Launched two years ago ahead of collaborator and rival Olympus, the micro four-thirds format Lumix DMC-G1 was largely dismissed by imaging professionals. With a small body, a usable electronic viewfinder and interchangeable lenses the concept broke new ground, but the appeal wasn't understood until some months later when Olympus launched the Pen EP-1 to critical acclaim.
Since then, Sony and Samsung, the other 'big two' consumer electronics companies, have introduced their own iterations using a larger APS-C sensor. But while the camera bodies continue to shrink in size, the lenses aren't going to be any smaller than those already made for APS-C DSLRs.
In contrast, the smaller imaging circle required for the Panasonic Lumix G-series and Olympus Pens models means that lenses are genuinely small. Panasonic understood this from the beginning and has continued to expand the range with a couple of genuinely small and useful 'pancakes' and some very versatile zoom lenses.
But Panasonic wouldn't be one of the world's largest consumer electronics company without grasping the potential of these cameras for video. Oddly, this was missing from the original DMC-G1 but it has been a core feature of every model since, and the still current Lumix DMC-GH2 is widely acclaimed for its pro-level video capabilities.
The Lumix DMC-G3 is the first of a new generation to feature the company's latest advances in both hardware and software. Although it's not a true multi-aspect format imaging device like that used in GH2, it's the first to feature a new 16-megapixel sensor up from the 12-megapixel units that were first introduced with the G1.
Like the GH2's sensor the new Live MOS unit has readout speed of 120HZ, double that of the earlier G2 model and that brings with it a number of advantages. Auto-focus in these 'mirrorless' is achieved using a contrast detection system that's a part of the imager itself. The faster readout reduces the detection time, by half in this instance, doubling the drive speed.
Auto-focus operation isn't improved across all the lenses though, just the some of the more recent additions, including the versatile 14-140mm and bundled 14-42mm (28-84mm equivalent) zoom. The 14-42mm is near silent in operation and is fast to focus in stills mode, faster than current Olympus offerings* but, despite the claims, still not quite swift enough for following action and sports.
Autofocus is much slower during video, but G3 and kit lens allows the subject to be kept in focus in any part of the image right up to the edge. Distance adjustments are mostly smooth and, after experimentation with the various AF point options, the G3 is largely successful at keeping the subject in focus.
The faster readout also means the G3 acquires the finderless GF2's full HD 1080i video. That's captured at 30/25fps but output as 60/50i as per NTSC/PAL specifications, and up from the G2's 720p. Unfortunately, unlike the GH2, there's not much in the way of control.
You can set exposure compensation before video capture begins as well as choose between a few colour settings but that's about it. The 3-inch (460k dot) pressure sensitive screen, the same found on the earlier G2, allows you to change the point of focus during capture simply by dragging.
A 'defocus control' option is another useful option, using an on-screen slider, but would work better still if the screen was more sensitive. And, these features are redundant if you’re using the camera's built-in EVF. Panasonic hasn't changed the finder, it's the same 1.4m dot resolution screen found on the G2 but they're removed the proximity sensor to switch between that the rear vari-angle panel, which is a shortcoming.
As a component of the image-processing chip the G3 also inherits the Venus Engine FHD from the GH2. Not only is this responsible for JPEG processing including noise reduction, but also for tone curves and colour rendering in stills and video. In camera JPEGs and video are very clean, but noise reduction is being applied quite heavily when compared to RAW files. And Panasonic still has a way to go with colour rendition, it's not up to that of the rival Olympus Pens.
So far, Panasonic has innovated in market with its electronic viewfinder-based mirrorless cameras and advanced video options but the G3 isn't much more than a GF2 with an EVF and new sensor. It excels for occasional video and visual note taking but it's not the ultra-compact pro-video camera it could have been. Evidently, Panasonic don't want to cannibalize the sales of the outstanding Lumix GH2.
* Please note this article appeared in print before the introduction of the Olympus EP-3.
For more information please visit www.panasonic.co.uk, or www.panasonic.com.
Adorama Camera are selling at $639.00 c/w 14-42mm kit lens.
Jessops are selling the camera at £446.95 inc VAT (online special price) c/w 14-42mm kit zoom.
Wex Photographic (formerly Warehouse Express) is selling at £469.00 inc VAT c/w 14-42mm kit zoom.
Leica DG Summilux 25mm f/1.4 intial impressions.
Olympus PEN E-P3 and 12mm f/2.0 samples.