Panasonic G7 Field Test Part II
Panasonic G7 Field Test Part II
Once more unto the night with this very capable mirrorless camera
By Mike Tomkins | Posted: 12/29/2015
My first field test for the Panasonic G7 was a rather unusual one, thanks to a really great shooting opportunity: A chance to shoot trackside at the Indy 500. That event told me quite a bit about this interesting camera, but it also resulted in a very long writeup, and so I left some things for the second field test that I'd ordinarily touch upon right off the bat.
A quick recap
As I said in that first test, I really loved the Panasonic G7's compact size, as well as the trim proportions of its lenses. This camera really plays to the strengths of mirrorless, and because of that it's more likely to be with you when you need it. (In my experience, even if the image quality can be spectacular it's just too easy to leave a larger camera and its various accessories sitting on the shelf at home. The result, when an unexpected photo opportunity arrives, is an unsatisfying photo from a smartphone, and a whole lot of regret that the proper camera wasn't to hand.)
I also found myself really liking the Panasonic G7's 4K video-related features. For one thing, the videos themselves are clean and crisp, and even in a non-4K workflow like mine they allow generous cropping, post-capture stabilization and (with a suitably good video editor) a noticeable improvement in video quality even after downsampling to Full HD resolution.
The overhauled 4K Photo feature, which allows extraction of high-resolution 8.3-megapixel still images from 4K video clips, is now a whole lot easier and more intuitive to use, as well. And while it is prone to rolling shutter distortion, with the right subjects it can make it really easy to get the shot you're after without needing superhuman reflexes.
Great ergonomics for a compact mirrorless camera
One of the things I didn't have time to discuss in that first report was handling. Not because it wasn't important; more just because I'd run out of space. I have to say, though, that by and large I really liked how the Panasonic G7 feels in-hand, and how the controls are positioned.
I should note here that this is a pretty compact camera, so there are some of the usual gotchas in this respect. That's the price you pay to attain a lightweight device which you'll take with you wherever you go. For example, with my larger-than-average hands, I found my fingertips pressed somewhat uncomfortably into the camera body, although this was only really a concern when shooting single-handed with larger lenses. Making the grip deeper would have increased the size of the camera, so it's a tradeoff I'm willing to make.
I also found a few of the rear-panel controls -- and especially the four-way control pad -- a little too close to the bottom right corner of the camera body, making them a bit uncomfortable to reach single-handed with the tip of my right thumb. And the drive mode dial, which sits atop the left shoulder of the camera, is a bit stiffer to turn than I'd like. (I usually had to grip it between thumb and forefinger, as it's too stiff to roll with just a single digit.) But again, this is nitpicking.
All of the other controls are pretty much ideally located for my liking, and have a good feel as well. The focus mode lever in particular is a joy, sitting just within reach of my right thumb for super-easy focus mode changes with no risk of the control being moved by mistake. And the twin control dials also help make this a very intuitive camera to shoot with.
A great new viewfinder and versatile tilt-swivel LCD
The first thing I noticed on lifting the Panasonic G7 to my eye back at Indy was its new viewfinder. It's bright, clear and very high resolution indeed. And thanks to a fairly high eyepoint, you don't have to mash it against your face to see the whole scene you're framing -- I could just barely manage to see everything without quite touching the non-removeable viewfinder eyepiece.
I also really liked the LCD monitor, which is extremely bright when set to its maximum luminance, making it easier than many to see outdoors. (You don't have to adjust it manually as it has an auto brightness control, but you can do so if you want to, albeit only with a three-step control over brightness.)
What I liked most about the LCD, though, isn't actually new. I'm a big fan of the side-mounted tilt/swivel articulation mechanism used in the Panasonic G7 and its predecessor. Not only does it make light work of framing from most any angle (even when shooting in portrait orientation, or when grabbing a quick selfie), but it also allows the screen to be closed facing inwards.
That helps protect it from minor knocks and scrapes, and for someone like myself who mostly frames using the viewfinder anyway -- switching to the LCD mostly for shots from difficult angles -- the LCD can be left protected in this manner most of the time. This tilt-swivel design is far more versatile than the more common tilt-only style in my book.
High ISO performance is pretty impressive
One of the main things I wanted to return to after my first field test was to see how the Panasonic G7 handled high-sensitivity shooting in low light. And after shooting at night both in Indianapolis and back home here in Knoxville, I came away pretty impressed.
Wandering around shooting under city street lighting, I felt comfortable routinely shooting at anything up to around ISO 6400-equivalent. Noise was well-controlled to this point, and fairly film-like as well. And in a pinch, pushing this to as high as ISO 12,800 still gave pretty good results, although there was some noticeable loss of finer details from noise reduction processing.
I generally avoided going beyond this point, as towards the upper limit of ISO 25,600-equivalent, images started to look a bit muddy, and had somewhat muted colors. Still, even here the Panasonic G7 was capable of turning in usable prints at smaller sizes.
All things considered, the Panasonic G7 showed itself more than up to the task of shooting handheld in low-light. And although autofocus performance wasn't quite as swift as it is under good ambient lighting conditions, the G7 also managed to lock focus accurately the majority of the time long after the sun had gone down.
The lack of NFC connectivity is a shame
Although there are quite a few upgrades in the Panasonic G7, there's also one feature which has been dropped in the new model. If you're an iPhone user, it's not something you'll miss as while Apple's hardware is quite capable of supporting it, the company hasn't provided that capability in software. For Android users, though, the lack of an NFC radio in the new camera means that Wi-Fi connection isn't quite as simple as it was in the G6.
In the earlier camera, you could simply bump your NFC-capable Android phone (and that's most of them, these days) against your camera, and a Wi-Fi connection would be established. If you didn't already have the required Panasonic Image App software installed on your phone, you'd also be taken to the app in Google's Play Store, saving you searching for it manually. That's no longer the case, though.
Instead, you'll now launch Wi-Fi either through the menu system or through one of the custom function buttons. By default, Wi-Fi is assigned to a soft button shown on the LCD monitor, and hidden behind the on-screen Function menu tab. You can, if you prefer, assign one of the physical function buttons to Wi-Fi instead. And of course, you'll then need to connect the phone to the camera's Wi-Fi network manually, once it's activated. It's a little more work for us Android folks than it used to be, but still reasonably straightforward.
Once connected, the Wi-Fi feature set of the Panasonic G7 is fairly comprehensive. You can control the camera remotely -- including the main exposure variables -- and view a live view image on your phone. You can also transfer images singly or en masse, and create photo collages from multiple images as you transfer them to your phone.
You can also geotag images, although this relies on the GPS receiver in your phone being active while you're shooting. That has a downside over a built-in GPS receiver in the camera: You're reducing battery life of the phone itself since the GPS has to be active all the time just in case you're about to shoot a photo. And in my own personal setup with all location services enabled on my phone -- a Sony Xperia Z2 -- the function simply didn't work for me, repeatedly advising me that a location fix couldn't be obtained even though other apps on the phone had no difficulty determining my location to within a few yards.
The live view image is smooth and responsive if the phone and camera are near each other, but I found range to be fairly limited in my own setup, and live view quality likewise quickly degraded. (And this in a fairly low-density residential neighborhood; my phone could see just four or five other Wi-Fi networks competing with the Panasonic G7's built-in Wi-Fi.)
Thankfully, there's a setting allowing the user to change the live view resolution, and this does help to extend range. At the maximum VGA live view resolution, I was already experiencing Wi-Fi dropouts and stuttering in the live view feed at a range of just ~10 feet from the camera. Reducing resolution to QVGA extended this to about 20-25 feet, but I wasn't able to connect at all if there was even a single wall between myself and the camera.
One other thing I found a bit disappointing with the Panasonic G7's Wi-Fi functionality was the app itself. The user interface is very crowded, with lots of rather obscurely-labeled icons, controls and menu options. Perhaps more frustrating though is that I couldn't get the live view feed to occupy the whole of my phone's screen. Instead, whether in landscape or portrait orientation the live view occupied at best a little under half of the screen, with the remainder given over to controls and display indications alongside, above and below the live view feed. Pressing the on-screen display button would reduce the clutter a little, but not increase the area given over to live view.
That's doubly a shame because, as I noted previously, the remote control capabilities of the Panasonic G7 are pretty comprehensive. Not only can you control exposure variables and trip the shutter, but you can even adjust focus manually complete with a repositionable loupe tool to check for focus, and a focus peaking function too. The interface while adjusting focus manually was a bit slow -- you can't drag the focus slider, but instead have to tap buttons to move focus in either direction -- but you can get around this by using autofocus to get you in the ballpark, or simply by using the on-camera controls.
And this was something I really rather liked, actually. Too many cameras simply disable all physical controls as soon as Wi-Fi is connected, and it was nice to be able to make a quick adjustment from the camera body without first disconnecting the Wi-Fi. (You do sometimes have to half-press the shutter button to dismiss a rather obtuse warning on the phone that "camera operating is in progress", however, as it doesn't always clear by itself once you stop touching the camera.)
I also appreciated that unlike some cameras, I could jump from live view to playback / image transfer without first having to drop and then recreate the Wi-Fi connection. That's a big time saver if you are shooting a lot of images via Wi-Fi, but only want to transfer full-res copies of some of these to your phone.
And so long as phone and camera are pretty near each other, Wi-Fi transfers are pretty swift, as well. Of course, you can only transfer JPEG still images, as like most cameras out there, raw files and movies can't be transferred. Interestingly, though, there's a menu option in the app allowing you to choose whether movies are played by the app itself or using third-party functionality. I couldn't get this to work on either setting, though, despite having an app called MX Player on my phone which is quite capable of playing the Panasonic G7's movies.
At the end of the day, I felt the Panasonic G7's Wi-Fi functionality showed quite a bit of promise, even if it clearly has some rough edges, and an interface which is far too complex and opaque. Improvements to the app could make things much more enjoyable to use while still retaining a very comprehensive feature set. The limited range means I wouldn't expect to be able to set the camera up and then control it from a significant distance to avoid disturbing skittish wildlife, or anything along those lines. It's certainly fine for transferring images to your phone to share on Facebook, or for shooting the occasional group photo, though.
At the end of my time with the Panasonic G7, I come away finding myself rather impressed with what it offers. For a very affordable pricetag, you can get great image quality in a very compact and lightweight package. Ergonomics are for the most part very good -- within the constraints of its body size of course -- and while the Panasonic G7's profusion of external controls can initially prove rather intimidating, you get used to them very quickly.
Compared to the earlier Panasonic G6, there are some very worthwhile improvements on offer here beyond the redesigned body, complete with its twin control dials. The new sensor, processor and Depth from Defocus technology provide a wider sensitivity range and greater performance than before. The new viewfinder is a real treat for the eyes, and the brighter LCD monitor helps with outdoor visibility. And the refinements to the 4K Photo user interface make it noticeably easier to use.
I've had a lot of fun shooting with the Panasonic G7, and it yielded more than a few photos I'm really happy with. And for bonus points, I didn't have to strain myself lugging a big bag of gear around;* a few relatively compact lenses and the camera easily fit into a small bag. With my personal camera -- a Pentax DSLR -- I'd have needed quite a bit more bulky gear to get the same shots. If you're looking for a camera that pairs versatility and image quality with take-anywhere proportions, I'd highly recommend you put the Panasonic G7 near the top of your shortlist!