Back in 2009 Panasonic was the first company to introduce what’s become known as a compact system camera or ‘CSC’ – a mirror-less device smaller than a digital SLR, yet retaining the ability to swap lenses for better image quality than a ‘happy snappy’ pocket compact.
Three years later the market for CSCs is in rude health, and the third generation model has arrived in the logically named G3.
The G3 is the mid range model in its ‘G’ series of digital SLR styled Micro Four Thirds system compacts, a system co-developed with Olympus. The G3 slots between the almost-as-new flagship GH2 model (around £100 more) and last year’s G2, previously the mid-range option but which now drops down to become the entry level one (£529 with lens). The G10 model, until now the ‘starter’ option, has quietly been dropped.
The G3 is priced comparably to the G2 on launch, being a suggested £629.99 with basic 14-42mm zoom lens. This provides an adequate 28-84mm equivalent focal range in 35mm film terms. There are currently around 16 compatible lenses
Panasonic Lumix G3; Controls
With the appearance of a flattened DSLR and a choice of black, red or white bodies, the control layout of the G3 has been simplified. This is not just down to its maker’s desire to make the camera easier to use, it’s also because the Panasonic is an impressive 25% smaller than its predecessor (and 10% lighter at 336g, with aluminium construction), so there’s less physical room for operational knobs and levers.
Plus, as with the G2, this is a touch screen model, a facility that has likewise been overhauled to provide 100% field of view and full area focusing. In practice this means you specify the focus point with a finger prod anywhere in the frame; there are no longer any grey border areas.
Furthering ease of use there is additionally a top plate ‘iA’ (intelligent Auto) button, a press of which throws the camera into subject recognising, auto adjustment mode, and very reliable it is too.
Another feature from Panasonic’s compact camera range co-opted here is a Q.Menu (Quick Menu) button, a press of which calls up a toolbar of the most common functions to save having to wade through menu screens. Plus we get one-touch video recording via a camcorder-style red button on the backplate. Anyone trading up from a pocket snapper shouldn’t feel too out of their depth, while DSLR users will appreciate the fact that physical controls haven’t totally given way to touch screen, as there are still useful shortcuts to changing the likes of ISO, with a light sensitivity range stretching between ISO160 and ISO6400.
Panasonic Lumix G3: Screen
With pictures and video composed either via built-in electronic viewfinder (EVF) or LCD below, with (slightly disappointingly) a small adjacent button rather than an eye sensor for swapping between them, the G3’s main screen is notable not only for its touch panel operation but also because it is angle adjustable.
It can flipped out through 180°, at which point the screen can also be rotated to easier enable low or high angle shooting. Non-fixed LCD screens are a feature of the latest generation of competing mid level DSLRs (Canon 600D, Nikon D5100), so the inclusion here feels timely and necessary.
Better still, visibility is good even when the screen’s folded flat to the body and it’s being used in bright sunlight, thanks in part to a 460k-dot resolution. It can also be turned screen inwards to the body for added protection when transporting the G3.
Furthermore the camera is currently the world’s smallest and lightest CSC with a built-in (electronic) viewfinder. With the likes of the competing Sony NEX, Olympus Pen and even Panasonic GF models, an EVF or optical viewfinder comes as a clip-on extra. Here the EVF’s resolution is a huge 1,440,000 dots, though the flexibility of the alternative larger screen meant that we inevitably used it more.
Panasonic Lumix G3: Speed
The camera powers up from cold as fast as the power switch can be flicked to ‘on’. At the heart of the G3 is a newly developed 16-megapixel CMOS sensor, delivering lower noise levels than the G2 (results as ISO3200 on the G3 being comparable to those at ISO1600 on its predecessor), supported by the same zippy Venus Engine FHD processor found in the flagship GH2 model. Deploying contrast AF, this has helped give rise to Panasonic’s boast for lighting fast auto focus of an impressive 0.18 seconds using the 14-42mm kit zoom we were provided with.
We also get a respectable if not quite class leading four frames per second burst shooting at full resolution (or up to 20fps at reduced resolution), plus Full HD movie recording in AVCHD format at an output rate of 30fps and with stereo sound courtesy of top mounted microphones
It’s worth noting that operationally you can more or less get by without using the screen’s touch sensitive controls if you don’t want to, though in practice a combination of button and screen presses does help speed things along. It’s also surprising how quickly swapping between one and the other becomes second nature.
Panasonic Lumix G3: Battery
The G3 comes supplied with both DMW-BLD10E rechargeable lithium ion battery and mains charger, the former slotting into a covered compartment at base of the camera’s handgrip, which is where we also find a vacant SD/SDHC/SDXC card slot. So if you’re using the camera on a tripod, the card can’t be swapped without first unscrewing the camera.
Using the supplied lens, battery life is good for an average 270 shots from a full charge, according to industry standard CIPA testing, and which is a so-so performance at this level.
Panasonic Lumix G3: Pictures and video
Though default images out of the camera are perfectly pleasant in terms of colour reproduction, with well saturated blues and greens. A little more visual ‘bite’ can be leant to shots by dipping into the G3’s newly re-named digital filters, slightly confusingly split between Creative Control and Photo Style modes which might have been better grouped under a collective banner.
For video users the G3 offers the advantage of continuous auto focus so there isn’t the need to manually adjust as you zoom in or out. There’s very momentary blurring as the camera automatically adjusts, but on the whole this is one of the more seamless (and effective) examples we’ve seen, and silent with it. Couple this with razor sharp image quality and stereo sound and you have a viable alternative to carting around camcorder and stills camera.
In terms of still image quality meanwhile we occasionally got clipped highlight detail under bright sunshine, though the usual attendant bugbear of pixel fringing is kept well under control.
We also enjoyed dipping into the camera’s Creative Control mode - via the artist’s palette icon on the top plate dial - where we got great results shooting with the saturation boosting ‘Expressive’ mode and maintained both shadow and highlight detail by alternatively switching to High Dynamic (range) option. As the effects of the latter can look a little painterly on occasion, as ever these are features to be used in moderation.
Panasonic Lumix G3: Verdict
The pitch here is nigh DSLR quality but from a camera with more compact proportions and easier handling. But with competition coming from the good value, well performing and similarly mirror-less DSLR-styled Samsung NX11 model, not to mention true DSLRs including the Nikon D5100 and Canon EOS 600D in the entry-to-mid-range market, the G3 isn’t without some tempting alternatives. That said, for those amateurs who shoot video with any regularity a CSC is without as many inherent compromises as a DSLR based on an old 35mm film camera, and the Full HD video and stereo sound offered by the G3 betters the NX11’s spec.
In summary then, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-G3 is a considered overhaul of last year’s DMC-G2, offering better features and moreover a smaller form factor for the same price. Of course there may be those for whom the G3 is a bit too dinky, and who will prefer the more rugged feel and larger grip of an actual DSLR. But for anyone wanting a lightweight reliable tool for shooting from the hip and getting better quality pictures (and video) than a pocket compact would allow - without alternatively opting for its maker’s also excellent DMC-GF2 - the G3 should tick most if not all the boxes.
Panasonic Lumix G3 launch date: June, link Panasonic
Panasonic Lumix G3 price: £459 body, £639 with kit lens