Review: Panasonic GX9 makes a compelling case for the compact camera
Panasonic has done an admirable job packing high-end marquee features into the tiny compact GX9 street shooter – in particular, a sensor, wireless comms and dual image stabilization to equal the flagship Panasonic G9. But what has been sacrificed in the name of portability?
We don't envy anyone in the camera game at the moment. The glory days, at least in terms of sales, would appear to be long gone. If you can afford a good compact camera, you've probably already got a high-end smartphone. And phones have long since passed the point of taking photos that are good enough. They're just plain good at this point, not to mention the fact they let you edit and share your shots just about instantly. And if the best camera is the one you've got with you, how does a device that's always in your pocket sound?
That's what cameras like the GX9 are competing against, but that kind of brutal competition has forced some pretty impressive innovation.
The GX9 weighs some 450 grams, or about bang on a pound, with a card and battery in. That's about three times the weight of a big phone like the Pixel 2 XL, but it feels featherweight for a camera. Hang it off your shoulder on a decent strap (i.e. not the tiny one in the box) and you'll barely notice it sitting there.
Unlike a phone, it packs a 20.3 megapixel, low pass filter-free, micro 4/3rds sensor within, and allows the use of a huge variety of quality lenses, Panasonic and otherwise. And if you do use recent Panasonic glass with IS capability, the GX9 offers dual 5-axis in-lens/in-body image stabilization allegedly good enough to reduce motion blur to the level you'd get with 6 1/2 stops more light to work with.
Our test unit was set to arrive with Panasonic's terrific 12-60 mm lens aboard, but I asked for something smaller and flatter, to make the most of this thing's tiny dimensions. That came in the form of the Lumix G Vario 12-32mm f/3.5-5.6, which travels almost as flat as a pancake lens, then extends out to offer a useful zoom range equal to a 24-64mm lens on a full frame camera. It's far from the lens the 12-60 or 12-35 are, but it's exactly the right size for carrying around all day. Suitably strapped, I headed out on an urban adventure with my 4-year-old.
As the owner of a Panasonic GH5 (the dedicated micro 4/3 pro video machine, which uses a similar sensor and dual IBIS systems in a body about twice the size of the GX9), I was not surprised by the quality of images this smaller street shooter could pump out. Given a bit of light to work with, these little fellas take a terrific shot that blows up and prints just fine.
In lower light, especially with a slower lens like the 12-32, you basically either accept you'll get something a bit grainy, or unleash the pop-up flash and have your shots ruined by stark lighting, washed out color and rude shadows. I think companies include built-in flashes simply because there's certain buyers out there who won't touch a camera that doesn't have one. If you're one of those customers, please educate yourself so we can see the last of these things as quickly as possible. Panasonic does a decent job of hiding it here; I couldn't even figure out how to turn it on. That's just how I like my pop-up flashes.
Autofocus is very quick and generally reliable, much as it is on the GH5 and G9. The GX9 doesn't have a thumbstick on the back, so instead you use the rear touch screen to select your focus points. For the most part, it works great. When you're holding the camera vertically for a portrait and looking through the EVF, it's less thumb-accessible and less great.
I like using a viewfinder. Holding a camera out in front of me and shooting off the back screen doesn't immerse me in the image nearly enough, it's like trying to take pictures on a 3-inch smartphone. The GX9 has a flip-up EVF that can tilt to 90 degrees to allow wacky low-angle shooting.
I'm not blown away by this EVF, though. For starters, you really need to buy the accessory eye cup to keep the sun out of your eyes, there's no kind of seal. Secondly, since it sticks out a bit I seem to bump it a lot. Every time I pick it up it's been bumped to a different angle. So although it feels solid, I wonder about its longevity.
More importantly, it undersells the shot to me. The color is washed out, the contrast flaccid. So it's useful for framing but not inspiring to shoot through. More than once, I thought I'd taken a crappy photo, then was surprised to find a keeper when I saw it on the rear LCD screen. It's something you can work around, but a better EVF would make this camera much more pleasant to use. Personally I'd ditch the tilting feature (the back screen can tilt up if you need that low angle) and spend the savings on a better eye cup and monitor for the EVF.
The simple control scheme is great, with easy access to autofocus modes, menus and basic settings, as well as simple still and video shooting buttons you don't confuse for one another. One small gripe would be the exposure compensation dial, which is super easy to access and makes for simple exposure adjustment in aperture priority, shutter priority and program modes, but pokes out enough from the camera that it's also constantly getting bumped and rubbed away from zero or wherever you've got it set.
The rear LCD touch screen is of much higher visual quality than the EVF, and it's your primary point of contact as you move through an extensive menu setup that will feel very familiar if you've used Panasonic gear before. But, unlike the previous GH8 model, it no longer fully articulates, it's a tilter. So while it's handy for high and low angle shooting, it's no good for selfies. That's a bummer, selfies are plain ol' good fun, especially when you're out with a kid. I had to reach for the smartphone when the time hit selfie o'clock.
I don't know what percentage of people use Wi-Fi file transfer instead of just pulling the SD card out for editing and sharing, but I'm definitely one of them. It seems there's always some transit time after a shoot, and that's a great chance to hook the GX9 up to a smartphone and fire the RAW images across to stick into the Lightroom app and get some edits done. The app's a bit clunky, and transfer takes some time when you're dealing with full size RAWs, but I dig it and use it all the time.
The GX9 doesn't have the processing grunt of the full size beasts – frankly it'd be a worry if it did. So it can't shoot 4K/60fps like the stunning video on the GH5 and G9. Nor does it offer high frame rate slow motion shooting. But it can deliver excellent 4K at up to 30fps, and 1080p HD at 60fps, with pretty darn decent full-time autofocus, and the video looks great. You won't find the GX9 on a film set, but for walk-around travel video, it'll blow people away. Here's another place where a swing-out rear selfie screen would've been great for vlogging.
Battery life is decent; I got a full afternoon out of it with about 150 photos, a few short videos and a whole bunch of Wi-Fi file transfer. I suspect a spare battery or two would get plenty of action on any overseas trip. There's no external charger; you hook the camera up to a micro USB cable and the batteries charge through that. And while we're on the topic, I wanna shout out the little retractable cover over the HDMI/USB charge cable sockets on the right hand side. It retracts in a way that is insanely fun to play with. I've bumped it open a couple of times, so it might not be the most practical of practicalities, but I wouldn't want Panasonic to change a thing. I can flick that thing back and forth all day.
As a RAW shooter, I don't have a lot of use for the vast swathe of in-camera JPG processing options the GX9 packs in. From film-like monochrome, which uses variable levels of random film grain effect to emulate a range of old-school B&W film stocks, to 4K super-quick shooting and sequence composition mode, which lets you move the same person around in a frame and build a multi-shot out of it, I just can't get my head past the fact that I'm throwing out information and shooting below the camera's capabilities. Which is silly, these can be great creative tools for breaking out of a rut. It's just not the way I use a camera.
Likewise, I didn't get a chance to use a couple of new features Panasonic has included to improve night shooting and astrophotography. Live view boost brightens the display by reducing the frame rate and jacking up the sensor gain, so you can see what the stars are doing. Click on 20x manual focus assist, and you also get a super-zoomed in look at the stars so you can nail focus on them before you shoot.
But I did get more than enough of a sense of what this camera's all about: excellent image quality, super portability and a hefty price cut. It costs a couple of compromises to get there, but those can mainly be worked around. The only real deal-breaker I can see here is the lack of a selfie screen. That'll be a passion killer for people who like taking pictures of themselves.
At US$999 for the body (AU$1,399 in Australia), it's an expensive toy if you look at it that way. But it's far from a toy, considering that you can use it to get almost any photo the US$1,699 G9 (AU$2,499 in Australia) will get you, but with twice the portability at about half the size and weight. I'd take this lots more places than I'd take my GH5, just because it's such a pleasure to carry around. And that in itself is a killer feature.
Product page: Panasonic