The Panasonic Lumix GH3 is a bold step into pro-like territory for a compact system camera. As well as a brand new 16-megapixel sensor, the rugged and splash-proof GH3 also throws in more video capture options than you can shake a stick at.
However, with the price hovering around the £2,000 mark for the 12-35mm kit option it's a lot of cash to splash out, which may marginalise its prospects of success. Does the GH3 bring rewards as big as its asking price?
The GH3 seems to be eager to be a DSLR without really being one. It's this mirrorless model's physical size - it's almost exactly the same size as the more-or-less forgotten Lumix L10 model from five years ago - and variety of on-body controls that gives it the DSLR-like look. Panasonic moved away from the DSLR market with the introduction of the Micro Four Thirds' G-series, but now, at least so it would seem, wants to lure prospective DSLR buyers into its mirrorless camp. The shift to calling its G-series "DSLM" cameras is hint enough of that.
Of course the G-series has some crucial differences from most current DSLR cameras. There's no mirrorbox, so no optical viewfinder - instead there's a built-in electronic version - and, therefore, no phase-detection autofocus. Instead the GH3's 16-megapixel CMOS sensor brings with it a 2x crop factor, which in turn means smaller-than-DSLR lens sizes, but the sensor-based contrast-detect autofocus, while fast, is traditionally less capable with tracking moving subjects at speed.
The Micro Four Thirds concept was - and still is, well, sort of - all about trimming the fat; about achieving a smaller, more transportable camera system. Hence our slightly confused faces about the GH3's size and, indeed, the price. Pana wants to eat up some DSLR action. But will it work?
Everything but the kitchen sink
The Lumix GH3 sure does have bags of tempting features. There's a 3-inch vari-angle OLED touchscreen, a rugged and splashproof body, a 1,744k-dot OLED viewfinder, "light speed" autofocus, up to 20 frames per second burst shooting, built-in Wi-Fi, wireless flash control and - studio heads take note - even a PC output terminal.
It's versatile. Whether for studio use, action, on-the-go or just casual, enjoyable snaps, there's really not much - if anything - missing from the list.
Video, too, is a key point. There's a clean HDMI out, 3.5mm microphone jack, 3.5mm headphone monitor jack and although saying that it shoots 1080p might sound just like any other camera out there, the compression rate is the best currently available on any consumer stills camera. It's possible to shoot 1080p at 30/25fps at 72Mbps. Now that's well above the broadcast standard base rate. Yup, there's not much this camera can't do.
There's also a 24p mode but - and it's a painful omission - there's no 180-degree shutter control for 48fps capture. Why? That's a missed trick that various cine-heads are probably already kicking themselves to hear.
All this attention on the video capabilities isn't by chance. In fact we'd go as far as to say that the GH3 could be considered as much a motion camera as it is a stills camera. Indeed the additional price premium compared to the Olympus OM-D E-M5 seems justifiable when considering just what can be done on the moving image front.
Panasonic has been pushing its contrast-detect autofocus system throughout its G-series iterations, and the GH3 is definitely super quick. Makes sense that it's called "light speed" autofocus then.
Whether using using the multi-point 23-area automatic option, the single area or - our favourite - what's called "pinpoint", we have no qualms with speed when the camera's set to single autofocus.
ISO 4000 sample
When in the pinpoint mode a precise tap on the touchscreen will position an accurate cross-head type point that then zooms in to show a 100 per cent view to confirm precision focus.
When we come to review compact system cameras it's almost always the continuous autofocus mode that causes a moan. But, you know what, the GH3's C-AF system is the best that we've ever seen in a compact system camera. It's quick, will easily outperform a budget-to-mid-level DSLR model, but - and there's always a but - it suffers from a "pulsing" in-and-out of focus phenomenon that can be a distraction. Overall it's getting there, though some fast-moving subjects may still be out of this camera's reach. Still, we're impressed, in particular in the GH3's video mode - more on that later.
The inclusion of a focus-selector switch on the camera's rear - to quickly jump between AF-S, AF-F, AF-C and MF - is also handy. See, it's just like a mini DSLR. Sort of.
In fact there are lots more on-body controls that are useful. No less than five physical function buttons are scattered around the body and each is programmable to help customise the camera. However, the Fn2 and Fn3 buttons are a little close to the edge of the raised LCD screen. It's a small issue, but we found it made them a little trickier to press at times.
From the outside this mini-DSLR-esque camera looks a fair bit like the Canon EOS 60D in many respects. It's got a similar build too - that kind of plasticky textured coating might not look all that, but it's a sturdy bit of kit on the inside. Dust and waterproof, underneath the GH3's exterior there's a metal chassis, so no corners have been cut here.
READ: Canon EOS 60D review
In terms of preview and playback the electronic-only viewfinder is a great success for the most part. It's approaching the "crossover point" between a traditional optical and an electronic level, as you might forget it's electronic after using it for a prolonged period of time. There's some blur when panning, but this is minimal compared to previous generation EVFs. There is one ongoing slight issue however: there's still a slight delay in its activation when raising it to the eye. It is faster to display than its predecessors, but we don't want any delay at all, not from a camera at this price.
We'll just get it right out of the way: the Panasonic GH3's images are on par with those from the Olympus OM-D E-M5. We suspect that both cameras share the same Sony-made sensor so, despite processing, and possibly lens differences, despite sharing the same mount, we're not surprised by that result.
That's quite a score for the Panasonic. To put it in perspective, the OM-D had already advanced what was possible from a Micro Four Thirds sensor size, and with the Panasonic catching up it's right up there with the best available. Well, that is for like-for-like sensor sizes as some APS-C sensors will slightly outperform the GH3 in terms of visible colour noise. The difference isn't as significant as you might imagine though - the shift in quality between generations of cameras can be somewhat marginal these days.
ISO 1600 sample
Just like the Olympus OM-D's base ISO 200 standard, the Panasonic GH3 has the same low ISO setting. That's slightly faster than the GH2's ISO 160 base, and still a whole stop faster than the base ISO 100 that we'd certainly like to see in the future. There is a process-based ISO 125 setting that's achieved via processing, but we don't care much for it as it's not a raw file option.
Still, from ISO 200-400 shots look great and are all but void of any image noise. There's a slight sprinkling of colour noise from ISO 800, which is similar at ISO 1600 and this progresses as the sensitivity range continues up to its extended ISO 25,600 maximum. That's a definite improvement compared to the GH2 model, so body-only upgraders will certainly find an added stop of usable ISO performance.
ISO 200 sample
Lens performance certainly has a hand in overall image quality too. Panasonic is pushing its 12-35mm f/2.8 lens which, while the same 24-70mm equivalent that often graces many a pro DSLR, is far smaller but still very capable. It's sharp, the shallow depth of field looks great and close-up focus is pretty decent too. Just take a look at the shot above at 100 per cent scale:
But that's not the only lens out there. It's no secret that the Micro Four Thirds range of lenses is more significant in number than any other compact system camera range out there. With a camera like this that's an important thing, particularly when there are high-spec lenses such as the Leica 45mm f/2.8 APSH, among other gems such as metal-built Olympus 12mm f/2.0.
As we've mentioned, there's a lot that the GH3 can do when it comes to video capture. Whether auto or full manual control is required, including live settings adjustment, it's the amount of detail packed into final shots - thanks to great compression - that impresses the most.
The clean HDMI out - something that even Canon's latest pro DSLR cameras don't offer - means off-camera recording is possible, but if that's not how you work then the 72Mbps ALL-I 1080p files sure do pack in plenty. But those files do come in at quite a size - around 500MB per minute - which, considering that the GH3 has only a single SD card slot may not be ideal. Similar DSLR cameras would likely have a double card slot, something that the GH3, considering its size, should have also added to its design.
Autofocus works well if it's switched on, or using the touchscreen to jump between single focus points is highly effective. It suffers from less over or under-focusing than its predecessor, though this hasn't been entirely eradicated.
Even continuous autofocus tends to perform well. It's certainly not perfect, but using the 12-35mm lens it's quiet to focus and, despite one or two slip ups where the camera opts to focus elsewhere, it avoids that irritating full-range hunt that would otherwise cause more significant out-of-focus issues in the capture. No, it's more sophisticated and slides between once focal plane and the next in smooth transitions.
Pros will more likely opt for manual focus, and there are plenty of third party focus-pull and other accessories, or even different lens mounts for all kinds of non-Micro Four Thirds fittings.
As well as the usual 2x sensor crop which bins pixels in order to produce a 1080p (or other resolution) output, there's a nifty in-menu option called Extra Tele Conversion (ETC) which uses a smaller portion of the sensor. It means an additional 2.4x magnification, but as the sensor is still shooting 1920x1080 pixel-for-pixel there's no loss to quality whatsoever. So a 50mm lens (100mm equivalent in full-frame terms) would achieve a 200mm equivalent with the ETC mode on. That's without loss of aperture or quality. In fact, as the camera will be using the most central portion of the camera's sensor results, typically, will be sharper than if using the whole sensor. Bonus.
Audio is better catered for than ever before and, shy of an XLR connector - there's an adaptor available though - the inclusion of 3.5mm headphone out and microphone in ports is definitely welcome.
Showing its true pro colours, the GH3 also offers a time code option. Whether you need free run, rec run, count up or drop frame - it's all here.
The big omission is, as we've mentioned, that there's no 1/48 shutter speed to sync with the 24p cinema mode. That, as we're sure many will agree, will make the difference between a sold camera and one that remains sat on the shelf.
Feature-packed, the Panasonic Lumix GH3 is up there with the best Micro Four Thirds cameras, but it sure is a pricey purchase. It's even more cash than the Olympus OM-D, but in a more bloated and less "edgily" styled body.
Will it woo the crowds already attached to DSLR brands? It's not necessarily a hard sell on paper, as there are features by the bucketload. But with hardened fans of the best-known DSLR brands, the GH3 does feel a little adverse to what we think compact system cameras to be. Continuous autofocus isn't going to better a similar-price DSLR either, but otherwise it's a full experience that holds its own and there are plenty of lenses to choose from too.
Image quality is also improved compared to its predecessor and really isn't that far off what an APS-C sensor DSLR can produce. However, the real winning point is what the camera can pull off in its video capture mode - there's no other stills camera that can compete to the GH3's level in this area, though high-end professionals may prefer a larger-sensor DSLR for heightened depth-of-field control.
For videographers the GH3 will be a camera high up the consideration list that's worth every penny and fuller score, while others may find the bulkier size induces a Marmite-esque love/hate moment. Despite lots of high praise, it's ultimately the wallet-heavy £1,200 body-only price - which is more expensive than the GH2 predecessor including the worth-over-£500 14-140mm lens - which causes the GH3's score to slip.