Cameras

Panasonic Lumix DMC-G3 Review

The G3 is yet another attempt by Panasonic to bring the Micro to the whole of their Micro Four-Thirds line.

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Introduction

Panasonic's G3 is yet another attempt at putting the Micro in Micro Four-Thirds, shrinking another G-series camera down by a significant margin.

Meanwhile, though the frame is shrinking, the goods just keep piling on. The G3 offers a compact metal body, a 16-megapixel CMOS image sensor, an articulated high-resolution rear LCD, a full hot shoe, and an electronic viewfinder. All of this is offered for a decidedly entry-level MSRP of $700, with lens included. When a company pours money into worthwhile updates, it is always our hope that great things will follow, but only a trip to the lab will indicate whether this is the case.

Design & Usability

According to Panasonic, the G3 is the "smallest, lightest compact system camera that features a built-in flash." Whatever the case, the G3's built-in viewfinder means it won't effortlessly slide into your pocket anyway, even with a pancake lens.

Weighing in at less than a pound with an articulated touchscreen LCD, the G3 is an easy camera to work into any number of odd shooting angles. The body feels solidly built and its rounded edges slot comfortably into the hand. The G3 feels the way a sub-$1000 camera should feel: well-crafted and lightweight. This device may not survive a trip to anything that is popularly described as "besieged," but it will weather Disney World without much complaint. We just wish it had more rubber to improve overall grip.

[Panasonic's touch control menu navigation is quite fluid.

Panasonic has never been known for their menu designs, but their touch control menu navigation is quite fluid. The G3 is a fairly typical Panasonic offering, with a Record menu, In-Depth Custom menu, and Quick menu setup, the latter of which is accessible by a dedicated button on the rear of the camera—assuming it hasn't been given another custom function, as it shares double duty. The customizable Quick menu allows access to some of the most commonly used features. Nearly all the buttons have a raised profile and satisfying stroke, with seemingly no wasted space. We reserve complaint for the small control dial and flat DISP./Fn1 button, but the rest of the design is very nice.

Features

Enthusiasts and beginners alike will find things of interest on the Panasonic G3.

Many shooters will turn their noses up at this 460k-dot touchscreen LCD, but Panasonic has utilized it in a way that is so secondary to the operation of the camera that it's easy to just ignore it if that's really what you prefer. The G3 also has two programmable function buttons, a quick menu, and two on-the-dial custom modes, amongst numerous others. Notable hardware also includes a Micro Four Thirds lens system, an improved Live MOS 16-megapixel image sensor, and a 1,440k electronic viewfinder.

Between a full set of scene modes and the aforementioned level of manual authority, most users will not be left wanting.

Less experienced shooters will enjoy Panasonic's intelligent auto mode, accessible through a dedicated iA button, and a range of creative tools as well. There are seven photo styles including Vivid, Custom, and Natural, and each mode allows fine adjustments to contrast, sharpness, saturation, and noise reduction on a +/- 2 scale. There's not much in the way of in-camera editing for still images, and even less for video, but between a full set of scene modes and the aforementioned level of manual authority, most users will not be left wanting.

Performance

For an entry-level Micro Four Thirds camera, image quality doesn't get much better than on the G3.

The Panasonic G3 recorded more accurate colors than its competition while increasing maximum image resolution to 16 megapixels. It did so while also managing to keep image noise at acceptable, if not exceptional, levels. In fact, the G3 is practically the best entry-level Micro Four Thirds camera available for image quality right now.

The G3 is practically the best entry-level Micro Four Thirds camera available for image quality right now.

Happily, the Micro Four Thirds lens system has come a long way, especially since third party companies like Sigma and Carl Zeiss now produce compatible lenses. For our money, though, the 14-42mm lens kitted with the G3 is not the best available. At apertures larger than f/5.6, there's a fairly substantial sharpness falloff with heavy vignetting. It's a fine lens otherwise, but we'd recommend stopping down to at least f/8 and utilizing any of the excellent prime MFT options available for shallow depth of field work.

The G3 did not offer a substantial improvement in video quality over the G2, however. Any quick panning from side to side will quickly offer a first-hand lesson in the finer points of motion sickness, and controls are lacking.

Conclusion

The Panasonic G3 really went after the entry-level gold.

The G3 represents another step forward for Panasonic's line of Micro Four Thirds cameras. The new sensor design improves some key areas: high ISO performance and resolution.

Undeniably, the G3 simply dwarfs the competition for control options. If you want pro-level control in a compact body, the Panasonic G3 is for you. We'd love to see that level of control for video recording, but for still shooters, the options are phenomenal. Entry-level shooters aren't left without a crutch, though, thanks to a dedicated intelligent auto button.

The G3 also offers more than simply token spec upgrades, improving in nearly every way on the performance of the Panasonic G2. It has a new 16-megapixel sensor that keeps noise to a respectable minimum, excellent color accuracy, and respectable dynamic range of more than 6.5 stops. Altogether, the G3 is a very promising member of the Micro Four-Thirds family, and a very good entry-level camera in its own right.

Science Introduction

By all accounts, the G3 braved our testing admirably. This camera showed beautiful color accuracy, sharp images, impressive noise handling, and minimally distorted pictures. Video performance, while decently reliable, is far from the best.

Noise

The Panasonic G3 produces a fair amount of noise above ISO 1600, but heavy noise reduction can all but eliminate it.

The G3 offers no less than five different noise reduction settings. The default setting is zero, though in this case, that is merely the central point on a +/- 2 scale. At NR -2, the G3 suffers from 1% noise at ISO 800, rising all the way to 2.42% noise at ISO 6400. At the default zero setting, there is more than 1% noise above ISO 3200, with a much heavier dose of NR applied at the maximum sensitivity. At NR+2, noise never gets above 0.6%, regardless of the ISO setting. NR+2 actually produces less noise at ISO 6400 than all the other NR settings do at ISO 160.

With a smaller sensor size, Micro Four Thirds cameras have traditionally been fairly prone to noisier images at high ISOs. The counter to this is noise reduction, which inevitably lifts out as much detail as it does image noise. The G3 is no different, with Panasonic electing to offer fairly heavy noise reduction options that can keep noise below 0.6%, even at ISO 6400.

Color & Sharpness

We found the Panasonic G3 posted very accurate colors and adequate all-around sharpness.

In our testing, we found most of the standard "photo style" color profiles to be very accurate, generally with a color error of less than four. The most accurate two we found were the "standard" and "natural" settings, both of which registered an average color error of around 2.61. This is right in line with what we would expect from an entry-level or midrange DSLR. The only difference between the two modes was the amount of saturation (98.07% of the ideal for natural, 102.9% for standard) and the additional sharpening added by the standard mode.

There have been some initial complaints from other websites about the quality of the G3's 14-42mm lens, but we found it to be a perfectly fine option. The main issue taken with the lens is that at the largest and smallest apertures, there is considerable falloff in sharpness in the upper corners—common for any kit lens, really—but that is greatly alleviated by stopping down. At 14mm f/2.5, we found that horizontal sharpness was 1807.7 LW/PH in the center, but dipped to less than 650 at the edges. When stopped down to f/9, it was still 1809.95 LW/PH in the center, but sharpness stayed at 1446.21 at the edges (though dipped slightly midway). That's not an uncommon phenomenon and while we've seen other Panasonic 14-42mm models test better, these results shouldn't scare anyone away.

Video Performance

Sharpness improved a bit (over last year's G2) due to the addition of Full HD recording; motion was decent overall.

In our motion test, the Panasonic G3 produced video that looked nice enough, although it wasn't quite as fine as the kind of video you should get from a high-end camcorder. There was some trailing and blur in our testing, but the motion looked smooth and artifacting was not a problem. The biggest issue with the G3's video recording was the camera's terrible rolling shutter effect, which produced a significant amount of wobble whenever the camera was quickly panned back and forth. This is a common problem with video-capable DSLRs, though, so the G3 is not alone here.

Unlike its predecessor, the Panasonic G3 can record Full HD video at a 1920 x 1080 resolution. This increase in recording resolution enabled the G3 to capture a sharper image than the G2, but the increase wasn't as dramatic as we had hoped. The G3 measured a horizontal and vertical sharpness of 600 LW/PH in our test, which represents an increase of 25 LW/PH in horizontal sharpness and 50 lw/ph of vertical sharpness over the G2.

As for low light, the G3 required 20 lux of light to produce a viable image in our low light sensitivity test (by "viable" we mean an image that registers 50 IRE on our waveform monitor). This is a bit of an improvement over last year's Panasonic Lumix G2, but it is still a disappointing result. High-end and mid-range camcorders often produce better low light sensitivities than this, and it is not uncommon for the best models to require lux levels in the single digits for this test.


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