Panasonic G9 Hands-On First Impressions

 
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G9 Hands-on First Impressions

A preliminary field test with Panasonic's photo-centric flagship camera

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Panasonic LEICA DG 100-400mm f/4.0-6.3: 100mm, f/4, 1/400s, ISO 320, +0.3EV
Introduction

For Panasonic, the GH5 has been a tremendously successful camera, especially for the video creators out there. Packed with professional-level video features, I think many folks forget that it also shoots terrific photographs. With the new Lumix G9, it seems Panasonic themselves feels there is room in their lineup for a second flagship model, one that is, in fact, more focused on still photography as opposed to video -- though it's still packed with lots of video features.

Ahead of its debut, I was able to spend a few days shooting with this new top-tier Micro Four Thirds camera, and wanted to share some of my initial thoughts from the field. And although the camera body is still in the early firmware stages, it feels very stable and bug-free from my experience so far. We've also been given the green light to publish full-resolution images from the camera. (Head over to the G9 Gallery and Lab Samples pages if you want to begin browsing images.) As I said, I've only had a few days to shoot with the G9, so the isn't a comprehensive Field Test, but rather more of "hands-on first impressions" that delves into the camera's ergonomics and design as well as touches on an initial assessment of its image quality and performance. We will, of course, test and compare the camera much more thoroughly in the coming days and weeks, so please stay tuned!

Design and Build Quality

In the hand, the G9 feels really great, with a large, full grip that fits nicely into my hand. Panasonic also used a new leather-like grip material that's a lot more textured than that on the GH5 and really makes it "stick" and feel secure in your hand. Like a lot of flagship cameras, the G9 is certainly not lacking when it comes to physical controls and dials and includes both front and rear control dials as well as a control wheel on the back.

Talking about the design itself for a moment, the G9 is interesting in that it's yet another "large" Micro Four Thirds mirrorless camera. For example, we saw a size increase from the Olympus E-M1 to the Mark II, and the Panasonic GH series has always been fairly large, especially from the GH3 and newer. The GH5, in particular, is practically the same size as a mid-range DSLR such as the Nikon D7500, for example. The G9 follows a similar form-factor. In fact, the hand grip of the G9 feels larger or fuller in my hand than the D7500's. While the G9's heft feels great in the hand -- and helps it stay balanced and more comfortable when using longer, heavier lenses -- I find it interesting that, in a way, it negates the inherent benefit of the Micro Four Thirds system: that of a smaller camera. Now, to be fair, you do get a massive advantage when it comes to the lens system. Micro Four Thirds lenses are far and away significantly smaller than their DSLR counterparts. So while the body of the G9 is not much smaller than that of an average DSLR, the lenses you're carrying around certainly are.

As mentioned, given the G9's larger body size, there's ample room for lots of controls and buttons. The G9 offers numerous Function buttons and the ability to reconfigure most of the controls to suit your shooting style. For example, I assigned the front control dial to adjust aperture or shutter speed, depending on which Priority shooting mode I was in, but then I have the rear thumb control dial assigned for exposure compensation. Meanwhile, I had the rear scroll wheel control set to instantly adjust the size of the AF point or AF point groupings. I was also able to reassign one of the two front-facing Fn buttons (the GH5 only has one front Fn button) as a shortcut to the new High-Res shooting mode, letting me avoid constantly navigating through the menus.

For the first time in a Panasonic mirrorless camera, the G9 sports a top-deck LCD panel, just like a higher-end DSLR. It's a small detail in the grand scheme of things, but I really like having that extra info screen to quickly see important shooting and exposure info. It's something I miss having on other mirrorless cameras. To make room for the LCD panel, Panasonic moved the primary mode dial over to the left of the EVF, and rather than hiding drive mode settings in a menu, the G9 uses a two-tiered control dial: PASM shooting modes on top, with a smaller drive mode dial underneath. Nice.

The G9 also includes the joystick control button that we saw introduced on the GH5. In theory, this is a control I really like, as I use it to quickly move the AF point. However, I'm not a big fan of the feel of the G9's joystick control. For one, there's not a lot of "resistance" to the button press, so it's easy to press accidentally and thus reset the AF point back to the center inadvertently. I also found that it was rather slow to move the AF points in non-linear directions. If you press and hold the joystick control either left or right, or up and down, you can quickly move the AF point in a straight line, but if you want to move it diagonally, it feels very sluggish. In the field, this was annoying, as I often wanted to quickly adjust the position of the AF point to fit a certain composition of a bird or other skittish animal, and I felt like it took longer than necessary to move the AF point across the 225 available AF areas and put it exactly where I wanted it. It felt faster to take the camera down from my eye, tap the screen to the move the AF point, and then move the camera back up to my eye.

Apart from the fiddly joystick control, I really like the G9's design and ergonomics. It feels great in the hand, the magnesium alloy body definitely feels sturdy and rugged, and there are a plethora of physical controls so you can keep shooting and minimize menu diving. The G9's electronic viewfinder is very large and very sharp, giving you a wide, full view of your scene, and the rear LCD is equally crisp with responsive touch functionality. I would have personally preferred a tilting LCD rather than a vari-angle design, but I can adapt.

Battery life, so far, has been excellent. The G9 uses the same beefy battery pack as the GH5, and I found a single battery lasting me an entire day. The G9 also incorporates the battery-saving "Power Save LVF Shooting" mode we first saw in the G85. Like the G85, you need to have a couple parameters set properly to make it work: make sure the EVF's eye sensor is enabled, then toggle through the rear LCD's various display modes to the settings display option. Once set, the eye sensor will automatically detect that the camera is away from your eye after the specified number of seconds you selected and puts the camera into a sleep mode. In practice, this worked very well, and the camera instantly woke back up after half-pressing the shutter release. By comparison, I often let my E-M1 II auto-sleep after a short period of inactivity. Sometimes a half-press of the shutter will wake up the camera, but other times not, and I'll have to power the camera off and on again in order to resume shooting quickly. With the G9, however, the "power save" feature worked perfectly every time, instantly coming back to life when I was ready to shoot.

Panasonic LEICA DG 100-400mm f/4.0-6.3: 300mm, f/5.7, 1/640s, ISO 4000

One of my favorite photo subjects is wildlife, and it often helps being as quiet as possible. One of the benefits to most modern mirrorless cameras is the ability to shoot completely silently thanks to a fully electronic shutter mode. The G9 is no exception. In fact, right out of the box, the G9 lets you start shooting silently even without looking at a menu. On the front of the camera, there's a small two-mode dial switch, which by default toggles between normal shooting mode and an all-silent mode. Flip to Mode 2, and the G9's AF beep is turned off and the electronic shutter is enabled. It's very handy. However, if you want to use the mechanical shutter, the G9's is very quiet already, making a nice, soft "click" when firing a shot and feels very similar to that of the G85.

Panasonic LEICA DG 12-60mm f/2.8-4.0: 40mm, f/3.9, 1/2500s, ISO 200, +0.3EV
Image Quality

Although we've just begun our testing of the G9, from the initial batch of images I've shot so far, this new flagship Lumix camera is capable of capturing very pleasing photos with lots of fine detail and fairly impressive high ISO performance. The G9 is also the first Panasonic camera to offer a multi-shot (pixel-shift) High-Resolution mode, offering final images at up to 80.6 megapixels.

Panasonic LEICA DG 12-60mm f/2.8-4.0: 60mm, f/4, 1/125s, ISO 200

The G9 uses the same 20.3MP sensor as the GH5, though Panasonic says the image processing has been fine-tuned for improved image quality. With the camera being so new, the RAW files aren't yet compatible with third-party photo editing software, so I've only made image quality assessments from the JPEGs at this point in time. So far, from what I've seen, G9 images at low ISOs display tons of fine detail. Examining wide landscape images, I was able to zoom-in and see lots of small, minute detail even in far-off objects of the scene, even with standard resolution images.

Panasonic LEICA DG 12-60mm f/2.8-4.0: 60mm, f/6.3, 1/500s, ISO 200, +0.3EV

Although low ISO images can display lots of crisp detail, I found the G9's JPEG images can still have an odd "digital" look. It wasn't obvious in every photo, but sometimes noise reduction processing (even at base ISO) is visible on background out-of-focus areas or other softer or low-contrast areas. Again, I'm basing all this just on in-camera JPEGs (at camera default picture style settings), but it can look a bit unnatural at close-inspection with a kind of artificial-looking smoothing of detail. JPEG sharpening also felt a bit too strong for my taste, depending on the subject.

Panasonic LEICA DG 12-60mm f/2.8-4.0: 60mm, f/4, 1/1250s, ISO 200, -0.3EV
Notice the pleasing fine detail in the crop around the lizard's (anole) head, but then just further down its body, which is slightly out of focus, the image processing shows rather heavy processing with unnatural smoothing and detail loss.

Like many recent cameras, the G9's sensor does not use an optical low-pass filter, letting it capture more fine detail but at the risk of moiré and other aliasing artifacts. It's likely that the in-camera JPEG processing is designed to remove some of these artifacts, but I was still able to observe it in certain scenes, though not to a severe extent.

Panasonic LEICA DG 12-60mm f/2.8-4.0: 12mm, f/4.5, 1/500s, ISO 200, +0.3EV
With the lack of an optical low-pass filter on the sensor, it is possible to generate moiré and other aliasing artifacts on certain subjects/patterns.

Given its Four Thirds sensor, the G9 is at a disadvantage when it comes to high ISO performance and low-light shooting compared to cameras with larger sensors, all else equal. That being said, I was rather impressed with the level of detail I could capture even at ISOs I'd normally avoid with Micro Four Thirds cameras. Over this past weekend, not only did I have to deal with heavy overcast weather conditions, but also using the Panasonic Leica 100-400mm lens in forested areas, which opens to a maximum of f/6.3 at 400mm. Needless to say, I was often cranking the ISO to get usable shots in these situations. As for overall image quality, yes, noise reduction processing is clearly visible in the JPEG images, however, the camera's processing does a really nice job of preserving finer details -- especially higher contrast detail -- while keeping noise under control.

Panasonic LEICA DG 100-400mm f/4.0-6.3: 300mm, f/5.7, 1/640s, ISO 8000
High-Res Mode

As mentioned earlier, the G9 is the first Lumix camera to offer a pixel-shift High Resolution shooting mode, offering up to an 80.6-megapixel image with both RAW and JPEG files. The G9 takes eight separate frames in quick succession and composites the individual frames together in-camera. Like other pixel-shift high-res modes from other camera makers, the G9's comes with similar limitations, or rather, appropriate use-cases. The high-res mode on the G9 is best suited for still life, architecture or certain landscape subjects without any moving subject matter. Given the multi-shot nature of this shooting mode, if there are moving objects, or you're not shooting from a stationary position, the composite image can contain lots of artifacts from improper stitching.

Panasonic LEICA DG 12-60mm f/2.8-4.0: 12mm, f/5.6, 1/500s, ISO 200, +0.6EV
In this High-Res shot, static features, such as the brick, come across with tremendous detail, but even subtle moving objects like the flag and trees are blurry and/or show image stitching artifacts.

When done correctly, the G9's High-Res mode captures an amazing level of detail. It is tricky to use; everything has to be perfectly still in order for it to be truly crisp and sharp. Even subtle movement like moving leaves on a tree can come out blurry or improperly composited. But, if you're careful with what you shoot, you can capture some stunning photos.

Autofocus

To finish up, I want to briefly touch on my experience so far with autofocus performance of the G9. As I've said, we've only just started testing the camera, and I, personally, have only shot with the camera for a couple of days, but so far the G9's autofocus performance is quite impressive, especially for single-shot AF (AF-S). Like the GH5, the G9 uses a contrast-detect AF system with "Advanced DFD" technology. Panasonic claims the G9's AF-S autofocus is slightly faster than the GH5's, at 0.04s compared to 0.05s. With AF-S, the G9 focused nearly instantaneously. With both near and far subjects, the G9 acquired accurate focus immediately, and overall, I did not experience any issues regarding single-shot AF.

Panasonic LEICA DG 100-400mm f/4.0-6.3: 400mm, f/6.3, 1/640s, ISO 400, +0.3EV

The G9 adds a handy "AF-Point Scope" feature, which lets you quickly toggle a magnified view around the AF area (both on-screen and in the EVF) to make sure focus is precisely where you want it. By default, the camera assigns this to the top front-facing function button, making it very easy to activate while the camera is still up at your eye. The G9 now also has the ability to remember different AF area positions depending on whether you're shooting vertically or horizontally, which is really nice.

Now, when it comes to Continuous AF performance, this is an area I need to explore further with production-level firmware before I make any definitive judgment calls. The G9 incorporates the GH5's "Advanced DFD" technology but the performance has been tweaked even further, according to Panasonic, and also utilizes two times faster processing -- 480fps calculations compared to 240fps. The updated C-AF system also allows the G9 to shoot up to 20fps with the electronic shutter while continuously focusing -- a major upgrade over the 9fps rate of the GH5.

So far, I've only briefly used C-AF with some small wildlife subjects, and the G9 worked quite well. Now, keep in mind that this was only on subjects that, while moving, were only moving sporadically and over short distances -- nothing was particularly challenging for the camera. I plan to test the G9's C-AF capabilities more thoroughly and with more challenging subjects in an upcoming field test. Panasonic puts some bold claims on its C-AF performance, so it bears a closer look. It will be very interesting to see how the G9 stacks up against phase-detect-capable competitors!

Panasonic LEICA DG 100-400mm f/4.0-6.3: 350mm, f/5.9, 1/640s, ISO 4000
Summary

Overall I've been quite impressed with the G9. Its beefy, weather-sealed construction seems large for a Micro Four Thirds camera, but it nevertheless feels great in the hand and balances nicely with big and small lenses alike. Plus, its enthusiast- and pro-level amenities like dual UHS-II card slots, joystick control, top-deck status LCD, excellent battery life and extensive control customization really make the G9 feel like a solid, versatile, flagship camera.

Sporting the same 20MP sensor as the GH5, the overall image quality does not appear drastically different, but the G9 is certainly capable of capturing rich, detailed images at both low and higher ISOs. Our performance testing with production-level firmware is still forth-coming, but so far, the camera feels nimble and fast in my experience. All in all, the G9 is shaping up to be one impressive camera and a nice photo-centric compliment to the video-heavy GH5, and perhaps a true rival to the Olympus E-M1 Mark II.

 



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