Panasonic GX85 Field Test Part I

Taking this trim yet power-packed camera to Mexico

By Eamon Hickey | Posted: 09/01/2016

As a big fan of what I'll call small-but-serious cameras, I was definitely interested in testing out the Panasonic GX85. On paper, it promises to pack a whole lot of shooting power into a pretty compact body. The question is: how does it measure up in real-life shooting?

12-32mm f/3.5-5.6 G X Vario: 32mm, f/5.6, 1/80s, ISO 640, +1EV

Packing the GX85 for Mexico

As it happened, just as the Panasonic GX85 arrived at my doorstep, I was getting ready to visit friends in Mexico City, so I tossed it in my backpack with all my other essentials (laptop, cell phone accessories, Kindle, passport, and a dozen other tchotckes). With the very small 12-32mm f/3.5-5.6 kit lens and the tiny charger, it took up very little space in my bag — it's a great size for traveling. In the Overview section of this review, we noted not only the compact dimensions of the GX85, but also the comfortable design. I'll second those impressions, as well as the sense that the GX85 feels very well built despite its small size. One additional thing I'd note is that the camera is a little heavier than I expected, no doubt a by-product of its solid construction.

Versatile and fairly complete controls but minor auto ISO shortcomings

In my first couple of days shooting around Mexico City, I tried to get a feel for the Panasonic GX85's control system, with an eye to how well it worked for quick, spontaneous street shooting. As we mentioned, it has twin control wheels, as well as a slew of other controls and custom buttons. I was easily able to set up the GX85 to shoot quickly, with good control over exposure and focus, in several different modes. I shot in aperture-priority mode and in manual exposure mode, using auto ISO on many shots and also 3-shot exposure bracketing in many situations. I also activated the live histogram. With these tools, I had no trouble getting good exposures and sharp focus quickly in all situations.

I especially liked the smart way the GX85 gave me access to the autoexposure bracketing controls: by pushing the thumbwheel in you can directly activate bracketing and change its parameters (number of shots and bracketing increments). All that said, I'll mention two minor disappointments: you can't set a custom minimum shutter speed when using auto ISO in aperture priority, and you can't use autoexposure compensation when using auto ISO in manual exposure mode. Both of these are useful advanced refinements for the auto ISO feature (and available on many competing cameras), and I wish the GX85 had them.

12-32mm f/3.5-5.6 G X Vario: 14mm, f/5.6, 1/400s, ISO 200
A combination of back-button AF and 3-shot bracketing helped me set-up and capture this shot of contrasting transportation modes in Mexico City.

12-32mm f/3.5-5.6 G X Vario: 19mm, f/5.6, 1/60s, ISO 640
The GX85's tilting LCD helped me shoot unobtrusively at this art installation in the Biblioteca de Mexico. (What look like framed photos are actually video screens playing short video loops.)

12-32mm f/3.5-5.6 G X Vario: 32mm, f/5.6, 1/80s, ISO 1000, +1EV
The GX85's tilting LCD made it easy to get a ground-level view of these handsome gents.

I also set the Panasonic GX85 for back-button autofocus, as I do with every camera that I use if this feature is available. It worked well for me on the GX85, but the position of the AE/AF lock button, which is the most natural one to use for back-button AF, isn't perfect — activating it and the shutter release simultaneously required a slightly cramped grip for me. Although I find that using back-button AF with a single AF patch is the best way to precisely control an autofocus system, the GX85 provides no less than six different AF-area modes for refining AF operation, as we detailed in the Overview section. It's an extremely flexible system that should satisfy the preferences of almost any photographer, and in my tests the Eye/Face Detect and Tracking AF-area modes did a good job of identifying and sticking with my intended subjects.

As we've already noted, the Panasonic GX85 provides a ton of options overall for controlling its features, numerous customizable function buttons, and three custom memory banks. Although this makes for a fairly deep and complex menu system, it let me set up the camera to work fast and efficiently across a very wide range of shooting styles and situations.

12-32mm f/3.5-5.6 G X Vario: 22mm, f/5.6, 1/60s, ISO 500
I was a little concerned about camera shake at 1/60 for this image of backlit portraits of Mexican poet Octavio Paz. But it's sharp, perhaps owing partly to the GX85's 5- axis stabilization.

GX85: Plenty of viewing and composing options in a small package

I firmly believe that having both a viewfinder and an LCD for viewing is a huge plus, and I'm impressed with how the Panasonic GX85 manages to stuff both into its compact frame. The magnification on the electronic viewfinder is not that high — i.e. the finder image is a bit small — but the EVF is fairly sharp, and I can see the entire image, plus my settings, with my glasses on. It's been great to have it available in several situations where bright sunlight made the LCD harder to see.

That's been fairly rare, though, because the LCD on the Panasonic GX85 has worked well for me even in fairly bright light. The tilting action on the LCD is somewhat stiff, but otherwise I have no complaints. It has a useful range of tilt, and it's sharp — I've used it for probably 90% of the pictures I've taken with the GX85.

12-32mm f/3.5-5.6 G X Vario: 32mm, f/5.6, 1/80s, ISO 500, +1EV
I switched to the EVF to frame this mid-day portrait of friends in Mexico City.

12-32mm f/3.5-5.6 G X Vario: 32mm, f/5.6, 1/80s, ISO 640
I used back-button AF in S-AF mode to focus-and-recompose for this shot of an evening nap in Parque Mexico.

35-100mm f/2.8 G X Vario: 51mm, f/5.6, 1/60s, ISO 400
With just one quick turn of the mode dial, I used the GX85's custom settings bank to grab this shot of a Bronx rainbow only a few seconds after I spotted it (and before it started to fade).

GX85: Lovely 4K video and a good set of Wi-Fi features

One beautiful evening in Mexico City, I happened across a violinist and some dancers in Parque Mexico, which gave me a great opportunity to try out the Panasonic GX85's 4K video recording. I set my exposure manually (the GX85 provides extensive exposure and focus controls in video mode), using the live histogram to judge my settings. And I focused using back-button AF and the single AF mode. The resulting 4K footage looks beautiful to my eye, but you can judge for yourself. Although I haven't shot any telephoto video, all my test clips with the GX85 have also been very stable — the 5-axis image stabilization seems to work extremely well at typical focal lengths.

Panasonic GX85 4K Sample Video: 3,840 x 2,160, 30 fps, H.264, MP4
Download Original (827.7MB MP4)
Dancers in Parque Mexico in 4K. (Pardon my rookie mistake of zooming slightly mid-clip, and forcing a refocus in a couple of spots. Definitely operator error.)

Heading home

Back home in New York, I ran the Panasonic GX85 through its Wi-Fi connection paces. My honest experience is that there's not much to choose from in the Wi-Fi functions of most higher end cameras these days, and the GX85 seems roughly on par with its rivals. Setting up a Wi-Fi connection to my iPhone 6 is relatively easy and works consistently and reliably, but it remains a multi-step procedure (as it is with every camera I've tested). Once connected, the Panasonic Image App allows you to browse the camera's memory card, transfer photos to your phone, and control the GX85 remotely. It all works fast and well, and the remote control capability is fairly extensive, including the ability to set bracketing parameters, select Photo Styles, change focus modes, and more. I'd say the GX85's Wi-Fi capability is as good as you'd expect in an advanced camera these days but nothing particularly exceptional.

35-100mm f/2.8 G X Vario: 39mm, f/5, 1/100s, ISO 1000, +1EV

In part 2 of my field test I'll take a look at the GX85's performance and talk about my experiences using the Olympus M.Zuiko 12mm f/2 and the Panasonic G X Vario 35-100mm f/2.8 lenses.


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