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Compact system cameras are still a tough sell for the American buying public. With prices that come close to those of low-end DSLRs, it's no surprise that it's been slow going for the Micro Four Thirds standard.
Even though cameras like the OM-D and our best-of-year Panasonic GH3 are making a strong case for why smaller sensors can be compelling, DSLRs still seem to have most of the mindshare. Maybe we can chalk it up to aesthetics—consumers who want something better than a cell phone or a point-and-shoot will likely gravitate towards the camera that’s more professional-looking.
Panasonic's Lumix DMC-G5 is stuck somewhere in the middle. It sports a 16-megapixel sensor, a pivoting touchscreen, and a viewfinder (not to mention a built-in flash). It shoots 1080/60p AVCHD video and is compatible with some excellent lenses. And we found out in our lab and out in the field, it's no slouch when snapping photos. But, with an MSRP of $699.99, it’s not so clear who this camera is made for.
This camera has a nicely shaped grip protruding from its right side with a bunch of well-spaced function buttons easily reachable with the thumb and forefinger. There's a nicely placed groove where your middle finger falls very naturally when picking it up. The dimpled rubber wrapped around the handhold may look low-rent, but it's effective and keeps the camera planted in the palm.
When you first pick up the camera, you’ll find it’s comfortable and easy to hold. But, as time wears on, it’s easy to see where Panasonic cut corners. Much of this camera is plastic, and the different textures at work do little to mask that fact.
We had no problem with the G5’s usability until it came time to dig a little deeper into the menus. Let's not mince words—the D-pad is absolutely pitiful. Its lack of feedback makes it utterly dissatisfying to use. Secondary controls are little better, with a hollow-feeling thumbwheel that can be used in a few different ways and three customizable buttons. There's a springy slider behind the shutter button that by default controls exposure, but when the G5 is mated to a power zoom lens controls that instead. Speaking of the shutter button—it's simultaneously mushy and doesn’t have enough travel. A quirk of Panasonic's design relegates the iAuto mode to a lonely button instead of a spot on the mode dial with its friends.
Up top, there's a pop-up flash as well as a hot shoe. The flash has a manual release—it won't annoyingly deploy itself without your permission. In front of the hot shoe, there's a raised section for the stereo microphone. Taking up most of the backside, the large 3-inch touchscreen is only adequate. The swivel mechanism feels solid and enables a very nice range of motion, but the touch sensitivity was frustratingly poor. We ended up relying on the G5's buttons to navigate menus whenever possible.
For those who prefer shooting with an electronic viewfinder, the G5 doesn't disappoint there. There's a little lag when panning around, but otherwise the picture quality is perfectly fine. New to the G series is a proximity sensor, turning the LCD off and the EVF on as you bring the camera to your eye. The default settings activate autofocus when this sensor is tripped, which made framing and capturing a shot with the viewfinder a very quick proposition. All the menus remain usable through the EVF, as well, making it possible to change settings without moving the camera away from your eye.
For everyday shooting, the G5 has the right features, but more advanced users will be left wanting. In light of the Olympus E-PL5's fairly comprehensive feature set, the DMC-G5 just doesn't bring enough to the table. Armed with a 16-megapixel sensor and Panasonic's Venus image processor, it feels about as snappy and responsive as any other current Micro Four Thirds Camera. Modern amenities like WiFi, and GPS are MIA, however.
A quick press of the Q. Menu button is all it takes to access most of the functions a user would want in day-to-day shooting. Regardless of what mode the camera's using, we found it straightforward to change the ISO, flash settings, video quality, autofocus settings, white balance, color modes… it's all customizable. Settings for saturation, sharpness, contrast, and noise reduction are tied directly to color modes and a custom version of each can be created if desired. Panasonic has done a good job making many of the most important functions prominent in the menu hierarchy. On top of that, you get two user-customizable modes on the mode dial, an optional horizon leveler, and a user-positionable histogram window.
Users wanting to emulate film effects will find a choice of 14 art filters on tap: Expressive, Retro, High Key, Sepia, Dynamic Monochrome, Impressive Art, High Dynamic, Cross Process, Toy Effect, Miniature Effect, Soft Focus, Star Filter, and One Point Color. We noticed that the processor seemed to struggle with the more complex effects, making the live view frame rate dip dramatically. Interestingly, the camera can also recommend a filter depending on the scene, as long as the camera is in iA or iA+ mode.
Panasonic has built in some features that are aimed exclusively at the amateur user. Scene Guide lets the user pick from 23 different scenes. Available options include everything from Artistic Nightscape (long exposures at night) to Clear in Backlight. The descriptive names are paired with visual examples of what each scene is for. It’s a well-implemented feature.
Unfortunately, Panasonic hasn't packed the G5 with much of its usual motion picture magic. Although the G5 shoots AVCHD at 1080/60p, 1080/60i, 1080/30p and 720/60p, other options are scarce. The G5's big brother, the Lumix GH3, clearly inherited all the video genes in the family. As it stands, the G5 also lacks an external microphone jack and it doesn't shoot at the cinematic 1080/24p, a desirable framerate for amateur filmmakers.
In this price bracket, there's big competition for the best image quality. Olympus recently brought the excellent sensor from the E-M5 OM-D into its mid- and low-end PEN cameras, leaving Panasonic to play catch up. The G5 just barely holds its own when compared to those cameras, especially when paired with the mediocre kit lens (14-42 f/3.5-5.6) we tested it with.
The G5's touchscreen has tap-to-focus and tap-to-shoot capabilities, but neither felt quite as responsive or useful as those same features on the newer Olympus M43 cameras. In an attempt to adapt the menus for touch, the G5's been given big touch targets but in use the interpretation of taps is imprecise. Many times, we found ourselves tapping touch buttons twice or three times to get them to register properly.
When tested for JPEG color accuracy, the G5 did a decent job. We found that the most accurate mode on the camera, was the default Standard mode. It's rare to find a camera that puts its most accurate mode as the default, rather than making the user resort to a 'Muted' or 'Natural' mode. Of course, JPEG color accuracy will only be of consequence to those that shoot JPEG; if you're a RAW junkie, it won’t matter so much.
White balance was fine in auto mode and pretty accurate with custom readings. The G5 offers full manual control over the color temperature as well, letting you directly dial in your Kelvins.
The G5's High burst mode could only muster a measly 5.7 fps. When shooting JPEG bursts, the G5 ran out of steam very, very quickly, taking 12 shots to fill the buffer. When we shot JPEG+RAW, the buffer filled in almost half the time. Panasonic throws in a Super High burst mode which uses the camera's electronic shutter to basically record straight from the sensor. Using this mode we saw around 20 fps. Just keep in mind that this mode is limited to 4-megapixel images and the G5 is limited to 2 seconds worth of this speed, after which the buffer fills and the speed slows.
The video we captured with the G5 looked great, with 60p exhibiting only a tiny bit of ghosting in our motion playback test. We'd be remiss if we didn't mention the lack of 24p. Panasonic now has a reputation as serving up excellent video thanks to the GH series and this camera does little to further that reputation.
The Panasonic G5 clearly suffers from middle child syndrome. It allows for more manual control and has better custom options than Panasonic's GF cameras, but it isn't the well-balanced jack-of-all-trades that the company has in the GH3. Its MSRP unfairly pits it against other, better cameras.
Then there's the perception problem. In the eyes of many American buyers, there's DSLRs, then there's other cameras. At the G5’s asking price, a shopper could easily net a Nikon D3200 which has two things going for it that the G5 doesn't:
1) It says Nikon on it.
2) It looks, to the untrained eye, like something a professional would use.
That's why the G5 falls short in its mission. There's nothing that makes it, in the eyes of the general public, different or compelling. At least Olympus's E-PL5 has its own character with its unique styling, which will get buyers in the door. The G5 is a good camera, takes decent video, and has a good selection of manual controls. Ergonomically it’s a success, but its build is chintzy and it’s not nicer or more comfortable than a low-end DSLR. It has a viewfinder and a built-in flash—something that Olympus’s E-PL5 has as add-ons. The one area where it has an advantage is in its compact size, which, when compared to a low-end DSLR isn't that dramatic.
As it stands, the G5 will probably find an audience among shooters who are already in the Panasonic Micro Four Thirds fold, or people who are just starting out with a compact system camera and want something that offers a little more than the low-end M43 options.
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