Lee Reamsnyder on the Panasonic G5

Panasonic G5 front

Lee Reamsnyder, longtime friend of thewsreviews and author of the best storage product review that I've ever read, joins us with his thoughts after spending a long weekend with the Panasonic G5.

Concept: 2 out of 5
Execution: 2 out of 5
Yeah, but: It isn't groundbreaking anymore.

Lee writes: In 2008, we were introduced to the first camera in what would become a swell little format, the groundbreaking Panasonic G1. It finally delivered on the promise of significantly smaller cameras and lenses matched with still-large sensors. It proved that electronic viewfinders (EVFs) were viable in a serious camera. It took great pictures.

No one talked about it.

Although the G1 came first, the internet hype machine didn't power up until the next year, which saw a perfect storm in the close releases of the smaller GF1, the sexier Olympus PEN, the more capable GH1, and the small but scrappy Panasonic 20mm/1.7 lens. When the system started to gel and the hyperbolic “we-love-photography-again!” reviews came out, the relatively plain G1 was history.

Aside from the revolutionary bits, the G1 got an awful lot right for the first time out: the grip is comfortable, the autofocus was fast and accurate, the magnified viewfinder has the same effective size as a full-frame DSLR, the rear LCD has the moves, the menu system shows an organization and clarity that is agonizingly rare these days, and it nails the switches-around-dials idea for quick access to major controls.

After 4 years with a G1, all I want is two tweaks:
  1. Swap the Menu and Quick Menu buttons. The Quick Menu with all the shooting settings, not the configuration bank, should be the one that's quickly available under thumb.
  2. Replace the too-clever tricky toggly main dial with a more obvious switch or a button-plus-dial method to control exposure compensation.
Basically: steal some control paradigms from Canon and keep up with evolving sensor tech. Boom, the next camera would be perfect…

…which is why I've found the actual evolution of the G-series so frustrating. The G2 stapled on a video mode and little else. The G3 upped the megapickles but lost the hand grip, the eye sensor that automatically switched between the rear LCD and the EVF, and like half of the buttons and dials.

Which brings us to the G5: it restores the eye sensor and a bunch of buttons, sports yet another body and grip design, and adds some niceties that I'll discuss shortly.

I'm in the market for a new digital system camera, and I'm fond of the G1, so I wanted to see where the G-series has ended up. After a long weekend with the G5 via the always great Lensrentals, I'm conflicted.

Plug, gratis

I can't really comment on autofocus performance, the great slayer of pretenders to the mirrorless throne. Though Panny's cameras have always set the standard on this front, I don't own lenses that would reflect any improvements. The AF motor in the 20/1.7 is satisfactory – no one would call it swift. I'm surprised the 7–14/4 comes with autofocus at all. Perhaps my 45/2.8 macro languorously hunted a smidge faster than normal? There's nothing I can pin on the camera.

Speaking of pins, there's a new 'pinpoint' autofocus that zooms in to a highly magnified portion of the frame to show you exactly where the camera is focusing, a clever idea that's still not as useful for critical work as true focus peaking. Seriously Panny: you have a video division. Call them, maybe?

One feature that I went in expecting to ignore but warmed to is the touch screen. The swivel screen is still one of the stand-outs of the G# line, and the touch features don't ruin it. Don't be suckered by the "touch" part. It's pressure-, not capacitive-,  sensitive, so don't expect graceful swipes or pinch-zooming like on a smartphone.

You can, however, prod the screen to indicate where you want to focus. Although Panny's multizone "just focus for me" setting is pretty smart, I can't understate how cathartic it is to just jab the sucker when it's not locking on the right spot. "No, focus HERE!" *poke*

Also, you can get quick(ish) access to two more custom functions via the touch screen, bringing the total number of customizable "buttons" to 5. Not too shabby.

Not that impressed, but not barking at the shutter either

One excellent candidate for quick access is the new electronic shutter. The mechanical shutter has a good, not-too-loud *fwip*, but the electronic one (after you turn off the autofocus bloops) is silent. Not muffled. Not quieter. Silent. If you work in any sound-sensitive environment – theaters, nurseries, churches, librarian fetish websites – this might be your camera.

Zoom zoom zoom…

Another feature I'm mixed on is the zoom lever, new on this model. I don't own any power zoom lenses (though the compact 14-42 is tempting); however, you can configure the G5's zoom lever to control exposure compensation as a pseudo second dial. I'd have liked this _much_ more if it also disabled the toggling between aperture and exposure compensation on the primary dial. As Matthew mentioned in his GH1 review, you can still accidentally switch between major functions at random times even while turning the dial, even though with the G5 you basically have two dedicated controls. So stupid. I've missed enough shots to main dial surprises with the G1 that this still rankles, even though I infrequently take pictures in a hurry.

The electronic viewfinder remains excellent even if it's mostly unchanged from the G1. If you're manufacturing cameras and don't need to pay for the precision hunk of glass for a prism, I don't know why you wouldn't provide a really, really, ridiculously magnified EVF. Glowers at the significantly smaller unit in the OMD. What is this? A viewfinder for ants?

Another carryover from the G1 is the conservative meter; I dial in +2/3 compensation in almost any situation where I'm not worried about shutter speed or blowing highlights. After going through several hundred underexposed shots in Lightroom, I can confirm that the G5's RAW files are quite forgiving of big exposure corrections.

Mom's Attic

A "nature" photo, for me

IQ is pretty darn good, even as you crank up the ISO. With the G1, I used ISO 100–400 with abandon, 800 with a good (over)exposure, and 1600 for snapshots. Improvements to Lightroom gave me another stop(ish) of acceptable noise if dynamic range wasn't a concern. I'd say the G5 adds another stop, maybe two, of usable range for me, which seems about right compared to the best APS-C cameras. It's not a D800, but the G5's sensor is no longer getting smoked in the noise department by my overachieving Canon S100. Since my other camera is a film rangefinder that's usually loaded with 400 film exposed at 250, the improved sensitivity is liberating.

Or, at least it should be. But something about the G5 left me cold. It might be the body gestalt. Although it's marginally heavier and smaller than the G1, it feels more hollow, empty. The magnesium front plate doesn't compensate for the rest of the cheap plastic shell and mushy buttons. The new grips – hand and thumb – feel plenty comfortable, but I didn't find myself reaching for it as much I thought I might.

Put another way: with my Ikon and S100, in idle moments I often find myself twiddling with the dials. I like the indulgent tick-tick-ticking of spinning the aperture ring on my 35/2 or twirling the ribbed lens wheel on the S100. I also know that with either of those cameras I could quickly reset if a photo opportunity arose; at this point I could probably set and focus my Ikon blindfolded. I can't imagine myself doing the same with the G5. These things shouldn't matter, but, well, yeah, they do! Particularly for an expensive hobby.

I've heard the GX1 is better when it comes to the intangibles, but you'd be losing the very useful swivel screen and the built-in EVF. The G5 remains the more practical and flexible choice.

During my rental period, I welcomed the excuse to give my much-adored Micro Four-Thirds lenses some exercise with a more modern partner. But I doubt I'll buy a G5 for myself. I honestly don't know what I want. The GH2 might be right, but it's also aging and its replacement has a larger, all-new body. Maybe I'll try the GX1. Maybe the grass is greener with Olympus or Fuji these days.

Fly away

It's an exciting time to be a digital photographer. It's also a frustrating time to be in the middle of the market. Big iron DSLRs have overwhelming firepower for those that need extreme resolution or speed. For everyone else, 'serious' compact cameras are getting so much better so quickly that it's almost scary. Here's the puzzle for everything in between: I think anything that can't offer ultimate size or ultimate IQ must offer a premium experience to be worth using. Although the G5 can use those excellent M4/3 lenses, the camera itself doesn't get my photographic juices flowing.

And I think that's where I left it: the G5 checks a lot of boxes but it does so without a lot of pizazz, like an above-average PowerPoint from the accounting department. For the size, image quality, features, and lens selection I would totally recommend it to friends looking to get into an interchangeable lens system, definitely before I would recommend any crop-sensor DSLR. Compared to the Olympus OMD or the GH series, it's totally a bargain. It appeals to that side of me that reads Consumer Reports. It's just fine.

The G5 is a perfectly acceptable photographic appliance, but it's in an era where 'perfectly acceptable' might not be enough.

last updated 22 mar 2013


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