I was recently loaned this camera for testing by one of my students. Due to some oddities in the distribution channel, it was first available in the US around the start of the year, and now appears to be largely out of stock or back-ordered everywhere. It still isn’t widely available in Asia. The test unit in question was loaned to me by a student, together with the 14-140 lens – available as a kit in some parts of the world.
This is not a cheap camera. The body price is around $1600, depending on where you buy it; in addition, the optional battery grip adds $300 to the price – for a total of $1900. (Update: many ave pointed out the price is 1299. At the time of writing, this was not the case. I dont think it changes the fact that youre still paying more, though. Value, as ever, remains relative.) By comparison, the Nikon D600 (which I reviewed here) is a shade under $2000, the Canon 6D is ~$1,900, and the 7D a paltry $1200. Its main competition, the Olympus OM-D (reviewed here) sells for $950. You can see why there’s a problem here: it’s got to be a much better camera than the OM-D (since for the same price as the body alone, you could buy an OM-D and a very competent 14/2.5 and 45/1.8 kit, or perhaps the 25/1.4) – this is a tough ask, because all evidence points to the two cameras having the same sensor. For all practical purposes, they have the same effective DXOMark scores, too.
Both have the same effective resolution of 16.1MP. The OM-D will do 9fps at full resolution raw; the GH3 a slightly lower 6fps, or 20fps at reduced resolution with electronic shutter. Both also have touch-sensitive and tilting monitors, with the GH3’s being fully articulated as opposed to moving in one axis only. Finally, both have built in electronic viewfinders, metal construction and claimed weather sealing – I have my doubts about this, as my OM-D experienced some issues in a high humidity environment, and the GH3 doesn’t appear to have any seals around the card compartment. You get a built in flash with the GH3, though I’d hope so: the body is enormous.
You’ll see that there aren’t a lot of images in this review: the main reason was that I really didn’t feel like shooting with the camera. This is generally rare for me, but honestly, the GH3 is one of the few cameras I’ve used in recent times that left me completely cold. I’ve never been a fan of the Panasonic UI; it’s actually gotten worse with the latest iteration, as in the interests of making the design look slick, it’s now not very clear what’s been selected, nor is it very intuitive to figure out how to move between menus and submenus – especially for those overlaid on the live view screen. However, credit should be given as there are at least ‘buttons’ marked out on the screen which makes touch navigation easy; the screen is also more responsive to a finger than the Olympus. The ergonomics of the camera leave a lot to be desired, too: though the main grip is very comfortable – amongst the best I’ve recently held – the button placement is terrible. The top deck buttons require you to move your fingers in a physically impossible way to press; the rear buttons disappear into the body and require you to hunt for them, the D-pad control dial is difficult to rotate, and none of the control dials feel particularly positive or confidence-inducing. (The OM-D might have small buttons, and some are hard to press, but I could find them by memory and touch after a few hours of shooting – not so with the GH3.)
But the worst ‘feature’ of all was the EVF. On spec, it should be good: comparable to a 0.7x (or thereabouts) full frame finder, with 1.7M dots and a high refresh rate. In use, it was horrible. Why? The final lens or optical piece or plastic bit or whatever over the EVF just before the rubber eyecup (fixed, not an option slip in, I checked) is of such low quality that if you wear glasses or move your eyes even slightly off center, the image ‘swims’ and becomes unsharp. It’s like looking through a melted piece of plastic; the view isn’t sharp or clear, and it’s very difficult to tell if the lens is out of focus, broken, or it’s just the viewfinder that’s inducing these effects. Probably the latter. You could of course just use the rear LCD, but holding such a large camera – it’s nearly the size of a D7000, and considerably larger than the OM-D – at arm’s length not only makes you look stupid, but is a surefire way to get blurry images because such a camera position is nearly impossible to stabilize. Of course, you could rely on OIS lenses, but if you’re using Olympus glass – there are no Panasonic equivalents to the 12, 45, 60 and 75mm fast primes – then you’re very much out of luck.
Finally, there’s the size issue. I just can’t figure out why the GH3 has to be so much larger than the OM-D when ostensibly, it contains the same innards. In fact, said innards may be slightly fewer in quantity given that there’s no stabilisation system around the sensor, nor does the prism hump have to accommodate a 5-axis gyroscope. The battery does hold around 50% more juice – and I was unable to exhaust it during the 300+ frames I shot during testing – which is one advantage; that said, I’ve had up to 2,000 frames on the OM-D, and 800-1000 is routinely possible. Although the body of the camera is made of magnesium, it has the same hollow, low-density feeling as the D600; it simply feels like there’s a lot of empty space inside the camera. Pair it with the 14-140 lens, and the whole combination feels front-heavy because the lens carries most of the weight. Use a smaller lens, and the combination handles better, but looks very odd because most of the M4/3 system primes are very small.
There has to be some good news here, right? Firstly, there’s a good degree of customizability in the control layout – no less than five real function buttons, two virtual on-screen buttons; a quick shortcut menu, and a healthy selection of custom functions. There is one glaringly obvious omission, though: the ability to set AUTO-ISO thresholds. There are two options for letting the camera pick the sensitivity – AUTO and iISO – neither of which are clearly explained anywhere, nor can you control the high ISO limit or the lower shutter speed threshold. This kind of omission isn’t really excusable in a camera from 2012, because it makes the feature effectively useless.
Fortunately, the camera actually does very well in the two things that matter: focusing and image quality. It focuses at least as fast as the OM-D, and in some situations, a hair faster – it’s really difficult to quantify, because both cameras are extremely fast. The GH3 just seems to hunt a fraction less than the OM-D with the same lens; it’s less noticeable on wides, and slightly more obvious on macros and teles. This gives it a very slight advantage over the OM-D when it comes to continuous focusing; that said, I still can’t make either track a moving object to the same degree of precision as any of my Nikons (D800E notwithstanding). I can’t really tell a difference between the sensors – with the same conversion settings in ACR, A-B test results look identical.
It appears that along all the dimensions that matter – color accuracy, dynamic range, acuity – they’re the same sensor. Both cameras will give excellent results to ISO 1600, good results at 3200, and are usable in a pinch at 6400 – though personally I avoid this setting as dynamic range tends to be compromised. I’d rate the GH3 as being slightly cleaner than the OM-D, however – perhaps by half a stop or so. That said, ambient lighting temperature probably has a larger effect on noise; if you stripped the EXIF and mixed up the raw file names, it would be tough to tell what came out of which camera. Both appear to have equally weak anti-aliasing filters, too.
Low ISO (200-1600) comparison. Full resolution crops here.
High ISO (3200-25600) comparison. Full resolution crops here.
I’m not a video expert (or even seasoned amateur), but I do have some basic idea of what to look for; I was pleasantly surprised by how good the OM-D’s video output looked, but the rolling shutter effect with even slow to moderate speed pans was extremely obvious, regardless of lighting type (sometimes rolling shutter can be worse under phased sources). Unfortunately, the same appears to be true of the GH3: rolling shutter is equally bad. By comparison, you’ve got to be panning very quickly indeed with the RX100 to see any evidence of it at all. Aside from that, the actual video quality appears to be pretty good: compression is reasonably low, and there are few artefacts. However, I suspect that the rolling shutter issue is going to mean that this isn’t the upgrade a lot of filmmakers were hoping for.
A quick note on the 14-140 lens: it’s a surprisingly good optic, sharp across the frame in the midrange, but soft at the extreme ends due to lateral CA and what appears to be internal flare or ghosting at times. It’s definitely useable wide open – and it’d better be, because the very modest maximum aperture means that you’re already pretty much at the diffraction limit without stopping down. Also, you’re probably going to want as much light as you can get to keep noise at bay once the light gets low. This lens has a reputation for being versatile for video work, and I can see why; however it wouldn’t be my first choice for stills, as it’s both expensive and heavier than a 12/2+45/1.8 (or 60/2.8) pair, without offering anything close to the same optical quality.
In principle, there are few real differences between cameras these days – many even use the same basic components – which means that so much of whether a camera ‘works’ for you or not boils down to its handling, UI and general feel in the hand, and if there are any small make-or-break quirks. (I go into far more detail on this topic here). I think the problem with GH3 is that it feels far too much like a piece of consumer electronics, and not enough like a camera. It really doesn’t feel like there was any photographer input during the development process, or the photographers who were involved were of the hipstagram generation and don’t remember that plenty of very responsive cameras were produced without an on-screen menu. This permeates throughout all aspects of the camera – from the feel of the buttons (hard and shallow, no positive clicks) to the menus, UI and overall control logic: it just doesn’t feel like a well-thought out product, and isn’t at all intuitive in use. Don’t get me wrong: I have no doubt that the imaging potential is there – it should be, given the sensor’s provenance – and some will find the operation of the camera to suit their shooting style. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a personal bias because I very much like some of the company’s other products – the LX series, for instance – but the GH3 just left me cold. MT
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