Review: Panasonic's Lumix G9 is worthy of flagship status
Panasonic's new photography flagship takes some useful steps forward from the video powerhouse GH5, from upgraded autofocus and image stabilization to 20 fps burst speed and a massive 80-megapixel high resolution mode. Here are our thoughts and sample images.
In March 2017, Panasonic released the outstanding Lumix GH5, a micro 4/3rds camera squarely targeted at pro video shooters, but which did a pretty stellar job as a stills camera as well. In January this year, it followed up with the Lumix G9, which took the majority of features from the GH5 and repackaged them with a few tweaks in a body designed to be the brand's new still photography flagship.
It's impossible to talk about one without mentioning the other. So here's a quick overview of what each does better:
The GH5 has a bigger rear LCD screen at 3.2 vs 3 inches, and it's significantly higher resolution as well. Its maximum video resolution is a giant 4,096 x 2,160, where the G9 can only manage 3,840 x 2,160 4K.
The video options on the GH5 go on for several pages. Bitrates up to 400 mbps are available, as is an ultra low contrast VLOG upgrade for high dynamic range (HDR) video capture, and the range of frame rates, resolutions and slow motion options can be frankly intimidating to anyone shy of a pro videographer...
…but that's about it. In fact, while it's positioned as a stills camera, the G9 is still capable of outstanding video at 4K/60 fps and slow motion at 1080p/180 fps – which both chew card space like crazy and will frankly offer far better video quality than the vast majority of users will need – even those who make a ton of Web video.
Still shooting sees the G9 streak back ahead with a very quick 20 fps burst speed, a 10 percent lighter body, a DSLR-style LCD settings screen on the top, a more photo-friendly button layout, and a handgrip that protrudes further to make it easier to grasp.
Autofocus is pretty fast on the GH5, but the G9 has it beat with what Panasonic claims is the fastest system available on the four thirds format. It's a beast. Video autofocus performance is notably better on the G9 as well (whoops!), and while the GH5 offers 5 stops of dual in-lens/in-body image stabilization, the G9 pips it with an improved 6.5 stops thanks to upgraded internals.
Finally, the G9 offers a pixel-shift ultra high resolution landscape shooting mode that uses the stabilizer system to build massive 80-megapixel super high resolution shots if you plonk it on a tripod. Oh, and it's US$300 cheaper at retail.
With those comparisons out of the way, we'd consider it fairly clear who should be going for which: pro videographers who need a deep video options menu should go for the GH5, and everyone else including semi-pro videographers should go for the G9 – with the caveat that both are outstanding.
Working with the Lumix G9
This is a very impressive micro four thirds body – good enough to tempt me away from the full frame rig for anything that doesn't require high ISO work or super creamy bokeh. If you're accustomed to shooting with a DSLR, you'll find it almost comically lightweight at just 658 g (1.45 lb). Compared to other bodies in its class, however, like Olympus's OM-D E-M1 Mark II, which weighs just 574 g (1.26 lb) it's a bit meaty. Still, it's a solid, weatherproof and well-built body that feels like it can take a reasonable amount of abuse in the field, and a bit of weight isn't necessarily a bad thing in what is essentially a pro rig.
Battery life is great at around 400 shots. I took it out on a 4WD camping trip with just one battery, and shooting fairly freely with a bit of video here and there I got three days out of the battery.
With twin super-fast card slots, you can either run super high capacity; back everything up as you go; split video onto one card and stills onto the other; or heck, split RAW capture to one and JPG to the other.
The G9's menu system seems to go on forever. Options junkies will find plenty to keep themselves busy, including three assignable function buttons on the back. Menus can be navigated via the 3-inch touch screen, or by using the joystick or scroll wheels, and there are modes available for a few different in-body creative effects, from focus stacking to multiple exposures and a range of JPG color profiles. Hovering on a menu item and tapping the DISP button sometimes pops up a bit of an explanation about the feature you're looking at, but when it comes to the settings themselves, you're largely left to thumb through the manual to figure out what does what.
The G9's 20.3-megapixel sensor takes terrific photos in my view. They're sharp, with vivid color reproduction and an impressive dynamic range given the sensor is so small. Shadow and highlight detail won't touch what you can get out of a full-frame rig like the awesome Sony a9, but to my eye the image is comparable to a lot of APS-C bodies once you factor in a slightly wider depth of field due to the smaller sensor size.
As a mirrorless rig, it has a clear usability advantage over its DSLR brethren, in that you can see and set the exposure while you're looking through the electronic viewfinder, and what you see is what you'll get. So you don't have to go through the same process of becoming familiar with a camera's metering system because the final exposure's right there on the screen.
I tend to do all my shooting in RAW so I can butcher the shots later in post-processing. And, like the GH5, I found the G9's RAW files allowed me to push the shadows and pull the highlights by up to three stops before the colors start to fall apart and unacceptable levels of noise creep in. The photo below of our beautiful in-house model Nick Lavars was underexposed by four stops at ISO 400, then pushed three stops back up in Lightroom. Only when viewed at 1:1 does digital noise really become unruly.
You could use this kind of latitude to save all sorts of bad exposures, if the camera didn't do such a great job of metering and getting the exposures right in the first place.
As the ISO rises, things get a bit hairier. I'd consider ISO 3200 about the limit before you'll need to run some noise reduction – depending on what output size you're using – and the color noise at the MAX ISO of 25,600 goes pretty nuts in the darker areas. Having said that, I got a nice keeper of the Milky Way over our campfire at ISO 6400/15 sec/f/6.3 that I found pretty impressive for a small sensor:
If 20.3 megapixels isn't enough – say, for a whopping huge print – and you've got a tripod on hand, you can engage ultra high resolution mode and shoot at 80 megapixels. The G9 does this by taking several photos and using the stabilizer motors to shift the sensor half a pixel up, down and to the sides to gather extra information. The result is a monster 10,368 x 7,666-pixel file that will print an almost 3-ft-wide (0.9-m) poster dot-for-pixel at 300 dpi. It works great, but any motion gets blurred and it's pretty much useless without a tripod. Consider it a landscapes-only mode, it's fairly limited.
Autofocus is extremely impressive, grabbing focus super quickly as suggested on the tin. But it's not just quick, it's smart, offering face-detect mode as well as a host of different focus control options. Personally, I like using the rear touchscreen to set and drag my focus points around the screen, giving me total control of where the camera is focusing while I'm looking through the EVF.
Autofocus can work continuously during burst shooting, and even at f/2.8 on the 35-100mm Leica zoom lens, I find it get at least a 90 percent hit rate of perfect focus on steadily moving objects like cars and cyclists. Tack-sharp keepers aplenty. I didn't have a chance to take it down to the dog park and let fly at some more unpredictable targets, but outside of burst mode, focus is very rarely an issue.
For a camera pitched at still shooters, the G9 still has a lot of GH5 DNA in it and it's still a pretty stunning video rig, particularly to somebody like me who's been making video on Canon DSLRs since the 5D MkII. At this price point, 4K/60fps is very rare, and it's absolutely crystal clear – this resolution and frame rate is simply too high for most online video use.
Slow motion at 180 fps gives you the chance to slow things down by 7.5 times if you're outputting video at "cinematic" 24 fps. In this mode, you can only shoot 1080p, and at a reduced bitrate, so the colors look less impressive. But the footage is still useful as a creative tool.
Most of the good gear remains if you want to really go for it with video: focus peaking, zebra striping, external mics and HDMI monitors, mic level displays and the like, work exactly as they do on the GH5.
Interestingly, the video autofocus seems vastly better as well. Where the GH5 really struggles to get continuous focus during video shooting, the G9 fares better to the point where it's actually usable.
That, plus the fully articulating screen, make the G9 a great little vlogging tool for one-man operations, whether on a tripod or hand held in wide-angle selfie mode. You can get a pretty ludicrous production quality without a cameraman, but just beware the temptation to shoot 4K/60 all the time, because you're going to need bulk disk space, a powerful editing machine and a fat upload pipe.
Here's a sample video I shot using full-time autofocus at 4K/60fps. Sound is from a Rode Videomic Pro sitting on the hot shoe mount. Full screen it and select the highest resolution possible, and then make allowances for the fact that YouTube crunches video down a fair bit as well:
Panasonic is fully committed to the mirrorless micro four thirds concept, and these lightweight interchangeable lens bodies certainly have their advantages when you've got to carry them around all day. Shooting through an EVF feels like it's got active advantages over a mirrored viewfinder these days since the screens are so fast, so detailed and offer you things like focus peaking and exposure preview.
In fact, I'm reaching for the full-frame DSLR less and less now because the convenience of cameras like the GH5 and G9, combined with their excellent image quality, make them the better tool for most jobs I need them for. Combining the beauty and low-light ability of a full-frame sensor with the convenience of mirrorless currently requires you to spend serious cash on something like the Sony a9, which is too much for most people.
The G9 is Panasonic's new flagship shooter, and it supersedes the GH5 in several useful ways while bringing the price tag down. As a GH5 owner I wouldn't move to upgrade to it, but if I was buying new I'd probably go the G9 even though I do plenty of video work. I think it'll be a relevant machine for years to come.
At US$1,699 retail for the body (AU$2,499 in Australia), it offers prosumer-level performance at an attractive price point and deserves to do well. Check the gallery for plenty more sample shots.
Product page: Panasonic
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