Panasonic GH3 Review
The Panasonic GH3 is the biggest, most ambitious Micro Four Thirds camera yet
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The GH3 is Panasonic's flagship Micro Four Thirds camera, offering a DSLR-like form factor, a built-in flash, a large grip, and an articulating LCD. The GH3 is the follow-up to the popular GH2, with improved video quality and recording options, essentially doubling down on what made the GH2 so successful. The camera's collection of customizable buttons, in-depth manual controls, weather seals, and high-quality video features should appeal to enthusiast photographers and videographers alike.
DSLR video is a competitive business, and the $1299 GH3 has its sights clearly set on the $3499.99 Canon 5D Mark III. We've gone hands-on with a late pre-production model to see if it can unseat the latest king of DSLR video.
Editor's note: We conducted this review with a GH3 running the pre-production firmware version 0.5. We've been assured by Panasonic that image quality, video quality, and exterior physical design are final, so we've conducted our full performance review. The only expected differences between our model and an off-the-shelf version are firmware bugs and finalized weather sealing, which ours did not have.
Design & Usability
The GH3 comes fully loaded, pushing the idea of a compact system camera to its limits.
The first thing that you'll notice when you pick up the GH3 is just how well-formed the grip is. It's a nice, plush rubber that fits right into your hand, with a sculpted recess that your fingers naturally fall into. The camera is only marginally smaller than your average entry-level DSLR, but the weight is well distributed through the body, making it very easy to hold onto and to shoot with for extended periods of time.
The camera's shutter button is expertly placed, precisely where your index finger falls, and the location of the other control buttons—white balance, ISO, exposure compensation, autofocus mode, AF/AE lock, and video recording—are all within thumb's reach. You do have to change your grip position to work the rear dial for menu navigation, but the two main control dials are both within easy reach. That you get all of this, along with weather sealing and a durable magnesium alloy body, at a weight that doesn't feel cumbersome is a testament to how well the camera handles.
Our highest praise is reserved for the quality of the rear articulating display and electronic viewfinder. The OLED displays work exceptionally well, providing vibrant colors and high resolution that makes focus-checking a breeze. The combination of an articulated screen and a weather-sealed body is particularly attractive, and somewhat uncommon, too. Some might criticize Panasonic for making such a large body part of their "compact" system camera line, but we think it's a bold decision—it immediately sets the GH3 apart as the best handling compact system camera on the market.
The GH3 has the video chops to match the Canon 5D Mark III, with plenty of features to make still photographers envious as well.
When Panasonic set about designing the GH3, its engineers consulted with dozens of professional photographers and videographers for ideas on how to improve on the GH2 formula. That consideration clearly shows, as the GH3 offers a long list of features that many writers and photographers have been clamoring for.
For video, in particular, Panasonic has thrown in everything and the kitchen sink. The GH3 features full manual control over exposure and audio (with levels), plus high-bitrate recording, with the option of 50Mbps IPB and 72Mbps ALL-I compression. IPB allows for smaller file sizes, but it's harder to edit. ALL-I compresses each frame individually, which has an inverse effect: easier editing but larger files.
The GH3 also features an articulating OLED touchscreen, 3.5mm microphone and headphone jacks, NTSC and PAL framerates, and a maximum resolution of 1080/60p. The two features we sorely missed were focus peaking and zebra patterning. With Panasonic clearly paying extreme attention to detail everywhere else, these truly feel like glaring oversights.
As for still shooters, the GH3's new 16-megapixel Live MOS sensor is designed for reduced noise. Its native ISO range of 200-12800 is expandable to 125-25600. The GH3 also features an incredible amount of control, with three dials and dedicated buttons for white balance, ISO, and exposure compensation. Almost every button on the camera features some sort of customizable function, making this one of the most malleable bodies on the market. On the whole, it's a dauntingly capable camera in a body that's a hair smaller than your typical entry-level DSLR.
The GH3 offers formidable image quality, quick operation, and in-depth control in both video and still modes.
The Panasonic GH3 appeals to a vast swath of the market. Its combination of video quality and still performance easily place it among the best compact system cameras on the market, and indeed it even won our Best Mid-Range Camera of the Year award for 2012.
When it came to stills, we were very impressed with the GH3's accurate JPEG color reproduction. With the 12-35mm f/2.8 kit lens mounted, the camera also produced remarkably high resolution figures. Noise levels were well-controlled up through ISO 3200, with minimal application of noise reduction. RAW files were unsurprisingly much noisier, but we found that the GH3 easily matched the *Olympus OM-D E-M5 and its Sony-produced sensor for high ISO performance, though they both lag behind DSLRs with larger APS-C and full-frame sensors.
The GH3 was also very quick to focus, even in limited light situations. In our shot-to-shot test, it topped out at 6.3 frames per second, which is faster than the 5D Mark III but quite a bit slower than the 10 fps we've seen from some other cameras at this price point. The speed of the contrast-detection focus system helps close the gap on some other mirrorless cameras, but without the predictive capabilities of phase-detection autofocus, we can't recommend the GH3 for sports and action.
In our video testing, the GH3 was very impressive, with some of the best motion performance we've seen from an interchangeable lens camera. In bright light, videos were noticeably sharper than those from the 5D Mark III, though the high bitrate offered by both cameras allows for some aggressive editing in post that can marginalize the difference. Overall, in test after test, the GH3 matched or bested the Mark III. You'll certainly miss the extreme shallow depth of field and huge, high-quality lens selection that the Canon system offers, but, in terms of raw performance, the GH3 is an incredible value.
The GH3 may be the best Micro Four Thirds camera yet. And it's without a doubt the best video-capable system camera we've ever tested.
Our time with the Panasonic GH3 convinced us that it's the best mirrorless system camera to date. Bodies like the Sony NEX-7 have shown excellent performance, and the Olympus OM-D E-M5 has incredible styling and control, but the GH3 brings it all together—with high-quality video to boot.
Compact system cameras have always been born of compromise; smaller sensors yield smaller cameras, but smaller sensors are usually not as capable as larger ones. Just a hair smaller than most entry-level DSLRs, the GH3 compromises very little. In our opinion, that's a smart trade-off in a camera with such grand aspirations; the GH3 is bigger than its mirrorless rivals, but it also has a large, comfortable grip, a fantastic OLED electronic viewfinder, and tons of physical control built right onto the body.
Actually, it's downright shocking how few compromises the GH3 makes to achieve its size advantage. With a durable magnesium alloy body, weather sealing, an articulating OLED touchscreen LCD, five customizable function buttons, three control dials, and direct controls for just about every major shooting parameter, there's very little you miss out on with the GH3. Granted, we still prefer the huge, bright viewfinder on the Mark III, but the GH3's electronic viewfinder provides significant advantages of its own, such as in-finder exposure correction, menu navigation, focus assistance, and a horizon level. That you also get a mic jack, a headphone jack, exceptional build quality, and full manual video control will certainly have some 5D Mark III owners examining their return policies.
The GH3 is the best Micro Four Thirds camera we've tested, and it offers video capability that matches or exceeds the Mark III—but for $2000 dollars less. This is an astonishing coup by Panasonic. With solid image quality, a laundry list of features and controls, and video quality that can match any system camera on the market, the GH3 is a fantastic camera by any measure.
We were quite impressed by the GH3's abilities in the lab, where it produced excellent results in the majority of our image quality tests. We were most taken with the camera's sharpness, when used in conjunction with the optional 12-35mm f/2.8 lens. The JPEGs out of the camera have the benefit of some subtle post-processing, but it enhances details without going overboard as many other cameras tend do. As usual the RAW files have a slightly different look, but Panasonic has obviously gotten quite a bit of performance out of the GH3's sensor, and it's certainly on par with other cameras in this price range.
The GH3 isn't the most accurate camera in the world, but it offers more than enough color control.
The Panasonic DMC-GH3 offers several color modes, and we tested each and every one. The default "standard" color mode proved to be the most accurate; the others tended to push saturation or skew certain colors to create specific looks that weren't objectively accurate (though they were often still quite attractive). We found the standard mode had a color error of 2.85, with a saturation level of 108.3% of the ideal. Those are pretty nice numbers—certainly an acceptable level of performance, and similar to what we've seen out of competing cameras.
Noise & Detail Loss
The GH3 pushes Micro Four Thirds sensors to a new level, with usable shots up to ISO 6400.
The Panasonic GH3, like most cameras featuring Micro Four Thirds sensors, produces a fair amount of noise at higher ISO levels. While Micro Four Thirds sensor technology is steadily improving, it's not at the same level as full-frame or APS-C tech, both of which allow for larger pixels that provide better immunity to image noise. As a result, the GH3 has to lean heavily on noise reduction software to preserve detail without letting noise overpower the image—something it does quite successfully.
The GH3 offers a staggering number of noise reduction settings—11, in total. Noise reduction can be adjusted on a +/- 5-stop scale for each of the camera's picture modes, along with contrast, saturation, and sharpness. With the default level of zero, noise reduction is quite aggressive throughout the higher ISO speeds, keeping noise beneath 2% up to ISO 6400.
The GH3 offers a maximum ISO speed of 25600, though the only way to shoot at this speed and to also keep noise levels below a 2% threshold is to turn noise reduction all the way to +5. At this setting, fine details are all but obliterated, and there's very little room for editing the image later. If you turn noise reduction to the minimum setting of -5 (or look at the RAW images), it's apparent just how much noise is produced by this sensor. With noise reduction at its weakest, noise reaches 2% by ISO 3200, pushing all the way to 4.3% at the maximum ISO of 25600.
The 12-35mm f/2.8 lens produces wonderfully sharp images.
There's much to admire about the Panasonic GH3's 12-35mm kit lens, and we found ourselves impressed by how sharp its images could be. Both in the field and in the lab, fine detail came to life, with only slight software edge enhancement. Nearly every camera adds some sharpening to its images when processing JPEGs, but the GH3 successfully walks a fine line between showing more detail and dodging the ugly "halo" effect that plagues oversharpened images.
The 5D Mark III has some serious competition, as the GH3 matches or beats it in nearly all of our video performance tests.
The GH3's video looked very sharp throughout the frame. 1080/60p recording was similar to what we've seen from other AVCHD 2.0-compliant cameras, though the real strength of the GH3 was its higher-bitrate recording. You can get 1080/60p with the IPB compression format, which offers improved motion performance but is more difficult to edit. If you drop down to 1080/30p, you can record in ALL-I at 72Mbps, though we actually found that the 50Mbps IPB looked better in some of our sample shots.
The GH3 rendered details at a frequency of roughly 850 lw/ph horizontally and 800 lw/ph vertically in our bright light test footage. That number dropped to 750 lw/ph vertically and horizontally in low light. This is very satisfying for an interchangeable lens camera, and it puts it just above the Canon 5D Mark III as one of the sharpest cameras we've seen to date. The GH3 still falls behind what the best dedicated camcorders can do, but it is simply exceptional for a camera that costs so much less than the Mark III and other competing models.
In extreme low light, the GH3's relatively small image sensor didn't prove to be much of a disadvantage, either. The GH3 required just 4 lux of light to produce an image that exceeded 50 IRE on a waveform monitor. We use 50 IRE as a benchmark because it's a standard test for broadcast-acceptable brightness. The GH3's result here puts it in some solid company indeed. While larger full-frame cameras perform well here as a matter of course, the GH3 more than holds its own, even if the final image is noisier than we might prefer.
Speed & Timing
All praise aside, the GH3 is not the quickest camera out there.
The Panasonic GH3 offers a pretty standard array of speed and timing options, with high and low speed continuous shooting, a low-res/high-speed shooting mode, and an array of self-timers. This isn't the fastest camera at its price point, but it has enough options to get the job done most of the time.
We found that the GH3 lived up to its claims of 6 frames per second shooting, occasionally getting as fast as 6.3fps. It did this in both JPEG and RAW, with rather snappy focus and response time as well. Panasonic claims that JPEG shooting is unlimited, but we found RAW, JPEG, and RAW+JPEG all ran out of buffer space after about 20 shots, causing the shooting speed to drop to just over one shot per second.
The GH3 boasts an excellent white balance system.
The GH3 also featured exceptional custom white balance accuracy, a benefit compounded by just how easy it is to quickly capture a custom reading. Its dynamic range was acceptable as well, though it understandably lags behind cameras with larger APS-C or full-frame image sensors. Overall, the GH3 excelled throughout our performance tests, proving to be a capable camera in a variety of shooting conditions.