Losses And Gains

The GX9 might not be quite what you expected, as Panasonic repositions its star RF-styled model, but it’s still a very attractive package.

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t’s not overstating things to say that the Lumix GX8 was one of the best rangefinder-style mirrorless cameras on the market, arguably second only to Fujifilm’s magnificent X-Pro2. High praise indeed. So, it’s not unreasonable to have great expectations of the GX9 which, to all intents and purposes, looks like its obvious successor. Except it isn’t, because Panasonic has been tweaking the formula… we suspect to make sure the G9 continues to have clear air as the thinking photographer’s Lumix G camera (likewise the GH5/5S for video- makers).

Consequently, the GX9 gains some important updates over the GX8 – as you’d expect given the two-and-a-half year gap between them – but is also downgraded in a number of areas; some of them possibly deal-breakers for anybody thinking of replacing their long-serving ‘8’. It needs to be pointed out firstly that one of the key deletions is quite a few dollars off the price tag so you can buy a GX9 with its 12-32mm (24-64mm equivalent) ‘pancake’ zoom for the same money that previously only bought the GX8 body.

The packaging of the new camera with the pancake zoom is deliberate because also gone are quite a bit of bulk and weight, resulting in a camera that’s noticeably more compact than its predecessor and, in fact, quite similar to the lower-end GX85.

This is important because both the G9 and GH5 duo are pretty big cameras despite their smaller Micro Four Thirds size sensors, and consequently lose a bit of this mirrorless format’s attraction for anybody who really wants to travel light.

The GX9 still isn’t quite pocket-sized, but it’s a whole lot more unobtrusive-looking than its SLR-style siblings and a small kit is a lot easier to carry around, especially if you’re on foot.

The smaller bodyshell still has magnesium alloy top and bottom covers, but it now lacks any weather sealing – undoubtedly a cost-cutting measure – and there’s now a composite chassis. While the EVF still has the handy tilting eyepiece, it’s a smaller-sized panel and an old-school LCoS field-sequential type at that. This means that the increase in resolution (from 2.36 to 2.76 megadots) really isn’t because we’re talking equivalent dots here rather than actual.

Furthermore, an OLED panel – as used in the GX8 – or even a standard LCD is superior because they don’t suffer from the RGB ‘tearing’ effect which can happen when you move your eye around the finder (or even just blink) or when tracking fast-moving subjects. The colours are a lot flatter too. Not surprisingly, the EVF’s magnification also drops from 0.77x to 0.7x (35mm equivalent) which may not seem like very much, but it does make a difference.

The GX9’s monitor screen has a real increase in resolution (up to 1.24 megadots) and retains Panasonic’s extensive touch control capability, but can no longer be adjusted for swing and so just has up/down tilts (up to 80 degrees and down to 45 degrees). In practice, though, this is probably no great loss for many photographers (and Fujifilm’s rival X-E3 has a fixed screen). Incidentally, it switches back to being an LCD panel (as on the earlier GX7) rather than an
OLED type.

The more compact bodyshell also comes at the cost of battery capacity as the GX9 uses the smaller DMW-BLG10E pack which has a 1025 mAh capacity (versus the BLC12E’s 1200 mAh capacity), giving around 260 shots compared to the GX8’s 340.

Working The Pixels
Another omission – but this time a good one – is an optical-low pass filter on Panasonic’s venerable 21.77 megapixels ‘Live MOS’ M43 sensor which, as a result, helps optimise the resolution.

At the moment, M43 is staying in touch with ‘APS-C’ in terms of acceptable pixel counts, but Panasonic must be seriously considering where to go next as the full-35mm format revels in 40 to 50 MP resolutions. While it’s true that more pixels aren’t always advantageous (particularly if they start to get very small as a result), it’s all about consumer perceptions and there are indeed reasons why having more picture data can be advantageous. The M43 faces the biggest challenge here, but the GX9 is out to prove that size isn’t everything.

So what’s new? Well, a built-in flash, for starters, which Panasonic has managed to accommodate despite downsizing the bodyshell. It’s pretty low-powered – as you’d expect given the small size of the pop-up flash head – but it’s always on tap and still handy for applications such as providing fill-in illumination. Its inclusion has resulted in a redesign of the GX9’s top deck with smaller dials for mode selection and exposure compensation (but still the same stacked arrangement as on the GX8) and a smaller input wheel which now becomes the front control, plus there’s a thumbwheel to serve as the rear one. The handgrip is significantly less pronounced, but still comfortable enough (especially as there’s less weight to support), and the video start/stop button has been relocated to be incorporated into the on/off switch. The rear control layout still centres around a four-way key cluster for navigational duties and also direct access to key functions such as ISO, white balance and drive modes which include Panasonic’s ‘4K Photo’ frame-grab functions. Despite the various changes, it all works just as efficiently as before, if not even more so.

Sensor, Stability And Speed
Apart from the deletion of the OLPF, the GX9’s sensor has exactly the same specifications as the GX8’s so the effective resolution is 20.3 megapixels – giving a maximum image size of 5184x3888 pixels – and the sensitivity range is equivalent to ISO 200 to 25,600 (with a one-stop ‘pull’ to ISO 100). JPEGs can be captured in one of three sizes and there’s a choice of four aspect ratios – 4:3, 3:2, 16:9 or 1:1. RAW files are captured using lossless compression with 12-bit RGB colour and there are a couple of RAW+JPEG settings.

The sensor is mated with Panasonic’s latest ‘Venus Engine’ image processor which delivers a number of improvements, including a faster shooting speed, more efficient image stabilisation and some new ‘4K Photo’ functions which we’ll get to shortly. The shooting speed increases are modest, but still noteworthy as the GX9 can now rattle along at 9.0 fps with the AF/AE fixed to the first frame, or 6.0 fps with continuous adjustment. Switch to using the sensor-based shutter and the top shooting speed goes up a notch to 10 fps. The burst lengths are quoted at around 100 frames for JPEGs and up to 40 frames with RAW capture.

The GX9 continues Panasonic’s strategy of using both sensor-based and optical image stabilisation – which it terms ‘Dual I.S.’ – which operates over five axes and gives up to four stops of correction for camera shake. Importantly, the sensor-shift IS now operates over the five axes (compared to only four previously) so the full correction is still available when using non-IS lenses… which, of course, is fairly common in the mirrorless world given the numerous mount adaptor options. Full correction is also available when shooting video, both 2K and 4K (see the ‘Making Movies’ section below for the rest of the GX9’s video story).

The ‘4K Photo’ story has been a very successful one for Panasonic and uses 4K video recording at 30 fps to provide a number of high-speed shooting modes which yield long sequences of 8.3 MP stills, numbering 60 frames or more.

Of course, both the G9 and GH5 now have the extra resolution of ‘6K Photo’ capture (and 4K at 60 fps), but 4K still delivers enough image quality for many applications. The three standard capture modes – called ‘4K Pre-Burst’, ‘4K Burst’ and ‘4K Burst Start/Stop’ – remain at the heart of the function, but the GX9 also gets all the refinements that Panasonic has introduced since the GX8, namely batch processing (handy when you have 60 frames or more to deal with), multi-frame noise reduction, ‘Post Focus’ and ‘Focus Stacking’. Additionally, there are two new capabilities called ‘Auto Marking’ and ‘Sequence Composition’. With ‘Auto Marking’ the camera detects the subject’s movement and tags these frames so you can go straight to the action when reviewing a sequence. ‘Sequential Composition’ is even cleverer and allows for a number of shots to be merged so the moving subject’s path is recorded multiple times in a single frame… something that had to be done post-camera previously.

Fixing Focus
In addition to increasing your chances of capturing the decisive moment in an action sequence – well, it’s pretty hard to miss at 30 fps – the focus-related ‘4K Photo’ functions make sure the subject is sharp too.

With ‘Post Focus’ an image is recorded using each focusing point – which, in this case, represents a burst of 49 frames – so you can subsequently select the one with the desired plane of focus. You simply touch – on the monitor screen – the desired focusing point from the 7x7 grid overlay, and the camera selects that particular frame. Alternatively, you can have multiple versions of an image with different focus points, or these can be combined via the ‘Focus Stacking’ option – simply tap on all the desired focusing points – to create an image that could be absolutely sharp from foreground to background irrespective of the lens aperture used. Furthermore, automatic correction deals with any slight misalignment of the frames.

Obviously the basic technology behind ‘4K Photo’ isn’t proprietary so it’s a bit surprising nobody else is pushing it as far as Panasonic, especially as it actually all works pretty effectively (and even more so when you step up to the 6K resolution which yields 18.7 megapixels still frames). Try it and you’ll surely become a convert.

With The Grain
The JPEG image processing and correction facilities start with an extended set of eight ‘Photo Style’ picture presets. The newcomer is called L.Monochrome D and joins the L.Monochrome option which was introduced on the GX85. What’s the difference? Essentially, the D preset has even finer tonal gradations and deeper blacks to further boost contrast, but additionally all three monochrome ‘Photo Styles’ now have a new ‘Grain Effect’ adjustable parameter which can be set to Low, Standard or High. This is very similar to what Fujifilm provides on its latest X Mount cameras.

The ‘Creative Control’ special effects number 22 and these can be used as standalone shooting modes or applied to the ‘PASM’ exposure control modes. There’s also the option of simultaneously capturing one image with the effect applied and one without. The GX9 also has a multiple exposure facility, an intervalometer, multi-shot HDR capture and in-camera panorama stitching. The multiple exposure facility allows for up to four images to be combined in a single frame with the option of auto exposure adjustment. Alternatively, an overlay function allows additional exposures to be combined with an existing image. The intervalometer can be programmed for time-lapse sequences of up to 9999 frames with the option of using the ‘Stop Motion Animation’ mode to process them as a movie clip. The HDR capture function shoots three frames with the choice of automatic exposure adjustment based on the scene’s contrast range, or manually-set variations of +/-1.0 to +/-3.0 EV. Again, there’s an auto function to correct for any misalignment between the frames caused by slight movement of the camera. In-camera panoramas can be created in either Standard or Wide formats which give an image size of 1920x8176 or 960x8176 pixels respectively, and these can be done both horizontally or vertically.

The corrective functions start with dynamic range expansion processing with either auto correction – again based on the scene’s contrast range – or via three manual settings called Low, Standard and High.

There’s also long exposure noise reduction, in-camera lens corrections (manually selectable for vignetting and diffraction, automatic for chromatic aberrations), resolution enhancement and a ‘Highlight/Shadow’ adjustment control. It works in a similar way to Photoshop’s Curves, with adjustments applied to a tone curve that’s displayed in the monitor screen. The front input wheel adjusts the highlights while the rear one adjusts the shadows. There’s a selection of four preset curves (Standard, Higher Contrast, Lower Contrast and Brighten Shadows), and three custom settings can be created.

ABOVE & BELOW: Test images taken with Lumix G Vario 12-32mm f3.5-5.6 ASPH Mega OIS zoom lens. Large/fine JPEGs exhibit enhanced definition thanks to the absence of a low-pass filter on the sensor and the tonal gradations are nicely smooth. The Vivid ‘Picture Style’ preset was used here, but there’s plenty of scope for tweaking the colour reproduction as well as the contrast and sharpness. Noise is very well-managed up to ISO 6400 so there is minimal loss of either saturation or definition at these higher sensitivity settings.

Making A Point
The GX9 retains the same autofocusing system as its predecessor, but with a number of performance improvements courtesy of the later-generation processor. It still uses only contrast-detection measurement, but is turbocharged via Panasonic’s ‘Depth From Defocus’ (DFD) technology.

While DFD has been proven to deliver more speed – Panasonic is claiming 0.07 seconds here – the point count stays at 49 rather than the 225 in the flagship models which says a lot about where the GX9 is intended to sit in the current Lumix G line-up. The points are arranged in a 7x7 pattern and selection can be automatic or manual, the latter configurable in 49-Area (which uses a nine-point cluster), 1-Area (adjustable to one of eight sizes to vary selectivity), Pinpoint or Custom Multi modes. Custom Multi provides a selection of preset point patterns (diamond-shaped, horizontal or vertical), or it’s possible to create up to three custom patterns of your own. All these points, zones and patterns can be moved around by touching the monitor screen and, as was introduced on the GX8, this can also be done while using the viewfinder using the ‘Touchpad AF’ function.

Switching between the single-shot and continuous AF operation can be done manually or left to camera and there are both face/eye detection and subject tracking modes are provided, but there are no provisions for fine-tuning the latter so it better matches the type of movement. There is, however, the option of setting the priority to either Focus or Release.

The low light sensitivity extends down to -4.0 EV and a built-in illuminator is provided for assistance (albeit short-range) beyond this.

Manual focusing is assisted by a magnified image (now up to 20x) – either full frame or a picture-in-picture inset – a simple distance scale and a focus peaking display which is available in a choice of five colours, each at either High or Low intensity.

Exposure control is based on Panasonic’s standard 1728-points multi-zone metering with the additional choice of either centre-weighted average or spot measurements. The standard ‘PASM’ exposure control modes are supplemented by a set of 24 subject/scene programs which includes all the staples along with more ephemeral options such as Sweet Child’s Face, Romantic Sunset Glow and Cute Dessert (we kid you not!).

The overrides for the auto exposure modes are an AE lock, up to +/-5.0 EV compensation and auto bracketing which can be performed over sequences of three, five or seven frames with up to +/-3.0 EV adjustment per frame.

There are also auto bracketing modes for white balance, focus and apertures (i.e. depth-of-field). Focus bracketing can be programmed for sequences of up to 999 frames with the focus shifted in each using one of five preselected step sizes. Additionally, you can vary the sequencing order. The aperture bracketing function can be set to a sequence length of three or five frames, but there’s also an ‘All’ setting which captures a shot at every one of the attached lens’s full apertures. The camera’s focal plane shutter has a speed range of 60-1/4000 second with flash sync up to 1/200 second (versus 1/8000 and 1/250 second on the GX8) while the sensor-based shutter ranges from 1-1/16,000 second and obviously also allows for totally silent shooting. Importantly, Panasonic says the GX9’s FP shutter is an all-new assembly which employs electromagnetic actuation to reduce shock by a massive 90 percent.

The other white balance control modes comprise auto correction (with a ‘keep warmer tones’ option), five lighting presets, fine-tuning, manual colour temperature setting and provisions for creating four custom presets.

Like all the Lumix G cameras, the GX9 has a fully-automatic ‘Intelligent Auto’ (iA) mode which uses scene analysis to set a whole range of functions including backlight compensation, sensitivity, focus tracking, face detection and recognition, white balance, long exposure noise reduction, red-eye removal and automatic scene mode selection. Additionally, if deemed necessary, ‘iHDR’ and ‘iHandheld Night Shot’ multi-shot capture will automatically activate. There’s also an ‘iAuto+’ mode which is still basically fully automatic, but provides access to a set of manual adjustments for image brightness, depth-of-field and colour balance.

In Control
There’s a total of eight customisable multi-function controls, divided between three ‘Fn’ hard keys and, as is the common Panasonic practice, five tabs on the touchscreen. There’s a total of 29 assignable functions for each (contained in an 11-page menu) and that’s just for when recording images… there’s another, smaller set covering the replay functions.

There’s also a customisable My Menu which enables your most-used functions to be collected into one place, and the GX9 gets all the menu upgrades that have been introduced with the GH5 and G9 – most notably an increase in the number of items per page to eight, the provision of a scroll bar to assist with navigation and a much more logically organised section for the custom functions. It also has the redesigned ‘Quick Menu’ screen which has a much cleaner and crisper look. As before, it’s customisable too, allowing direct access to up to 15 selected functions via either the conventional navigational means or, much more efficiently, the touch screen. As usual Panasonic’s implementation of the touch screen is exemplary and, if desired, the camera can be entirely operated in this way, including the menus and image replay functions. We’ve already mentioned the touch screen controls for AF point/zone selection and focusing, but this can also be linked to auto shutter release too.

The live view screen can be configured with a real-time histogram that’s moveable, a dual-axis level indicator, highlight warning (or one of two zebra patterns), grid guides from a selection of three and a centre marker. The monitor screen (but not the viewfinder) can be adjusted for brightness, contrast, saturation, red tint and blue tint. New is a ‘Live View Boost’ function which reduces the frame rate in order to increase the gain (i.e. brightness) when shooting at night.
As on the G9 and GH5, the review/replay screens include a thumbnail image accompanied by five different sets of information – capture data, RGB and brightness histograms, the ‘Photo Style’ parameters plus the Highlight/Shadow control settings, the white balance mode with any fine-tuning, and lens info, including the in-camera corrections. You scroll though these sections using the up/down navigation keys.

The playback functions include thumbnail pages of 12 or 30 images, zooming at up to 16x, a calendar thumbnail display and a slide show with a choice of transition effects and background music. The in-camera editing functions include resizing, cropping, image titling, RAW-to-JPEG conversion, the various ‘4K Photo’ post-processing options and the ‘Clear Retouch’ facility which has featured on all the recent Lumix G bodies.

WiFi connectivity is now supplemented by Bluetooth LE which enables an ‘always on’ connection and more convenient file transfer to mobile devices.

Speed And Performance
Loaded with our reference 128 GB Lexar Professional SDXC UHS-II/U3 (Speed Class 3) ‘2000x’ memory card, the GX9 captured 160 JPEG/large/fine frames in 17.403 seconds, giving a shooting speed of 9.19 fps when using the focal plane shutter. The test files averaged 7.3 MB in size and, impressively, all 1.168 GB worth of data was written to the memory by the time we hit the ‘playback’ button.

The GX9 goes a long way to redeeming itself with its imaging performance which also benefits from the advances made with the later-generation ‘Venus Engine’ processor. The JPEG performance is particularly noteworthy with the best quality files exhibiting lots of well-defined detail, nicely smooth tonal gradations, and excellent colour reproduction across the spectrum and a surprisingly wide dynamic range. The absence of the OPLF does seem to make a noticeable difference to the definition which is simply a lot crisper and cleaner than before. This carries on into the higher ISO settings, complemented by clear improvements to the noise reduction processing which results in nicely sharp and saturated images up to ISO 6400 and still acceptable results at ISO 12,800.

The new B&W ‘Picture Style’ and ‘Grain Effect’ processing really enhance the camera’s monochrome capture, giving a much more filmic look comparable with what we’ve been seeing from the latest Fujifilm cameras such as the X-E3. It would be nice to have ‘Grain Effect’ available for the colour profiles and, indeed, is offered by Fujifilm.

Panasonic’s DFD contrast-detection is already well-proven elsewhere and it doesn’t disappoint here either, being both responsive and accurate, but obviously the frame coverage is less than is available on the 225-point flagship Lumix G models. The ‘Touchpad AF’ function works brilliantly when you want to take charge of AF point selection without having to look away from the EVF. All good then… except for the EVF which really is a step back in time and comes as a bit of shock after experiencing the best OLED types that are around now.

Making movies
Similar to its photographic capabilities, the GX9 has been stripped of some of the key video-making features of its predecessor which, consequently, may well have potential buyers looking elsewhere. The most significant omissions are a stereo audio input and the ‘Cinelike D’ and ‘Cinelike V’ gamma profiles which optimise the dynamic range for colour grading in post-production.

Now it’s just possible Panasonic has determined that serious video-makers are all heading straight over to the GH5/5S models which is probably true, but aspiring practitioners would undoubtedly still like to have these features too.

It all seems a bit contradictory because, otherwise, the GX9 has plenty going for it as a compact video camera, including 4K recording in the UHD resolution (3840x2160 pixels) at either 25 or 24 fps, Full HD recording at 50 fps and functionality which extends to the ‘Photo Style’ presets (which, of course could be tweaked to flatten colour), many of the ‘Creative Control’ special effects, all the ‘PASM’ exposure control modes, continuous autofocusing with subject tracking and various image processing functions. Touch focusing comes into its own here, including being able to set up a pull-focus sequence by tapping on the start and finish points. There are also a number of other on-screen adjustments which also help reduce handling noise. Also handy is the ‘4K Live Cropping’ function which is available when shooting either FHD or HD footage and makes use of the bigger frame size to allow for panning or zooming to be set up on the monitor screen.

The built-in stereo microphones are adjustable for recording level and there’s a wind-cut filter.

As noted in the main text, five-axis ‘Dual I.S.’ image stabilisation is available when shooting both 2K and 4K video, and the various assists include zebra patterns to indicate overexposed areas and a focus peaking display for manual focusing.

As before, the GX9’s HDMI connection can output an uncompressed video feed, either in 4K or 2K resolution, for recording to an external device.

So, a whole lot of important boxes ticked, but a few really key ones left blank, which means the casual video-maker probably has more than is needed, and the more serious user not quite enough.

The Verdict
Despite the curious jiggery-pokery going on with its feature set compared to the GX8, the GX9 still emerges as pretty appealing camera, mostly because of its reduced size and cost in relation to what it’s capable of doing… which is quite a lot. There’s a sense that Panasonic is steering its GX mirrorless cameras down the ‘travel zoom’ path given the TZ series compacts are now having a harder time matching it with the latest smart phones.

The GX9 has a lot more in its armoury versus any smart phone and it’s also telling that it’s currently selling locally only with the 12-32mm pancake zoom, which is what first-timers are more likely to want (i.e. no body-only option).

The feature re-assignment certainly gives the camera more appeal for the traveller and tones down the ‘enthusiast’ elements which may well have made the GX8 more focused in its appeal. Nevertheless, Fujifilm’s X-E3, the Olympus PEN-F or Sony’s A6300 now perhaps become a more welcome refuge for the serious photographer whose budget doesn’t extend to the Lumix G9 or GH5 duo (alternatively, snap up a GX8 if you can still find one).

Setting these considerations to one side, there’s a lot to like about the GX9 and it does a lot of things very well, not the least being its superlative JPEG performance and better noise reduction at higher ISOs. It handles well with comfortable ergonomics and the already-very-good Panasonic user interface has been made even better, further improving the operational efficiencies. The ‘4K Photo’ functionality continues to expand while the built-in flash, slightly faster shooting and new monochrome capture options all go towards creating a thoroughly workable little travel or street photography camera.

The big “but” though, is that it’s not really a credible GX8 replacement which is a bit of a disappointment for anybody who was expecting a G9 in a RF-style bodyshell (and maybe that’s still to come). The rest of you should judge it solely on its merits… of which there are many.