Panasonic Lumix Cameras

Earlier this year I talked about some of the technical issues faced switching between the two principal Micro Four Thirds systems–Olympus and Panasonic. Since then, I’ve purchased not just one, but a couple of Lumix cameras, and I wanted to take this opportunity to provide a first-person account of the cameras. Oddly, given the historic perspective of Olympus being "the stills" partner in Micro Four Thirds, and Panasonic being "for videos"; I found the Panasonic cameras to be at their best in stills photography, especially in the lower-middle to middle range of the market. For video, the Panasonic Lumix GH series offers a great interface and awesome video-centric features–but this is let down by the frustrating depth-from-defocus contrast-detect autofocus.

Stills: Lumix GX-85

Earlier this year, I purchased an infrared modified GX-85. It appears to be a standard 720nm-ish cut-off, and because of the modification, it isn’t a great exemplar for things like autofocus or obviously visible-light image quality. There are some neat features, and the GX-85 would make a great camera for a wide audience of users. It handles nicely with the Panasonic 12-35/f2.8 attached, and even with the IR mod, face-detect autofocus was quick and precise. Panasonic has a some, what I’d call gimmicks, such as face recognition, which allows you to store and tag people or pets and have it prioritize those subjects. It had trouble telling my kids apart–and even confused them with my wife sometimes–but gimmicky or not, the idea is great for someone looking to take family shots in crowded areas and I’m going to assume it works better with visible-colour images.

The GX-85 is an interesting camera from a marketing perspective, since Panasonic released it in 2016 with three different designations depending on the market: GX-85 in North America, and the GX-80 in South America…Europe, Australia… anywhere else that’s not Japan, where they went with the GX7 Mark II. Panasonic has different lines that describe their form factor: the reflex-like G, video-focused GH, and GX. (Before 2016, they also had the GF and GM lines, and the G/GH/GX lines indicated the target audience along the spectrum of amateur-enthusiast-professional instead of form-factor).

Strictly speaking the GX-85 sat below the GX8; although ignoring weather sealing, and an older 16MP vs 20MP sensor, it holds its own on the spec sheet, including having some improvements being the later model, despite an original release price at 2/3 that of the GX8.

Despite being an “enthusiast” camera according to the Panasonic line-up, the GX85 is probably a better experience for casual photographers than the OM-D E-M10; at this level users are less likely to run into the limitations of Oly equipment runs into on Panasonic bodies. The Panasonic features like 4K-burst and focus-bracketing could be nice features for that audience, although their JPEG limitations may dissuade some users. Personally, I didn’t like the focus-bracketing (refocusing, or "post-focus") feature, which I found clunky, but provides a better experience than Lytro ever provided.

Despite being four years old, the GX85 is still available new, in kit form for just under $700 US. The kit comes with a 12-32 and 45-100 lens, which is the start of a good combo–but I’d look on the use market for the GX85 body-only for $200 and add the 12-35/2.8 for around $500. Update the firmware, or splurge on v2 of the lens, and you’ll be able to take advantage of Dual I.S. For another $200, you could get the newest GX9; but other than the 20MP sensor from the GX8, the non-weatherproofed GX9 looks even less impressive. Although, I am told the GX9 has much improved the JPEG rendering.

Video: Perfection, if you squint just right

The other camera I got was the Panasonic BGH-1. I actually picked-up three of them, and have been using them extensively over the past few months. They’re clearly in the video-centric “GH” line, and are the first in the new sub-line of “Box” GH cameras. They support power-over-ethernet, Cinema 4K 10-bit LongGOP AND 10-bit intra-frame, anamorphic recording–if you’re into that, full-size HDMI out, and I generally love the configurability–even little things like showing the shutter speed either as absolute, like 1/47.9, or relative, like 180º. You could put them in a rig, but I’ve mostly have them mounted below rails, or on tripods–again the flexible mounting options basically let you mount it anywhere; although the top sockets run the risk of blocking any hotshoe accessory, like the Panasonic XLR adapter. It also supports Genlock in, timecode in and out, and has 13 stops of dynamic range using Panasonic’s VLog.

These are cool little boxes, obviously geared towards video. I’ve been using them on the last couple of videos–so you might have noticed their biggest drawback: autofocus. The face tracking is pretty good–when you’re staring at the camera and not moving. Focusing is slow, and the nature of the contrast-based system means that even with a lock, it’s prone to unexpected racking. Dealing with pandemic isolation, we’ve had several video calls, and the BGH-1 utterly failed to deal with my five year old running around. We ended-up breaking-out the OM-D E-M1X which handled it with aplomb.

There’s another issue–and this is where I’m hoping some Lumix ambassador happens to be out there. Panasonic has software which is supposed to let you control up to a dozen BGH-1 cameras; however two of the three cameras don’t seem to work with wired networking–even after restoring factory defaults, switching ports, and trying static setting; only one of the three devices seems to actually be talking to the network regardless of how many of the cameras I’ve plugged-in. I left a support ticket with Panasonic, got an automated response that someone would respond in 1-2 days, I followed-up a week later, and after ten more weeks, I’ve not heard anything. That doesn’t exactly instill confidence in the Lumix brand.

For all of Panasonic’s focus on video, I am surprised at the frustration of the depth-from-defocus autofocus system specifically during video, when compared to both the Olympus OM-D E-M1X and the Canon R6–or even my iPhone X which I used on last year’s videos. The system in the BGH-1 is supposedly based on the same generation technology in the full-frame Lumix L-mount cameras. More recently Panasonic has announced a follow-up to its well-regarded GH5 and video-centric GH5s (the latter of which is very similar spec to the BGH-1).

On paper, there doesn’t seem to be much difference in the new mark 2 version of the GH5, but it will be interesting to see what, if any, improvements Panasonic is making to the AF system. It sounds like it’ll be the same as what’s in the BGH-1. While Olympus’ former imaging division has yet to announce anything significant since spinning-out, at least Panasonic is giving Micro Four Thirds users something to look forward to. Let's hope the GH6 offers a leap forward.

So, Lumix?

My only real concern with Lumix right now is the service and support story, which if you’re investing into a system, becomes increasingly important. I even signed-up for the base “red” level of their professional services which didn’t seem to add any escalated support methods. I’ve heard people vent frustration about needing to send cameras back to Japan with Panasonic; but I’m pretty sure I’m missing something here, since they must have at least reached a person.

If you can live with the AF quirks–if you can live within the limitations of the depth-from-defocus system, which mostly works fine for talking-head type videos–or for a stills-focused camera, I like these cameras. I’m not planning on replacing my R6 or EM1X, but I’m generally happy with the shooting experience with the Lumix cameras, and the GX85 would be a cheaper carry alternative if I didn’t have my Leicas. While the OMD-EM1s are a the best value at the upper end of the market, the GX-85 is my take for best value–with a full warranty–in the segment below that.