(Pocket-lint) - Available in black, red and white in the UK (and “chocolate” in Europe), this new DSLR-styled, mid-range Micro Four Thirds compact system camera (CSC) slots between last year’s DMC-G2 - which drops down to become the entry-level model in the Lumix range, replacing the existing DMC-G10 - and the semi pro-spec DMC-GH2, announced at the start of the year. All of the above pitch the idea that DSLR level image quality can be achieved from a more compact form.
So, not so subtly, as with predecessors and rivals including the Samsung NX11, the mirror-less G3 resembles a digital SLR that’s been compressed. The result here is a boxy appearance, somewhat disguised when the F/3.5-5.6 14-42mm kit zoom lens (28-84mm equivalent in 35mm terms) is screwed onto its mount.
As with any upgrade, we want to know is the G3 smaller, lighter? Particularly as increased portability is one of the key selling points of the Micro Four Thirds camera system? Well, on that score both boxes are ticked, the G3 being a sizable 25% smaller and approx 10% lighter (336g to its predecessor’s 371g). It is also the first camera in the DSLR-shaped Lumix G range to boast a “sophisticated” metal body, in this case fashioned from aluminium like Panasonic’s viewfinder-less GF2.
It feels deceptively lightweight when gripped in the palm compared to a mid-range DSLR, though personally we could have done with a more pronounced handgrip. You can just about dig your three middle fingers into its sloped edge, which is enveloped in smooth rubber padding. Flick the on/off switch that surrounds the small-ish shooting mode dial on the top plate and the camera is instantly ready for action.
The G3’s reduced dimensions have also resulted in a control layout that is simpler in appearance. This is also partly down to the fact that operation is shared between physical buttons and dials, and virtual ones, via the rear plate touch panel LCD.
Touch LCD, Viewfinder
Three inches in size and angle adjustable, the screen resolution is 460k dots and we didn’t have any visibility issues when shooting in sunlight even with the screen pressed flat to the body. The LCD can be flipped outwards through 180 degrees plus angled up or down or turned screen inwards - so providing plenty of flexibility here for those otherwise awkward compositional angles.
Being, according to Panasonic, the world’s smallest and lightest camera of its ilk to sport a built-in (electronic) viewfinder, it is also similarly priced to the G2 was on launch; £629.99 with 14-42mm kit zoom, though street prices will inevitably be lower. Said EVF is high resolution too, boasting 1,440,000 dots, though due to the flexibility of the larger LCD with live view we didn’t find ourselves using it much over the course of a week’s review period. A built-in eye sensor to automatically swap between EVF and LCD as we moved between them would have been cool, but instead there’s a button for manually switching.
The new camera also features 100% field of view and full area focusing in respect of the LCD, so in a practical sense you can touch anywhere on the LCD to direct the AF point - in the corners or at the bottom - and the camera will respond accordingly, zeroing in on a particular spot that doesn’t happen to be dead centre of frame. For taking portraits, background defocus can also be controlled by dragging a sliding bar across the screen, with the changes relayed in real time.
Otherwise, it’s worth noting that users can largely get by without using the LCD as a touchscreen if they’re put off by the very idea, as there are the regular cross keys control pad and command dial to also be found here, with dedicated key presses giving access to the likes of ISO, white balance, burst shooting and the handy Q.Menu (quick Menu). That being said in practice we found a combination of button and screen prods did help speed things along and quickly became an operational aspect we didn’t give a second thought to.
New sensor, lightening-fast focusing
As with any upgrade, the G3’s maker is also making the argument here for improved image quality, suggesting that the G3’s output is close to both that of the flagship GH2 model and the alternative of an actual DSLR, such as the Canon EOS 600D or Nikon D5100.
This picture quality comes courtesy of a newly developed 15.8 effective megapixel (16MP total) Live Mos sensor and Venus Engine IV FHD processor, the same as that used in the GH2. Panasonic is also deploying contrast detection auto focus here, which it insists is the quickest and most accurate AF method. It’s certainly fast. In fact with the 14-42mm kit lens attached the AF speed is 0.18 seconds. What this means is practically instant determination of focus/exposure, as quick as you can half press the shutter release, so if you see that impossibly perfect photo in your mind’s eye you’re far less likely to miss it in reality.
Panasonic has further claimed that image noise is drastically reduced at pixel and circuit areas, when compared to the G2. In fact, between the G2 and G3 sensor at ISO 3200 and ISO 6400 there’s a 6 decibel and 9 decibel improvement. In real terms this means that the performance of the G3 at ISO 3200 is almost the same as ISO 1600 on the G2. Incidentally ISO 6400 is the maximum, with the range starting out at a slightly higher than most ISO 160, including both Auto and “intelligent” Auto options. Even at ISO 3200 we noticed barely any noise/grain, and although it’s rather more visible at top whack ISO 6400 setting, the performance is still as akin to results at ISO 1600 on your average pocket snapshot these days. So we’d be happy shooting at top setting.
Controls and results
Though Program, Shutter Priority, Aperture Priority and Manual shooting modes are included on the small top plate dial, along with two customisable settings, scene modes and digital effects modes, at first glance there’s no obvious “auto” mode on the G3. This is because there is a separate iA (Intelligent Auto) button nestling unobtrusively to the right of the shutter release button, as found on the Lumix pocket compacts. Press this and the camera defaults to point and shoot scene and subject recognising operation, whichever mode is displayed on the dial - allowing the user to concentrate on subject, not settings. And reliably accurate it is too as the camera’s default mode. Press a second time to turn iA off, the button itself glowing with a cool blue light when the mode is active.
Also absent on the dial is a video shooting mode. This is because this too has its own self-explanatory red record button, to be found top right of the LCD at the camera back and adjacent to the playback button. Give this a press and recording commences no matter which alternative shooting mode has been selected on the dial. As, unlike on a DSLR proper, there’s no need to wait for live view mode to first be selected and an internal mirror mechanism to flip out of the way, video recording is quick and easy on the G3. Full HD clips are offered with an output rate of 30fps and with stereo sound too, courtesy of top mounted microphones nestled in front of vacant hotshoe for accessory flash. (There’s also flash of the pop-up variety located directly above the lens with a manual access lever.) But what’s particularly useful is that focus automatically adjusts almost seamlessly and silently for the user as they alter framing when recording video.
We were quite happy with the default images delivered by the camera, with both RAW and JPEG shooting offered. However, we also enjoyed delivering a little more in the way of contrast and colour saturation in-camera by delving into the G3’s newly re-named digital filters, split between Creative Control and Photo Style modes which we feel could have been amalgamated in terms of a single access point (one is found via the dial, the other via the record menu screens).
On the whole we found the images delivered by the G3 very colourful and, given that we only had the 14-42mm standard zoom to play with, very reasonable in terms of detail too - better than an average compact if, to our eyes, falling just short of an actual DSLR. Though we lost highlight detail in sunnier climes, there is a High Dynamic (Range) mode selectable from within the Creative Control options to lift shadow areas and retain highlights, even if at times our results became a little painterly in appearance. We also enjoyed the saturation boosting “Expressive” mode which provided a further boost to lift already naturally colourful subjects from their backgrounds and draw in the viewer’s gaze. For general purpose snapping the G3 delivers the goods, and there’s the ability to get creative, or not, which should further broaden the G3’s appeal and prospective audience.
The battery offers up around 260 shots and slots neatly into the bottom alongside the SD/SDHC/SDXC card. Around the side you’ll find a mini HDMI so you can hook the G3 straight up to your TV to enjoy your movies and photos on the big screen.
Available from mid June, the enticing aspects of the G3 are a smaller form factor than the G2, improved feature set, plus arguably even easier handling - and all for the same price as its forebear on launch. Alternatively if you’re on a budget the G2 is still available for around £100 less. At the same time those wanting a truly compact solution that aren’t bothered about a viewfinder nor vari-angle screen are directed to the impressive GF2.
For amateur videographers the clincher may be that it’s much easier to get underway shooting video with the G3 than it is with a DSLR based on a 35mm format body, and in that respect the spec here is also better than the Samsung NX11, which doesn’t offer Full HD and boasts only mono sound.
The G3 is Panasonic’s considered approach to keeping its range up to date and its product line strong, along with the G2 and “daddy” GH2 retaining three options separated by around £100 for those wanting a DSLR alternative with most of the attendant bells and whistles (including viewfinder). The fact that it’s lightweight and accessible, while well built enough to withstand the odd clumsy fumble with it, should find it doing very well with family users.
Product shots by Chris Hall, with lots more in our hands-on.