In 2008, Panasonic introduced the G1, its first foray into the world of mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras. Since then, these compact lens-switchers have kept on growing in popularity while also pushing quality and technical innovation further, establishing a sound reputation among amateurs and professionals alike. Five years down the line, the Lumix GX7 is the latest DSLM camera from Panasonic. The firm isn't out to shake up the market with this particular model—that'll be a job for someone else. Here, it's more about condensing all the progress made over the last half a decade into one state-of-the-art camera. Maybe that's why Panasonic has jumped straight from the GX1 to the GX7 when naming its new arrival.
No, it's not a NEX-7, it's the Panasonic GX7. At the same time, with the viewfinder over to the left, the tilt screen, the chunky grip handle, the boxy design, the robust and finely-assembled magnesium casing and the black finish (although it's also available in light grey), you could be forgiven for mistaking this camera for its Sony rival. Packed to the brim with buttons, dials, levers and other fixtures and fittings, there's no way you'd mistake it for a Leica M in any case. The lack of originality and audacity in design could well be the biggest flaw of the GX7. It could use a little more personality.
Still, Panasonic's timid approach does have its upsides. Photojournalists will no doubt appreciate the GX7's discreet, subtle look that won't turn heads, draw attention or distract whoever is being snapped. The GX7 could even be mistaken for a classic 35 mm camera by novice passers-by ... until they catch sight of the screen, that is. Panasonic has opted for a tilt touchscreen here and display quality is decent, although the onscreen image is a little cool.
True to its German and Japanese roots, the GX7 is an eminently practical kind of camera. Want a handle your thumb can really grip onto with no chance of it slipping? No problem! The GX7 gives you a deep-set handle with a non-slip rubber finish that extends right round to the back of the camera. Looking to tailor the camera interface to your own preferences? The GX7 has got that covered with no less than four physical customisable "Fn" buttons and five virtual custom buttons via the touchscreen (two of which are entirely free for the settings of your choice). You even get two settings wheels—one for your index finger and one clickable wheel for your thumb. No half-measures here!
So although the GX7 has a set of highly effective fully automatic modes—Panasonic is a master in the field—we still feel that this isn't necessarily a camera suited to all users. To get the very best out of the GX7 and its various features and to master it properly, you'll need to spend a certain amount of time scouting around in the menus. Whether adjusting the focus peaking colour or playing around with the electronic shutter (from just 1 second to a more impressive 1/8000), investing ten minutes of your time can be seriously worthwhile, as the GX7 can be turned into a perfectly customised pocket camera that's ready to shoot your way.
That's not to say that the GX7 is flawless in design. The location of the On/Off switch just under the mode-selection dial can lead you to turn the camera off by accident. The electronic viewfinder, which tilts to 90°, suffers from highly over-saturated colours and an all-too-noticeable sequential display. Plus, when lining up shots at waist height, the viewfinder's eye-detection sensor is a little over-sensitive (even if can be adjusted) and tends to switch the screen off as it thinks you're using the EVF. You can get around this by flipping the viewfinder up horizontally so it can't detect your waist. Otherwise, you can get yourself an Olympus EP-5 with a VF-4 viewfinder.
In the field, the GX7 makes a pretty awesome companion. Switch to "Silent Mode"—which cuts out all the beeps and flashes and activates the electronic shutter—and you'll become a stealthy ninja of street photography. Add to that flawless response times, a well-balanced body, a smooth screen and EVF, instant access to the curves menu (Fn2) to play around with shadow and highlight in real time onscreen, a touch of Wi-Fi and a hint of NFC for photo-sharing and remote control, and there's nothing to stop you becoming the next Martin Parr or Bruce Gilden! It's just too bad that there's no mic socket, no GPS and no weatherproofing, but don't let that hold you back.
According to Panasonic's marketing blurb, the GX7 should be able to focus effectively even when starlight is the only light around. That certainly sound poetic, but how does it shape up in practice?
In the world of micro four-thirds cameras, the Olympus Pen E-P5, released just ahead of this model, pips the GX7 to the post on photo-to-photo turnaround time. The Olympus OM-D EM-5 holds its own too, even if start-up does take over a second. As for similarly high-end, more-or-less equivalent APS-C lens-switchers, the GX7 leaves the Sony NEX-6 and NEX-7 trailing in the dust, while the Fujifilm X-E1 brings up the rear in spite of its recent firmware update.
So what about those claims of starlit shooting? What of Panasonic's promises of AF detection at -4 EV? Usually we drop the lighting to 3 Lux when testing the low-light performances of a camera's autofocus. For the GX7, we did a second round of tests at 1 Lux, which is about equivalent to shooting at night with a full moon. In those conditions, it took 0.38 seconds for the GX7 to focus and shoot, which is very impressive.
Panasonic has wisely decided to keep the GX7's resolution at 16 million pixels. On a 4/3" sensor, that still makes for a pixel density slightly higher than that of a 24-Megapixel APS-C, as used in the NEX-7. Instead of adding pixels, the firm has decided to make them larger so as to capture more light. In theory, this should boost sensitivity and increase levels of detail by 10%.
In reality, the GX7 takes JPEG photos that are a little more refined and less grainy than shots from Panasonic's GF6 and G6 released earlier in the year. It easily out-performs the OM-D EM-5, and edges ever so slightly ahead of the Pen E-P5. Plus, it holds up to comparison with Sony's NEX-7 (which uses an APS-C sensor). Note that the lowest sensitivity setting on offer here is 125 ISO and that you can't shoot past 3200 ISO with the electronic shutter.
On the whole, smoothing is kept nicely in check. In fact, with the GX7, Panasonic seems more keen on preserving detail here than smoothing it away. Even if detail starts to get wiped out at 6400 ISO, you have to push the GX7 up to 12800 ISO before it really turns shots into a soupy mess. From 125 ISO to 1600 ISO, you can snap away without a second thought. You'll even be able to make acceptable 12" x 16" (30 x 40 cm) prints with JPEG files snapped at 3200 ISO, so long as you don't mind the drop in contrast and saturation. The even better news is that there's no trace of that pinky magenta tinge seen in other Panasonic cameras at high ISO settings.
All in all, the GX7 ticks all the right boxes for a 2013 expert-level camera, slotting itself straight into the high end of the market. It doesn't quite manage to knock Fuji's X-Premium DSLMs and their excellent X-Trans sensors off the top spot. The only thing we could really criticise it for is a tendency to shoot very highly saturated photos when working under tungsten light.
The Lumix GX7 is due to sell with a choice of the 20 mm f/1.7 pancake lens (equivalent to 40 mm) or the G. Vario 14-42 mm f/3.5-5.6 ASPH mechanical zoom lens (equivalent to 28-84 mm). We tried out our GX7 with the latter model. To cut to the chase, although it's compact, lightweight and easy to use, it clearly bridles the camera's potential. Quality is excellent in the middle of the frame from full aperture but it's not quite on par around the edges of the shot, where if fails to deliver the level of detail that the GX7 seems able to capture. Ideally, we'd recommend switching this kit lens for a faster zoom with a higher aperture, such as the excellent Vario 12-35 mm f/2.8. It may be bulkier and heavier but quality will be so much better. Alternatively, you could switch to a fixed-focal-length lens, whether from the Lumix range or from a third-party manufacturer (see inset).
Video quality is incredibly good in the GX7. It can record in AVCHD or MP4, and in Full HD at 50, 25 or 24 frames per second (progressive scan). Although the video bitrate is quite low, the image is highly detailed, correctly exposed and free from moiré effects. A very slight trace of aliasing is visible in our video test scene, but that's unlikely to be a problem when shooting in real-life situations.
You can adjust the aperture, sensitivity and exposure while filming, as well as change the size and position of the focusing zone (using the thumb-wheel and the touchscreen). Audio quality is very good too, which goes some way to making up for the fact that there's no microphone socket. That said, it would have been nice to be able to bring truly top-notch sound to the first-rate video image.
The camera focuses smoothly and the touchscreen once again turns out to be a real helping hand. It's just a shame that AF tracking isn't a little more responsive with moving subjects, but that's just us nit-picking. However, it's a little more difficult to understand why the stabilisation system gets switched off in video mode. Olympus cameras and their five-axis stabilisation systems have the edge on that front.