"Panasonic Lumix GX9"

A year with the Panasonic Lumix GX9 – A full frame user's first encounter with micro-4/3

I've now had the Panasonic Lumix GX9 as my street photography and travel camera for more than a year. This post is a summary of some thoughts about my first encounter with a micro-4/3 camera. I'm a long standing user of large, heavy DSLRs, so much of this post will be about the experience of working with a little GX9 in that context.

This will be a long post. To stop it getting any longer, I’m going to post it without any pictures in, although I may put some in at a later date. If you’d like to see some pictures taken with the GX9, head on over my my Flickr page where I have a gallery of GX9 pictures, mostly street. As this is going to be long, I'll start with the TL;DR :-)

TL;DR

– Pros:

  • Small, lightweight, discreet, a pleasure to walk around with all day

  • Lenses are lovely

  • The image quality is great, although I prefer keeping it under ISO 1600.

  • Rear screen touch-focus-shoot: wow! Life changing!

  • Tilt screen is essential and tilt EVF is useful

  • 4K photo

  • Excellent dual image stabilisation (lens and body working together)

– Cons:

  • The camera just generally feels a bit fiddly to work with in comparison with a full-size DSLR

  • When walking around with the camera switched on, it's very easy to accidentally press buttons on the back, thereby completely changing settings.

  • Spare batteries are absolutely required: a day's shooting requires a minimum of two

  • I prefer to avoid going over ISO 1600 where possible (and try to work at no higher than ISO 800).

  • EVF quality is okay, but no more.

  • I'd much prefer it was properly weatherproof (although it has survived an English winter)

Why I got into this in the first place

About a year ago, I bought a GX9 to go alongside my Nikon D810 full frame outfit. In brief, I finally got fed up with schlepping the big, heavy full frame DSLR around cities. It was walking up and down the hills of San Francisco that finally broke the camel's back, but I had mentioned earlier on a trip to Berlin that it just wasn't that much fun carrying the whole thing around.

It is a continuing mystery to me how I ever ended up with such large cameras as the D700 and D810, when my first serious SLR was an Olympus OM2n, which I bought specifically because it was small and light. Until recently, the digital camera market never offered anything that would satisfy my requirements other than these big DSLRs. This has changed with the advent of mirrorless cameras, and, in particular, the maturing of the micro-4/3 system.

I had been looking for a small, anonymous but responsive black box for a while: I found it in the GX9. (A price cut helped too.)

Why the GX9?

I won't go into the specs of the GX9 here, you're better off going to somewhere like DPreview for that. Suffice it to say that the GX9 is a small rangefinder-style camera with a 20MP micro-4/3 sensor. The rangefinder style helps to make the camera a bit more discreet: the hump on a DSLR immediately gives it away as something "serious"; the rangefinder style is just a plain rectangular box. A tilting rear screen was non-negotiable: this ruled out the Fuji XE3 which otherwise I would have considered. A lot of people seemed like the Lumix GX8, but it's too big and has a fully articulating rear screen: I much prefer a tilt screen for street photography. The GX8 was also plagued with reports of pictures being ruined by shutter shock.

The micro-4/3 lenses are reportedly excellent and there is an extensive range. Having tried the Olympus 12-40 f/2.8, I was sure that there would be lenses for me. As much as I would have liked something small from Nikon, they just didn't have anything that would compete at this level. I've also tried out various Sony APSC cameras (A6000, A6300, A6500) and I love the image quality. But the range of small, APSC-specific lenses is limited, and I found controlling focusing difficult. Having handled both the GX9 and its Olympus competitor, the PEN-F, I found the GX9 felt much better in the hand. It was a bit plainer too, which ought to make it a little less obvious on the street.

Lenses

For anybody unfamiliar with micro-4/3 cameras, it is worth just noting the comparative characteristics of micro-4/3 and full frame lenses. The key thing is that because they only have to produce an image circle that covers a much smaller sensor than full frame, they can be much smaller and lighter. The relative field of view differs as a result. For instance, a 25mm on micro-4/3 has the same field of view as a 50mm lens on full frame: a simple factor of two. What goes along with this is that for any given aperture, e.g. f/4, at any particular angle of view, the full frame camera will have a smaller depth of field, allowing better subject isolation if that is what you want. Conversely, the micro-4/3 lens will get more of the picture in focus. For my style of street photography, greater depth of field is generally better than less, so the micro-4/3 lens suits me fine. Micro-4/3 lenses do have a down-side though: they are diffraction limited at much wider apertures than full frame lenses.

I bought the camera with a used Panasonic-Leica 12-60mm f/2.8-4 lens. This is the direct equivalent of my Nikon AF-S G 24-120mm f/4 everyday zoom. I've always found this focal length range suits me down to the ground, and the aperture is fast enough not to be limiting under most circumstances. It turns out that the 12-60 lens is excellent. If anything (although it's hard to compare) I rate it a bit higher than the Nikon lens.

Over the last year, I've also picked up the Panasonic-Leica 15mm f/1.7 lens (field of view equivalent to 30mm on full-frame), the Panasonic 42.5mm f/1.7 lens (field of view equivalent to 85mm on full-frame) and the Olympus 60mm f/2.8 macro lens. Long story short – they are all terrific. I particularly enjoy the 15mm lens. I've always been a 35mm lens user for street photography if I'm using a prime, and I'm finding now that the fractional extra angle of view is very appealing. It's also dead sharp wide open, tiny and weighs next to nothing.

In operation: street photography, travel, everyday convenience

I bought the camera with street photography in mind. Has it delivered? Absolutely! I think this is the nicest street camera I've ever had. It is small and discreet; it has a silent electronic shutter, great lenses and focusing that is plenty good enough for street work. If I miss a picture, it is more likely to be the fault of the camera's operator than the camera itself.

One of the big downsides of the GX9 is its tendency to reset itself to completely random settings when I'm walking around with it in my hand if it is switched on. My natural tendency is to hold the camera in my right fist, which makes it easy for me to squeeze control buttons in a way that I'm not aware of. So, sometimes I find myself shooting movies rather than stills, or somehow I'm in some weird setting that I have no idea what it is. Occasionally have had to turn the camera off and remove the battery to restart it completely to get back to any kind of settings that I can work with. Generally, to get round this, if I'm not in the process of actively working a scene, I keep the camera switched off, and only switch it on if I think there's a picture in the vicinity: even then, I hold it was just my thumb over the rear thumb grip to avoid touching any controls.

Overall, the camera delivers in spades as a street camera, but with the limitation that it is easy for a klutz like me to completely screw up the settings by accident, and as a result miss a picture.

I've travelled with it over the last year to various places – many times to London, but also, for instance, to Hamburg and Madeira, and the whole kit with four lenses and a charger is small and light enough to take up little space in a travel backpack to carry on a plane. As a companion for travelling with, or just taking out for the day, it is excellent.

Interface

This is the bit I struggled with most. I have nearly 15 years acquired muscle memory with the Nikon system. I can operate a Nikon DSLR in pitch black without having to look at the controls. The Panasonic interface is completely different, and I struggled to get an intuitive feeling for rapidly setting it the exact way I want for any specific shot. There are some things that are fine: the front and rear dials that, in manual mode, separately set exposure and aperture. This works well with auto-ISO. But, although I know where to go to control most functions, I find it slow compared to a DSLR. Not only that, but I find myself needing my glasses on to be able to read items on the back screen when changing controls.

Focusing

Generally, the focusing works well. For street photography, typically I will either have it in fully automatic mode or – and this is the secret sauce – I set up the touch-focus-shoot mode (touch shutter). In this, you can touch the back screen, the camera focuses (it seems instantly) on the subject you've touched, and shoots. This is amazing for street photography. I must acknowledge Damien Demolder at this point: I went to one of his talks last year and he kindly showed me how to set this up. He has a YouTube video on this. For street photography, I typically have the rear screen horizontal: this means that I could be looking down, away from the subject, and then just touch the screen to shoot when required. Using this method, the shutter finger doesn't go anywhere near the shutter, and it's difficult for anyone to know that you're taking a picture. It also turns out to be a reliable way of getting focus on a particular point. I'll mention a specific example of this under aviation photography below.

Image quality

I showed my friend Phil some A3 prints made from my first expedition to Dungeness last year. He is a Nikon D4S user: on seeing the prints, he ruefully admitted that "the quality is there". Having said that, they were all taken in bright sunlight under conditions that are pretty much optimal for micro-4/3. I've had other measures of image quality. For example, in the last post I mentioned that I'd got a medal in an international exhibition for my Tate Modern Question Mark picture. This was taken using the GX9 and the 15mm lens at f/1.7, at ISO 1600. That sounds like evidence of quality to me. I've also had various other pictures taken with the GX9 accepted in international and county exhibitions.

Edge situations: pictures taken under other technically challenging conditions.

With my Nikon D810, I can pretty much forget about high ISO worries. For example, Dancing in the Moonlight was shot at ISO 9000. With the GX9, I find that the pictures lose a bit of quality above ISO 1600. Of course, if the picture demands it, I'll go above 1600. But for the most part, I'll try to stick to 800 or below. I'm not sure I can explain this very well, but the files just seem "brittle" above ISO 1600: they can't be pulled and pushed in post-processing as I would like, and I can feel them breaking.

This means having to be careful in my preferred shooting mode for street photography. I prefer to shoot street with manual controls for shutter speed and aperture, but with auto-ISO. It is easy to take your eye off the ISO, and find you're shooting at much higher ISO than you would be comfortable with.

Dynamic range: my 7 stop rule

Over the years, I've come to realise that I feel comfortable editing pictures if I'm going to be trying to recover a little bit more detail from the shadows or highlights if I've got seven stops of dynamic range. Bill Claff’s excellent compilation of dynamic range measurements at photonstophotos.org gives a useful set of comparison measurements between different cameras. What I've noticed is that if I can't get seven stops of dynamic range on the Claff graphs, I know that I'm going to feel limited. The GX9 goes under seven stops at ISO 1600. I can double the ISO on the D810 and still get 7 stops of dynamic range. (Parenthetically, my original DSLR, a Nikon D70, was below seven stops at ISO 400, which was why, in retrospect, I never liked going above ISO 400 on that camera, and stayed at base ISO as best I could. Similarly, I would go above ISO 800 only reluctantly on my D300.)

Compared to a full frame camera, a micro-4/3 camera is around two stops short of the best dynamic range that can be achieved by the full frame. (Bill Claff's data indicates 9.75 stops for the GX9 at base ISO; 11.6 at base ISO for the D810.) What this means is that for any scene with an extreme brightness range, a full frame camera is always likely to do better then micro 4/3.

A good example of this is my picture of Battersea Power Station over the lines out of Victoria. When I went location scouting for this shot, I had the GX9 with me and tried some pictures with it. They were more or less okay, but somehow they lacked something that I knew I could properly get with the D810. Going back with the D810, I got a raw file that has a full range of tones within a single frame, something that I simply could not get with the GX9. As always, I'm prepared to admit that this may be down to the skill of the operator, but for me, with any kind of demanding picture, I'll always take my full frame camera.

4K photo

One of the great revelations of the GX9 is the 4K photo mode. In this, the camera outputs a 4K video, but with settings for the pictures within it that you choose as though they were stills. This means that it's possible to extract a full-size JPEG from the video. In effect, you're getting a 30 frames per second motor drive. I don't use it a lot, but there are times when people are moving in ways that are unpredictable, and the ability to extract a still from a movie is a helpful way of operating.

Image stabilisation

The dual IS with body and lens cooperating to stabilise the image in slow exposures is amazing. I've been able to hand hold for 0.5-1 sec routinely (for instance, this one).

Batteries

The GX9 batteries are small and have limited duration in use. If I've started photographing in the morning on a day out, I will preemptively switch batteries in early-to-mid afternoon before the one in the camera dies. The battery life indicator is tiny and it is easy to miss the bars going down: the battery dies without notice. I bought some third-party spares, and I always carry four batteries with me, although I've never got through more than two in any one day. (The Patona brand batteries work well for me.)

Bluetooth: image transfer and geo-tagging

The GX9 has built-in Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. I thought this would be good for low-power geo-tagging. It's possible to set up a smart phone to provide GPS location data that the camera picks up and attaches to each picture. In practice, I've found that the battery both on my phone and in the camera are used up more quickly, so I've given up on that. I much prefer to leave a GPS tracking app (Trails) running in my iPhone, and then export a GPX track: the track can then be used in Photomechanic or Lightroom to geo-tag in batch all the pictures after downloading.

It is also possible to copy JPEG pictures from the camera to the phone directly for sharing online. Somehow, this always seems to be more of a pain than it should be. It isn't hard, and it does work, but it is just one more bit of friction between taking the picture and getting it on WhatsApp to the family. Quite honestly, I'm still just taking pictures on my phone if I want to share them immediately.

The (in my hands) not so good: aviation

I must preface this part by reiterating that I have the better part of 15 years experience of using my Nikons for aviation, and I still have a full set of Nikon gear that is optimised for aviation. So, any comparison of the GX9 with my Nikon gear is probably a bit unfair. But…

Aviation is the one area of my interests where I've found that the GX9 is less than satisfactory. This is not specifically problem with this specific camera, more an issue that I have with micro-4/3 in general.

As an example, when I am getting pictures of planes taking off or landing, I like to get a blurred background by panning with the plane at a modest shutter speed. So, typically, on a summers day with my full frame Nikon, I'll use something like 1/80 sec with an ISO as low as 32 and aperture as low as f/16. On a full frame camera, f/16 is not badly affected by diffraction. On a micro 4/3 camera, as I discovered the first time I took it up to my local airfield at Headcorn, the pictures become essentially unusable. The lowest ISO on the GX9 is 100 (low 1, i.e. one stop below base ISO), which means that to get a non-diffraction limited picture, the shutter speed has to be sufficiently high that the background blur will be greatly diminished. On my first expedition to Headcorn, I was using the camera to follow a Dakota that was operating out of the airfield, at the smallest aperture setting. The pictures lacked all the contrast, sharpness and that "snappiness" I expect. I cannot put one in this blog piece to illustrate this because I immediately deleted them all.

However, for statics, the GX9 works fine. I've taken it along to a couple of night shoots, and the images under hanger light come out well. The touch-focus-shoot mode works accurately for focussing, actually better than normal auto-AF for this (auto-AF doesn’t seem to lock on well in dim light). But then again, night shoot pictures come out extremely well on my Nikon cameras, and have the benefit of a couple of stops of extra dynamic range. As a result, the GX9 will stay at home for this application in the future.

The other bits

Like all the other Lumix cameras, the GX9 has numerous additional functions built in. I'm not a videographer, so I don't get fussed about things like the lack of external microphone input. As far as I'm concerned, the small - very small - amount of video I've shot has been terrific. But I don't think that anyone would use the GX9 for serious video production: Panasonic has much better options.

There's things like built-in focus stacking, HDR and other bits and bobs that I just haven't got much use out of. I've tried them intermittently, but for my purposes, they're not core to my usage of the GX9, so I haven't learnt them.

A few final thoughts: one for the long term?

Is the GX9 a long-term keeper? I ought to answer a resounding yes to this because of the great pleasure I've had in using at the street photography and travel over the last year. It has met - and exceeded - all my expectations, the main exception being the ease with which is is possible to accidentally mess up the settings while walking with the camera switched on.

However, there is new competition with the advent of the Nikon full frame Z cameras. These were scarcely even whispered on Nikon Rumours when I bought the GX9. The small, lightweight Z6 ought to be an excellent choice for street photography (although it does have an SLR-like hump). Couple it with the little 24-70mm f/4 zoom, and you've got the makings of a moderately sized kit that benefits from essentially the same interface as my big full frame DSLR cameras. This would leverage 14 years of muscle memory. But then again, there would never be a lens as small and light as the 15mm f/1.7. And that is the nub if it: I can't see any full frame kit coming along that would suit my way of working as well as the GX9 and my preference for overall small and light gear. While I'm happy to wait to see what comes down the road, for the foreseeable future, the GX9 makes an excellent street and travel camera.