Review: Panasonic Lumix GX8
The Panasonic GX8 found its way into my camera bag by almost by stealth. It wasn't my first choice. When I decided earlier this year to adopt micro four thirds as my second, lightweight travel system (as opposed to full-frame Leica M and SL outfits), my eyes fell on the latest bauble to grace the market, the Olympus PEN-F. It's a stunner visually and a seducer of the first order. No mistake. I fell for it hook, line and sinker.
Having had a brief dalliance with the Panasonic GX7, which I rather liked, I made the mistake of not looking more seriously at the GX8 which is an incremental improvement on the old model. The GX8, as it turns out, is a much more grown-up affair, deserving of the overused "pro" moniker.
But this revelation came by accident. I had asked Chiswick Camera Centre, one of the few family-owned enthusiast retailers left in London, to keep an eye open for any used Leica DG lenses for m4/3 that might come their way. As a fan of Leica lenses, I wanted to try the Japanese-made small-format optics which, although built by Panasonic, have a ton of Leica input. These was also an ulterior motive in that these Leica lenses allow pictures taken with a non-Leica camera to be posted on Leica forums and entered into Leica-based competitions, such as the Leica Society's Circle D of which I am a member.
One day I got a call from Andy Sands at the store. He had acquired a job-lot of Panasonic equipment, including a 42.5mm Nocticron, as part of a part-exchange deal. Would I be interested? I was, particularly with the thought of owning the Nocticron, and I made my way to Chiswick to view the goods. The Nocti was there, in good order, but also a 15m f/1.8 Leica DG Summilux which I took a fancy to. I loved the Leica-like physical aperture dials on both lenses but understood that these dials work only with Panasonic cameras, not with my Olympus. Pity.
I was pondering this anomaly when Andy produced a used GX8 from under the counter —he was saving this until last, My interest was immediately engaged. I mounted the Nocticron on the Lumix and instantly felt comfortable. This was a delightful combination, largely because of the slightly more bulky and comfortable body but also resulting from the substantial built-in grip. I was sold, and even took the little GM1 with the stock 12-32mm zoom as an afterthought.I will be writing about it on another occasion.
Below: Gymnastics with the 12mm Leica DG Summilux
From then on I had two main m/43 cameras, the PEN-F and the GX8, each offering a different imaging and handling experience. I soon came to favour the GX8 for use with Leica DG lenses mainly because the aperture ring on those lenses actually works. It offends my sense of order to use these lenses on the Olympus and have to put up with a defunct aperture ring; it almost makes owning these lenses pointless if you are intending to use them on an Oly.
I later acquired the new 12mm f/1.2 (equivalent to 24mm full-frame) Leica DG and began to revel in this direct access to aperture. As an aperture-priority shooter by temperament, I realised that this combination of GX8 and Leica DG lenses is the ideal vehicle for my type of photography. These newer Leica DG lenses (with the exception of the older 25mm and 45mm Macro, which don't have an aperture ring) are full of Leica DNA. They look and feel the part.
After three months I have come to appreciate the GX8 and I am not so sure that I don't favour it over the Olympus. Time to see.
Panasonic do the rangefinder look well. Those of us who also own Leicas, or admire Leicas, will recognise the design cues. The GX8 is more successful in this than its GX7 predecessor. It reminds me somewhat of the LX100/D Lux and, if it weren't for the knowledge that Wetzlar has shied away from m4/3, you could swap the LUMIX on the front for LEICA and no one would think it odd. Many might not spot the trick.
For a rangefinder-style, though, it is a chunky little camera, featuring a very useful hand grip which clearly differentiates it from the Olympus PEN-F, its nearest competitor. In fact, the GX8 can be seen as a cross between the GX8 and Lumix GH cameras which are based on the DSLR format. This hybrid styling turns the Lumix into a good all rounder, comfortable with tiny primes or long zooms.
There is a penalty to be paid; at 487g, the GX8 weighs 60g more than the PEN-F and is more bulky, but this difference is offset when the PEN-F is equipped with the optional grip which, I would argue, is essential for heavier or longer lenses.
The GX8 was the first m4/3 camera to offer a 20Mp sensor. It is supported by a new version of the Venus engine, 4K video and an ISO potential of up to 51,200. In reality, this being m4/3, I consider 1600 to be good and 3200 acceptable. The 20MP CMOS sensor was later adopted in the Olympus PEN-F and more recently in the revised OM-D E-M1 MkII. But the sensor in the GX8 is an in-house Panasonic design whereas Olympus is believed to favour a Sony device. Curiously in these days, the Panasonic has an AA filter which puts it at a slight disadvantage in ultimate image quality when compared with the naked sensor of the Olympus.
Mechanical shutter speed goes down to 1/8000s with an electronic shutter extending the range to 1/16,000. This is in line with the PEN-F specification. The Lumix makes do with 49-point focus while the Olympus offers 81pt. The Olympus again beats the Panasonic with a 5-axis stabilisation system against the 4-axis in the Panasonic. However, the Lumix is equipped with "Dual Image Stabilisation" which can combine the built-in sensor-shift IS and lens stabilisation, if present. According to Panasonic there is a 3.5x improvement at wide-angle and a 1.5x improvement at telephoto when compared with the GX7. The Lumix has a burst rate of 8/10 frames per second compared with the much faster 10/20fps of the Olympus.
If you are a box ticker, then, the Olympus does have a certain technical edge, but in the real world I am not so sure that it matters all that much. I am more drawn to the convenience and the overall rightness of this camera. Sometimes the heart must rule the head.
The GX8 provides a 1.04MP 3in screen with variable angle and the ability to reverse it so that the back of the camera becomes an expanse of faux leather, à la Leica M-D (and, for that matter, like the PEN-F). I like this and usually have the screen hidden when using the camera.
The tilting viewfinder, of which more later, is a very worthwhile feature and makes the GX8 stand out among its competitors. There is one resulting downside, however. Because of the location of the tilting viewfinder the left-hand strap lug is positioned towards the front of the body, thus putting it out of harmony with the right-hand lug. It's a small point, but it results in the camera hanging rather lopsidedly when a neck strap is used. I mainly use a wrist strap, unless mounting a very heavy lens, so it doesn't distress me as much as I thought it would. Either way, it is a small price to pay for the convenience of that tilting viewfinder.
Another small point: There is no flash, not even a small accessory in the box which you get with many cameras these days. It doesn't worry me because I don't much like flash photography, but it is a factor worth considering if you do.
Overall, the GX8 is perhaps closer in profile and feel to the Fuji X-T1/2 than the Olympus PEN-F. It feels bigger than a typical m4/3 camera but I rather like this more chunky feeling.
Overall, the GX8 is a solid and well-engineered camera that feels like a high-quality instrument. The detail is impressive, right down to the substantial and solid battery/card door. This is in contast to the flimsy construction of the flap on the Olympus PEN-F, for instance.
The tilting viewfinder is the star of the show because it swivels upwards by 90 degrees, thus facilitating low-level shots. This is a particularly valuable aid for older photographers who can no longer crouch down as readily they once did.
After an hour with the GX8 you wonder why all mirrorless cameras do not have tilting viewfinders. For those of us who dislike using the screen for composing, the ability to have a vertical viewfinder at will is a boon. It works well, and I would now find it difficult to manage without. It's possible to get some impressive low-level shots without having to strain too much.
Quite apart from its gymnastic tricks, this is a very good viewfinder with a useful 2.36 million dot OLED display (with 0.77 magnification) and a substantial eye cup which seems to suit whether you wear glasses or not. It is very comfortable to use, has an excellent refresh rate, vivid and compelling colour rendition and is one of the best EVFs I have used. It is on par, in my opinion, with the EVF of the X-Pro1 and is bettered only by the Leica Q and SL both of which have a larger area and many more megapixels.
The eye sensor is well protected inside the eyecup and does as it is told with no inadvertent operation by wayward thumb as on some other cameras (including the Leica Q). A particularly intelligent feature is the placing of the diopter adjustment to the right of the eyepiece and in a slight recess. While it is easy to adjust, there is no chance of it being nudged in error.
Full marks, then, to the EVF. It is an example to other manufacturers.
The control setup on the Panasonic is near perfect as far as I am concerned. I am primarily an aperture-priority RAW shooter so many of the knobs and buttons on the typical modern camera are redundant. Still, there are no fewer than 13 customisable buttons, eight of them physical, five virtual on-screen controls. But they don’t get in the way and the camera lends itself to the more simple approach. There is a Q-Menu for additional adjustments that are not covered by physical buttons.
I like the position of the exposure compensation dial, beneath and concentric with the mode dial. It is easy to use and yet completely immune from the occasional nudge that invariably frustrates with an end-mounted control. This dial offers ±3EV but the range can be extended to 5EV in the menu. There are two control wheel dials, with the most-used rear wheel larger for more efficient thumb adjustment. It is possible to customise both wheels to handle aperture or speed as required, an improvement on the GX7. This dial also includes a central function button. On the back of the camera is an LVF button to toggle between screen, viewfinder or auto selection, a focus-mode switch with a central Fn button, and the AF/AE lock button.
Controls on the back of the camera include Q Menu, Playback, Display, Trash/back and another Fn button. There is the usual D pad with a central menu/set button. On the top of the camera are yet another function and the movie buttons. A final function button is on the front of the camera next to the lens mount. All buttons are customisable in the menu.
I took naturally to the GX8 and quickly felt quite at home. It has a Leica look and appeal and, combined with the Leica DG lenses, it seems already halfway there. I love the grip and the feeling of the camera in the hands. Some reviewers have complained that the grip is too small for use with heavy, longer lenses, but I don't sense this as a problem. For 99 percent of the time this is all the grip you need.
The smaller Olympus PEN-F serves to illustrate this point. It is more compact, but sits less securely in the hands. There is a suspicion that the alluring retro styling is a case of form over function. If you want more grip, which is a help even with mid-range lenses, you have to fit the rather expensive and rather ugly accessory grip. This is a nuisance, particularly since the grip has an allen-key fixing which provides something else to be forgotten or lost when travelling.
The GX8, in contrast, needs no accessories; it is right from the start. I even appreciate the extra bulk over the PEN-F. In short, the GX8 is a rangefinder-style camera that offers the grip and handleability of a DSLR-style mirrorless such as the OM-D cameras or the other Lumix models.
One of the most compelling aspects of the m4/3 system is the wide range of lenses from various manufacturers. Unlike closed systems such as the Fuji X series, you are not restricted to buying optics from the camera manufacturer. As a result there is a great deal of choice and the many more opportunities to buy secondhand (this is a mature system going back six years). The main choice lies between Panasonic- and Olympus-branded lenses. In both camps there are standard lenses and professional-orientated designs, offering sturdier, often metal, construction, better optics and more physical features. In the case of Olympus the better lenses have the "pro" suffix while at Panasonic the premium line bears the Leica DG brand name while lesser (although in some cases not necessarily inferior) offerings come under the Lumix brand.
It is important to remember that the later Leica DG lenses all feature a superb aperture dial which feels as smooth and precise as the mechanical dials on Leica M lenses. To my mind this is a major selling point and it is disappointing that this ring works only when the lens is mounted on a Panasonic Lumix camera. As I mentioned at the outset, if you put the lens on an Olympus and it will produce the same results but you are left with a redundant aperture dial, which is a constant irritation, and have to resort to setting the aperture electronically via control dial.
There are no such problems with using Olympus pro lenses on the GX8. The well-designed manual/auto clutch ring of the M.Zuiko pros works on both marques.
Bear in mind that the GX8 is weather proofed so there is sense in buying similarly protected lenses from the pro ranges, including the Leica 12mm, 15mm and 42.5mm, and the Olympus M.Zuiko pro zooms.
Unlike many mirrorless cameras these days, the GX8 sticks to a full contrast-based AF system. A hybrid system, combining phase-detect with contrast, is generally considered to be quicker and more accurate. However, I found the autofocus to be quick and accurate; for my style of photography, which is largely static, I encountered no problems and found the system to be reliable even in low-light conditions. I seldom have cause to use continuous AF but I understand that the contrast-based system is less accurate than hybrid systems. I see little real-world difference between the GX8 and the Olympus PEN-F and OM-D E-M1 (Mk I) experience.
Manual focus using autofocus lenses is a joy with the GX8, with focus aids such as peaking and magnification available to ensure greater accuracy. With autofocus lenses it is possible to set the camera to bring up magnification when the lens focus ring is moved and I find this a very natural way of working. During magnification, of up to x6, the degree can be adjusted by the front control dial (in x0.1 increments) or the back dial (in x1 increments).
With manual lenses there is no communication with the camera so the magnification has to be initialised by pressing the focus mode button (D-pad left-hand button). This brings up the magnification pane which I normally have centralised on the screen but it can be moved around using the direction buttons. A second press on the Menu/Set button in the centre of the D-pad brings up the options to control the degree of magnification.
The system works well and I found it very intuitive and easy to use. All mirrorless cameras require a button press to activate magnification when using manual lenses; only the Leica M is capable of detecting the movement of the focus ring on manual M-mount lenses thanks to the mechanical focus linkage.
It's worth mentioning that, with a suitable adaptor, m4/3 cameras can mount a wide variety of manual lenses. Leica lenses are particularly popular and work well. Because of the x2 crop factor of m/43, common M lenses become medium or long focus. Most Leica users will have access to a 28mm, as perhaps the widest focal length, but this becomes 56mm on the Panasonic — distinctly less useful for about-town work. But 35mm, 50mm and 90mm Leica lenses grow like Pinnochio's nose to the point where they have limited practical value for every-day photography.
On APS-C systems, with their smaller x1.5 crop, the situation is slightly more accommodating. In some instances, though, the doubling of the focal length with the GX8 can be useful. Carry a Leica M and the Panasonic and a couple of lenses and you have the equivalent of three or four different focal-length primes in your bag — perhaps 28mm and 50mm for the M, or 56mm and 100mm when the same lenses are mounted on the Lumix.
I'm a great fan of manual focus. Otherwise I wouldn't have stuck with the Leica M system. But autofocus is now so good (especially on this GX8) that it's difficult to justify manual lenses for general use. But manual focus on auto lenses is worth experimenting with. Autofocus on all cameras can be a bit wayward when it comes to precise subject targeting, particularly if you have the focus point bobbing around the screen, but my preferred method of using centre-point focus, followed by recomposing the picture, works well. I find myself switching to manual focus only in special circumstances, such as macro photography, where I feel I need more control.
A bonus is the AF/MF auto feature which allows you to fine-tune the focus manually after having found the general focus automatically. It's worth noting that for this to work you must choose the MF option on the lens rather than on the camera. I had been using the switch on the rear of the camera to entering manual mode only to find that the focus aids weren't working. This was solved by using the switch on the lens. I conclude that the body AF/MF switch is mainly for use with those lenses lacking a physical transfer button or switch.
The Lumix GX8 essentially matches the recent G7 for video capabilities, offering 4k capture, full control over exposure, silent screen-based adjustments, flat profiles, focus peaking and zebra patterns. 4k UHD video is available at 24p and either 25p or 30p depending on region, all at 100Mbit/s. Alternatively you can capture 1080 at 50p / 60p at 28Mbit/s, or at 25p / 30p at 20Mbit/s. 720p and VGA options are also available. The maximum recording time on all models, whether in Europe or not is 29:59. Sadly the body-based stabilisation is not available for video. A new electronic stabilisation mode is offered for 1080p, but not at all for 4k - so if you want stabilised 4k footage, you'll need to use an optically stabilised lens.
Most mirrorless cameras these days (with the exception of the Leica Q and SL and the new Olympus OM-D E-M1 II) have pretty poor battery life. The Panasonic, although slightly better than the Olympus PEN-F in terms of power storage, is still not brilliant. I averaged just under 300 shots per charge and found it necessary to carry at least one spare battery. Power depletion was more of a straight line than with the Olympus which tends to be optimistic before falling off a cliff.
One feature missing from this camera is in-camera charging. This can be very convenient, with just a small cable to carry instead of the bulky charging unit. The LX100 (Leica D-Lux) offers in-camera charging, as does the Ricoh GR and many smaller cameras. I love it and miss it on the GX8. I suspect the main reason is that with larger cameras (and correspondingly larger batteries), in-camera charging is considered less efficient.
In common with most modern cameras the GX8 offers wifi communication and a phone app to control the camera. I haven’t used these features so don’t feel able to comment.
I like this camera immensely. It is a good all-rounder, feels comfortable and capable of handling most lenses, including medium telephotos with perfect balance. It also looks good and will appeal particularly to the Leica user as the basis of a smaller, lighter second system with the added benefit of being able to use most M lenses.
The obvious competitor for this camera is the new Olympus PEN-F and I am the first to admit that, technically, the Oly has the edge. But the Lumix impresses with its professional feel, that superb tilting viewfinder and its ability to work well with the outstanding Leica DG lenses — where the physical aperture ring can be used. The Olympus, on the other hand, is a smaller, rather cute camera that is more compact and handleable with smaller lenses. For street, photography, for instance, the PEN-F with, say, the superb M.Zuiko f/1.8 17mm (35mm equivalent) takes some beating for handling and general convenience.
As a fan of Leica cameras and lenses, though, I am strangely drawn to the GX8. Together with the range of Leica DG lenses, the Lumix is the nearest thing you can get to a small, light system camera with the feel you are used to.
Unless otherwise stated all photographs (except the product shots which are from Panasonic) were taken by Mike Evans.
- Subscribe to Macfilos for free updates on articles as they are published. Read more here
- Want to make a comment on this article but having problems? Please read this