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The GH3 is Panasonic's flagship Micro Four Thirds camera, offering a DSLR-like form factor, a built-in flash, a large grip, and an articulating LCD. The GH3 is the follow-up to the popular GH2, with improved video quality and recording options, essentially doubling down on what made the GH2 so successful. The camera's collection of customizable buttons, in-depth manual controls, weather seals, and high-quality video features should appeal to enthusiast photographers and videographers alike.
DSLR video is a competitive business, and the $1299 GH3 has its sights clearly set on the $3499.99 Canon 5D Mark III. We've gone hands-on with a late pre-production model to see if it can unseat the latest king of DSLR video.
Editor's note: We conducted this review with a GH3 running the pre-production firmware version 0.5. We've been assured by Panasonic that image quality, video quality, and exterior physical design are final, so we've conducted our full performance review. The only expected differences between our model and an off-the-shelf version are firmware bugs and finalized weather sealing, which ours did not have.
The first thing that you'll notice when you pick up the GH3 is just how well-formed the grip is. It's a nice, plush rubber that fits right into your hand, with a sculpted recess that your fingers naturally fall into. The camera is only marginally smaller than your average entry-level DSLR, but the weight is well distributed through the body, making it very easy to hold onto and to shoot with for extended periods of time.
The camera's shutter button is expertly placed, precisely where your index finger falls, and the location of the other control buttons—white balance, ISO, exposure compensation, autofocus mode, AF/AE lock, and video recording—are all within thumb's reach. You do have to change your grip position to work the rear dial for menu navigation, but the two main control dials are both within easy reach. That you get all of this, along with weather sealing and a durable magnesium alloy body, at a weight that doesn't feel cumbersome is a testament to how well the camera handles.
Our highest praise is reserved for the quality of the rear articulating display and electronic viewfinder. The OLED displays work exceptionally well, providing vibrant colors and high resolution that makes focus-checking a breeze. The combination of an articulated screen and a weather-sealed body is particularly attractive, and somewhat uncommon, too. Some might criticize Panasonic for making such a large body part of their "compact" system camera line, but we think it's a bold decision—it immediately sets the GH3 apart as the best handling compact system camera on the market.
When Panasonic set about designing the GH3, its engineers consulted with dozens of professional photographers and videographers for ideas on how to improve on the GH2 formula. That consideration clearly shows, as the GH3 offers a long list of features that many writers and photographers have been clamoring for.
For video, in particular, Panasonic has thrown in everything and the kitchen sink. The GH3 features full manual control over exposure and audio (with levels), plus high-bitrate recording, with the option of 50Mbps IPB and 72Mbps ALL-I compression. IPB allows for smaller file sizes, but it's harder to edit. ALL-I compresses each frame individually, which has an inverse effect: easier editing but larger files.
The GH3 also features an articulating OLED touchscreen, 3.5mm microphone and headphone jacks, NTSC and PAL framerates, and a maximum resolution of 1080/60p. The two features we sorely missed were focus peaking and zebra patterning. With Panasonic clearly paying extreme attention to detail everywhere else, these truly feel like glaring oversights.
As for still shooters, the GH3's new 16-megapixel Live MOS sensor is designed for reduced noise. Its native ISO range of 200-12800 is expandable to 125-25600. The GH3 also features an incredible amount of control, with three dials and dedicated buttons for white balance, ISO, and exposure compensation. Almost every button on the camera features some sort of customizable function, making this one of the most malleable bodies on the market. On the whole, it's a dauntingly capable camera in a body that's a hair smaller than your typical entry-level DSLR.
The Panasonic GH3 appeals to a vast swath of the market. Its combination of video quality and still performance easily place it among the best compact system cameras on the market, and indeed it even won our Best Mid-Range Camera of the Year award for 2012.
When it came to stills, we were very impressed with the GH3's accurate JPEG color reproduction. With the 12-35mm f/2.8 kit lens mounted, the camera also produced remarkably high resolution figures. Noise levels were well-controlled up through ISO 3200, with minimal application of noise reduction. RAW files were unsurprisingly much noisier, but we found that the GH3 easily matched the *Olympus OM-D E-M5 and its Sony-produced sensor for high ISO performance, though they both lag behind DSLRs with larger APS-C and full-frame sensors.
The GH3 was also very quick to focus, even in limited light situations. In our shot-to-shot test, it topped out at 6.3 frames per second, which is faster than the 5D Mark III but quite a bit slower than the 10 fps we've seen from some other cameras at this price point. The speed of the contrast-detection focus system helps close the gap on some other mirrorless cameras, but without the predictive capabilities of phase-detection autofocus, we can't recommend the GH3 for sports and action.
In our video testing, the GH3 was very impressive, with some of the best motion performance we've seen from an interchangeable lens camera. In bright light, videos were noticeably sharper than those from the 5D Mark III, though the high bitrate offered by both cameras allows for some aggressive editing in post that can marginalize the difference. Overall, in test after test, the GH3 matched or bested the Mark III. You'll certainly miss the extreme shallow depth of field and huge, high-quality lens selection that the Canon system offers, but, in terms of raw performance, the GH3 is an incredible value.
Our time with the Panasonic GH3 convinced us that it's the best mirrorless system camera to date. Bodies like the Sony NEX-7 have shown excellent performance, and the Olympus OM-D E-M5 has incredible styling and control, but the GH3 brings it all together—with high-quality video to boot.
Compact system cameras have always been born of compromise; smaller sensors yield smaller cameras, but smaller sensors are usually not as capable as larger ones. Just a hair smaller than most entry-level DSLRs, the GH3 compromises very little. In our opinion, that's a smart trade-off in a camera with such grand aspirations; the GH3 is bigger than its mirrorless rivals, but it also has a large, comfortable grip, a fantastic OLED electronic viewfinder, and tons of physical control built right onto the body.
Actually, it's downright shocking how few compromises the GH3 makes to achieve its size advantage. With a durable magnesium alloy body, weather sealing, an articulating OLED touchscreen LCD, five customizable function buttons, three control dials, and direct controls for just about every major shooting parameter, there's very little you miss out on with the GH3. Granted, we still prefer the huge, bright viewfinder on the Mark III, but the GH3's electronic viewfinder provides significant advantages of its own, such as in-finder exposure correction, menu navigation, focus assistance, and a horizon level. That you also get a mic jack, a headphone jack, exceptional build quality, and full manual video control will certainly have some 5D Mark III owners examining their return policies.
The GH3 is the best Micro Four Thirds camera we've tested, and it offers video capability that matches or exceeds the Mark III—but for $2000 dollars less. This is an astonishing coup by Panasonic. With solid image quality, a laundry list of features and controls, and video quality that can match any system camera on the market, the GH3 is a fantastic camera by any measure.
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