Panasonic G7 Field Test Part I
Panasonic G7 Field Test Part I
High-octane excitement at the Indy 500!
By Mike Tomkins | Posted: 06/05/2015
One of the perks of my job is that I get to shoot some very cool cameras, and so I like to seek out equally cool shooting opportunities with which to put them to the test, whether it's hiking in the Colorado mountains, flying in an 85-year old Ford Trimotor, or searching for shipwrecks on the rocky coast of Hong Kong. For the Panasonic G7, though, I had the most awesome subject I've had in years, shooting at the world-famous Indianapolis 500!
For those of you who aren't well-versed on your motorsports, the Indy 500 is a motor race that's famed worldwide as the fastest venue in the Triple Crown of Motorsport! Alongside my fellow members of the photo press, I attended the Indy 500 as a guest of Panasonic. That got me much closer to the action than I'd have been on a standard ticket, including behind-the-scenes access to both the pit lane and garages, and a spectacular view from top of the recently-renamed Panasonic Pagoda.
(Panasonic doesn't just have its name on the pagoda, either. The company has also recently upgraded the many video boards that surround the circuit with brand new high-def displays. They're incredibly bright and vivid, and an excellent reminder that this is a company with a lot of experience in imaging, al the way from capture to display. But I digress...)
We're going to do things just a little differently
Shooting at the Indy 500 has necessitated a change in the way I'm writing my review, though. I got my hands on the Panasonic G7 shortly before the event itself, so I had ample opportunity to familiarize myself, but once the weekend was over the camera had to be returned temporarily. We have another review sample, but it's in the lab for testing as we speak, so I won't have a chance to handle it again until all of our many tests have been completed.
Typically, I start my Field Tests with a discussion of ergonomics, handling and controls, hitting both the high and low points. When I'm writing about handling, I like to have the camera in-hand to refresh my memory, though. Hence, I'll be saving a more in-depth discussion of how the Panasonic G7 feels in-hand until it returns from the lab, and I can follow up with my second shooter's report. Briefly, though, I will say that it shot confidently and ergonomics were pretty good overall -- impressively so given it's pretty compact and I have big hands.
Instead, for this Field Test I'll be focusing on the weekend's shooting. And boy, did I ever have the subject to put this camera to the test!
Great shooting locations, but challenging ones too
The weekend's shooting started in anger on Saturday morning, what the Indy folks refer to as Legends Day. For the fans, Legends Day has several things to offer: The chance (after some queueing, of course) to meet the drivers and get autographs, an opportunity to experience legendary cars of days gone by on the track, and live music in the evening.
For myself, the proposition was a little different. I've shot motorsports before, but it's been a very long time indeed since I last tried my hand at taking photos of really fast cars driving flat-out. (How long? Think all the way back to when Formula One used to hold its annual United States Grand Prix at Indy, something that last happened in 2007.)
In my earlier experiences, I'd learned that shooting race cars as they tear down the straight at 200mph+ is a very, very difficult task, at least if you want some part of your photo to be tack sharp. And forget about autofocus: There's simply not time. Instead, shooting prefocused is the way to go, rattling off a quick burst of shots as you pan across the point where you've prefocused.
Ideally, I'd have put myself inside one of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway's incredible banked corners for a smoother panning motion, or perhaps at the end of the front or back straights, with the subject motion heading straight towards me. But while my level of access for the Indy 500 was pretty spectacular, my pass didn't allow me to enter either location.
Instead, most of my shooting was from the upper levels of (or from right in front of) the Panasonic Pagoda, right in the middle of the front straight, and adjacent to the legendary yard of bricks that lines Indy's start / finish line. That still provided me with a really great view, no question about it. For photography, though, it was about as challenging a location as you can get if you're after tightly-cropped shots of the action. As they tear down the straight, the cars are nearing their top speed and the lateral motion that you have to follow when panning is as fast as it gets.
Bringing my panning skills back up to date
For Legends Day, though, the cars thankfully weren't being pushed anywhere near their limits. Their relatively slower speeds meant that I had a better chance of a good panning shot from my location -- and just as well, because when they first started rolling, I was literally standing just feet from the track itself.
My choice of lenses was made with race day itself in mind. For wide-angle shots in the garages and pit lane, I had the LUMIX G VARIO 14-42mm / F3.5-5.6 II ASPH. / MEGA O.I.S. kit lens. For shots of the cars on track, I chose the strongest telephoto lens on offer, a LUMIX G VARIO 100-300mm / F4.0-5.6 / MEGA O.I.S. zoom, to help bring the action up close from the pagoda.
And this choice did stand me in good stead for race day. On Legends Day and standing right next to the track, though, it wasn't an ideal choice. With the 14-42mm being too wide for the tightly-framed shots I was after, it meant the widest I could shoot at was 200mm-equivalent, taking into account the 2x focal length crop of a Micro Four Thirds camera.
Were I shooting for my own benefit, I'd have stuck with the 14-42mm and just cropped post-capture, but since my photos must go into the gallery unedited, I faced something of a baptism of fire even at the slower speeds of the classic race cars being shown off. Clearly, I needed to get back in the swing of panning to follow these gorgeous machines, and quickly.
A degree of motion blur is actually fine in shots like these, to my mind, so long as something -- preferably around the driver's helmet -- is very close to tack sharp. It's really a bit of a balancing act, though. You want to freeze the car with a fast-enough shutter speed, but blurring the background and tires gives a greater impression of speed, and that demands you drop the shutter speed.
The cars hit the track
Thankfully, my muscle memory kicked in fairly quickly once the cars started rolling, and after a few laps during which I resurrected my panning skills, I got myself in the ballpark on shutter speed. With the relatively lower speeds of the classic racing cars, somewhere in the region of 1/200 second seemed to work pretty well, although I also shot a fair few images at much higher shutter speeds just to be certain of getting some sharp captures. (I'm a belt-and-suspenders kinda guy!)
While I didn't get any panning shots which were perfectly framed, blurred the background, and yet got the driver (or somewhere near them) tack-sharp on this first day, I got quite a few images that I was nevertheless very happy with. The exceptionally compact lens and body sizes allowed by the Micro Four Thirds format -- and the lighter weight that come along with them -- definitely helped. I don't think I could've gotten as many keepers with a typical DSLR shooting at the same equivalent focal lengths, simply because of the extra effort required to hold and pan a larger, heavier body and lens combo.
All too soon, the action was over though. After heading down to the Snake Pit -- think a mosh pit, but in the middle of a race track and not yet a quagmire of mud -- I headed back to the hotel to filter through the thousand-plus images I'd already shot. There really wasn't much going on at the track with the live music not yet started, and I wanted to come up with a plan of action after analyzing my first batch of images. It was the following day that I'd really put my skills -- and the Panasonic G7 -- to the test.
Race day arrives, and with it the world
Waking up the next morning, it was almost as if I'd been transported to a different city as I slept. Relatively sleepy just 24 hours earlier, Indianapolis was packed to bursting. Thankfully, we had a police escort to the racetrack, because without it we'd definitely have taken an hour and a half or more just to drive the few miles to the speedway.
Arriving early at the circuit meant not only that I had some time to kill before the race, but also that I was right at the front of the queue when it came time to hand out passes that would let us into the garage area behind pit lane. That turned out to be extremely fortuitous, as shortly after I made my way down there from the pagoda, cars started to be rolled from the garages to head out on track.
And here was little old me -- not well versed on Indy racing, but a long-time Formula One race fan and very enthusiastic about my motorsports -- standing right in the midst of it all. I was like a kid in a candy store, dashing from garage to garage to get up close and personal with each and every car.
And I do mean up close and personal! Several times, I found myself trapped behind a car that had turned in front of me to exit its garage, and had to actually enter the garage forecourt just to get out of the way and avoid my toes being run over! It gave me an opportunity for some great shots, though, such as the one above showing a rather delighted young chap beaming from ear to ear at getting to sit in the car while it was pushed out. (It seemed mostly to be mechanics in the cars at this point; I presume the drivers show up only once the car arrives in pit lane.)
And that was where I found myself next, as the stands slowly filled with fans eager to see some racing. Time was running out before I had to hand my garage pass over to the next journalist, but nonetheless I got some great shots in the pits as cars were prepped for the race. All too soon though, it was time to head back up to the Panasonic Pagoda. It wasn't only the drivers and teams who were getting ready: I, too, had to come up with a plan of action for the race.
After looking at my photos, I'd come to the conclusion that my best bet was to aim for a wide spread of shutter speeds in Shutter-priority mode. With some luck, I'd get good results with nicely-blurred backgrounds at the lower speeds, but by roaming as high as 1/1,000 second I'd ensure that I still had some keepers. And it's a good thing I did, because two of my favorite shots from the weekend, as it turned out, were at 1/125th and 1/1,000 second respectively -- quite a difference even taking into account that the latter image was much more tightly framed.
Perhaps the biggest thing I'd decided overnight, though, was that I wanted to aim to capture passes. Cool as the shots of the vintage cars were, they lacked a bit of excitement simply because the cars were coming past single-file. When still distant, the heat haze coming off the track made the shots blurry and unattractive, but once the cars got close to me, they were too widely-spaced to get a pair in-shot together without shooting at wide-angle, which made them look small and insignificant.
A race distance gives time to learn and experiment
There would be no such problems on race day, because there is a lot of passing in oval racing. I just had to remind myself to wait and watch for a likely pass, rather than panning to follow the first car that came around. Panasonic's big-screen displays around the track were a boon here, giving me a good indication of when to expect the front-runners around the banked turn onto the front straight, and whether I should be expecting a close battle.
I shot with both eyes open, one framing the track at the point where the cars would come into my view, and the other watching the video boards. As soon as two cars came around the corner that were close together, I'd start panning to follow them, hoping for a pass -- and more often than not, there was one. It actually got pretty easy to predict when it was going to happen, and to guess how far down the track the passes would take place, then set my focus and zoom before the cars arrived.
Sure, panning to follow cars moving at probably 230 miles per hour or thereabouts was still a difficult task, but I'd stacked the odds of getting interesting shots in my favor. And I had another advantage on race day -- a whole lot more cars on track at once and a much greater distance turned by each car. I was set for a whole lot of shooting opportunities, and easily rattled through another couple of thousand shots on race day, even taking my time to put down the camera now and then just to soak in the experience.
4K Photo now has an excellent interface...
Another feature I'd decided to test on race day was the Panasonic G7's upgraded 4K Photo mode, which now has a much more simple and intuitive user interface with which to select your images. Simply swiping left or right on the LCD monitor scrolls through a cascade of frames from a 4K Photo-mode video clip, and a quick tap of an on-screen button saves a still. And you don't need to do this straight after shooting the clip, either. You can return to it at any time from playback mode to extract as many stills as you want.
I figured 4K Photo mode would make it easier to get a shot with the cars just where I wanted them, and indeed it was. For example, I could put a car right on the start / finish line by simply stepping through the 30 frames per second that the G7 had captured. Shooting even high-speed bursts of regular stills made the chances of hitting the moment that the car crossed the line much, much harder.
...but there are still some quirks to its operation
It did take me a few attempts to get the hang of 4K Photo shooting, though, because when I first started a capture, the viewfinder would blank just briefly and I'd lose sight of the cars I wanted to follow. The answer was to start the clip shortly before the cars came into view, by which time the viewfinder image had restored itself and I could see my subject as I panned with it.
Sadly, my images in 4K Photo mode revealed a significant rolling shutter effect. If I framed tightly enough, it wasn't a problem because my panning speed approximated that of the car itself, and so the degree of rolling shutter wasn't so high. If I included much of the background in the frame, though, vertical elements such as the fences around the track and antennas in pit lane were skewed at extremely drunken-looking angles.
WOW! Access to pit lane during the race
A little while after the halfway point of the race, I was thrilled to discover that our group had a special tag giving us access to the pit lane, one at a time. With quite a few journalists on the trip, that meant a relatively short period in the pit lane, but my timing was fortuitous and several pitstops happened while I was there. And really, you can't ask for any better access than to walk among the teams and sit on the pit wall, just feet away from the cars as they're being worked on. It was a truly jawdropping experience, and one I'll remember for the rest of my life.
Pitstop time: This 60 frames-per-second Full HD (1080p60) video shows a pitstop by Graham Rahal of the Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing team. Apologies for the shakiness of the clip, but I had to jostle for position a little, all while trying not to get in the way of the pro photographers or team staff!
Those memories will be reinforced by the videos I shot at the race, an example of which you can see above. Between jostling for position with other photographers and trying to stay out of the way of the teams, the result was a bit shaky but nonetheless very cool. If I'd shot in 4K, I could've stabilized the clip and still had plenty of resolution for Full HD output, but as it happened, none of the 4K clips I shot in the pit were as exciting as this particular video.
The side show: Alongside the race, there were plenty of other activities to keep fans entertained. Here, the Indiana Pacers' "High Octane" Drumline show off for the crowd while I film them in 4K.
For those of you who have 4K displays and want to see what video straight from the camera looks like, I'm also including a 4K clip of the Indiana Pacers' drumline below,, as well as a clip shot in 4K Photo mode for still image extraction, showing Juan Pablo Montoya as he starts his final, race-winning lap. Note that the latter intentionally has no sound, since it is shot in 4K Photo mode. It also has a much higher frame rate (1/1,600 second, if I recall correctly) to try and freeze the cars, although as it turned out I needed an even higher shutter speed to manage this.
4K Photo: The clever -- if somewhat rolling shutter-prone -- 4K Photo mode of the Panasonic G7 also saves its results in video form, allowing you to go back and extract high-res stills at your convenience. The clips typically use a much faster frame rate than regular videos, which is good for stills, but yields rather stuttery video. Still, it's there if you need it -- just bear in mind that there's no sound being recorded in 4K Photo mode.
More 4K Photo fun!
Towards the end of the race and having gotten plenty of panning shots I was happy with, I opted for a different strategy with 4K Photo mode. Instead of panning to follow the cars, I tried keeping the camera static, first of all with a low shutter speed that would turn the cars into streaks across the frame, and then with a higher shutter speed to freeze their motion.
This latter idea worked quite well, so long as one ignores the distortion caused by the rolling shutter effect. If Panasonic can get a handle on rolling shutter, it's going to have a real hit on its hands, because it really is spectacularly easy to get your subject just where you want it.
Proving the point, I managed a still of Juan Pablo Montoya's final pass on Will Power for the lead in the race, just four laps before his eventual win -- and not just that, but the nose of Montoya's car has just edged past the first row in the yard of bricks.
Were it not for the rolling shutter and the fact that I had the shutter speed just slightly too low, it would've been an absolutely epic shot of the decisive moment in the race. But using 4K Photo mode does take some getting used to, for sure. It's hard not to think in terms of limited buffer depth, and four laps later when I reached the moment I'd been waiting for, I experienced monumental brain fade.
A moment of heartbreak
I'd set the camera up so that the winning car would be nicely framed as it crossed the line, checkered flag waving right above his head. I saw the cars coming around the final turn on the video boards, and I heard them coming down the straight. I'd chosen a perfect location from which to see the start / finish line unobstructed, but I wouldn't be able to see the cars themselves until just a fraction of a second before they crossed the line.
As the noise levels peaked, I started a 4K Photo capture, the camera set to record for as long as I held the shutter down -- and then the wrong car appeared in my view! Unbeknownst to me, a back marker had fallen all the way back to just about be lapped by the leaders, and I'd reacted to the wrong car. All would have been well if I'd just kept that shutter button held down, but in my confusion, something in the back of my head -- echoes of filled buffers from so many cameras over the years -- told me to let go, and I did.
Heartbreakingly, the final frame of that 4K Photo clip showed the nose of Montoya's car entering the frame, and the checkered flag just falling at the top of the shot. Had I only held that shutter for a fraction of a second longer, I'd have managed a perfectly-framed shot of Montoya as he crossed the line to take his win, but it wasn't to be. Not the camera's fault in the least, mind you. I genuinely believe I've just been trained not to risk filling the buffer at the crucial moment, and reverted to form as if I were shooting a regular still.
Not the end of the world, by any means, and honestly I was still thrilled with all the great photos I shot on Race Day. I got more keepers than I had any right to expect given my relative inexperience at motor racing photography -- in fact, enough that it was a day-long struggle just to cull them down to my favorites for the gallery.
Plenty more to come, and lots more shots in the gallery
There's still plenty more to talk about in my second Field Test, including handling, Wi-Fi connectivity, and high ISO image quality. (I've already shot a raft of shots at high sensitivity, which you'll find in my Panasonic G7 gallery, but I'm already several thousand words in here, so I'll save the analysis for the next section of my report.)
And of course, if you have any questions or requests for features you'd like me to test once the Panasonic G7 is back in my hands, I'll do my best to answer -- just sound off in the comments below!