Panasonic G9

My conversion to micro-43rds

For a gallery of full sized samples please see the link at the end of this article.

In 2016 I began a project for Amberley Books in the UK which resulted in the first publication in a series about the East End of London, “Whitechapel in 50 Buildings”. At the same time, I bought a Panasonic GX8 kit with the Lumix 12-35/2.8 in a post-Christmas sale. Panasonic had announced the Lumix Leica 100-400 and as a birder (or ‘twitcher’) I knew I would want that lens once it was available. The first step was buying what was at the time the top of the range Panasonic camera body.

I assumed that I would create the book project using my existing camera system, but it lacked a decent ultra-wide angle lens. The more I spent time with the GX8 the more I liked it. It was easy to shoot with. The menus, the controls were all very well laid out. I was amazed at the image quality. At a watershed moment, instead of adding another UWA lens to my existing system I decided to purchase the Olympus 7-14/2.8 PRO. I had decided to switch to micro-43rds as my system of choice.

The photograph of Christ Church, Spitalfields shows how right I was to switch. One review of the book in which the photograph appears describes it as one of the best photographs of the subject yet seen.

Panasonic GX8, Olympus 7-14/2.8 PRO

I’ll admit that back in 2016 I was very reticent about telling other photographers that I was using m43rds in a professional sense. Only two short years ago I probably would have been met with either incredulity or ridicule. However, since the arrival of the Olympus OMD-EM1 MkII and then the Panasonic GH5, professionals have been ‘coming out’ and admitting that these cameras and their associated lenses are easily as worthy of being used in a professional capacity as any offering from the stables of Nikon, Canon or Sony.

This lengthy introduction is to make the point that my conversion to m43rds was unexpected but has been very productive. Although I still use the GX8 for a lot of my activities by the middle of 2017 I knew I was not getting the best I could from the camera for wildlife photography. I had acquired the Pansonic Lumix Leica DG Vario 100-400 by then and was following Daniel Cox and his excellent Natural Exposures website. Daniel was promoting the GH5 for birding and I knew that I needed a camera with a better AF system to really get the benefit of this exciting zoom lens.

I might well have been satisfied at this point but then in late 2017 Panasonic announced the G9. I should point out I have never taken a single video with either the GX8 or the GH5. I am a stills photographer. That is my interest. At last with the G9 – Panasonic had a pair of cameras, one built for the photographer and the other for the videographer/photographer.

G9, Lumix Leica Elmarit 200mm f2.8, iso250 f2.8 1/2500

G9 Body and Controls

I am not going to provide a full specification of the G9 beyond stating that it has a 20mpx sensor without AA filter, a high resolution EVF and flip-out screen, and 20fps high speed capture in RAW using the electronic shutter. You can look at the full specifications, here.

Panasonic G9, Lumix Leica DG Elmarit 200/2.8

The first thing to say about the body is that for me, this is the best I have handled in the micro-43rds world to date. Before the G9 I felt that the GX8 was the zenith of comfort, but I have to say – and it surprises me because I don’t normally like the DSLR form factor – that from the moment I picked up the G9, I really liked it. The grip is just right for my medium sized hands. The body is lighter than the GH5 and in some ways not as bulky. I liken the GH5 to a top of the range Nikon body like the D5, I would liken the G9 to something like the D850. Smaller but just as powerful in use and for many professionals a more convenient size.

The EVF is as per usual for Panasonic a tour de force. Clear, bright and so completely absorbing that you never even think of it as an EVF. I have said many times: the optical viewfinder is now a quaint artefact of a bygone camera age. Why wouldn’t you want to see exactly the effect of exposure compensation in live view in the viewfinder, or get an immediate review of a photograph you have taken without removing your eye from the viewfinder?

I’ve also always been an advocate of the flip-out screen since they began to appear. Initially these were perceived as low-end consumer features but if you had my 60+ year-old knees then being able to bend at the waist and get low level shots rather than crouch down on the ground is a great benefit. It is interesting to see the so-called professional camera makers now incorporating flip out screens.

G9 Back View: lots of customisable buttons, joystick and function wheel, my only gripe is the placement of the playback button, I wish it were to the right of the Fn1 button.

The G9 has inherited much of the DNA of the GH5 in terms of controls. The two best features for me are the dedicated top plate buttons for white balance, ISO and exposure compensation. The second great feature is the joystick. This is liberating for two reasons. Firstly, it controls the AF point and it allows you to reset the control point to the centre by depressing it. It also means that it releases the four choices on the control wheel for other functions (I have programmed the up for playback, the right for shutter type, the bottom for metering mode and the left for silent mode).

In addition to the top plate and back buttons you have two more buttons on the front face left of the lens mount which can be mapped and a control lever to the right of the lens mount. I actually find these buttons a bit difficult to depress - probably my fingers are too short. I am sure over time I will find uses for them.

The media and marketing have made a lot of the inclusion of a top plate display on the G9. I have to admit that at first I was indifferent to it and even wondered if it was necessary. It took wiser heads than mine to point out that with the top plate display the need to use the viewfinder or open the back LCD display is largely unecessary (I tend to keep it closed mostly when I am photographing). The top plate display is quite comprehensive and it shows the most important camera settings just by glancing down. As I have used the camera more and more I have come to appreciate the benefits of this addition and I think it gives the camera an edge over its rivals.


Top Plate: dedicated function buttons, twin control wheels, the combined mode dial and drive selector and the new top-plate LCD, which can be illuminated with a flick of the on/off switch.

It is worth noting that the flexibility to map function buttons, dials and wheels is a major benefit of this camera and allows for extensive customisation and personalisation of the camera. I’m not sure how this compares to other cameras but to me it suggests a lot of thought in terms of constructing the ergonimcs and firmware for the camera. Combined with the ability to store custom settings in the C1, C2 and C3 modes I really cannot see how anyone can complain about the excellent level of personalisation available in this camera (and indeed in all Panasonic cameras I have owned since the GH2).

There is only one negative aspect of the control buttons. For some reason the playback button, like the GH5 is placed on the left-hand side of the viewfinder. Am I alone in finding this a most unnatural placement? You tend to support most of the weight of the body and lens with your left hand – the only way of reaching the playback button is to remove that support or stretch your thumb to its limit. I much prefer the playback button to fall just below the thumb of your right hand like it does on my GX8 and from memory this was also the placement on previous G and GH cameras. Thank goodness that there are many options to map the playback to a more convenient button, which is what I have done.

Another oddity about the camera is the shutter release. It takes very little pressure on the button to fire the shutter. At first, I wondered if I had a faulty camera. The release reminds me a lot of my Olympus XA film body (some of you will know what I am talking about). Faint pressure and the release is activated. This is somewhat irksome if you are in high speed 20fps mode because before you know it you have 20 frames of your feet or something you did not intend to take. I queried this in the G9 Facebook group and others mentioned the same effect. Panasonic chipped in and stated it is a design feature that their focus group of end users desired a light shutter release. It takes some getting used to and I would say now it is less or a problem for me than at first. Still, personally - I would prefer more positive travel to the button before the shutter is fired.

The bottom line is that I feel the G9 is a light weight, comfortable camera, with many convenient control buttons, excellent customisation of function buttons, and a superb EVF. This is a camera which one can say does not interfere with the process of taking photographs – and I have not felt this way since I used Leica bodies – which says something about the pedigree of the G9, given Panasonic’s relationship with the German camera manufacturer.

Image Quality

Of course, a camera can look good (zero interest to me) and feel good (of much more of interest to me) but can be let down in the image-quality department.

If you want to cut to the chase – based on my experience of owning Panasonic m43rd cameras for the last ten or so years, the G9 is easily the best image quality I have seen to date.

Another feature is the speed at which images can be captured. Using the electronic shutter, it is possible to capture images in RAW at up to 20fps. In mechanical mode this drops to a more reasonable but equally powerful 12fps. The latter is more than enough for stopping birds in flight at shutter speeds of 1/2000 and above.

My benchmark for image quality is probably contentious. The best performance of any sensor at base-iso I have so far owned, in APS-C, and full frame sensors is that of the Sigma DP Merrill cameras. These cameras use a highly specialised ‘Foveon’ layered sensor – with a dedicated layer for red, green and blue. This resulting detail at the pixel level is pretty much unequalled by any camera except for high end medium format cameras. Yes, I know people are probably going to scoff at this assertion but anyone who has actually photographed with a Sigma Merrill-sensor camera will completely agree with my assessment (and it is worth watching the Camera Store TV test of the DP2M as evidence).

About the only camera which has come close to beating these Foveon sensor cameras is the Leica Q. But I would still give the edge to the Sigma.

This long explanation is an introduction to the fact that at base iso, which I understand is iso200, the G9 has eye-boggling sharpness. I’m basing this on the results I have achieved with the Lumix Leica DG 200/2.8 lens which was introduced at the same time as the G9.

The original photograph: G9, Lumix Leica Elmarit 200/2.8 iso200 1/80 f2.8

The detail pulled out of the shot at 100%

I certainly did not expect to be able to get a usable photograph at 100% at such a low speed on what was a dim, winter afternoon - and when all I was doing was playing around with the camera and lens to get to know how they worked.

Another suprisingly good photograph in poor light, just before sunset on a dim winter day
G9, Lumix Leica Elmarit 200/2.8 iso100 f4 1/60

Panasonic claim that the in-body stabilisation plus lens stabilisation, the 'dual' system, can give a six-stop advantage. While this is a useful feature, for wildlife, especially birds in flight where you must already work at 1/2000 to stop movement, it is of less use - and indeed it is recommended that for very high shutter speeds the image stabilisation is turned off.

Sensor noise is an issue with m43rds even at base iso. I think this is partly because Panasonic seem to be very honest with their RAW files and apply little (if any?) apparent noise reduction. In practise I find this to be no problem because I know I can compensate very easily with a small flick of the noise slider in Adobe Lightroom.

 I have been getting some cracking results at both low and high-iso with phenomenal detail. I think this is a mixture of a great sensor and processing engine plus excellent lenses. So far, I have photographed with the Lumix Vario 12-35/2.8, Lumix 35-100/2.8, Olympus 7-14/2.8 PRO, Lumix 20/1.7 and the Lumix Leica Elmarit 200/2.8. The photograph below, taken with the G9 and the superb Lumix Vario 35-100/2.8 demonstrates the capabilities of the G9 as an event camera. My subject was delighted with the photographs I took and they are being reproduced on web-sites and in press releases with no problem at all.

Rachel Kolsky, LSE Lecture 25/01/2018 - an exciting and expressive presenter.
G9, Lumix 35-100/2.8 iso2000 f2.8 1/60

I could write further on the image quality of the G9 but as the saying goes the proof of the pudding is in the eating and therefore the gallery (below) includes the full-size images.

Lumix Leica DG Elmarit 200mm f2.8

This review would be incomplete if I did not include some information on the Lumix Leica DG Elmarit 200/2.8 which was announced and introduced at the same time as the Panasonic G9 and has generated a lot of interest.

My main interest in a lens of this type is for wildlife – specifically bird photography. It is a serious investment to make in a lens but it pales in comparison to equivalent top end telephotos, for example, the Canon EF 400mm f/4 DO IS II USM, which is an equivalent full frame lens (and comes in at over double the price of the Panasonic lens).

For the first time ever, I do not have ‘Canon’ envy, which is how I feel each time I see wildlife photographed with Canon’s fantastic wide aperture, long telephoto lenses. In my opinion this highly specialised Lumix lens gives Canon a run for its money.

Mated with the G9 with its amazing 20fps RAW frame rate (in electronic shutter mode) it is a serious professional tool for action, sports and wildlife. I confess that I have stopped using the electronic shutter because 20fps is just so way over the top that I regularly end up with 40-100 frames without thinking!

Kite Hunting In A Field
G9, Lumix Leica Elmarit 200/2.8 + TC1.4x, 280mm iso1250 f4 1/2500

Hopefully the gallery images communicate the power and the beauty of this lens. In the past I was a user of Leica cameras and lenses and therefore I feel qualified to state that this is a lens which is truly worthy of carrying the Leica name. The colour draw and sharpness of this lens is outstanding, in my opinion. Birders look to get a good outline and detail of a bird’s eye in flight (as in the photo of the Kite at the top of this article). This lens more than satisfies in that respect and equals optics two or three times its price. But I also believe some of the accolade must go to the sensor on the G9 as well.

The lens is very heavy compared to other m43rds lenses, weighing in at 1275g (2.7lbs) and I certainly feel its weight more than when I am using the Lumix Leica 100-400, which by comparison is positively sylph-like at only 985g.

Both lenses have inbuilt stabilisation and can combine with the body image stabilisation for Dual IS. This claims to provide up to 6-stops of stabilisation. This sounds excellent (and it is!) until you apply it to wildlife. There are very few circumstances in bird photography where you really can drop your speed below 1/1000 of a second and get a sharp photograph. At these speeds IS seems unnecessary. The best advice I have had so far, from professional photographer Ian Cook is to turn off IS at these speeds and also to make sure that Quick AF is turned on. Apparently, at high speeds if the IS is turned on it will still try to apply stabilisation and this will lead to delay and possible blurring of the subject.

That said this fox photograps was taken at only 1/80 and I feel sure that the Dual IS made that possible. For bird photography, however, the little creatures are almost never still and it is rare that a truly sharp image is possible at the kind of speeds where 6 stops of stabilisation is useful.

G9, Lumix Leica DG Elmarit 200/2.8+1.4x TC, iso100 280mm f4 1/80

The 200/2.8 also comes supplied with a 1.4x teleconverter which increase the focal length to 280/2.8. If you are a m43rds user you will know that the crop factor of the sensor gives an equivalent focal length of 560mm at f4 on the G9 with the teleconverter. A 2x teleconverter which will elevate the equivalent focal length to 800mm at f5.6 will also be available in the near future.

Verdict

I’m not going to give any kind of star-rating to the G9 or the Lumix Leica 200/2.8. If you are a dedicated m43rds stills photographer – as opposed to videographer, then this is the camera for you – especially compared to the GH5 which has a lot of features that you will never use.

I have been asked several times about the 200/2.8 by potential purchasers turning themselves inside out trying to choose between it and the 100-400. The 100-400 is a fine optic and on a price comparison basis a relative steal. However, if you have a specific need for a fast long telephoto prime then the Lumix Leica 200/2.8 is probably as good as you can get without going into the Canon universe and incurring considerably more expense on both cameras and lenses. Of course, there is also the excellent Olympus 300/4 which I have not used but I am sure is on a par with the Leica. However, my experience is that Panasonic lenses work best on Panasonic bodies, which influenced my decision to get the 200/2.8 over the 300/4.

In summary about the G9, I would say the image processing on the G9 is superior to the GH5 even though they share the same 20mpx sensor (without AA filter). I put this down to a revised image processing chip in the G9, something which cannot be fixed by a firmware release on the GH5. The GH5 is a fine stills camera and would suit a user who has both still and moving image requirements. I highly recommend its image quality, build quality and ergonomics.

However, as a dedicated photographer myself – who is unlikely now to become a videographer (even if I should never say never) - the G9 is a no brainer. You gain a better EVF, faster high-speed frame rate and a lighter body, and I believe better stills image quality.

I am generally shy of recommending cameras to individuals, and I am asked regularly but if your requirements are like mine – the best possible fast stills image capture available in the Panasonic m43rds universe then look no further: it is quite possibly the best overall photographer's camera in the m43rds system, as well.

Link to Gallery

I have placed a number of full sized photographs in an album in my Flickr account, as this is the most convenient way of  allowing you to see them and also leave questions or observations. I do not purport to be anything other than a competent photographer and I also offer no warranty as to the quality of the camera, lenses or photographs. All photographs are of course copyright and must not be copied or reproduced without my permission. However, you are welcome to share the link to this article.

Flickr Album Link

Louis Berk/January 2018