The DMC-G5 certainly packs a lot of sophistication into a small form. Though it has a metal body, you could be forgiven for thinking it's all plastic given its light weight - even with a memory card and the battery installed, it still weighs just 0.87 pound. The outer plastic panels and coatings do, however, make it feel like it may not withstand the type of beating a rugged SLR could handle. The small body has a comfortable though diminutive handgrip, with most controls easily reachable with the right hand. There is a dedicated movie button and an iAuto mode button beside the mode dial on the top panel. Also easily within thumb's reach on the top of the back panel are two buttons: quick menu and AF/AE lock. Quick menu is at the heart of this camera's ease of navigation - pressing the button pulls up menus on the LCD that you adjust via touch screen. This menu is customizable; you select and drag the items you want to appear when you press the Q.Menu button.
Further down on the back panel is a pretty typical assortment, including a four-way control, playback, and display buttons. The trash button doubles as a function button, which you can customize, along with the AF/AE lock and LVF/LCD buttons (which turns the electronic viewfinder on and off). This gives you three customizable function buttons. An LVF/LCD button sits to the left side of the electronic viewfinder, though by default a sensor turns on the EVF when your eye approaches the eyepiece. There are two sensitivity settings you can choose from in the menus.
The mode dial offers two customizable positions, in addition to the typical Program, Aperture-Priority, Shutter-Priority, and Manual positions. You also get a Scene Mode position and a Creative Control setting, which offers an assortment of filters and effects. Conveniently, you launch iAuto or iAuto Plus mode using a dedicated button on the top panel, rather than having to take your eye off the viewfinder or LCD to navigate the mode dial. iAuto mode sets everything automatically, while iAuto Plus allows you to adjust color, brightness and defocus to your liking - similar to the Live Guide found on Olympus' Digital PEN models.
Perhaps the star of the show here is the articulating LCD touch screen. It folds out and can then be rotated 90° downward to help you get interesting angles, or 180° forward for taking a self-portrait and for protecting it by having the screen fold up facing the camera body. The 3-inch LCD is very sharp, boasting a 922,000-dot resolution, which proved a wonderfully crisp and colorful view while shooting in all but the brightest of afternoon sunshine - which is when the electronic viewfinder (EVF) is particularly handy. In addition to the three customizable function buttons on the camera body, there are two additional virtual function buttons on the touch screen LCD, Fn4 and Fn5.
The touch screen capabilities come in handy in a number of situations, such as launching index view while in playback. While shooting, you can easily move your focus points by simply tapping the screen. In Program mode, the right side of the screen offers four icons you can drag into view to adjust the zoom (in case you don't like the levers on the body and lens), display a level finder on the screen, or show a histogram. These options expand in Creative Control, which offers a sliding bar for adjusting the intensity of the effect, and lets you increase or decrease the depth of field (Panasonic calls it "defocusing"). The touch screen for the most part is tremendously convenient for navigating menus, whizzing through photos in playback, fast-forwarding and rewinding video, and positioning the AF box. However, I sometimes found the swiping response to be a little sticky; at times it required three or four swipes to scroll the list of scene modes, which is displayed elegantly in a parade of example photos.
The camera offers an ample assortment of scene modes and filters (Creative Control modes). There are 23 scene modes for still images, and you can apply 20 of them to videos as well. In addition there are 14 creative filters for still images, 12 of which work for video. I found most of these modes and filters to work well and create attractive results. Panasonic gets the award for the most creative scene mode names: While Silky Skin, Appetizing Food, Sweet Child's Face, and Romantic Sunset Glow are self-explanatory, others like Artistic Nightscape, Glittering Illuminations (star filter), and Soft Image of a Flower seem needlessly unconventional or redundant. In all cases the cutesy names make the camera seem best suited for the less serious photographer. Interestingly, none of these effects are offered as editing options in playback. In the playback menu, your editing options are pretty much cropping, resizing, and rotating.
The continuous shooting modes are impressive and fun, as long as you don't have high hopes of capturing dozens of RAW images in rapid succession. You get four burst modes. You can capture full-resolution files at 6fps using the high-speed mode (both JPEG and RAW). If you don't want to miss a single blink of an eye, you can use super-high burst mode, which shot JPEGs at 22fps in my testing. The specs say super-high mode captures 4MP images that measure 2336 x 1752 pixels (JPEG small at 4:3 ratio) versus 4608 x 3456 pixels at full resolution. At that rate, it's so blisteringly fast that you're not able to use live view (nor are you able to use it with high speed burst at 6fps). Not that you would expect to. At that clip, stringing the images together looks like a movie - in fact, the camera plays back these bursts of images as a group, giving exactly that effect. See images P1020082 and P1020091 on the Sample Photos page - these two images, taken just a split second apart, are the first and last shots of a 10-image series. Not that you're limited to 10 images. I reeled off 40 JPEG images in roughly three seconds - which is apparently the limit, though the camera specs claim unlimited capacity. As you might imagine, you'll have to wait a bit to view all 40 shots - the camera will likely take about half a minute to process them.
When shooting RAW files, the camera butts up against its limitations. I shot seven frames in RAW at roughly 6fps before the camera stopped (the specs say a maximum of nine images). Afterward it took a long time to process the files, and thereafter it could only capture one or two RAW images in burst mode before stopping to take a breather. In one case it took 47 seconds to process a burst of nine shots in RAW+JPEG fine, which it captured at a quick 6fps. The manual warns you that burst speeds may dip if your memory card is more than half full. But even after formatting my 4GB Level 4 SDHC card, the camera slowed significantly after capturing six shots in RAW+JPEG at 6fps. Thereafter, it was only able to capture one shot every 6 to 8 seconds. Processing the burst of images for display on the LCD took 33 seconds. Using a faster card - like the newer UHS-1 rated units - could possibly produce fater write times for burst sequences.
Panasonic offers a number of Micro Four Thirds lenses for the DMC-G5, as well as adapters to accommodate Leica D Four Thirds lenses, Leica M series lenses, and Leica R series lenses. There are also four conversion lenses that attach to the 14-42mm lens for wide-angle, telephoto, fisheye and macro. You can also get a variety of filters and other accessories including three external flashes, a zoom lever for smoother zooming during video recording, and a remote shutter for use with a tripod.
With all of these SLR-like features and options, you might reasonably expect SLR-like performance. One area you are unlikely to get that is from the autofocus. The camera uses contrast detection autofocus, which is arguably not as good as phase detection autofocus at tracking moving subjects. The camera offers three focus modes (single, flexible, continuous) and five autofocus modes (face detection, AF tracking, 23-area focusing, one-area focusing, and pinpoint). These options give you plenty to work with to adapt the camera to your situation. However, I found that even when using the default of 23 areas to determine focus, the camera missed the mark and failed to focus on my subject instead of the background when shooting still images. This was particularly pronounced in low light, such as at night under two pairs of floodlights, though I ended up with some poorly focused stills of people, even in afternoon light.
When recording video, the camera was sometimes fooled into focusing on the background rather than the closer subject. Also, in movie mode, it did not always adjust focus accurately while recording. Although continuous AF is on by default, the default focus mode is AFS, which focuses when the shutter button is pressed halfway. To improve focus tracking you can turn on AFF (for unexpected movements) or AFC for continuous autofocus operation, which requires a trip to the menus. At default settings, I ended up with some soft-looking movies. In some cases, the focus seemed slow to adjust during video recording, though performed better when I zoomed in and out on a stationary (and thus not very challenging) object.
Manual focus is also an option, for those lenses that offer it. The camera helps you sharpen focus by magnifying the on-screen image as you focus, though you don't get additional help, such as a beep and flashing focus box - as you get with some SLRs. Even when using the EVF, despite its impressive 1.44 million megapixel resolution, you might not entirely trust your naked eye (I don't). A likely improvement would be to use of one of the lenses with a focus ring instead of the lever employed on the 14-42mm lens. A lever connected to a motor will never give you the tactile feedback of a focus ring directly moving optical elements in a lens.
Still image quality is impressive overall. Images look sharp with well-saturated colors, and the camera can capture attractive images in low light. However, the sensor is smaller than that of an SLR, which has its limitations. Even though it captures 16-megapixel images, in my testing they didn't look any sharper than those taken with an 8-megapixel Canon 20D SLR at comparable focal lengths. In some cases, details in the Panasonic's shots looked a tad softer. Seeing these differences requires an on-screen magnification of 100%, which means this difference isn't likely to present a problem if you don't make big prints or display your shots on large screens. But if you're considering a mirrorless model over an SLR, it's worth noting that more megapixels doesn't necessarily get you sharper pictures.
The promise of high-definition 1080p video may be a big selling point for this camera, but my movies didn't quite live up to the promise of the spec. The video quality was not as high as I was expecting based on 1080p video I've shot with other cameras. At small sizes on my computer screen the movies looked superb, but playing them at full-screen exposed the limitations, including inaccurate focus (as mentioned earlier) and/or lack of sharpness on the whole. You can zoom while recording video, which is a very handy feature, and the autofocus tends to adapt while doing so, but it isn't always accurate at determining your foreground subject from the background.
One argument in favor of the mirrorless camera is that it allows you to get sharp shots at slower shutter speeds than an SLR, in theory because of the lack of a moving mirror, which may cause camera shake when it folds up in an SLR. This applies mostly to handheld shots, and I can't say my testing proved this point one way or the other. I appreciated the camera's low-light performance - I was able to capture sharp-looking portraits indoors using available morning light at shutter speeds as slow as 1/15-second, though some shots were blurry. This while the camera used one of its five portrait modes and cranked up the light sensitivity to ISO 1600.
One knock against the Micro Four Thirds format is its poorer performance in low light versus SLRs. I, however, found the DMC-G5's low-light performance, on the whole, impressive. Its maximum ISO of 12800 gives you a lot of latitude, though good results may depend on your subject. A close handheld shot of a porch light at night did not suffer from obstructive digital noise, even at ISO 6400, though shots including a broad nighttime sky got unattractively splotchy at ISO 3200. The problem the DMC-G5 has in low light is achieving sharp focus. Trying to capture a night scene with only streetlamps and a cloud-obscured moon as light sources, the camera was unable to lock onto a subject and I was left with no choice but to go to the menus to select manual focus. This experience left me wishing the 14-42mm lens had a focus ring rather than a lever, and that instead of having to navigate a menu, I could flip a manual/autofocus switch on the lens, as is standard on most SLR lenses.
The built-in pop-up flash works well for its size. The camera manual rates the available flash range using the 14-42mm kit lens as 0.99 feet to 30.8 feet (wide) and 0.99 feet to 19.4 feet (telephoto). In my shooting, I found that it threw around an ample amount of light up to roughly 15 feet. Of course, the flash shoe allows you to attach an external flash unit to get your subjects more attractively lit.
Battery life is rated to be 310 shots with the Lumix G Vario 14-42mm lens, which seems to be about the middle of the road for mirrorless models. It's certainly more impressive than Canon's mirrorless EOS M, which is rated at 230 shots, though Panasonic's pricier Lumix DMC-GH3 is rated to snap 540 shots on a charge.
Bottom line - The Panasonic Lumix DMC-G5 offers a lot of high-end features in a small, lightweight, well-designed package. The biggest draws are its impressive low-light performance, high still image quality, and its customizability. The three customizable buttons plus two on-screen function buttons really help you adapt the camera to your style. The articulating live view LCD helps you get artsy angles, and the electronic viewfinder is a big plus when bright light makes framing shots with the LCD less than ideal (though it's still no replacement an optical viewfinder). The LCD's touch screen is tremendously convenient for tapping your way through menus, though swiping can be sticky - but the well-placed thumb wheel will quickly take you where you want to go. The biggest drawback here is the sometimes iffy contrast detection autofocus, which was not always accurate in my testing. Both still images and video sometimes suffered from inaccurate focus - even in bright light - which was surprising considering that the default uses 23 points to determine focus. Also, movies don't look quite as high definition as you might expect from the 1080p spec. At about $699 for the body with the Lumix G X VARIO PZ 14-42mm lens, the G5 is competitively priced.
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