Panasonic Lumix G6 Digital Camera Review
The latest Lumix is better than the G5 in more ways than one.
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Panasonic announced the Lumix G5 during the summer of 2012 and, less than a year later, here we are reviewing its stablemate/successor. From our time with the G5, we concluded that it could use improvement but we didn’t expect for them to turn around and release a refreshed take so soon. The biggest change that Panasonic could have made—upgrading the sensor—left us with hope for video on par with the Lumix GH3 in a smaller body.
Panasonic's new Lumix DMC-G6 ($749.99 MSRP) takes the general ideas at play in the G5 and changes features—some for the better, some for the worse. Many of the things that Panasonic spent time tweaking were the weaknesses we noticed when reviewing the G5, namely build quality and a lack of video options. While the G6 is an upgrade for Panasonic’s midrange offerings, there’s still a GH3-sized elephant in the room.
Design & Handling
Better build, worse buttons
We weren't huge fans of the way that the Lumix G5 felt, except for the way that its large, comfortable grip was designed. The G6 keeps the big grip of the G5 and adds better, more consistent materials. Its construction feels well-built, lending an impression of solidity. To our eyes, the G6 is also more attractive, with a distinctive hunched shoulders look. Unlike the G5, the G6 feels like a cohesive whole instead of a hodgepodge of conflicting textures and shapes.
Unfortunately, the G6’s hardware controls are a step backward from the already poor buttons on the G5—it's a big, mushy, flat mess. It’s frustrating to see Panasonic bungle something as important as the buttons. Although the layout of this camera is extremely intuitive and easily learned, the camera doesn't reward the user with satisfying feedback. Instead, you may find yourself waiting skeptically for a function to happen, just in case you didn't press a button quite hard enough.
If you think you can put up with flush, hard-to-press buttons, you'll be rewarded with a whopping five custom buttons. Fn1 through 5 have 46 different possible assignments you can customize, including the defaults. On the touchscreen, there is also what Panasonic calls a touch tab, pulled up with a swipe from the left hand side of the screen. Buttons on the touch tab also can be customized to serve different purposes. Like on the G5, a function lever located behind the shutter release is automatically programmed to control exposure compensation. When a power zoom lens is attached, the lever is reassigned to control zoom instead. Finally, a secondary thumbwheel can be used to navigate the menu system, including the quick menu.
On the top of the G6 sits the traditional electronic viewfinder, this time packing improved OLED technology. We were impressed and found it to be a very accurate representation of the image. In fact, the difference between the G5 and G6 viewfinders is night and day— that OLED really makes the image seem closer to a real optical viewfinder on a DSLR. The eye sensor is a tad too sensitive, turning off the touchscreen when you hold it to your eye. The LVF button turns the LCD off, and it's handily placed for photographers who prefer to shoot with the viewfinder instead.
Our G6 review unit came with the new Panasonic 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 kit lens, and we think it’ll be a crowd pleaser. Compared to the old kit lens included with the G5, this new lens offers better performance in a smaller, more compact package. Every single dimension has been shrunken and it's much closer in size to the Olympus M43 14-42mm kit lens. The overall effect is that the footprint of the camera with its kit lens is reduced. The zoom action is also significantly shorter due to the smaller diameter of the lens barrel, and both the focus and zoom rings were buttery smooth.
More of the same isn't a bad thing
The G6 ticks a few more boxes off of our “G5 successor wish list,” including a 24p video mode, and WiFi, making its G-series debut. To assist in pairing the G6 to a smartphone, Panasonic has also built in NFC. For the select few Android phones with NFC, it means a quick tap is all it takes to download photos using Panasonic's apps—in theory. We had a hell of a time getting the G6 to pair on the first try. You can make it work but it took a bit of patience.
We still really like the Panasonic menu system. Between the Q Menu button and the other, deeper menus, the G6 is easy to navigate and provides controls that more advanced photographers care about. The fact that the menus are pretty touch friendly is just icing on the cake, giving you the option to use the G6 however you choose.
One area where the G6 takes a big step forward is in its touchscreen sensitivity. The G5 was occasionally infuriating to use due to its lack of sensitivity—a gripe that's still fresh in our memories. The G6 is almost good enough to make us forget how bad the touchscreen was on the G5—almost. Whereas the G5 often required multiple taps to make buttons respond properly, the G6 is smooth and fast to respond to taps. It also responds to advanced gestures—pinch-to-zoom and swipes all worked as expected. If we had one gripe regarding the G6’s touch features it’d be that tap-to-focus wasn't as snappy as on Olympus's more recent M43 cameras.
We were let down by the G5's video features, feeling that for the price, that camera should have included at least a 1080/24p shooting mode. In light of the GH3's excellent video capabilities, the prior baby G shouted to be compared to its big brother. But, the G5 left us wanting more.
Enter the G6. Finally, Panasonic's endowed a lower-end camera with more video options. The only shooting option missing still is the GH3's higher bit rate 72 Mbps MOV mode. The G6 has both full 1080 AVCHD with 60p, 60i, 30p and 24p and 1080 MP4 with 60p, 30p and a few lower-res options (720p and VGA resolution). Also new to the G6 is an external mic jack. Conveniently placed on the front of the camera, it's a short distance from the hot shoe mount and doesn't protrude from the side or hinder use of the articulating LCD. Although limited, there is the ability to control audio levels while recording. There's only one thing missing to make this little camera a real shooting star—a headphone jack. That's right, there's no convenient way to listen to the audio the G6 is recording.
Our video department regularly uses a GH3 to shoot the videos that go on all of our Reviewed.com sites. They love their GH3 to bits, choosing to use it over more expensive gear because it's so compact, outputs high quality HD video, and has great handling capabilities. We had them evaluate the G6 to see if it was worthy of regular shooting. All in all, they were impressed by what they saw. If you're in the market for a companion to your GH3, the G6 would be an excellent choice. The learning curve is shallow, it's compatible with the same lenses you already have, and it is also a capable video camera with P/A/S/M modes.
Some bright spots, while one inherited problem remains
Panasonic made some improvements here and there but there's some evidence to suspect that the image sensor inside the G6 is basically the same as in the G5. We saw slightly different and improved performance in burst mode, white balance, video quality and color accuracy. Unfortunately, since this camera doesn't have a hugely improved sensor or image processor, it still isn't quite as good as the Olympus M43 offerings for still photography. I personally prefer the ‘look’ of photos taken with the PEN E-PL5 better than what I shot with the G6.
In the lab, white balance test results were exceptional. Both in custom and auto white balance, the G6 is among the highest scorers we've ever seen. Color accuracy, however, was another story completely. We got mixed results from the G6. JPEG color profiles were inconsistent and exhibited unexplained changes in accuracy from one test to another. Under the exact same lab conditions, we saw wider variance than we’re used to, especially considering the G5’s dead-on color accuracy performance. Granted, problems like this with a new camera can be easily and quickly resolved with a firmware update, but it was unnerving to say the least.
Video was also notably better with clearer motion and improved detail. Both in bright light and low light, the G6 delivered solid video performance. Check out the videos on our science page to see for yourself— even under low light, the G6 did a remarkable job holding onto detail and color without adding a hideous amount of noise.
The G6's high burst mode nearly reaches the level of those we saw with the Olympus E-PL5, squeezing out around 6.5 fps at full resolution. That's better than the G5, but still peters out more quickly than we'd like, shooting around 9 shots before slowing down to one per second. With RAW turned on, you can capture a second's worth of shots, but that's it. There's no true continuous shooting with RAW turned on. There's a lower-resolution JPEG mode that uses the electronic shutter to capture a high, high frame rate of 40 fps (!). Unfortunately, the camera can only (again) sustain a second's worth of shooting at this rate. Olympus's PENs and Nikon's 1 are both better choices if you're looking for a compact system camera with a zippy, long-lasting burst mode.
The new kit lens is a bit sharper than the old 14-42mm, scoring much better in our sharpness test. While that's good news for people buying the DMC-G6KK (that's the exact model number of the kit), people who are already entrenched in the Micro Four Thirds lens system likely won't care.
For an in-depth discussion of the G6's performance, visit the Science page.
The G6 still lives in the shadow of the GH3 and OM-D
This camera represents an evolutionary dead-end. Even though Panasonic's done a fine job making the G6 a great update of a camera we already thought was pretty decent, the tired 16-megapixel sensor at its heart just isn't all that great any more. Compared to Olympus's offerings, the G6 is set for an under-the-hood update now that the features and build have been mostly sorted out.
As always, there's the question of price. The G5's been out for less than a year. Ever since then, we've seen the price fluctuate wildly as sales come and go. Right now, the price for a body-only G5 is only $499, a great bargain for current M43 lens owners looking for a compact body with a built-in viewfinder. The G5 kit is going for around $599 depending on where you look, $150 less than the G6. Granted, you miss out on the improvements that the G6 brings but $150 isn't a drop in the bucket. That'll put you on your way to buying a second lens, like Panasonic's 20mm f/1.7 prime in all its pancakey glory.
Although the G6 compares favorably to most of its Lumix siblings, the Olympus Micro Four Thirds lineup has nothing to worry about when it comes to stills performance. Video doesn't seem to be a priority for Olympus, however, so if you need a camera for shooting both stills and video, the G6 is superior.
Putting all of that aside, the G6 is a commendable camera. We were pleased by its image quality, liked handling it, and even enjoyed using the responsive touchscreen to control it. Its custom buttons are numerous, and its viewfinder is one of the best EVFs out there right now. It's also a solid video camera, with most of the custom functions and frame rates you'd ever want. We hold out hope that when Panasonic shares that crucial GH3 sensor with more cameras in its lineup, we'll be having a very different discussion in our conclusion.
By the Numbers
Given that that this camera has the same sensor as the G5, we were expecting familiar performance from the G6. Some of our results confirmed that notion, but there's definitely some different software at work. Noise reduction was more heavily applied at certain ISOs, we had some strange results from the JPEG color profiles, the G6 greatly benefits from its new kit lens as well. Burst mode, while better than the G5, still isn't quite good enough to match the competition.
Panasonic's done a fabulous job at enabling custom noise reduction settings. Each color profile has its own NR slider, with 5 stops on either side of the default setting. It's way more granular than what Sony or Olympus offer in their compact system cameras, giving you a huge amount of latitude in how the camera combats noise. The G6 has a similar percentage of noise at each ISO across those settings. Compared to the G5, we did see some different applications of the noise reduction. Some ISOs received less and some received more by a slight amount.
This camera's Venus Engine image processor still did a good job keeping noise under 2% up until the higher ISOs. We use that figure as a benchmark, beyond which images are too noisy to be printed. You'd be well advised to shoot with lower ISOs, since we saw a sharp increase in noise at around ISO 3200, and our still life shots basically reflect the same idea. Detail takes a dive in the higher ISOs, as to be expected but it's well-balanced up to ISO 3200. Overall the G6 scored lower on our noise test, but it still was within spitting distance of the G5's score. We'd call this one a wash between the two.
When we tested the G5, we were let down by the soft performance we saw with the kit lens. The lens was plenty sharp at full telephoto, but when used at its widest focal length, it softened up the edges a bit too much. The new kit lens included with the G6 is a much better lens, showing improvement at the wide end and generally across every aperture setting. Vertical and horizontal edges on our chart were all much sharper, only taking noticeable dip in resolution when shot at full telephoto wide open.
Some of this newfound sharpness is due to a bit of software fakery. It's pretty standard practice to enhance the trouble areas of lenses by enhancing contrast where little exists. The levels of over sharpening that we measured were acceptable and not too egregious. As always, M43 cameras automatically correct for lens distortion when you shoot JPEG with first-party lenses.
Color & White Balance
The G6 returned some baffling, mixed JPEG color results. The first time we tested it, its most accurate color profile was the default Standard mode, but all of our data seemed wrong. Using the same settings, we reshot our test and ran the results again. We saw improved results, but that first set of off results was unsettling. We're inclined to believe that this was the result of some strange firmware issue, but it's still worth mentioning. The final color score was in the same ballpark as the G5, but it wasn't as dead-on accurate as we found that camera to be. We saw a ∆C uncorrected mean of 3.18, compared to the better score of 2.8 from the G5. Saturation also went up from 103.1% to 108.6%.
White balance performance from this camera was exemplary. It turned in very accurate results both in custom and in auto mode, ranking among the most accurate cameras we've tested. Like the G5, the G6 has two custom presets and a mode where the color temperature can be entered in manually.
While shot-to-shot speed has been improved in the G6, it's still not quite to the same level as some competitors. It's speedy if you need one second's worth of pictures, but the continuous speed can't hold a candle to what we saw from the Olympus E-PL5. While there's still that super-speedy 40 fps SH mode using a lower res photo and the electronic shutter, full-resolution photos are limited to a top speed of around 6.5 fps. And like the G5, the G6 runs out of buffer space far too quickly, maxing out at 9 shots before slowing to rate of just 1 fps.
With the addition of a 24p mode, the G6 felt like a much more complete video shooting solution. We have posted some sample videos below and you can see the results of our motion tests in bright, dim and indirect dim lighting conditions. While the G5 was a decent video shooter, we saw improvements in video resolution from the G6. In our bright light motion test, we measured 650 vertical and 625 horizontal LW/PH while in dim light, we measured 620 horizontal and 550 vertical. We measured low light performance, and found the G6 required 12 lux to produce an image at 50 IRE, a minimum standard of image brightness used in broadcast video.