The Panasonic Lumix G7 ($799.99 with 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 kit option) is a shockingly good solution for this exact issue. It offers just enough cutting-edge features to hang with today's top-of-the-line cameras, while still coming in at an extremely consumer-friendly price point.
Other cameras below $1,000 generally don't have all of the features the G7 does; things like 4K video, an articulating screen, access to a huge lens library, or high performance rarely all combine in one camera model. $800 may not exactly seem like a "value" proposition, but it's probably the smartest money you can spend if you're looking for a "serious" camera without the "serious" price.
Any way you slice it, this is an awesome camera. Not only does it offer a lot of features, but it does them right. With high marks across the board, it's tough to argue with the G7's performance—save for white balance.
The G7 has one clear goal: deliver an enthusiast experience in an surprisingly light, portable package. Not only does the G7 bring many of pro-oriented features found on cameras like Panasonic's flagship-level GH4, but it also brings a few new features to the table.
The body design of the camera is fairly similar to Panasonic's other high-end mirrorless cameras, though it's much more svelte in the middle and extremely light. On the top you'll find dual control wheels, a shooting mode dial, drive mode dial, and a rather satisfying power switch. While multiple dials might be intimidating for a beginner, don't worry: the G7's control scheme easy to grasp but offers plenty of options that'll help you grow as a photographer. It gives you all the tools to dive right in, and plenty of customization once you feel more confident.
Pros will love the focus mode selector placed on the back of the camera. It sits right where your thumb rests—letting you quickly override the autofocus if you're having trouble getting the perfect shot. If you're a novice, this switch is sufficiently out of the way enough that you won't accidentally hit it.
Powering the whole show is a 16-megapixel Micro Four Thirds sensor with a new Venus Engine processor. This allows the G7 to process the enormous amounts of data required to shoot 4K video, and use ISO speeds up to 25,600. The Venus Engine also enables modes that allow you to pull 8MP stills while shooting video, using Panasonic's unique 4K photo modes.
On the back of the G7 is a slew of buttons, including programmable keys, a control cluster that doubles as a directional pad, and a wonderful articulating screen. The display is a 1,040k-dot LCD that can flip out, up, down—basically anywhere you could possibly want it to be. This is a great thing to have if you want to shoot over crowds, around corners, or even in a professional capacity with video. We're starting to see more cameras with this capability, and it's no secret why—it enables shooters in many important ways.
Also on the back is the 2,360k-dot electronic viewfinder. The eye cup surrounding it isn't very plush or comfortable, but it's tolerable. While pros are more likely to gravitate to the viewfinder, features like focus peaking and magnification are also available on the rear display. You can't go wrong no matter what shooting style you prefer, though using the viewfinder is far better for bright days when glare makes shooting with the LCD impossible.
For videographers, there's a mic port on the left side of the body, and an HDMI port on the right. While these aren't the fully-fleshed out options you can find on Panasonic's GH4, but they're solid additions. If you do shoot video, you won't get tired after long sessions because the camera is just so damn light. The only notable omissions are a headphone jack and compatability with Panasonic's high-end YAGH accessory. This limits your options if you're a pro, but it's not something that should enter into the equation for anyone else.
Overall, it's very easy to see that Panasonic spent a lot of time polishing this camera. While some might find the plastic a bit too chintzy, to me it feels more like Panasonic tried to combine the best features of a DSLR-like body with the weight reduction of a mirrorless camera. That "best of both worlds" approach is great to see, and it's a real win for the G7.
In our labs, the G7 was able to resolve well over 2000 line widths per picture height with the help of a bit of software oversharpening. Really though, the extra bit of help the camera gives itself isn't enough to cause many headaches when you go pixel peeping.
If we must pick nits, it'll be over the mild haloing visible when you blow shots up to 200% on your computer screen. At that point, you're really just splitting hairs, so why bother?
I will say that it does matter which lens you pair the G7 with quite a bit. Though the sensor itself is very capable, you're going to want a Micro Four Thirds option that can keep up. If you get blurry shots with the camera, it's not the fault of the G7.
The G7 has you covered
If you're worried that an $800 camera might not have all the accoutrements of a modern mirrorless shooter, your fears are unwarranted. This thing has just about everything you could want in a compact system camera, including WiFi, loads of scene modes, and a heavy emphasis on 4K shooting. Panasonic knows how competitive in this part of the market can be, and focusing on video is the right move.
Beyond the camera itself, the G7 also has access to the entire Micro Four Thirds lens library—no small advantage to have. Not only is there a vast number of lenses available, but there are some pretty special pieces of glass out there for the system. Even third party options like the Sigma 60mm f/2.8 ART will work famously with the G7.
Social shutterbugs will appreciate the WiFi options, though compared to just shooting on your phone they're super clunky and take time to get working right. Where other companies have adapted things like NFC pairing down, this camera requires you to go through the laborious process of pairing over WiFi manually. Once you have the camera paired to your smartphone, though, you can share photos from your camera to smartphone with relative ease. You can also set your G7 up and use your phone to shoot remotely.
Once you've gone through that, Panasonic's rather unimaginatively-named "Image App" does offer you a surprising level of control. You can change focus, picture settings, and even modes with the app. It's a powerful convenience feature if you find that you're always missing from family shots because you wind up being the dedicated photographer (eg; me).
However, the best feature is, without a doubt, Panasonic's 4K photo modes. The G7 even has a brand new feature called 4K burst, with three sub-modes. Essentially, this allows you to use the shutter button to rapid-fire 8-megapixel stills—the same size as 4K video as you shoot it. With this you just have to frame and shoot, and then you can easily yank a still of the exact right moment after the fact.
As I mentioned before, there are three sub-modes here. Regular ol' 4K burst will snap stills while you hold down the shutter release as you take video, and stop when you release the button. 4K "start and stop" is similar: press once to begin and then again when the action is over. But the real star of the show here is 4K pre-burst. If you narrowly miss a moment, pushing down the shutter button will save 60 frames of action: 30 after you hit the shutter, and 30 before you hit the shutter button. Cool, huh?
The only minor letdown here is that the G7 does skimp a bit on the 4K video shooting—compared to the pricy GH4. You can output the uncompressed 4K footage to an external recorder via the HDMI port, but you can't get 10-bit 4K or 200mbps 1080p like you can with the GH4. Video still looks great, but it's one area where the GH4 surges ahead. Not only will video shot on the GH4 have better color fidelity, but it'll also have less noise and more dynamic range.
Noise performance is great on the G7. While its default noise reduction algorithm is a tad aggressive, you won't really see any garbage data in your snaps until you use ISO 12800, at which point the noise reduction of the G7 will also make your snaps less detailed by destroying fine lines in the name of noise reduction.
Given that we routinely praise cameras for keeping it together until ISO 6400, we're willing to give the G7 a pat on the back here. We've seen cameras do some truly horrific things to snaps in the name of killing noise, so having usable shots up to ISO 12800 is no small feat—especially for a Micro Four Thirds camera.
Though it doesn't boast the best dynamic range we've ever seen in a camera, the Panasonic G7 hangs tough with its competitors. Offering near 8 stops of high-quality DR at base ISO (200), you can expect your shots to handle editing well.
Even if you need to push your ISO speeds a bit, the camera doesn't produce shots with 0 stops of high-quality dynamic range until ISO 12800. Meaning: even shots taken at ISO 6400 will look acceptably good. That gives you a bit more flexibility than many other Micro Four Thirds shooters, and it's a refreshing thing to see.
There's a steady dropoff of dynamic range from ISO 200 to ISO 6400 by about a stop per ISO stop, though the loss of DR from ISO 400 to 800 is a little more severe at two stops lost.
Forget about your camcorder; it's obsolete
The Micro Four Thirds movement has a storied—if relatively short—past, and this model fits right in. Though it has a somewhat small pixel count, this camera is a video and stills hybrid monster. Not only can it call upon the entire Micro Four Thirds lens library, but it's one of the best performing Micro Four Thirds cameras out there—even some of the older high-end models.
Our lab tests and hands-on experience only cement that impression. The images are sharp, color accuracy is spot-on, and the dynamic range is fantastic for a camera at this price point. Really, if there's a weak point, it's the white balance—which is merely decent compared to Panasonic's typical excellence.
Best of all, the G7 really sings with the right lens. There are plenty of great options out there for Micro Four Thirds shooters, and grabbing a high-end kit replacement like the Panasonic GX Vario 12-35mm f/2.8 ASPH will give you unbelievably sharp shots. On top of that, the 4K footage shot by the G7 is among the sharpest we've seen to date, right up there with the GH4.
Stabilization is quite good here, too. However, the downside is that you'll need a Panasonic lens with optical image stabilization in order to make use of it—unlike the new GX8. It's one of the few minor downsides here, but if you do get a stabilized lens, the G7 knocks stills out of the park. You'll be able to take snaps that have longer shutter speeds without any noticeable blur (unless your subject moves). If you can't get a Panasonic OIS-enabled lens, you're going to want fast prime lenses.
Outside of raw performance, there are a few things that might get in your way. For example, shooting 4K video means needing a new, faster UHS-3 SDXC card. You're going to need one that can handle extremely high write speeds. If you don't use a card like this, you'll find that burst capacity is very low, along with severe troubles with getting your camera to record the video you want. For example, a regular old class 10 card is only going to keep up for a second or two with video or high-speed stills.
Even without a stabilized lens, you'll be able to shoot 4K/30p or 1080p/60p video without too much trouble. Your video clips will look great, and you'll probably wonder why anyone uses a camcorder anymore. Though the camera uses the aging h.264 AVCHD standard, it'll be relatively painless to mess around with—unlike the h.265 used by cameras like the Samsung NX500.
Color accuracy too, is a strong suit of the Panasonic G7. With a ∆C 00 saturation error of 2.12 and an overall saturation of 108.8%, you can expect your snaps to be virtually perfect to the naked eye.
You may notice a bit of de-saturation in yellows and yellow-greens, but otherwise the color performance is great. That is, until you leave daylight.
If you often find yourself in incandescent or mixed lighting, you're probably going to want to avoid using automatic white balance—or just shoot in RAW. If you don't, you can look forward to color temperature errors in your shots of up to 2000 kelvin—leaving a yellow-orange cast over your picture. In fluorescent light, this problem is much less pronounced, but you may notice a slight greenish hue (error of about 300 kelvin).
On a budget but refuse to compromise? This is the camera for you.
Simply put: This is a fantastic camera. Not only does it soundly kick butt performance-wise, but if you care about video this is perhaps the best value around. That may change soon, but as it sits now you're not doing better for the money. The G7 is essentially a diet GH4. If you're looking for a camera that offers greater performance than your entry-level options, but doesn't cost as much as what the pros use—this is the camera you're looking for.
If you want to explore your options, you could also look to the APS-C crowd including the Sony A6000, Nikon D5500, or Samsung NX30. But the G7 not only hangs with all of these—but it comes with vastly better video features.
Even if you're willing to spend a little more to get the camera of your dreams, you're still going to be making tradeoffs. Adventurists who need weather sealing will probably elect to go with a higher-end Olympus offering like the OM-D E-M5 mark II or OM-D E-M1, but losing 4K video capabilities among other features is going to be a tough pill to swallow.
In truth, the G7's closest competitor in terms of price, performance, and features is the Samsung NX500. But for all the NX500's strengths, it just doesn't have as large a lens selection, and its 4K usability is better suited to 2016 or 2017 than it is today. Ultimately, the G7 is the ideal compromise for anyone that wants 4K video, superb stills quality, and doesn't want to spend a boatload. Now that I think about it: that's not much of a compromise at all.
To put it bluntly, this camera is an absolute animal when it comes to video. Not only does it support 4K/30p video in a file format that can be read by most computers without much cajoling by codec packs, it does fantastically well.
In bright light, the G7's sensor can resolve about 1600 line pairs by picture height in both horizontal and vertical motion, which is patently bonkers for a consumer-grade camera. And that's just the 4K shooting mode. If you don't have a 4K monitor, you can do your video plenty of favors by downsampling your clips to 1080p.
In low light (60lux), this number drops to just (just?) 1250 LP/PH in both horizontal and vertical motion, but there's a catch. When the light is low, you'll find that either the shutter speeds are too slow for your clips (and cause blurring), or the auto ISO will ramp up the noise quite a bit. This is an extremely capable sensor, but bright light will always be better than low light.
If you do find yourself in the dark, this camera can record a 50 IRE picture all the way down to 3 lux. This is mighty impressive for a Micro Four Thirds camera, but it's possible that this won't be the case with all of the kit options. Be sure to use this camera with a wide-aperture lens for best results here.
Meet the tester
Staff Writer, Imaging@cthomas8888
A seasoned writer and professional photographer, Chris reviews cameras, headphones, smartphones, laptops, and lenses. Educated in Political Science and Linguistics, Chris can often be found building a robot army, snowboarding, or getting ink.
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