There’s a new kid in town
Caution: Detailed gear post ahead. You have been warned.
A new recruit has joined the ranks of the picture machines here at RedSkiesAtNight. I’ve cautiously “upgraded” from a Panasonic GH1 to the G5. Those readers somewhat familiar with the Panasonic m4/3 line will note that this is actually a move down from the top end “GH” line to the middle “G” line. At this point in time, however, the camera tech has progressed to the point where the middle line camera in generation 4 is better in almost all respects than the generation 1 top end camera.
I was patiently waiting for the GH3 to hit the market, but when it did, it turned out to be significantly bigger (and a bit heavier) compared to the GH1/GH2 models. Being a small camera kind of guy from waaaay back, I couldn’t really see carrying anything bigger, so I began to look around at what else was on the market. The Olympus OM-D/EM-5 would perhaps seem the obvious choice, but having owned an EP1 and being frustrated by the AF operation and controls/menus, I was very hesitant about going the Olympus route. Also, I wanted good video capabilities, since I was used to that in the GH1, and from everything I’ve read, video is not the strong suit of the OM-D.
The G5 is a bit of a stealth camera, having been introduced time-wise between the OM-D fanfare and the GH3, and alongside several significant mirrorless offerings from Fuji and Sony. It got quick, but favorable reviews from some of the big camera sites as a nice upgrade from the G3, but was sort of crowded out by all the other exciting new camera news. I had mostly overlooked it as well. But now I began to notice little positive anecdotes about it in some of the m4/3 forums, especially from people (like me) who were upgrading from a GH1. So I researched it and found that it had just about everything I was looking for in an upgrade. The tipping point came when Amazon had a “gold deal of the day” during the holiday shopping madness for a G5 for $399 USD. I bit. At that price, I could probably afford to be wrong.
For me the significant changes from the GH1 are:
- Increase in sensor pixels from 12MP to 16MP.
I honestly was not thrilled about this. I do not need additional resolution. I want less noise at high ISOs and more dynamic range. From what I have read, however, Panasonic has managed to squeeze in the additional pixels while actually decreasing overall noise at equivalent ISOs. Sadly, DR doesn’t appear to be changed from the GH1.
- Increase in usable ISO.
This was one area where I was really looking for improvement–indoor low-light shots without flash, With my fastest prime on my GH1, I would have to venture up into “marginal ISO” territory (ISO 800) to get a decent shutter speed for candids when indoors under typical household room lighting. According to the specs, the G5 should have about 2 stops of improved low light performance. That’s a nice improvement and should result in better indoor candids with less blur.
- Level indicator.
This is really useful, and saves lots of work doing minor rotations in postprocessing. I’m already leaving it switched on all the time.
- Electronic shutter.
A feature shared with the GH3. When you turn this on, and disable any confirmation beeps from the camera, the only sound you can hear when you take a photo is a faint whisper of the aperture blades as they open and close. The camera is virtually silent. This is an awesome feature and super useful for candid work. There are some limitations to the feature (not usable above ISO 1600, nor with flash), but for the vast majority of my shooting situations they do not apply.
- New “pinpoint” AF mode.
This is a new AF mode that has a super-small AF area: a point represented by a crosshair. When you focus, it magnifies the view for a split second, allowing you to visually confirm the focus. In conjunction with the AF+MF setting, which allows you to immediately fine tune the focus manually it is a killer combination. So far this seems best for slow deliberate shooting, and not when I am following the action of people or animals, but for static subjects I am really enjoying it so far.
- Change in JPEG processing.
According to the big review sites, Panasonic has “improved” the JPEG engine in the later cameras since the GH1. Frankly I never saw what many people complained about–and I directly compared the EP1 and GH1 on a number of occasions. Still, it might be a change, and I’m interested to see what, if anything, I do notice about the JPEG processing.
- Faster AF.
Panasonic claims a large improvement in AF speed. I can definitely see some improvement, but again, I was never really disappointed with the AF speed of the GH1 so it’s all gravy.
- Better video.
With the G5 you have the choice of shooting video in AVCHD or MP4 format. I much prefer MP4 for most uses since it is easier to edit and can be immediately viewed on a wide variety of devices. With the GH1 I was stuck with AVCHD or motion JPEG. You get Full HD up to 60p in AVCHD and up to 30p in MP4. 30p is good enough for most of my uses so I mostly leave it in the MP4 setting. This is a definite increase in frame rate over the GH1. There is a built in stereo mic, wind cut feature and adjustable mic levels, which can be shown on the display. No mic input or headphone out (which is bad), but in those situations you can just use external audio recording. Basically, Panasonic is reserving high-end video functions for the GH3, but this little cam can shoot some pretty sweet video!
- Touch screen controls.
While this is touted as a great feature of the G5, compared to other modern touch screens (e.g. the iPad) the one on the G5 is decidedly inferior. It often takes double attempts to get a gesture recognized, and the screen is small, making it difficult to touch small icons (and my fingers are not all that large). Still, when it works there are some nice capabilities like extra assignable Fn buttons and touch to set AF point.
- Cheap feeling buttons and controls.
Now we have to move to possibly the worst thing about the G5. The bottom line is this: the GH series is made in Japan, the G series is made in China to save money. Otherwise how can they offer it at a sale price of $399? While I was a bit skeptical of the GH1 controls when I got that camera, they have held up well for 3 years of shooting. I’m not so sure I’ll be able to say the same about the G5. Some of the controls feel mostly solid, but some buttons feel spongy (in not a good way) and like they may not last. Only time will tell about this.
- Overall grip and ergonomics
The overall feel of the camera is pretty good, and perhaps an improvement over the GH1. The video control has moved to the top of the camera, where it is less likely to be accidentally pressed, but is also harder to find and press. Some of the buttons on the back that were frequently accidentally pressed are now recessed, and so less prone to accidental activation, but are also harder to find by feel with my eye up to the viewfinder. I always found the control dial on the front of the GH1 to be in an odd place, but on the G5 its around back and slightly off to the side. A little easier to find, but I am not sure how well I like the action of it.
It’s early days, but I am enjoying the G5 and so far have found it a worthy upgrade. The menu structure hasn’t deviated far from the GH1 and I find it to be straightforward and accessible–I was able to get up and running in no time. Image quality seems good and, aside from some initial trepidation about the controls, the camera is a joy to use.
For those of you coming into this article wondering if a GH1 to G5 upgrade is worth your while, this series of blog posts may be helpful. You will be able to find them all under the G5 category. Readers of the blog will see a fair bit of work from the G5 going forward, and from time to time I’ll throw in a comparison shot from the GH1, perhaps with a comment or two.