic viewfinder leave almost no stone unturned for the more demanding snapper.

Autofocus is super-fast and it’s only the continuous autofocus that we can really moan about to some degree in performance terms.

For all its good, however, the change in image quality compared to the G3 is fairly slight and the 14-42mm power zoom lens does add an unavoidable premium to the price.

We still think the G5 is one cracking compact system camera - daresay "hybrid" - with some welcome upgrades compared to the G3. It’s also good to see the power zoom lenses used more seamlessly within the range. Good show.