(Pocket-lint) - The line between DSLR and mirrorless cameras continues to blur, with the Panasonic Lumix G9 gunning to be the first choice for pro photographers. In many respects, this is the camera to cease the disparity between the formats; it's almost like a "mirrorless DSLR".
The G9 offers oodles of appeal by cutting out the typical irks that many mirrorless cameras can present: it's got a huge viewfinder with near-instant startup; a super-fast 20fps continuous autofocus mode at full resolution; it adds a light-up status LCD screen (which you'll find nowhere else except on a mirrorless Leica); and offers improved battery longevity with up to 920 shots per charge.
Having used the Lumix G9 with a variety of lenses for two weeks - in both South Africa on safari and Vietnam while travelling - we've come to think that it's perhaps the finest mirrorless cameras that money can buy. Indeed, it's so good that we'd lean away from the Fujifilm X-T2 and Panasonic's own GH5 in its favour.
How does it differ from the GH5?
- All-new status LCD screen atop camera
- Dual IS 2 offers 6.5-stop image stabilisation
- Redesigned body with extra deep grip and textured leather-like coating
- 4K at 60fps video recording also possible
There's no skirting around the presence of the Lumix GH5 - a camera that's already largely accomplished in this sector, but which is perhaps more widely seen as a videographers' camera. That's where the G9 fits into the equation differently: the image processing has been tuned specifically for stills photography, while the Dual IS 2 image stabilisation system is improved, too (to 6.5 stops).
Our biggest take-away from the G9, however, is its design. It's a bigger, blockier camera that's a lot closer in looks to a classic DSLR than any other mirrorless camera we've seen. The grip is ultra-deep to make for an ideal handle on the camera - although, depending on the lens you're using, it might be too deep for comfortable handling of smaller lenses, such as pancake primes. The textured leather-like finish is also deeper than any other camera we've seen, too, which aids gloved use. And the shutter button is ultra-sensitive - just like you'll find on a pro DSLR (and which might take some getting used to).
The other significant feature to make the G9 stand apart from the GH5 is the inclusion of a status LCD screen atop the camera. This light-up window displays current settings and it's the first time we've seen it in a mirrorless camera at this scale (ok, the Leica SL has a status screen too, but that camera is a whole other proposition).
You might be thinking that the G9 would more-or-less do away with its video features to focus on stills, leaving that for the GH5 to rule. But no, Panasonic has ensured the G9 comes with up to 4K capture at 60fps (albeit with 4:2:0 8-bit output and without HLG possible, putting it a peg behind). So you won't exactly be short changed there either.
The best electronic viewfinder, ever
- 3,680k-dot 120fps 0.83x magnification electronic viewfinder
- 1,040k-dot vari-angle LCD touchscreen
The electronic viewfinder is a long-established and often maligned feature in the world of digital cameras. When such digitised screens first appeared, they were a long way behind what's on offer today. And the Lumix G9 isn't shy to capitalise on what's available, offering the best electronic viewfinder we've used in a camera to date.
It's not just down to the resolution - but, ok, the 3.68 million dots is aplenty - but more the magnification (which relates to the physical size of the panel you'll see to your eye). The G9's 0.83x equivalent mag makes for a huge image - we can't think of a larger equivalent in any camera, come to think of it, as even the Fujifilm X-T2 has 0.77x, the Canon 1D X II has 0.76x, the Nikon D850 has 0.75x - that almost extends to the point of peripheral vision. Which could be considered a weakness, should you find yourself "looking around" the preview trying to get things lined up perfectly - yet Panasonic has included a V.Mode button to step down the magnification (in addition to full 0.83x there are two additional steps).
The other hugely important factor is that the panel used has a 120fps refresh rate, doubling what you'll find from the competition. This high frame-rate is important because it reduces ghosting and tearing, making for a super smooth image to the eye that reflects the real world. Start-up of the finder is ultra-quick too, with none of the waiting around we've found in other mirrorless cameras being an issue.
The one problem we've had with the finder, however, is due to the removable viewfinder cup. It's not the tightest of fits, and should it slide even a minute way out of position it blocks the sensor and automatic startup can become an issue. This looser-than-usual fit also saw our finder cup fall off and vanish entirely over the course of our two weeks of use. Whoops.
It's not just about the viewfinder, of course, as a mirrorless camera can shoot just as proficiently when using its rear screen as it can through the finder. And the Lumix G9 comes with a 3.0-inch touchscreen panel, sat on a vari-angle bracket to allow the screen to be manipulated through various angles as you please. This is increasingly standard in such cameras today, but that's exactly why we see it as a must-have feature in the way we now work. Oddly, however, the screen is smaller than found in the GH5 - and it's not as though the G9 lacks physical space for a larger one.
Performance to rival a pro DSLR?
- "World's fastest autofocus" with 0.04s second acquisition
- Electronic shutter maximum: 20fps continuous autofocus; 60fps single autofocus
- Mechanical shutter maximum: 9fps continuous autofocus; 12fps single autofocus
- 125-area autofocus system
- Splash, dust and freeze-proof construction
The Lumix G9 isn't mucking about when it comes to other high-end features. The autofocus is ultra-fast, to the point that Panasonic describes it as its fastest yet. Which is handy when you're in the South African bush trying to grab shots of kudu. That said, the G9 doesn't precisely feel quicker than the GH5 in terms of autofocus, even if it is 0.0-something faster in technical terms.
We've long praised Panasonic's autofocus setup for its proficiency. For us it's the one to beat in the mirrorless market - although it's not always felt on par with a DSLR's phase detection system when it comes to moving subjects. The G9 seems to fix that issue, however, as we've found when shooting passing moped riders in Vietnam carrying an array of increasingly massive cargo. Get the shutter speed right, panning on point and the rapid continuous autofocus - which can have the number of active points restricted and repositioned as you please, plus various speed customisation adjustments - and the G9 is highly capable.
Plus it's one helluva fast camera. Fast enough to keep even sports photographers happy. Its headline 60fps burst shooting needs to be considered on balance, however, as that requires electronic shutter use (which is not great for all lighting scenarios, due to flicker/banding) and a single point of focus. That said, a 20fps burst with continuous autofocus is possible, putting it up there as one of the fastest cameras on the market.
If electronic shutter is no good for you - we love it because it's silent, therefore discreet, whether you're shooting golfers before the tee or wildlife that otherwise might scupper - then the mechanical shutter also snaps away quickly, at 12fps in single autofocus or 9fps in continuous autofocus. That usurps the X-T2 from top spot, but it's a peg behind the Olympus OM-D E-M1 MkII's 18fps continuous autofocus.
In addition to a significant 125 autofocus areas, the Lumix system also features Pinpoint AF for crosshair accuracy, which is what we use frequently for still subjects. The way it zooms in to 100 per cent scale on screen can assist with ensuring perfect focus. That said, should a subject move even slightly it can cost the final image - and we'd love to see a Canon EOS 5D MkIV-style "super raw" format to allow for minute focus adjustment after shooting (sure, Panasonic offers Post Focus shooting, but this is for use on a tripod and wouldn't solve the scenario we're talking about).
Customisable to outsmart other mirrorless cameras
- Function lever for two user-defined presets
- Dual user-defined drive modes
- Dual UHS-II SD card slots
- Battery saving mode to 920 shots per charge
- Optional battery grip available for increased longevity
The other area the Lumix G9 is clearly proficient is in its level of customisation. Panasonic has long offered the ability to assign functions to the various "Fn" (function) buttons that are positioned around the camera, but in the G9 it goes one step further with the introduction of a Function lever.
This lever, found to the lower left of the camera (when raised to eye), has a simple two positions to toggle between, making it possible to setup the camera in two quick-to-launch forms. No need to go forever digging into menus, as the flick of a switch could provide all the customisations you need. That said, we've not found we've used it that much, whereas the similar "2x2 dial" found on some Olympus mirrorless cameras' rears feels better positioned.
The same can be said of drive mode: there are I and II burst shooting options on the drive mode ring, which can be setup for different shooting scenarios. Sure, may cameras have fast/medium/slow burst shooting options in a similar position, but on the G9 you can choose what each mode is set to with greater precision. Whether that's electronic shutter at 20fps continuous autofocus on II and mechanical shutter at 12fps single autofocus on I, or something different to suit your preferences. There are some bugs here, however, with the II option often continuing to shoot beyond the shutter being pressed - and requiring a battery pull to cease operation. Teething issues ahead of the final launch, we're sure.
Dual setup, dual burst shooting, and a dual SD card slot continue to entertain the G9's "dual" theme. Both slots are UHS-II compatible for optimum transfer speed, which will certainly come in handy if you decide to whirr off 60 frames in a second at full resolution, or want to capture 4K video.
Even battery modes are customisable, which is a good job given how poor mirrorless cameras' battery lives tend to be. We've found the Lumix G9 to last well in context to its competition, but that's in the region of 400 frames per charge - and it's tricky to gauge battery level, as there's no percentage monitor.
However, there is a battery saving mode, which more than doubles the battery life for up to 920 shots per charge. The mode will put the camera to sleep at every opportunity, however, which does slow down the shooting process - so we've avoiding using it. Carrying spare batteries has been out preference. Or buy the optional battery grip (free for those who pre-order the G9, £309 for those who pick it up after the fact), but it's a shame this can only host one extra battery rather than two.
What's image quality like?
- 20-megapixel Live MOS sensor
- 80-megapixel High-Res mode
- 6K Photo mode
- Micro Four Thirds lens mount
- New Leica 200mm f/2.8 lens available (£2,700)
Being a camera aimed at stills photographers over videographers, the Lumix G9 isn't wildly different to the GH5 in its like-for-like image quality to our eyes, as both cameras utilise the same 20-megapixel sensor. However, the engineers behind the scenes have adapted default processing to be a little sharper, dynamic range expanded and colours a little more natural overall.
We're rather spoiled, really, given how good image quality has become. Which is a good job overall, as the Live MOS sensor at the heart of the G9, despite being slightly smaller than some rivals, doesn't suffer in terms of sharpness or image noise processing as a result. Even the G9's ISO 6400 shots look great.
The real take-away from our shoot in South Africa, however, is how critical lens selection is. The new 200mm f/2.8 Leica being a prime example of just how sharply resolved shots can be - particularly noticeable with animal fur and other subtleties. Sure, it's not a cheap lens, at £2,700, but with a 400mm equivalent focal length out of the box and a 1.4x magnifier included (for a 560mm f/4.0 equivalent), it's truly world class in its abilities. And it's far, far smaller than a similar quality lens would be on a DSLR with a larger sensor.
Being spoiled with such lens quality does go to highlight the difference you'll find with some less capable glass, however. Yes, the Micro Four Thirds range has a heap of lenses available - including those from Olympus, which are cross-compatible - but select what you use wisely if you're looking to the G9 as a truly pro-grade camera. It'll be this that defines the camera beyond some of its rivals, and what we've found has made it an extra special mirrorless model.
Image straight from camera looks great, by and large holding image noise at bay, although the default colour profile is somewhat muted. We ended up shooting in Vivid the majority of the time to lift the colour palette a little. As ever, there's no baseline ISO 100 setting either - things kick off at ISO 200. But small gripes, really, given the impressive results we've been able to shoot with little post.
In addition to the 20MP shots, the G9 is the first Lumix camera to introduce High-Res mode, which is capable of shooting 80-megapixels. It does this by using the image stabilisation system to offset the sensor a pixel at a time in four directions and then gathers the additional data for a hugely resolute shot - much in the same way as Olympus offers in its latest OM-D cameras.
Of course, given the way High-Res mode mode functions, it can't be used handheld - you'll need total stillness from a camera support, such as a tripod, and need a totally still subject too. But if still life is your thing then medium format resolution is no bad thing. At present, it's a bit too fussy to select within the menu system and we think should be more easily accessible.
Overall, the Lumix G9 offers not only great image quality straight from camera, but a great range of features - including exceptionally strong in-camera image stabilisation - to achieve the perfect pictures in the first instance. If you're unfussed about having a huge sensor for enhanced depth of field control, then the speed and quality from the G9 is right up there.
The Panasonic Lumix G9 doesn't only step up what mirrorless cameras can do - surpassing even the Fujifilm X-T2 in many areas - it successfully places itself in among the DSLR elite. It's a very impressive bit of kit indeed.
However, having already described it as a "mirrorless DSLR", that does mean the G9 is on a large scale compared to most mirrorless cameras. In many respects this is to advantage - the huge grip, for example, makes it a treat to handle with longer lenses - but if you're expecting a small and light chuck-it-in-a-bag experience then, well, that's not the point of this camera.
At first we weren't sure the G9 defined itself enough from the GH5, but after weeks of use we're now certain it does. With mighty impressive image stabilisation, an ultra-sensitive shutter, super-fast burst mode, accomplished continuous autofocus and burst shooting, plus a viewfinder that's unrivalled by any mirrorless model, the G9 really is the finest mirrorless camera that money can buy.
The Panasonic Lumix G9 is available from 1 January 2018, priced £1500 body-only, £2020 with the Leica 12-60mm f/2.8-4 lens, and £1670 with the Panasonic 12-16mm f/3.5-5.6 lens. The Leica 200mm f/2.8 lens will be priced £2700. The optional battery grip will cost £309 (but is free for pre-order customers).
Alternatives to consider
The mirrorless camera to set the benchmark back in 2016, especially when paired with the optional battery grip, the X-T2 is still a stellar camera. But Panasonic's wider lens range, extra features and video capabilities offer yet wider appeal.
Read the full article: Fujifilm X-T2 review