GX1 - thoughts after a week of intense use from a Nikon shooter

Started Dec 10, 2012 | Discussions thread
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GX1 - thoughts after a week of intense use from a Nikon shooter
Dec 10, 2012

I just got back from a trip to Las Vegas. I have a d700 and d40 but wanted to carry something lighter and more compact on the trip. I ordered a GX1 since iit's on deep discount at Amazon, as well as the 20mm f1.7 and an extra battery.

I've been a Nikon shooter for several years, so that's my background. This is not a comprehensive review, just my look at the camera and how it performed. I only got the camera a day before my trip, which is a horrible idea I know since I was unfamiliar with its capabilities and quirks/behaviours, but as I live in Canada and was getting it from the US there wasn't much I could do about the situation.

Likes:

-I liked the responsiveness of the camera: short shutter lag, menu operation, etc. were all quite fast. 7 frame raw buffer wasn't horrible at all, and seemed to clear fast (I was using a fast UHS-I card, so maybe that helped).

-size: nice and compact, feels solid and hefty in your hand. Not too light, not too heavy.

-nice button tactile "feel": one reason I did not go with the OMD EM5 (that and the $750 price difference) was the EM5 has squishy buttons that irked me. GX1 has nice, clicky tactile feel on the buttons.

-live view is decently fast in good light and especially nice on a tripod. I did notice I kept trying to look through a non-existant viewfinder for the first few days.

-exposures up to 60s without bulb (although noise was a problem; see "dislikes"), which was nice

-not having to deal with AF fine tune: after having spent $400+ recently on getting my D700 checked out, CDAF definitely has an advantage here.

-battery life: while not as good as the d40 or d700 where I can get 500+ shots on one battery, the camera did surprisingly well, with around 300+ shots per charge even with the sensor on all the time. This surprised me. I had the LCD set to 15s auto shut off and the camera set to 2min auto sleep to save power, and tried not to use it unnecessarily but the battery life was still nice. I definitely recommend an extra battery (or two) though. And switching to that second battery mid way through the day makes you nervous about conserving battery for the rest of the day.

Dislikes:

-I did not like the cryptic name/options of some camera settings. Even after reading the manual some of them were a bit confusing. Nikon gives you a "help" description if you hit a ? button but the GX1 doesn't have that.

-autofocus in low light was inaccurate, even if face detection was turned on AND a face was detected. Focus hunting was common and frustrating in "low light" where PDAF would have been fine, even on my D40 which is an old camera.

-manual focus magnification in very low light was almost unusable due to noise from the amplification of a dark image and difficulty seeing fine detail; probably not the camera's fault. I have doubts as to whether or not PDAF would do better in the almost pitch black conditions I was shooting. The on-screen focus distance scale helped a lot more than magnified view!

-noise: shadow noise even at base ISO. Inability to push shadows at all without having noise show up in the image. I think this is something Nikon (or Sony sensors) do better than anyone else, though, as I've seen reports that Canon sensors, even on full frame, have bad shadow noise. I had read this forum post before detailing this, but that's pushed 4 stops. I didn't think it would be so visible pushing even half a stop at base ISO. I believe the OMD uses a sony sensor whereas the GX1 is using a panasonic sensor, so Sony at least seems to be doing that right with its sensors.

-long exposure noise w/ LENR off: Nikon has spoiled me here. At least at low ISOs and exposures up to 30s, I can see barely any noise on my D40 or D700. This GX1 on the other hand has brutal amounts of chroma noise and a "speckle" pattern of chroma noise. It is VERY drastically reduced up to ISO 1600 with LENR however I didn't know this at the time and didn't want to spend half my time waiting for dark frame subtraction (this is something all camera companies should do better; let me set a dark frame to subtract rather than having to take an exposure every time). The chroma noise is sort of oK to remove in lightroom but the "speckle" noise pattern is incredibly hard to get rid of.

-AF speed - someone has to explain to me why focus speed on the 20mm f1.7 is "slow" (not horrible but pretty slow) while focus speed on the cheap 14-42 kit lens is blazing fast. One costs $50 and the other $280+.

-highlight clipping/dynamic range - this is where shadow noise becomes a problem in high contrast scenes. The camera clipped highlights really fast and I found myself having to compensate for this compared to my Nikons. Even after doing so, as mentioned before, the noise in the shadows means you can't really push them very far without having visible noise show up. Shooting raw on Nikon has spoiled me in terms of being able to fix almost any exposure even if it's off by over 2 stops, and only having to expose for highlights and then being able to push shadows a lot. I found this change to be the most disruptive since it changed the way I had to shoot and I had to review every image of a high contrast scene; rather than shoot and move on, I had to shoot, check highlight clipping, and make a judgment call on whether or not I'd be able to fix it in post (which up to this point I had not even done yet).

-the touchscreen. I turned it off. It kept interrupting picture taking and moving the focus point around in "center focus" mode. So I just disabled it. I didn't find it sped up my shooting at all and in fact was just annoying. Perhaps for AF in movie mode it would be helpful but I mostly used face-detect in movie mode.

-no viewfinder: again, I didn't miss it too much, but other than tripod shooting I think I still would have preferred it. The add-on is an option but it's almost $200. The lack of eye detection does not bother me as I found it was too laggy on the EM5 (there's about a half second delay before the VF turns on); I'd rather leave the VF on all the time and have the back screen off to save battery life (although apparently battery life is worse w/ the VF according to thom hogan). On my d700 and d40 I disable image review unless I'm doing night photography where I want to review each shot.

-rear dial: several times when rotating the rear dial I would accidentally press it. I guess this is the price you pay for having the ability to control two functions from one dial, but it was still bothersome, especially if having to turn the dial for long periods of time (like going from long exposure to short exposure; turn turn turn turn turn oops *press* turn turn turn).

-IQ at medium to high ISOs: IQ at ISO 160 was ok, other than the aforementioned shadow noise which, if it's a problem at ISO 160, is going to be worse at ISO 800. Camera gets really fine-grain noise faster than I'd like.

-uncompressed RAW: Someone is doing something wrong when I can compress the PR2 (or whatever) files to DNG and cut file size by 25%. Bloated raw files means more time spent transferring files and less shots per card (although at 32GB my card held up fine).

The above lists may look heavily lopsided towards the negative, but all in all I enjoyed using the camera and liked having such a small compact kit instead of my usual big camera. As they say the best camera is the one you have with you, and I enjoyed being able to carry around something small rather than my d700, which is heavy.

Responsiveness was good and after getting past the initial quirks with the camera I had fun using it. IQ is higher than a compact, but lower than APS-C, which surprises absolutely no one... the question would be where did the compromises start to impact my shooting flow. The biggest problem I had while shooting was definitely dynamic range and highlights clipping way sooner than I was used to with either APS or FX. In post, the long exposure noise and high ISO noise (ISO 1600+) was higher than I'd like and the shadow noise at ISO 160 was disappointing.

Overall, though, I still had fun using the camera and found it mostly got out of my way when taking photos. I'm sure m43 will continue to evolve over time, and hopefully reach "good enough" in a few years. I'd like to see less MP and more focus on noise issues, though.

Nikon D40 Nikon D700 Olympus OM-D E-M5 Panasonic Lumix DMC-GX1
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