Romania is one of those countries which maybe doesn’t feature on many people’s bucket lists. Tourist attraction wise it’s rather bland in fact, it doesn’t have the stunning architecture of many other European cities and so it can often be neglected. However as I found out, what it lacks in major attractions it makes up for in buckets of character. Romania is home to some of the last remaining medieval-esque peasant culture in Europe and so for photographers looking to find interesting subjects and traditions it is up there with the best Europe has to offer.
I got my hands on the GX7 less than a week before departure to Romania. I also had the GH3 and GH4 along for the ride too but in the end it was the GX7 that truly stole the limelight. Originally I had planned to take it alongside my Nikon gear but after mulling over it for a few days I decided there was no better place to throw myself in the deep end and learn how to get the best out of the camera than Romania.
Romania is a beautiful country, north of Bucharest the Carpathian mountain’s run right up the backbone of the country forming some incredible alpine scenery. The dramatic mountain landscape combined with age-old traditions such as the use of horse and carts, shepherding and hay baling by hand make for some great image opportunities. I don’t intend for this to be a travel writing piece on Romania but if you are planning your next trip make sure Romania is on your list.
I’m also not intentionally planning on this being a technical review of the GX7 either. There are many great lab based reviews of the GX7 out there and so if test charts and full size sample images are your thing then I suggest checking those out. Instead I want to talk you through my experience of shooting with the GX7 and how it actually changed the way I could shoot quite dramatically.
My trip began in a Roma settlement outside of Bucharest. This was my first real day of shooting with the camera and so as with anything new it took a little while to get into the swing of shooting and to also get use to the ergonomic and functional differences of the GX7. Straight away however I noticed how much less intimidating the GX7 with either the Panasonic Leica 15mm f1.7 or 25mm f1.4 was. At first it almost felt odd shooting with a camera that is much less hefty in the hand than my D7000. It did however make a nice change a few hours later to not have any fatigue from carrying around this set-up which can be quite common when I’m using my Nikons.
The other big adaption for me was the move to an electronic viewfinder (EVF). For the last couple of years I have been secretely hesitant about EVFs without actually trying one out properly. It’s kinda strange at first seeing your exposure change in the viewfinder but when you combine that with the live histogram feature it means that you can get your exposure spot-on before even firing the shutter. It’s something that took nearly my whole 10 days of shooting to get into my head but when I finally got it ingrained into my way of working it has been a revelation.
The GX7’s EVF is also a little special for the fact that it flips up so you can shoot low stuff much easier. This is handy in bright light when the tilting screen might be difficult to see. I also found my self using the EVF to review images in bright sunlight. No longer was I struggling to see the images clearly on the back LCD, instead I was able to zoom in and critically check focus almost instantly, even in the brightest midday light. Going back to optical viewfinders is now a bit of a disappointment where I was in fact expecting to be craving it.
The other massive advantage of the EVF/mirrorless set-up, and probably my absolute favourite feature is the silent mode. Turning silent mode on does pretty much what it says, make the camera completely silent. I’m not much of a pure candid street photographer and so it doesn’t seem like a particularly useful feature when most of my subjects already know I am photographing them. Surprisingly it’s incredible useful. Often when I am shooting I will ask my subject to continue doing whatever they were doing when they caught my eye. By using the silent mode I can shoot as many shots as I wish without intimidating and distracting the subject like I would do if all they could hear was ‘clunk-click-clunk-click’ repeatedly.
There are two main pre-conceptions with Micro Four Thirds (M43) that often put people off buying into the system. Firstly many people believe that small sensor equals poor low light, secondly many people argue that you can’t get decent bokeh out of such a small sensor. I want to try and blow both those misconceptions out of the water. Firstly let’s look at low light. I’ll start with this disclaimer, I’ve never used a full frame camera for my travel photography so I have no idea how well your Canikon 1D MK9 shoots at ISO208,000.
Now that’s out of the way I want to say that the GX7 is as good as any APS-C camera I have had the chance to play with. It certainly beats my Nikon D7000 at the highest ISOs (in real world situations) and according to a few people who use Fuji cameras, it gives pretty similar results, so in real world use it is pretty damn good. The image below was shot at ISO12,800, lit with just the dying embers of a fire and the quality is still very usable.
Now let’s take a look at the issue of depth of field (DOF) and bokeh. Yes it’s true that at the same apertures there will be much less depth of field from a full frame sensor. There is absolutely nothing you can do about that, it’s called physics. However in real world situations I find that it is not so clear cut as it seems. Whilst in Romania I was mainly shooting with the three Leica prime lenses, the 15mm f1.7, 25mm f1.4 and the 42.5mm f1.2. With both the 25mm f1.4 and the 42.5mm f1.2 it’s very easy to get a nice amount of shallow depth of field. I very rarely purposely shoot with ultra-thin depth of field so f1.2 on M43 seems to give me a shallow enough DOF.
The benefit of having a little more depth of field at apertures such as f1.2 and f1.4 is that when shooting in low light you have a much more usable field of focus. This is great when you are shooting images with some context where you don’t need ultra-thin DOF.
The final tipping point with this camera for me was the AF. My Nikon D7000s really don’t have great AF at all. The Panasonic GX7 never missed a beat. It’s not the fastest with moving subjects (the GH4 is very good at that) but for semi-static and static subjects the speed and accuracy are on a whole new level. Even in almost non-existent light. such as around a fire, it still nailed focus every time. You can’t ask much more than that.
The one unexpected benefit of the GX7 was the enjoyment factor I got from using it. For the first time in a while I was excited to get out and shoot with a particular camera. I’ve thought long and hard about why this may be but I can’t pin it down on any particular feature. It’s more of an overall user experience that makes creating images exciting. It’s lightweight so I’m not worried about the weight, it’s discreet so I’m not intimidating my subjects and it shoots great images so I’m not compromising in any way. It just works and allows you to concentrate on making the images you want to make.
I don’t want to wax lyrically about how this camera is the best camera I have ever used because that wouldn’t really prove much. I’m not a prolific gear hoarder and I’m fairly simple in my requirements from a camera. I just want something that will allow me to concentrate on making the image and not working around a set of compromises to get the image I want. With the GX7 I no longer have to worry about exposure because the information is right in front of my face, I no longer have to worry about AF because for my subject matter it nails it every time, low light noise is good and I know that I can comfortably shoot in most lighting conditions. Having a camera that takes a back seat, remains discreet and silent and allows me to get on and shoot is like a breath of fresh air.
It certainly isn’t the lightest camera, the fastest camera, it doesn’t have the best image quality and it certainly doesn’t have the best ISO performance but it is one hell of an all rounder that I can see myself using for sometime. It’s not going to be the camera for everyone so I suggest getting your hands on a copy and trying it out. If you are shooting studio stuff it’s not the camera for you. If wildlife is your gig it’s probably not the camera for you either but if street or travel photography is your thing I wholeheartedly recommend giving it a go. You might just be surprised.
Let me know what you think, have you tried M43 yet or do you use another mirror less system? Sticking with your DSLRs? If so why? Drop a comment below I’d be interested to hear your thoughts.