Panasonic's GH line -- to which the Lumix DMC-GH3 is the latest addition -- sets out to offer highly flexible cameras you might buy to satisfy your hobby, but end up using for work too. In fact, this compact camera aims to challenge the dominance of dSLRs at the pro level.
The GH3 is both splash and dust-proof when used with a compatible lens and the body is built from magnesium alloy. It's the first GH-range camera to incorporate Wi-Fi, with which you can control it remotely or back up your shots to a laptop or tablet for immediate viewing and editing.
It accepts the full complement of G-system lenses, which now numbers 17 -- extending to around 40 if you count the compatible lenses made by other companies. So the GH3 is shaping up to be one of the most versatile compact system cameras you can buy. It will cost around £1,200.
As befits its pro-grade credentials, the GH3 is pretty large for a compact mirrorless camera, and anyone who is used to holding a dSLR for extended periods will find it immediately familiar.
There are two dials up top -- one handling shooting modes and the other taking care of burst and timer settings. Around the back, everything is kept within easy reach. There's direct access to the menus, focus mode and various function buttons that let you set your most commonly-tweaked controls without trawling the menus.
The screen is articulated on both planes so it can be tilted up and down to capture tricky angles, and folded back on itself to face out from the rear of the body, like a regular fixed display. It's touch-sensitive and uses OLED tech, not LCD. The same is true of the eyepiece viewfinder, which is sharp, clear and fast to react, so you won't see smearing or flickering as you pan across your scene.
Under the hood, there's a 16-megapixel sensor delivering 4,608x3,456-pixel images. This is a brand-new chip that can handle regular sensitivities up to ISO 12,800, and extended settings as far as ISO 25,600.
Alongside the regular mechanical shutter mechanism is an electronic equivalent that captures the frame without any physical movement, reducing the risk of camera shake. That should be particularly useful in macro photography, where the slightest movement can have an enormous effect on framing and focus.
There's an optional battery grip that naturally doubles as an extra shutter release for portrait photography. And the external jacks have been enlarged from 2.5mm to 3.5mm to take standard headphone and microphone connections.
Alongside the regular Intelligent Auto mode, there's full control over aperture and shutter in the various manual and priority modes, and plenty of scene modes and creative tools to apply live effects while you shoot.
I tested a late pre-production sample of the GH3 under overcast skies and rain. Despite fairly unfavourable conditions, the results were impressively bright, sharp and full of colour. I attached a 14mm to 140mm lens (equivalent to 28mm to 280mm on a 35mm camera, thanks to the Micro Four Thirds sensor's two-times focal length multiplier), using a mixture of Intelligent Auto, aperture priority and creative scene modes.
The GH3 proved extremely quick to focus, even in low light, consistently producing sharp results and capturing moving subjects well. Fine detail such as the rain in the image below is very easily discerned, even though it was shot at the maximum telephoto position of the lens, with sensitivity automatically set at ISO 1,000.
The heightened sensitivity wasn't sufficient to dull the clarity of the fine rain, and it performed just as well when pushed yet further. You can make out individual feathers and water droplets on this emperor penguin, shot at ISO 3,200.
The level of detail retained at higher sensitivities can't be overstated. There is some fine grain, but it's only noticeable in de-focused areas. Where intricate details such as the feathers and neck fur of the bird below are concerned (again shot at ISO 3,200), the results are on a par with what I would expect to see in images shot at between ISO 320 and ISO 400 on a good compact camera.
This gives you a remarkable degree of flexibility and frees you up to shoot subjects that you might otherwise shy away from with a lesser camera.
Colour reproduction is very faithful. Subtle tones like the pinks of the pelicans, below, are sensitively handled. Again, the individual feathers remain clear and well defined. Even in those parts where the contrasts are less sharp -- such as the neck and behind the eye -- it's easy to make out the texture of the shorter feathers.
Naturally, lens performance will depend on your chosen kit, but I found it easy to quickly zero in on selected parts of an image in my tests, to isolate particular subjects and keep them focused while recomposing.
There are 23 built-in still image scene modes covering off portraits, sunsets and monochrome shooting, among others. The monochrome mode produced well-balanced results in my tests, with clearly-rendered details at both the shadow and highlight ends of the scale.
The GH3 shoots high-definition video at 1,920x1,080p resolution, at up to 60 frames per second. There are various lower-resolution options if you simply want to post footage on a website, as well as modes with higher frames-per-second rates for producing slow-motion film when played back at regular speed.
Panasonic is rightly trumpeting the GH3's video features. It can capture footage at 50 megabits per second, it's time-code compatible and it meets the standards required for broadcast use. Movies are limited in length to 29 minutes 59 seconds per shot, but you can use the integrated HDMI port to attach an external hard drive, which lets you shoot for longer.
Switching to video mode is extremely fast and the results are excellent. Colours are vivid, even under muted light, and detail is sharp. The soundtrack is accurate, although it was impossible to test whether or not the GH3 picked up zoom noise on this occasion, as I performed my tests with a manual lens set-up.
The GH3 doesn't only look like a dSLR, it behaves like one too. It could well be the most viable compact system camera challenger to a dSLR, with pretty much every control you could need, a bright screen, sharp and vivid output and excellent video performance.
The worst criticism you could throw at it when comparing it to a dSLR would be that the eyepiece delivers a digital feed from the sensor rather than a pure optical view through the lens (which would be impossible, since the whole point of a Micro Four Thirds camera is that it's missing the mirror inside a dSLR). However, even this has its benefits -- what you see is a more accurate representation of the finished result. So only the purists and pedants will complain.
Head out with the GH3 and you can largely forget about light and sensitivity. When set to automatic ISO, my tests proved it could be trusted to select settings at least as high as ISO 3,200, with very little detrimental impact on the image. You have to look very closely to spot the grain, and it certainly doesn't affect detail levels. Indeed, I would have no hesitation in shooting regularly at sensitivities above ISO 2,000 with the GH3.
I can't give it a score at this time, as this is a pre-production unit, but if it's indicative of the performance of the finished product, then I would expect it to rate very well. Stay tuned for the full review.