16th July: So far I have had this pre-production camera for just over a week or so. This is by no means a full in-depth review but it is going to evolve over the coming weeks. At the moment there is quite an in-depth run down of the new features of the GX8 and how the improvements compare with the GX7. Over the next month or so I hope to add some more personal first hand shooting experiences from my workshop in Romania, sample images and some comparison tests with the GH4 and GX7.
If you have been following my work in any form over the last 12 months you may have read my initials thoughts on Micro Four Thirds (M43) as a viable system for travel photographers and also seen the subsequent images that came from me using the GX7 and GH4. After 12 months of using the GX7 in various countries around the world, I have really fallen for the camera and became increasing surprised at how it has changed the way I photograph.
When my friends at Panasonic asked if I would be interested in taking a look at the soon to be released GX8, I jumped at the chance to see how they had managed to improve on what was already my favourite camera. After a year of using both the GX7 and the GH4, I was secretly hoping that they had managed to include the best features of the GH4 (4K, weather sealing, improved focussing etc) whilst keeping the original form factor and feel of the GX7.
So what has changed?
Panasonic GX8: First Impressions and Design
For anybody who is familiar with the GX7, on first impression the GX8 will be a little bit of a shock. Unlike the GH4, which took a lot of similar design traits from the GH3, the GX8 is quite radically different from its predecessor. The rangefinder-esque design that is common across all of the GX range remains, however the rest of the camera has changed quite a bit.
When I first took the GX8 out of the box, I was a little startled by its size. As you can from the photo above, the camera has gained a few extra millimetres all over. It’s a funny thing because when it comes to carrying the camera and the space required to store it in the bag, there’s not a huge difference, however in your hand you can definitely feel the difference.
The biggest design change is the addition of the more substantial hand grip on the camera. After a week or so of playing with the camera, I am definitely of the belief that this is the main reason the camera feels more substantial in hand. I was a little surprised by this design choice but the more I have played around with this camera, the more I have realised that the larger hand grip actually opens this camera body up for use with more of the larger M43 lenses. When using the GX7 with the larger zoom lenses, the thinner body actually feels a little unbalanced. The addition of this hand grip to the GX8 makes using this larger lenses a little more enjoyable and even though I’m still not completely sold on the newer body, I am starting to see why Panasonic have done this. I am looking forward to actually putting it through its paces in Romania with a host of different Lumix lenses and hopefully come to a better conclusion then.
Apart from the obvious physical changes in the body shape, there have been some rearrangements in the dials and buttons on the body too. There is a brand new exposure compensation (EC) dial on the top plate. This is a welcome introduction and allows you to quickly change the EC on the fly, something that is notoriously annoying on cameras with minimal buttons and dials. The mode dial hasn’t seen much change except for the addition of a panoramic mode (which I will touch on at a later date).
The major re-arrangement to the top panel also changes the positions of the shutter button and front/rear dials. On the GX7, the rear dial is in quite a traditional location, similar to a DSLR, on the rear of the body so that it sits under the thumb when resting. The front dial is in a more unusual location, under the shutter button on the top of the body. When I first got the GX7, coming from a Nikon DSLR, it took a little while to get use to the dial arrangement. The GX8 has changed this arrangement and moved the front dial and shutter to a more ergonomically sensible position on the top of the enlarged hand grip. The rear dial has also moved from its location embedded into the rear of the body and is now found on the top of the body. This has allowed the addition of an extra function button on top of the rear dial that allows you to switch the dials from Aperture and Shutter Speed to ISO and WB temporarily. Quite a neat feature in my opinion.
One of the best new design features in my opinion is the addition of weather sealing. When I travel with my cameras, I’ll be the first to admit, I don’t nurse them. I like my cameras to be used rather than being expensive paperweights and in the last year my GH4 and GX7 have been used in the rain in Istanbul, in the sand of the dead sea, in the cold of the Alps, thrown around whilst being hauled up the West Bank barrier in Palestine and held out of the window of a car multiple times to name just a few scenarios. One of the things I missed in the GX7 was the weather sealing I was used to from my Nikon DSLRs and the GH4. It never stopped me using the camera, it’s just nice to know your camera is a bit more protected from the environment.
Viewfinder and screen
If you have got a keen eye, you may have noticed two more important physical differences between the GX8 and the GX7. The GX8 has now received a new updated fully articulating rear OLED screen and also a much larger EVF than the GX7. The first thing I want to discuss is the new viewfinder. Anybody who has tried out the GX7 and compared its viewfinder to the newer offerings from Sony, Fuji etc will note that it is a little underwhelming. The GX8’s EVF is the opposite. When I held it up to my eye my first thought was ‘wow’. The new 2,360k-dot OLED viewfinder is significantly larger than the GX7’s and also sports a 4:3 aspect ratio compared with the GX7’s 16:9 aspect ratio. The 4:3 aspect ratio and 1.54x/0.77x (35mm Equivalent) magnification actually makes the viewfinder seem much more like my old DSLRs than any mirrorless camera I have used to date. The difference, when compared with the GX7, really is night and day. Panasonic have also increased the eye point in size too, from 17.5mm to 21mm, which accounts for some of the increased size on the body. It’s hard to convey how much of a step up this is online, it’s something you have to try to really comprehend.
The other update is the change from the GX7’s tilting screen to the new fully articulating, free-angle screen on the GX8. I was actually a huge fan of the tilting screen of the GX7 as it allowed you to remain a little more discreet. In saying this, I know a lot of people were hoping for the addition of the GH4 style free-angle screen so I think Panasonic have followed the general consensus on this and that will probably go down as being a good move. The other update on the screen is the change to OLED from LCD, which improves the contrast of the screen and also the refresh rates, meaning in practice motion should be a bit smoother with less judder and ghosting too.
Even with the drastic physical changes, the GX8 has seen some important internal updates too. The headline improvement is likely to be the new 20.3-megapixel sensor that offers around 15% more resolution than the previous 16-megapixel sensor found on the GX7. One of the weakness of the M43 system was the lack of sensors above 16-megapixel, so the new 20-megapixel sensor is a nice update. The new sensor seems to also improve dynamic range by around 2/3 stop and, as far as I can see, it appears the colour depth is also slightly improved.
The second biggest improvement that Panasonic have bought to the GX8 is its improved ISO performance and ISO range. In the GX8, we now have an expanded ISO range of 100-25,600 compared with the GX7’s 125-12,800. From my initial tests it appears there is around 1 stop better low light performance over the GX7 but I am hoping to update this review with some sample images in the coming days.
Lenses and Stabilisation
As with all Lumix G cameras, the GX8 will work with any lens designed for the system whether that is a Panasonic lens or one from a third party such as Olympus, Sigma, Voigtlander etc. The GX8 also retains the internal stabilisation first found within the GX7, albeit with a 4-axis stabilisation system, a step up from the basic 2-axis I.S found within its predecessor . This is an advantage over other cameras in the Lumix G range which rely upon lens stabilisation only. It’s no secret that Olympus are the market leaders with their 5-axis in-body stabilisation but the GX8 has a few clever features up its sleeve that are reported to bring its stabilisation to a similar level to Olympus. The new stabilisation seems to give me about a stop or so over the GX7 but without an Olympus body on hand it is hard to tell how well it compares to other brands.
The GX8 now comes with what Panasonic describe as ‘Dual I.S’ that, for the first time ever I believe, combines both the 4 axis body stabilisation with the in-built lens stabilisation of Panasonic’s lenses to create a dual image stabilisation system where both systems work in tandem. This will require a firmware update to the existing lenses that will filter through most of the range over the coming months. Panasonic state that the new I.S should improve the correction angle by 3.5x for wide shots and 1.5x for telephoto. The GX8 also can utilise 3-axis electric image stabilisation found within Pana’s camcorder range and combine it with the 2-axis I.S from its lenses to create a hybrid 5-axis video stabilisation. The only downside is that it will only function in HD resolution and below, a slight disappointment that it won’t work in 4K video too.
If you follow the Panasonic camera line up, seeing the addition of the GH4’s DFD (Depth from defocus) focus system. DFD, for those unfamiliar with Pana’s naming conventions, is a contrast based autofocus technology that determines the distance and direction of focus by comparing it with images of different depths of fields stored in its system. It’s a marked improvement over the GX7’s AF, especially when tracking subjects. Some people will probably be disappointed to see a lack of PDAF in Panasonic’s range still, but from my own testing the AF speed of the GX8 is plenty suitable for my own use.
The GX8 also comes with the Panasonic starlight AF which should allow focussing down to -4EV. I haven’t yet really tested this in anger but after a little play, it seems to offer a slight improvement for AF in low light.
Speed and Continuous Shooting
My main gripe with the GX7 was its occasional slowness in use, it wasn’t so much the slowness in actual shooting, but more so the occasional inconvenient hang up when changing menus or swapping from live view to image playback. With the GX8, Panasonic has added a new Venus processing engine, I suspect to help processing the larger 20-megapixel images and also to allow the 4K video features. The side effect of this seems to be a much snappier camera. It’s quite a subjective point, but in the testing I have done, changing modes, switching displays, flicking to image review and so on seem a lot more responsive.
It’s not just the processor that makes the GX8 a faster camera. Panasonic also announced a 16,000/s shutter speed option when using the electronic shutter. If you are shooting primes in the bright sunlight, the new 16,000/s shutter and ISO 100 option should allow you to shoot wide open even in the brightest conditions. Panasonic have also improved the GX8 in its long exposure ability too. The GX8 now has a 30min bulb mode which is a big step up from the measly 120sec on the GX7. Personally, I think this is a subtle but great improvement.
Continuous shooting speed has also seen a decent boost too. The GX7 was no slouch, with a continuous shooting burst rate of around 5fps (4.5fps in AFC). In the GX8, this has been bumped up to 8fps (6fps in AFC). Again it’s a nice improvement that is likely a by product of the new focus system and processor upgrade.
Video Functions and 4K
As 4K has begun to trickle through Panasonic’s range, it was only a matter of time before the GX line finally got the upgrade too. Much like the recently announced G7, the GX8 takes many of its video features directly from the GH4.
The GX8 can record UHD 4K (3840×2160 / 16:9) video at 25p/24p and at data rates of up to 100mpbs with HD at 28mbps. The GX8’s UHD 4K is captured without scaling to reduce artefacts, the downside being that it comes with an increased crop factor as the active sensor area is smaller than when taking photographs.
The GX8 also comes with full manual exposure control, adjustable audio levels and adjustable luminance levels. There is also a 2.5mm jack for use with an external microphone (a nice improvement but I was hoping for a 3.5mm jack!) but no headphone jack. According to the specs I have read, the GX8 also has a clean HDMI output which will output in 4:2:2 8 bit but I haven’t managed to test this yet.
The GX8 also has the additional features such as zebras, peaking and cinelike gammas that make it a much more powerful film tool. The Cinelike D and V profiles allow you to shoot ‘flat’ and can help with grading and footage matching at a later stage. A small downside to the GX8 is its 29:59 limit of filming, this is a common feature on hybrid photo/video cameras (mainly for tax purposes) but a GH4 like system where multiple files are created would have been a nice addition.
The final major update that the GX8 has had over the GX7 is the addition of 4K Photo mode. A side effect of being able to shoot 4K video, is the fact that you can extract an 8.3-megapixel still image from your video. Panasonic have worked hard over the last year or so to really make this experience as user friendly as possible. The GX8 now has gained the sam functionality as the G7, which came with three new 4K photo modes;
Start/Stop – In this mode you can trigger the start of the ‘video’ recording by pressing the shutter button and then ending it once you press the shutter again. In this mode the GX8 will record 30 frames a second between the two shutter button presses. Once the recording is over you will be able to scroll through the frames and save the exact moment as a still image.
Burst mode – Much like a traditional stills burst mode, in this setting, recording at 30fps only happens whilst the shutter button is depressed. Recording starts on the depression of the shutter and ends once the shutter is released. You have the same scrolling functionality as with all the other modes once recording ends.
Pre-burst – The last mode on the Lumix cameras, comes directly from their camcorder technology. Whilst in pre-burst the GX8 is constantly recording and looping a 1 sec recording. This means that when you press the shutter, the GX8 will record 1 second before (30 frames) and 1 second after the shutter is fired. This mode is pretty awesome for capturing unexpected motion.
It’s hard to make a definitive conclusion after only a short time with the camera. As I have said this review is going to be an evolving review that will become more detailed with time and as I get more chance to use the camera in real shooting environments. In saying that, from my time using the GX8 over the last week or so, I have been very impressed with the upgrades to the camera. For the majority of my stills and video needs, the GX8 is going to be perfectly suited. Although it has gained a little in size, it’s still a fairly discreet camera and one that is a joy to use. The ergonomic changes actually make the camera slightly more comfortable to use and the new extra large viewfinder is a bit of a revelation.
The additional resolution and low light performance of the new sensor are also a nice upgrade from the GX7, especially low light performance as a lot of my work is in dimly lit scenarios, so any extra IQ improvements there is a big plus for me. Now, this is not to say the GX8 is a perfect camera, the lack of I.S in 4K video is a touch disappointing and also, for me anyway, the swapping of the tilting screen for an articulating one would not have been a decision I would have made. However I do know a lot of people have asked for this change so it’s likely more a personal choice as to which you prefer.
Sitting back and looking at the specification overall, I think the GX8 is one of the most powerful all-round cameras in the M43 line up. It has some of the best stills IQ of any M43 camera and is also backed up with 95% of the GH4’s 4K video features. For travel photographers like myself who want to travel light but also shoot both stills and video, and others who may want to produce multimedia and stills work on the fly this camera would be ideal as a first camera or as a stills camera and video back up to something like the GH4.
Ultimately, there’s a lot to like about the GX8 and there are no doubts in my mind that this is a very capable camera. I can’t say that this is the best M43 stills camera because a) I’m yet to use all the available competition b) I’ve yet to really use it in anger and shoot in real world scenarios but I hope to get some more first hand experience over the coming weeks when I take it to Romania.
If you want to follow more updates on this review please follow me on twitter where I will be posting links as this review evolves.