It’s not often I’m moved to review new equipment but, being an early adopter of the Panasonic G9 it seemed an interesting exercise and may be helpful to those now trying to decide whether to take the plunge and order one.
This won’t be a technical review, with charts and statistics but, instead, comments on my real world experiences of this camera. I’m very much a stills photographer so if you’re looking for comments on the video capabilities of the G9 please do look elsewhere. I may well try the video functions in time but for now I’ve focused entirely on its ability as a stills camera.
All the images are ones I've taken with the G9 over the last six weeks - please click on them to view them larger.
Before I start though, let me tell you a little of my background and my journey with mirrorless cameras...
Three years ago, I made my first foray into the world of mirrorless cameras. I loved my DSLR, a Canon 5DIII, but there were times when I wanted to travel lighter without compromising on quality. After shopping around, I plumped for the Panasonic GX7 with a 20mm prime lens. I gradually built up a small collection of prime lenses and loved the freedom the smaller form factor gave me. I subsequently upgraded to the GX8 and was grateful for the substantial improvements it brought.
Over time I found I used my mirrorless camera more and more, while my two Canon bodies sat unloved at home. Finally, I ditched the full frame camera in March 2017 but kept a Canon 7DII and a few long lenses for wildlife and action shooting. However, I could already see a moment coming when I would ditch DSLRs altogether and switch to an entirely mirrorless system - I just needed the autofocus and tracking abilities to catch up.
The new kid on the block
Fast forward to the 9th November 2017 when the G9 was announced and my hopes were raised.
I’d been hoping for an update to the GX8 which would fulfil my requirements as I love its rangefinder styling. But here was a DSLR shaped camera which apparently contained all the power I required. Some hard thinking was needed!
A chance to handle the G9 came later that month and Carol Hartfree, from Panasonic UK, did a great sales pitch, but not one I succumbed to at the time. I cogitated on the pluses and minuses for another month, all the time keeping an eye on photos being released by the Lumix Ambassadors. Ian Cook’s impressive sports photos were very persuasive, showing that if the camera could track a rugby player against a distracting background it would probably fare ok with my motorsport, aviation and wildlife shooting.
Finally, on Christmas Day, instead of watching the Queen’s speech, I went online and pre-ordered my G9!
Fast forward to early January and my new camera arrived from WEX - an exciting moment. I bought just the body as buying yet another lens seemed just too much of an extravagance.
First impressions and handling
My first impression was just how DSLR-like the G9 felt in my hands. Of course, it’s considerably lighter and less bulky than either of the Canons I owned. I think it strikes a really good balance between being compact, yet large enough for the spacing of the controls to work ergonomically. In terms of build quality, it’s sturdy and weather sealed. That said, I’ve used my GX8 in some pretty heavy downpours and it’s never missed a beat. I’m no fair-weather photographer so knowing I can continue to shoot in harsh weather without worry is great.
One feature of the G9 which has drawn a lot of publicity is its small LCD control panel on top of the camera. This feature is entirely normal on all but the most basic DSLRs but, so far, has been missing from mirrorless cameras. I know some people have raved about its addition, but I don’t have strong feelings either way. It’s handy to be able to check your current settings but I could cope quite easily if it weren’t there.
Another new feature on the G9 is its double decker mode dial. The top half is a normal mode dial, where you choose whether to shoot in aperture, shutter or manual mode. Beneath that is a smart red ring to show the camera’s flagship status – nothing practical about this but it does looks pretty! The lower deck features another dial, giving quick access to various settings which, on previous models, have been accessed via a menu. This gives me the ability to instantly pick continuous shooting mode, 6K mode, bracketing, timelapse or delayed shutter release. I love this feature, which means I can respond to changing conditions almost instantly. Each of these options can be personalised to suit the photographer.
Getting to grips with the G9
The newly designed grip is excellent and it’s comfortable, even on long days spent shooting with a big telephoto lens. All my fingers fit onto the grip and the shutter button is nicely placed. The other buttons seem sensibly positioned, although I’ve had to rewire my muscle memory with some of them. The playback button, in particular, has taken a bit of getting used to. The inclusion of a scroll wheel is really handy for speedy adjustment of the focus point size. I generally move the focus point around with my right thumb on the touchscreen, but the newly added joystick gives a useful alternative means of doing this.
Custom function buttons
The G9 has almost endless ways to customise the buttons and dials, along with some ‘soft’ function buttons which are accessed via the LCD screen. The front of the camera (just beneath the lens release) is home to a lever which can be customised to quickly swap between two contrasting settings. I’ve left mine set, as it was from the factory, to alternate between mechanical and electronic shutter.
One of the first things I did was to reassign exposure compensation to my G9’s rear dial. Coming from a camera with a bespoke compensation dial I certainly didn’t want to have to use two controls to change the exposure of my images. The only slight niggle is the fact the original exposure compensation button can’t then be reassigned to something else. I guess the function of the three buttons on the top of the camera must just be hard wired in.
For my hands the stretch to the G9’s screen is greater than on the GX8 but I’ve quickly learned to extend my hand to reach the nether regions of the screen. Having touchscreen focus set to Offset rather than Exact is helpful here, as it removes the need to reach the far left hand edge of the screen. Another frustration (albeit a first world one!) was the discovery that the cashmere flip-top gloves I normally use in winter don’t work with the G9’s touchscreen. On the GX8 there’s enough skin contact through the fabric to select my focus point but on the G9 they simply don’t work at all. I guess Panasonic must have used a different type of screen on the newer camera.
Luckily, I’ve found some alternative gloves which work a treat. They’re thin enough to be able to feel all the buttons, the touchscreen responds perfectly, and I can even wear fingerless gloves over the top if I need to. If only I had better circulation it wouldn’t have been such an issue!
A viewfinder to die for
When I first handled the G9 one of the wow factors was the enormous viewfinder.
I know many DSLR purists are sniffy about electronic viewfinders, but I think this is generally because they’ve never tried one. The G9’s viewfinder is truly awesome. First impressions give you the sense you’ve almost climbed inside the camera, into an alternate reality - it really does feel immersive. There is a slight pincushion effect around the edge of the viewfinder image but not enough to cause concern and it certainly doesn’t translate into the images the camera produces.
The electronic viewfinder image is bright and I get no sense that I’m not seeing a true to life scene. The viewfinder’s refresh rate is very fast and I’ve noticed no lag. The other big advantage of using an EVF is its ability to show the picture as it will be captured. In an optical viewfinder you don’t see the real-time effect of any exposure compensation, making things more challenging when shooting very dark or light scenes. With an EVF you see the effect of any exposure compensation adjustments immediately, making it easier to achieve the right result without experimentation.
The G9 has so many thoughtful touches but there is one which will be particularly useful for those who regularly shoot in the dark. Panasonic have added a Night Mode, where the LCD screen and EVF can be set to only show red tones. While this can make colour photography a challenge, it does mean that your night vision won’t get ruined every time you check the viewfinder or screen.
Panasonic giveth and Panasonic taketh away....
One feature I do miss from my GX8 is its tilting viewfinder, but I guess one can’t expect to have everything! The G9 EVF does have a rather clever trick up its sleeve though. Because it’s so large Panasonic have added a button to the side which reduces the size of the image inside the viewfinder. This may seem odd, but for those who wear glasses it can be really helpful. Glasses move your eyes away from the viewfinder cup, making it harder to see the whole frame in one sweep. Reducing the size slightly makes this easier and, as a part time glasses wearer, this will be useful.
As a final comment on the viewfinder, I have noticed that its placement on the camera is really helpful. The GX8 EVF is positioned on the left-hand side of the camera. For street photography this is useful as you can shoot with both eyes open, allowing you to scan the street for action that’s about to enter your frame. However, when shooting with an extreme telephoto lens, the fact that the viewfinder isn’t aligned with the lens makes it harder to locate distant subjects quickly. I’d never really thought about this until I used the G9, where viewfinder and lens are aligned.
A stealthy camera
Mirrorless cameras have one function which just isn’t possible on a DSLR - silent mode. The ability to switch to an electronic shutter is a huge bonus in situations where the click of a mechanical one would be intrusive - when photographing a concert, for instance. It’s not without its disadvantages though. Because the electronic shutter doesn’t capture the whole scene instantly, banding can occur under fluorescent light, which flickers at a regular speed. I’m wise to this now and if I think the lighting will cause problems I’ll take a couple of test shots before I shoot anything critical.
Fortunately, the G9 has another ace up its sleeve - an exceptionally quiet mechanical shutter. I didn’t really consider this until I took some photos in the peace of a church and it struck me how subtle the noise is. No, it’s not silent but it’s certainly quiet enough to be unobtrusive in all but the quietest of places.
Speaking of the shutter, I don’t think I can recall ever encountering one as sensitive as that in the G9. Initially I found myself taking inadvertent photos of all sort of rubbish - mostly my feet - as I caught it by accident. Over time though I’m doing this less and the super-soft touch is a bonus at slow shutter speeds as the gentler shutter press movement is much less likely to cause camera shake.
Having covered the practical matters of handling and usage, it’s time to assess the G9’s image quality.
In recent years micro four thirds cameras have improved enormously and now rival many DSLRs for image quality. The G9 doesn’t have an anti-aliasing filter, allowing for more detail and clarity than images from the GX8. The colours are beautiful and the clarity of images from the camera is astonishing.
I know many DSLR users will boast that their cameras have better dynamic range than those with smaller sensors. In my experience though I haven’t found this to always be the case.
In the days when I was shooting with the GX8 and a full frame DSLR I often found I could achieve a wider range of tones on the smaller camera. Frequently I’d be able to pull detail from highlight areas in GX8 RAW files where I’d have to shoot several different exposures and combine them to achieve the same result with my Canon 5DIII. This is certainly also the case with the G9 and I remain content with my choice to downsize.
Yes, there is a higher level of noise at extreme ISO settings on the G9, but I have yet to find this presents me with an insurmountable problem. My fast prime lenses allow me to keep the ISO settings lower much of the time, and when this isn’t possible, I’ll happily shoot up to ISO6400 - a full stop faster than on the GX8. The resulting images tend to be grainy in the shadow areas (which can be remedied in post processing) but detail is retained where it’s needed. I believe this is one area where Panasonic worked hard to retain more detail at high ISO settings on the G9, particularly in comparison to the videocentric GH5.
Since switching to a mirrorless system I’ve really noticed how much easier it is to shoot at slower shutter speeds. A large part of this is the smaller, lighter form factor but in-body stabilisation (IBIS) helps too. The IBIS on the G9 is, frankly, phenomenal! I haven’t fully tested its limits yet but I’m aware of other photographers who are able to shoot exposures of more than a second and achieve sharp results. I really noticed the benefits when I was photographing the chapel at Gonville and Caius College in Cambridge soon after I took delivery of my G9.
The light levels were low and there were some shots which just weren’t possible with a tripod through lack of space. Shooting with a small (unstabilised) prime lens I was able to take crisp pictures at 1/5 of a second, allowing me to set a lower ISO and reduce the risk of noisy images. I’ve never been able to do this on any other camera.
When shooting with Panasonic lenses which are compatible with the manufacturer’s Dual IS 2 technology (such as the latest versions of the 12-35mm and 35-100mm f2.8 lenses) I have no doubt much slower exposures are possible too. When paired with such lenses the dual IS is reckoned to give no less than 6.5 stops of stabilisation. I understand this is as far as stabilisation can currently be stretched, as beyond that the rotation of the earth begins to counteract it!
The moment when Dual IS 2 really comes into its own is with super telephoto lenses, such as the Leica 100-400mm and the new 200mm f2.8 prime. I’m not lucky (or rich) enough to own the prime lens but the 100-400 pairs beautifully with the G9. For most images I shoot with this lens a high shutter speed it necessary because the subject is moving fast – for instance wildlife or motorsport. However, I was able to use a slower shutter speed than normal when photographing a Spitfire revving up its engine on the tarmac at Duxford recently. This blurred the propellers nicely but the aircraft (which was stationary) remained sharp.
One of my reasons for buying a G9 was to consolidate my kit into one photographic system. I wasn’t prepared to do that until I was convinced a tool existed that could at least match my Canon 7DII for focus tracking and speed of shooting. I’d seen plenty of sample images online but there’s nothing quite like trying a camera for yourself so I took the plunge. I’m happy to say I haven’t been disappointed. I’ve now used the G9 to shoot wildlife, aviation and motorsport and in all three genres it behaves impeccably.
In common with any high-end camera designed for action shooting, the learning curve has been pretty steep. A chat with sports photographer Ian Cook gave me some useful pointers and I’ve comprehensively experimented with the myriad of focus settings. I’m now beginning to find out which modes work best for which genres of photography, although my methods will no doubt evolve further over time.
Settings for static subjects
For static subjects I invariably use a small single focus point and this works perfectly, as you would expect. In dark conditions, where I’m shooting handheld I will also engage AFC mode. This is a trick I learned in my Canon days from wildlife photographer Andy Rouse. The reason for this is that, while my subject (a statue in a dark corner of a church for instance) won’t move, I might do as I breathe. Using AFC allows the camera to adjust to any micro-movements and gives me a better chance of a sharp image. Obviously, if the camera is on a tripod and my subject is static this is not necessary. I’ll also use AFC when photographing a subject that’s a static distance from me, but which may move a little – for instance a bird sitting on a branch.
When it comes to action I’m still learning but I’ve established that the G9’s tracking mode just isn’t very good! For a single moving subject against an uncluttered background it can cope, but how often do we get that combination? Instead I generally choose between a single focus point or use a combination of multiple focus points, both in combination with AFC mode. A single focus point can be made any size you like so I’ll often set a pretty large one at the position where I want my subject to be in the frame. I then simply ensure I keep the subject beneath it and pan with the movement. This works really well for aircraft in flight and was a technique I used successfully on the GX8.
Another option I’ve tried is to select a group of focus points, deciding for myself how big a spread they cover. This works well, but gives a little less control over which points activate as I pan with the action. The final option is to use all 225 focus points and let the camera follow my subject across the viewfinder. This works really well for action where the background isn’t cluttered. I suspect it might struggle when faced with a busy background though. I can see I’m going to have to experiment further with this when I shoot motor racing at Goodwood next month.
The other parameter I’ve experimented with is using back button focus. I’d never used it before but Ian Cook strongly recommended it as the way forward. There have been times when I forgot my altered settings, leaving me wondering why the autofocus isn’t responding to my ever more frantic presses of the shutter button! Of course, that’s simply my inexperience of back button focus showing, and it doesn’t take me long to realise my mistake. Of course, the moral of that story is never to change your settings so radically for a critical shoot!
I’ve been impressed with the results of back button focus, but have found one flaw. I habitually use my right thumb to select my focus point on the touchscreen. Of course, this doesn’t work if my right thumb is also supposed to be on the AF/AE lock button to activate autofocus. That said, on occasions when I’m using a monopod it won’t be a problem as I can use my left thumb to set the focus point instead. I will continue to try both focusing methods and no doubt will come to a conclusion with more time and experience.
An extra setting I’ve modified for AFC mode is the focus/release priority, setting it to release. When shooting fast action there are always going to be moments when the camera simply can’t acquire focus quickly enough. With AFC set to focus the camera simply refuses to shoot until it can find focus, resulting in missed shots. Selecting release instead means you may get the occasional unfocused image but the camera quickly reacquires focus and invariably I’ll only lose one or two shots in a series of multiple frames.
The need for speed
With the G9 being marketed as a camera for wildlife and sports shooters, the subject of speed was always going to be crucial.
In terms of autofocus I can’t fault it. The focusing is quick and accurate, locking on pretty much instantaneously. The autofocus time is supposed to be 0.04 of a second but I have no way of checking that. All I know is it does everything I ask of it, incredibly quickly!
As for continuous shooting speed, the possibilities are almost endless….
With the mechanical shutter in action and continuous autofocus engaged I can shoot up to nine frames a second, or twelve with single AF. The buffer can accommodate sixty RAW pictures before filling up so you’d have to be a pretty ardent ‘spray and pray’ merchant for that to be insufficient! Nine frames a second is plenty fast enough for most subjects I shoot but that’s not all this speed machine can do.
Engaging the electronic shutter opens up yet more possibilities. Once you’ve done this you can shoot no less than twenty frames a second with continuous autofocus and a mind boggling sixty with single AF. I’ve tried the slower of these two on a couple of occasions, but it was so hard to control how many shots I took that I ended up filling the buffer before I could say Jumping Jack Flash!
One situation where I may persevere with this is using an additional option called Pre-Shutter mode. Here the camera saves the eight frames before you fully depressed the shutter button as soon as you start shooting properly. It may seem a rather niche feature but when photographing birds it can be a helpful tool for catching the moment of take-off. Normally, by the time you realise a bird is taking flight and press the shutter button the moment has gone. This way you can respond as speedily as you are able, safe in the knowledge that the camera will also record eight frames before you react. It’s a slightly mind-bending concept but one that I will probably use occasionally.
One of my other favourite genres is street photography. With the G9 I’ve simply continued to use the same shooting habits I have with the GX8. On the street I select a largish single focus point, a fast enough shutter speed to freeze any movement, electronic shutter for stealth and the Touch Shutter setting. This way I can frame up my scene and wait for the right person to walk onto the stage I’ve set. When this happens I simply touch the LCD screen at the point where their face is and the camera focuses and activates the shutter in one seamless action. It works a treat and, because the camera isn’t up to my eye, my unsuspecting subject is usually oblivious to the fact that I’ve even taken their photo!
Looking at the larger picture
Panasonic made much of the G9’s high resolution mode in their marketing material at launch. This option uses the sensor’s ability to move (part of the IBIS functionality) to create larger files containing more detail. During the exposure the camera shoots eight separate frames, moving the sensor slightly between each one, and then stitches them together in camera to create either a 40 or 80-megabyte file. I’ve been impressed with the results, but it does have its limitations. All high res photos must be shot from a tripod as the camera has to be completely still. In addition, the camera automatically employs the electronic shutter (once again, to avoid any mechanical movement) so the longest exposure possible is one second. This limits the subjects you can shoot but for anyone who needs the ultimate resolution in something like still life or architecture it could be a real boon.
So, am I pleased with my purchasing choice? Absolutely! Given the specification of the newly announced GX9 I’m really pleased I didn’t wait the extra three months for that in the hope it would be everything I wanted.
The G9 has proved to be perfect for the enormous range of subjects I shoot. For architecture its image quality and increased ability in low light is wonderful. For action it has proved to be more than up to the task of tracking fast moving subjects and achieving an impressive hit rate.
There is one area where I will definitely continue to use my GX8 and that’s for street photography. The size and bulk of the G9 makes it more conspicuous on the street. I suspect for many people its form factor will lead to the assumption that the user is a professional and, therefore, someone to be suspicious of. By contrast, shooting with the GX8 makes me look more like a tourist so I can get away with more candid shots. Of course, people in the know understand it’s the photographer not the gear that counts but they’re generally not the people I’m aiming at!
I hope my journey with the G9 will be a long and fruitful one. I’m certainly enjoying using it and feel sure I will continue to find extra abilities hidden away in its menus for a long time to come.