Panasonic Lumix G9: First impressions, deskbound
After a month’s wait, the sleek new Panasonic Lumix G9 has arrived at Macfilos Towers and is currently sitting on my desk. I have pimped it with one of Evris’s Rock n’Roll plaited leather straps in Asian Blue — it’s really intended for the M10 but looks good on the G9. I've also added the superb Leica DG Vario-Elmarit 12-60mm f/2.8-4.0 ASPH zoom to complete the package. Ready for the road, now.
First impressions are extremely positive. The autofocus speed is something else, as they say. It is the fastest I have experienced and comes as something of a revelation. The 3,680k dot viewfinder with 0.83x magnification is truly magnificent, perhaps not as imposing as that on the Leica SL but it is so near that it makes no difference. The rear screen reverses, as on the GX8 and some Olympus m4/3 bodies, and this is an aspect I appreciate. I prefer to work entirely with the viewfinder, except for infrequent menu adjustments, and enjoying leaving the screen hidden. If you choose to reveal the screen, though, it offers a useful touch interface.
The Leica DG 12-60mm perfectly complements this camera. The slightly shiny finish of the lens barrel is identical to that of the body and the two are as peas in the one pod. They definitely look as though they have been made for one another. And they have, I suspect.
Some reviews have commented on the sensitivity of the shutter release. It is indeed sensitive, as on many pro DSLRs, and this is no doubt a requested feature for a professional mirrorless body such as the G9. I feared that it would be too sensitive for me and that the half-press I use to lock focus before recomposing the frame would not work reliably. That would have been a dealbreaker. As it happens, my fears were groundless and the shutter release is a paragon of propriety. There is a clear delineation between half press and full press but the overall feel is one of speed and slickness. I think it will grow on me.
The large grip is just right for my hands and it works really well with the 12-60 zoom. I suspect it will be good with longer lenses including the 100-400mm zoom. The rather course faux-leather cover on both body and grip is very tactile and secure — no slippery stuff there. I’m due to get a free battery grip (a present for ordering in advance) which will arrive from Panasonic in a month or so. I’m not sure that it is entirely necessary but I will try it and report back. This additional grip does, however, hold an extra battery which will transform the 400-odd shot capability of the camera into something approaching the battery life of the typical DSLR. Battery life has always been an Achilles' heel of the new breed of mirrorless cameras and the G9 is no exception. The G9 does boast an extended mode which shuts down everything within seconds and is claimed to double battery life. Nevertheless, I suspect this will irritate me and I’ll be happier with frugal mode switched off.
In a first for mass-market mirrorless cameras, the G9 boasts a DSLR-style information screen on the top plate. Leica led the way in this with the SL and, recently with the CL. The screen on the G9 is quite busy and some of the graphics are small — you need good eyesight — but it does offer a comprehensive overview of settings, including aperture, speed, exposure compensation, image quality, battery level and remaining shots. It is far superior to the display of the CL, which is tiny and offers only minimal information. And, at the same time, it contrives to be more informative than the very readable display on the SL. I suspect these top-mounted info screens will soon become a must-have feature for mirrorless cameras.
The control layout is sensible, although frankly I haven’t yet had a chance to get into detail. There is a joystick as well as a four-way pad and the usual Panasonic multi-switch on the back of the camera to select single, continuous and manual focus. The left-mounted mode dial incorporates a concentric drive mode dial. Unlike on the GX8, there is no physical exposure compensation dial.
There are two customisable adjustment dials, one conventionally mounted on the far right of the top plate and a second vertical wheel aft of the on/off switch. Also on top of the grip are buttons for direct access to white balance, ISO and exposure compensation. It’s all pretty comprehensive and not too frightening. I will enjoy getting used to everything.
The menu layout is fairly standard Panasonic but will need some getting used to. This is not one of those cameras where you can just pick it up and start shooting. There are many options and opportunities to customise, many of which I am not familiar with. I will have to break a long tradition and at least glance at the instructions manual. However, I do find Panasonic’s approach to menus less intimidating than, say, that of Olympus. A final conclusion will have to wait. If nothing else, the G9 definitely presents a more complicated environment than users of the SL and CL will be accustomed to.
With the Leica DG 12-60 mounted, the G9 presents an homogeneous and businesslike aspect. I think I will prefer it to the GX8 with the same lens, and that is quite a surprise. Something I didn't expect. The camera is clearly larger than the GX8 when you put the two bodies side by side, but on its own the G9 doesn’t look over big. The combo weighs just one kilogram which is acceptable, particularly bearing in mind the capabilities of the fast, wide and long zoom. It is under half the weight of the Leica SL with the portly 24-90mm zoom. The G9 body alone weighs 658g compared with the range-finder-styled GX8 at 487g. I have learned that the 12-60, which is 24-120mm in full-frame equivalence, is (for me) the perfect general-purpose choice. Another bonus: Both the lens and the body are shower proof and should be capable of handling moderately inclement conditions.
The G9 has the latest five-axis in-body stabilisation which complements the stabilised 12-60 lens (and many other lenses in the range) using Panasonic’s Dual IS system. This is definitely an added bonus, offering a 6.5-stop advantage over an unstabilised rig. To some extent, this ability to use slower shutter speeds enhances the opportunity to grab usable shots in lower light without encroaching too far into the ISO scale. It serves to highlight the difference between this camera and the Leica CL which lacks stabilisation, either in body or lenses. In relation to the CL, the G9 compensates in terms of slower shutter speed for the higher ISO capabilities of the APS-C sensor.
One welcome feature which, I know, is not universally appreciated, is the ability to charge the battery while inside the camera. This is something I value greatly and removes the absolute need to travel with (and, occasionally, travel without) the charger unit. The G9 does, however, come with a very small and neat charger pod which, unusually, is fed by USB cable rather than mains. There is also a mains adapter with USB socket which can feed either the camera or the charger unit. As I've found in the past, though, most USB sources (but not a computer or unpowered USB hub) can be pressed into service to charge a camera — even the low-wattage iPhone PSU will effect a trickle charge but an iPad or similar charger will do the job more quickly. And if you forget everything when packing for the airport, it's an easy matter to go to any electrical shop and buy a cable and charger (or use your phone's charger).
I also approve of the traditional eyelet strap lugs and I'm glad that Panasonic resisted the temptation to move over to the DSLR-style slit-lugs which make fitting third-party split-ring straps impossible. The SL has this disadvantage, although I suspect the weight of that camera made the alternative arrangement necessary. Anyway, if you buy a G9 you can add your favourite strap without let or hindrance.
All in all, the G9 is a very promising camera and is an outstanding addition to the micro four-thirds diaspora. It is designed especially for still photographers (that is, me and, probably, thee) unlike the GH5 and the new GH5s which are aimed at the video enthusiast. Indeed, the GH5s, which everyone is currently raving about, doesn’t have in-body stabilisation. It’s for a completely different market. Not for me, at least.
Meanwhile, I believe the G9 is set to become the benchmark for still photographers who enjoy the speed, form and relatively low size/weight of the micro four-thirds system. It is sure to work well with all those gorgeous Leica DG zooms and primes and it offers a real alternative for Leica M aficionados who are looking for autofocus and zoom capabilities in a lighter second system. It will be interesting to see how the G9 stacks up against Leica’s new CL in terms of image quality. In design and general philosophy, the G9 and CL are as chalk and cheese. But, to some extent, they are both fishing in the same pond.
Our Panasonic Lumix G9 was supplied by London Camera Exchange, 98 Strand, London WC2R 0EW.
All photographs in this review produced from the comfort of my desk, totally without effort thanks to the Panasonic image library.
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