Canon G3X Field Test

A Proven Sensor with a Powerful Lens

by Jeremy Gray | Posted

600mm equivalent (220mm), f/5.6, 1/500s, ISO 160
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Bigger zoom ups the ante against RX10 & FZ1000

The Canon PowerShot G3 X uses a 20.2-megapixel 1-inch-type CMOS sensor and competes directly against the popular Sony RX10 series and the Panasonic FZ1000, which both use a similar (or potentially the same) sensor, albeit with different processing engines. Where the Sony RX10 series and the Panasonic FZ1000 come up short against the G3X is in telephoto capabilities as the Canon G3X's most noteworthy feature is its 24-600mm equivalent lens. With an impressive zoom range and a well-regarded sensor, the G3X packs a lot of performance into a small package. However, there are some negative aspects to the G3X, such as the absence of a built-in viewfinder and lackluster high-speed shooting capabilities.

142mm equivalent (51.9mm), f/5.0, 1/800s, ISO 800, Auto Mode
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Key Features

  • 20.2-megapixel 1"-type BSI-CMOS image sensor
  • ISO range of 125-12,800
  • 3.2" tilting TFT-LCD touchscreen with 1.62 million dots
  • 31 autofocus points
  • 5.9 frames per second continuous shooting with JPEG images
  • Built-in Wi-Fi and NFC
  • Water- and dust-resistant body

DSLR-like usability in a smaller package

The Canon PowerShot G3 X has the usability of a DSLR camera without having the large size and weight. Although the G3X is moderately heavy at 739 grams and certainly won't fit in a normal pocket with its large lens, it's still a small camera body for its class. Despite being small, the G3X's deep front grip felt excellent and allowed me to get a good hold on the camera.

All of the G3X's buttons are easy to reach, and the use of the Quick Set menu makes it easy to adjust important settings without having to clutter the camera body with a large number of dedicated settings buttons. The G3X has a non-locking mode dial on the top of the camera, but it is practically impossible to accidentally rotate. One thing I dislike about the G3X body is the shutter button because the distance needed to press it down to a half-press and also a full press both feel unusually short.

Lack of a viewfinder is a bummer

An unusual aspect of the G3X -- especially for a camera such such a long zoom -- is its absence of a viewfinder. An electronic viewfinder can be purchased separately and attached to the top of the camera via the hot shoe, but this accessory comes with an MSRP of $299 USD. With that said, I got accustomed to using just the display on the G3X, and the lack of a viewfinder ended up not being as big of an issue for me as I expected it to be. I would still prefer to have a viewfinder, especially when shooting in bright light, but if the lack of a viewfinder contributed to the relatively compact size of the G3X, then it is a reasonable trade-off.

The large and sharp display on the back of the G3X certainly helped me quickly adjust to shooting without a viewfinder. The 3.2" touchscreen LCD is fantastic, with bright, vibrant colors. However, the display is quite glossy, and this does create some issues when shooting in bright light. The ability to tilt the display helps to deal with light issues out in the field somewhat, but a fully-articulating display would have given me more options to reduce glare when shooting in bright light. I used touch controls a lot when using the G3X but rarely had to clean the display because the display handles fingerprints well.

High quality images, especially at lower ISOs

485mm equivalent (178mm), f/5.6, 1/500s, ISO 400, -1/3 exposure compensation
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The G3X produces high-quality image files with rich colors, good contrast and impressive sharpness. JPEG files straight from the camera look great and have good colors, contrast, and sharpness using default settings. RAW files from the G3X don't offer the same leniency for adjustments as you would find with RAW files from a larger sensor, but they still offer a lot of data for making exposure and color adjustments during post-processing. Image files at lower ISO speeds in particular are very clean with smooth tonal transitions and accurate colors.

The G3X offers some picture adjustments when recording only JPEG image files. Through the Quick Set menu, it's possible to choose dynamic range correction, shadow correction, and choose from a variety of "My Colors" image presets, such as vivid, sepia and black and white.

220mm (600mm equivalent), f/5.6, 1/400s, ISO 125
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This is a 100% crop of the above image. Click for original image.

Top marks for the lens at most focal lengths

Optical zoom on the Canon G3X ranges from 24mm to 600mm equivalents. Click over to the Gallery Page to view the full-resolution images comprising this animation.

Across much of the focal range, images are very sharp. As is typical with many zoom lenses, sharpness falls off slightly at both ends of the lens. I found the G3X to produce the sharpest images between 50 and 400mm, with only a slight decrease in sharpness at extreme ends of the lens. Despite the large 24-600mm focal length range, distortion is minimal across the range. Vignetting is not a major problem, either, although there is some vignetting at the widest end of the lens and begins to appear again around 300mm. There is also some minor purple fringing around high-contrast fine details.

One aspect of the otherwise very impressive lens that I don't like is how quickly the aperture decreases as you increase focal length. Using the step zoom feature to see how aperture changes at certain focal lengths, only from 24 to 28mm is the lens capable of shooting at f/2.8. At 50mm, the lens' maximum aperture falls to f/4.0 and by 85mm, the maximum aperture is f/5.0. At 200mm using step zoom, the maximum aperture becomes f/5.6. In further testing when I manually changed the focal length of the lens, the maximum aperture appeared to become f/5.6 around 170mm.

Out in the Field: Mostly great, but battery is underwhelming

The G3X is enjoyable to use out in the field. It offers fast access to important photo settings, features intuitive controls and menus and performs well in various automatic modes. The G3X also has both dust and water resistance to help deal with adverse environmental conditions. The battery life is a bit underwhelming, though. The battery is rated for only 300 shots, but there is also an "eco mode" that increases the battery life to up to 410 shots, according to Canon, by dimming the display when the camera is not in use. In my experience, the battery would not last a full day of shooting. I had it fully deplete one morning sooner than I had anticipated, and also had to charge it during most shooting days.

24mm equivalent (8.8mm), f/5.6, 10s, ISO 125, Manual Mode
This image has been converted to black and white and modified. Click for original image.

As I touched on in the handling section earlier, the G3X has a good button layout, which allowed me to adjust camera settings quickly when out in the field. On the top right corner of the display is a button to access the camera's Quick Set menu. The Quick Set menu can also be brought up by pressing the "Set" button inside of the control dial. The menu works well with both touch and traditional controls, but I found touch controls to be a much faster way to navigate this menu. Bringing the Quick Set menu up allows the user to adjust important shooting settings such as autofocus method, image recording settings, movie recording options, self-timer, neutral density filter, image ratio, white balance and metering. When recording only JPEG files, there are also "my colors", dynamic range correction and shadow correction options available in the Quick Set menu.

Shooting modes for days, but no in-camera panorama

With a wide array of shooting modes, the G3X offers the manual control you would expect from a DSLR while still offering numerous automatic and special shooting modes. The G3X has two custom shooting modes on the mode dial, as well as manual, aperture priority, shutter speed priority and program exposure modes. For fully automatic shooting modes, the G3X has Hybrid Auto, Auto, Creative Shot, Sports, Scene, High Dynamic Range and Standard (movie) modes. Hybrid Auto is unique as it creates a "digest movie" while you're shooting still images. What this means is that the camera records a 2-4 second movie clip before each still image and then combines the clips into a movie file later. A notable omission from the G3X's features list is the ability to capture panoramas.

600mm equivalent (220mm), f/5.6, 1/400s, ISO 160, Auto Mode
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Within Scene mode, there is an interesting starry sky scene option as well as a star trails mode. The camera constantly processes image files as it captures them and the final composite image is ready shortly after the camera is finished shooting. The camera automatically handles all settings, you only choose how long you want the camera to capture images, up to 2 hours. In short, these two night shooting modes work well, but I'll discuss more about these modes and other low-light shooting further down in my report.

Within Creative Filters mode, I found that the High Dynamic Range filter worked particularly well. It offers a variety of different strengths and effects for HDR images, which can all be cycled through using the front dial on the top of the camera. The HDR mode takes three consecutive JPEG images and then processes them in-camera to create a single HDR file.

115mm equivalent (42mm), f/6.3, 1/200s, ISO 250, HDR (Art Standard)
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The G3X has a native ISO range of 125-12,800 and has an auto ISO feature. The maximum ISO speed when shooting with Auto ISO is customizable, which is great, with an allowable maximum range of ISO 400-12,800. The Auto ISO rate of change can also be selected from standard, fast and slow. Auto ISO did a good job and often struck a good balance between maintaining an appropriate shutter speed for a particular focal length without pushing the ISO speed unnecessarily high. Automatic white balance also worked well, managing to do a great job in a wide variety of outdoor scenes and lighting conditions. The G3X did a good job overall of assessing a scene and not neutralizing certain warm or cool tones that I wanted the final image to accurately represent.

The G3X has multi, center-weighted and spot metering options. Multi metering worked very well in my experience and produced the exposures that I expected. In cases where exposure compensation was necessary, the G3X offers +/- 3 stop exposure compensation. Further, the dedicated exposure compensation dial can be rotated easily and quickly with your right thumb while shooting. Spot metering can be set to the center of the frame, or it can be linked with the AF point.

Manual focus frustrating without EVF

Manually focusing with the G3X is easy and user-friendly when using a tripod, but I found it difficult to manually focus the G3X hand-held because without a viewfinder you have to hold the camera some distance out in front of you to use the display. I struggled to hold the camera at the same distance from me during the process of focusing and then capturing an image. The lens does have a wide focus ring that rotates smoothly, but there is not a built-in focus scale on the lens. Rather than a physical focus scale, there's a digital one on the right side of the display. To enable manually focusing, there is a manual focus button on the lens itself. The G3X can magnify on a selected area of the frame at 2x and 4x increments, and there's also focus peaking that can be activated through the system menu, which is useful.

600mm equivalent (220mm), f/5.6, 1/500s, ISO 125
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While the G3X already offers impressive reach with its 600mm equivalent lens, it offers up to 4x digital zoom as well up, which equates to 100x of total zoom. Digital zoom availability depends on image recording settings as there is no digital zoom available when recording RAW files. Digital zoom decreases image quality quite a lot, as is to be expected, but it's a nice option to have for both stills and video shooting if needed. When shooting at 600mm and beyond, image stabilization is very important, and the G3X delivers in this regard. The G3X's optical image stabilization works very well, particularly when it is set to "continuous" mode. You can set the image stabilization to only function just before an image is captured, but I found that the continuous image stabilization works better at longer focal lengths while I was framing a subject. Composing shots at telephoto lengths can still be tricky even with image stabilization, so I was pleased that the G3X has a useful framing assist button on the lens that zooms the lens out while you hold the button down and then zooms back to the focal length you want to shoot at after you've framed the subject and released the button.

Overall, the G3X is an enjoyable camera to use, and it offers many features that allowed me to easily capture the images I wanted in a wide variety of conditions and situations, all without having to carrying around a bag full of lenses. The high-quality touchscreen both diminished some of the concerns I had with not having a viewfinder and also became an important way for me to interact with the camera and adjust settings quickly.

Versatile, easy to use Wi-Fi shooting & sharing

Like many cameras nowadays, the Canon G3X features built-in wireless connectivity. To start a Wi-Fi connection using my iOS device, I first pressed the "Mobile Device Connection" button on the back of the G3X. After pressing this button, I chose to connect to a mobile device. I then went into my iOS device's Wi-Fi settings and chose the SSID for the G3X from the list of connections. After the Wi-Fi connected, I opened Canon's Camera Connect application.

Inside the Camera Connect app, there are three primary features: viewing images that are on the camera's SD card, remote camera control and geotagging options. Capturing images remotely using the Camera Connect app works quite well although there are limited options available for remotely changing settings. Changing the exposure mode on the camera body isn't reflected in the Camera Connect app unless the connection between the camera and mobile device is restarted. By default, the camera won't autofocus until you press the shutter button on the mobile device, but there is an option in the app's settings to decouple the shutter release and focus such that a smaller autofocus button will appear next to the shutter button on the screen (seen above).

The app allows you to adjust shutter speed, aperture, exposure compensation and ISO when the camera is in manual exposure mode. Additionally, you can adjust some camera settings through the application, including drive mode and autofocus method. Unfortunately, you cannot adjust white balance or metering settings. The live view within the application is fairly low resolution, so it can be difficult to tell if an image is in critical focus, but otherwise the connection is consistently smooth and stable. Overall, the application works well and offers enough control for most kinds of shooting, but having to restart the connection to update changes made on the camera body is inconvenient.

Good AF, but performance dips on low-contrast & full tele

The G3X's autofocus performance is generally good, although it can occasionally be frustratingly slow to acquire focus. The G3X utilizes 31 contrast-detect autofocus points that cover a large portion of the frame. Like Canon's EOS cameras, the G3X offers both one-shot and servo autofocus drive modes. For autofocus methods, there are face detection + subject tracking and one-point methods. The G3X has macro and normal autofocus shooting range options with macro mode allowing close-focusing down to 5cm within the 24-100mm focal length range. When shooting in auto mode, the camera can automatically switch between macro and normal shooting range.

600mm equivalent (220mm), f/5.6, 1/320s, ISO 640
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When using one-point AF in good lighting conditions and with a good amount of contrast between the subject and the scene, the G3X autofocuses quickly. The AF point can be moved by pressing the AF frame selector button and using the control dial or by using the touchscreen to move the AF point around. I strongly preferred using touchscreen out in the field because it's simply quicker than the button and control dial. Autofocus performance noticeably decreases at telephoto focal lengths, unfortunately. At 600mm, the G3X can be quite slow to acquire focus, even in good conditions. Further, the G3X had a tendency to get stuck on a background element when I was trying to focus on something small, even thought it filled the entire AF point on the display.

When using the subject tracking autofocus method, the G3X is quite good at correctly choosing the subject and can acquire focus quickly. On the other hand, like with one-point AF, the G3X struggles in low light or in low-contrast conditions. With that said, the autofocus performance was generally good when dealing with stationary subjects in most lighting conditions.

153mm equivalent (56mm), f/5.6, 1/160s, ISO 160
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Servo AF struggles with fast-moving subjects

Servo AF performance is good when photographing well-lit, slow-moving subjects. However, subjects that are moving quickly typically outpaced the G3X's ability to maintain autofocus. When using the face detection + tracking autofocus method, the G3X also lets you tap on a subject on the display and the camera will then attempt to keep the focus point on that subject as it moves throughout the frame. During my testing, this feature worked well for slow-moving subjects, but for quickly-moving subjects it was generally better to use one-point AF and try to keep the focus point on the subject yourself. However, keeping subjects within the AF point proved difficult for me using the G3X's display. The longer focal lengths certainly made it more difficult as well, particularly trying to keep the camera steady while holding it out in front of me. With a viewfinder, I think that I would have been able to stabilize the camera much better by holding it up against my face. In addition to servo AF, the G3X can also be set to continuously focus on a subject even when not half-pressing the shutter. I liked using this setting as the camera was more likely to be ready to capture a sharp image, particularly when photographing wildlife.

24mm equivalent (8.8mm), f/2.8, 6s, ISO 3200
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Good in low light, but keep ISO reined-in if possible

The G3X's 1-inch-type sensor allows for high-quality images to be taken across a wide range of ISO speeds. In my opinion, RAW files are usable at full-size up to and including ISO 1600. At ISO 3200, image files are still usable, but I would be hesitant to use the full-size image, such as with large prints or for heavy cropping, for example. ISO 6400 image files look fine at small sizes, like for web applications, but RAW files taken at ISO 12,800 have a lot of issues, and I wouldn't use them for any purpose. When looking at RAW files, visible noise at 100% becomes noticeable to me around ISO 400, and noise becomes noticeable at smaller viewing sizes at ISO 800. At ISO 1600 visible noise becomes quite substantial. There is some false color in shadow areas, and an overall loss of contrast, as well. These issues are further exacerbated at ISO 3200.


Canon PowerShot G3 X Noise Comparison (Click images for full-resolution files)
ISO 125 (Lowest ISO Speed)
ISO 125
ISO 200
ISO 400
ISO 800
ISO 1600
ISO 3200
ISO 6400
ISO 12800

Well-balanced Noise Reduction at default level

With JPEG files and standard noise reduction applied, the story is different. The G3X's noise reduction does a good job at reducing noise levels without eliminating fine detail from an image file. The right balance between reducing noise and retaining detail is a subjective issue, but for me, the G3X does well in this regard. I find that JPEG images from ISO 125-6400 look fine for most applications, though I would probably stick with ISO 1600 and below for large prints just like I would with RAW. With that said, an ISO 12,800 image file viewed at small sizes still looks okay, and that's impressive. With low noise reduction, the G3X does preserve more detail in high ISO images, but it also leaves a lot of noise. Conversely, with high noise reduction selected, the entire image attains an overly smoothed appearance as fine details are lost. Personally, I think that the default noise reduction does the best job overall.

Canon PowerShot G3 X Noise Reduction Comparison: ISO 12800 (Click images for full-res)
Low Noise Reduction
Standard Noise Reduction (default)
High Noise Reduction

All in all, I have found that the G3X produces impressive image files at relatively high ISO speeds. RAW files retain more detail and data than JPEG images, but they also have more visible noise. As ISO speeds move beyond 3200, I would opt for just using JPEG files because I'm unlikely to use either RAW or JPEG files at these ISO speeds for more than small prints or web purposes, and the camera's built-in noise reduction works well.

A fun camera for some astrophotography

The G3X offers a few interesting features for night photography in particular. There are star nightscape, star trails and star trails time lapse scene modes available for use. The star nightscape scene mode automatically selects all shooting parameters for you, but nevertheless worked well during my testing. The star trails mode allows you to choose a length of time from 10 minutes to 2 hours, and the camera processes multiple JPEG files into a single star trail JPEG file. The star trail mode also worked nicely, although having the camera handle the entire process does mean that you won't be able to remove plane trails and other accidental lights as easily as you could if processing a batch of files on your own. The camera also doesn't keep any of the individual frame used to create the star trail image, so any issues that arise during the star trail will be in the final image. In addition to these shooting modes, there is also a night mode for the camera that reduces the display's brightness and changes the camera's color palette to red, black, and gray, making it easier to operate the camera in low-light conditions.

24mm equivalent (8.8mm), f/2.8, 30s exposures over 30 minutes, ISO 400, Star Trail Scene Mode
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The G3X has a built-in flash in addition to its hot shoe. The built-in flash has a range of 6.8 meters with auto ISO and offers auto, on, and slow synchro flash modes, which can be selected by pressing right on the control dial. The G3X has +/- 2 flash exposure compensation and a flash sync of 1/2000s (the maximum shutter speed achievable on the G3X). I like that the flash has to be manually deployed rather than it just automatically popping up when the camera deems it necessary. When shooting in automatic modes, the camera will display a message to deploy the flash when it determines that the flash is needed or would be useful, and I much prefer this to having the flash pop up automatically. The flash itself works well and provides a large amount of power for its small size.

37mm equivalent (13.5mm), f/3.5, 1/100s, ISO 125, Fill Flash
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Faster processor, but sluggish burst shooting

With its DIGIC 6 processor, the G3X feels responsive and agile when shooting single images. However, when shooting burst images, the G3X feels slow, and its burst performance is underwhelming. When shooting single images, the G3X is able to display the live view on the display in near real-time in most situations. The image on the display occasionally stutters when the camera is acquiring focus or experiencing a drastic change in lighting conditions. Navigating the menus and changing camera settings is quick, as well, although the camera is occasionally slow to reflect a change in the camera's mode and changing settings when using scene modes or creative filters is often sluggish.

Continuously shooting JPEG files is capped at a somewhat disappointing 5.9 frames per second when using single shot autofocus (in IR's lab tests, the G3X managed around 7.3 fps), and single shot autofocus isn't useful for many of the subjects that I tend to photograph using continuous shooting. When using servo autofocus, the maximum frame rate drops to 3.2 fps. When recording RAW images, the frame rate drops even further to under 1 fps regardless of autofocus mode. On the plus side, the G3X has a large buffer and images can be recorded at consistent rates until card space is depleted.

24mm equivalent (8.8mm), f/5.6, 10s, ISO 125, Neutral Density filter
This image has been modified slightly. Click for original image.

Another issue that I have with the overall speed of the G3X is its fastest shutter speed being only 1/2000s. For a camera that has a 600mm lens, it's unfortunate to not be able to freeze action better, especially when photographing wildlife. With that said, the maximum aperture is f/5.6 from 200mm to 600mm, so the situations in which a shutter speed beyond 1/2000s would be feasible are limited. For times when you are shooting at f/2.8 in bright light, the camera has a built-in 3-stop neutral density filter to help dim things down should you reach the limit of the shutter speed.

G3X sports high quality 1080/60p video

Canon PowerShot G3 X Video Sample
1920 x 1080, H.264, 60 fps, Standard Movie Mode, AWB, Multi Metering
Download Original (68.8MB MP4 File)

The G3X delivers impressive video performance, but some of its peers offer better features. The G3X can record 1080p resolution video at 60 fps and has a stereo mic, microphone port and a headphone port. I like that the G3X has a dedicated movie record button the top of the camera, which I found easy to reach and use. When recording video, the G3X utilizes 5-axis dynamic image stabilization where three of the axes are optical and two of them are digital. There is also +/- 3 stop exposure compensation available either through the exposure compensation dial or by pressing down on the control dial and rotating the focus ring when not recording video using manual focus.

Canon PowerShot G3 X Video Sample - Zoom Range (+ Digital Zoom)
1920 x 1080, H.264, 60 fps, Standard Movie Mode, AWB, Multi Metering
Download Original (75.6MB MP4 File)

A notable omission from the G3X is 4K video recording capabilities. While 4K is not yet heavily-adopted in living rooms, there are numerous competitors to the G3X that can record 4K video. The G3X also cannot record slow-motion video or shoot at frame rates higher than 60fps. The G3X records MPEG-4 video files with the H.246 codec.

But Movie Servo AF hunts a lot

Canon PowerShot G3 X Video Sample - Servo AF
1920 x 1080, H.264, 60 fps, Standard Movie Mode, AWB, Multi Metering
Download Original (84.2MB MP4 File)

Autofocus performance while recording video is fairly good, although the camera has a tendency to struggle with maintaining focus at longer focal lengths just as I experienced with still images. Additionally, when using servo AF, the camera tends to hunt for focus. Autofocus can be locked during video recording by touching the screen when using the 1-point AF method. The G3X allows for full manual exposure control when recording video, although its automatic modes work well at smoothly handling exposure changes. Video can also be captured with My Colors adjustments and within certain Creative Filters presets, such as monochrome and super vivid.

Canon G3X Field Test Summary

A solid, versatile camera, but not without its flaws

59mm equivalent (21.6mm), f/11, 1/80s, ISO 400
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What I like:

  • The camera body is comfortable to hold with its deep front grip
  • The 24-600mm lens performs well and offers a large and useful focal length range
  • 1-inch-type sensor delivers high-quality image files across a wide range of ISO speeds
  • The display is very sharp and the touchscreen capabilities work well

What I dislike:

  • Despite the quality of the G3X's display, I still occasionally missed having a built-in viewfinder
  • Autofocus performance struggles at long focal lengths in low light
  • Continuous shooting with RAW images is very slow (<1fps)

The Canon PowerShot G3 X delivers high quality images across an impressive range of ISO speeds. With an excellent 24-600mm lens, the G3X offers a focal length range that its direct competitors can't match at this time. The large touchscreen display is sharp and is an acceptable alternative to a viewfinder in many, but not all, situations. The G3X does many things well and has a lot to offer, but it is not without its drawbacks. The G3X's autofocus performance excels in good conditions but disappoints in lower light. Despite having an excellent focal length for wildlife images, the slow continuous RAW shooting and less than impressive continuous autofocus hampers the G3X's ability to capture action, particularly at longer focal lengths.

Overall, the G3X is a great value and a strong performer. Its versatility and ability to deliver great images in a variety of situations and across such a wide range of focal lengths is very impressive. No camera is perfect, and the Canon G3X is no exception, but it is a camera worthy of strong consideration in an increasingly crowded bridge camera market.


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