The interchangeable lens camera market has grown and evolved quickly. Panasonic certainly knows that. Still, the firm has no reason to complain, as it has been one of the sector's vectors for change, renewing and updating models at a healthy pace. And so, Panasonic's latest mid-range mock-SLR-style micro four-thirds camera has arrived in the form of the Lumix G6. Although it borrows heavily from the G5, this year's model updates the viewfinder, the screen and the sensor, and brings Wi-Fi and NFC connectivity. Will that be enough to distract from the general feeling of déjà vu? Let's take a closer look.
On first inspection, the G6 has a distinct whiff of "Leica-ness" about it. The close relationship between the two firms is no secret, but whether intentional or not, the G6 does look quite similar to the Leica R8/R9. Still, other than the camera's general bulk, the comparison can't go much further, as the two models are actually very different. Build quality is a step up from the GF6 here, and the rubbery belt around the camera body is a nice touch. The matte black plastic casing looks pretty nice, even if its hard and hollow feel serves to remind that this is a mid-range model. The dials are firm and nicely notched, the buttons are hard with short, direct presses. The rocker switch under your index finger on the front of the camera is the only control that feels a little more rickety. We found that we sometimes ended up pressing it by mistake, activating the zoom when using an X-series lens or changing the exposure correction (the latter obviously proving slightly more annoying!).
On the whole, the camera controls and graphic interface are easy to navigate your way around. Although the menus are quite densely packed (you may need to spend a little time reading the manual), the touchscreen is very responsive and always on hand to make browsing a breezy and actually almost enjoyable experience. Panasonic excels on that front. However, onscreen images soon start to look dull in low light. Plus, the display is quite cool (colour temperature = 7900 K) and colour fidelity could still be better (Delta E = 4.4). The electronic viewfinder has been upgraded to OLED technology, making it way more pleasant to use even if images look quite dull. The sequential EVF display can thankfully be banished to the realms of history ... and let's hope it stays there!
Wi-Fi and NFC are all the rage in Panasonic's 2013/2014 interchangeable lens cameras, so it's no surprise to see them added to this model. While NFC may still be of limited interest in many countries, the Wi-Fi functionalities in the G6 make a very nice addition for sharing images or controlling the camera remotely. The Panasonic Image App is one of the most comprehensive of the kind (for Android and iOS), effectively turning your tablet or smartphone into a remote control with the camera display mirrored onscreen and access to a wide range of settings.
The new Venus Engine processor is finally here and its impact on this camera's response times is immediately clear. The Lumix G6 shows performances that are not only excellent but consistent. It's quick to start up, photos save almost instantly and the autofocus works consistently well in good light. Low-light focusing is the only field in which the G6 doesn't make much progress compared with the G5, but the G6 can still out-perform many classic SLRs, such as the Canon EOS 100D, for example.
With the standard mechanical shutter, the G6 shoots the 7 fps promised in both Jpeg and RAW modes. Strangely, using the electronic shutter pushes Jpeg continuous shooting down to 5 fps, although it stays at 7 fps in RAW mode. Still, that shouldn't hold you back too much. In both cases, the camera can shoot away until the memory card gets full ... or until you get bored or until the battery runs out, whichever comes first. There's also a "Super Fast" burst mode that shoots 36 frames (Jpeg only) in a lower resolution of 2336 x 1752 pixels and at speeds of almost 45 fps. Note, though, that the shots do take a while to save, so you have to wait over 6 seconds to fire off a second burst. You therefore can't really think about using this mode as a backhanded way of shooting slow motion video.
Panasonic takes the ISO setting a notch higher with every update of this camera. The G3 maxed out at 6400 ISO, the G5 topped that with 12800 ISO and so the G6 logically takes things one step further to 25600 ISO. That may look impressive on the spec sheet but, as is all too often the way, this ISO setting can't really be used in practice.
Although the G6 has a new image processing engine, it uses the same sensor as the G5—a 16-Megapixel 4/3"-format CMOS. Picture quality is therefore very similar in the two cameras. From 160 to 800 ISO, quality is perfectly good. The camera can still be used without a second thought at 1600 ISO, with just a hint of granularity. Smoothing gets more noticeable at 3200 ISO, becoming intrusive at 6400 ISO where there's also a drop in saturation and contrast. The 12800 ISO settings is pretty much unusable.
Panasonic's approach to image processing is interesting, though, as finer detail is preserved for as long as possible while smoothing tends to be focused on areas of flat, block colour. The problem is that the 14-42 mm kit lens isn't particularly impressive. Lightly textured surfaces are therefore often lumped in with areas of flat colour, so they too end up getting a dose of the camera's smoothing.
The G6 fills in several of the blanks seen in the G5. First up, it gets a microphone socket (just above the "G" on the front face). Second, it gets a "Creative Video Mode" that finally lets you change settings manually while shooting. You can therefore use the touchscreen to adjust the exposure, the sensitivity (up to 3200 ISO), the aperture, the focus area (which changes quickly and silently) as well as the sensitivity of the built-in microphone. By default the mic has the annoying habit of picking up every metallic noise from the camera controls—be particularly careful with the zoom ring and the thumb-wheel, as these can sometimes be heard in the background of your movies.
Although the G6 films Full HD video, the 60 fps mode has been ditched in this model. Whether in AVCHD or MP4, the G6 can only shoot at up to 50 frames per second, with a choice of interlaced or progressive scan formats. The bitrate therefore drops as a result—something users running lower-powered computers will no doubt appreciate. And while we're on the subject of things dropping, Panasonic could have spared us the drop in picture quality here. Sharpness levels could be better (and the lens isn't to blame), with clearly visible noise and a hint of aliasing. The video mode has taken a step forwards in handling but a step backwards in image quality, which is a shame.