Panasonic Lumix DMC-G3 camera review

Announced today, reviewed today: the Panasonic Lumix DMC-G3 makes its Best4Reviews test debut

Following in the wake of new Panasonic Micro Four thirds system releases the Lumix DMC-GF2 and DMC-GH2 comes the DMC-G3, shoehorning in some of the best attributes of both – what we’ve essentially got here with the G3 is a GF sized body with a viewfinder built in – and logically arriving three years after Panasonic first debuted its system in 2009.

Just as neatly it updates last year’s DMC-G2, but doesn’t immediately replace it. Dropping out of the range instead is the G10, the ‘budget’ version of the G2 released at the same time. This means that the G2 is now the entry-level model for those wanting a DSLR-styled compact system camera with built in viewfinder, the new G3 sits in the middle of the ‘G’ series and the excellent GH2 is now the range topping flagship option, with price tag to match.

All of the above are pitched at the user who has thought about swapping their point and shoot pocket camera for a digital SLR but have been put off by the attendant bulk and perceived learning curve. With the aim of Micro Four Thirds being to deliver that crucial smaller form factor but maintain a near DSLR-like image quality, the G3 incorporates some of the latest breakthrough technology – indeed Panasonic claims it’s been ‘pushed to the limit’ of what’s currently achievable – whilst at the same time coming across as stripped back and simplified.

In other words the Panasonic Lumix DMC-G3 won’t daunt less experienced users, whilst more experienced ones won’t be so easily bored. There are also the advantages over a conventional SLR of the likes of full time live view plus near seamless auto focus adjustment during movie recording. It’s also a whopping 25% smaller in size than the G2, whilst still squeezing in a 3-inch, angle adjustable touch screen with 460k-dot resolution and 100% field of view. Indeed the G3 is the world’s smallest and lightest camera with a ‘live’ viewfinder. The EVF also boasts an impressive resolution, of 1,440,000 dots, though with the larger more creatively flexible LCD located immediately below we found the former surprisingly easy to ignore. Said screen can be flipped outwards through 180° plus angled up or down or turned screen inwards to the body for added protection when transporting.

Suggested retail UK price for the Panasonic Lumix DMC-G3 is £629.99, the same price as the G2 was on launch and for that it comes with a 14-42mm kit zoom lens (alternatively it’s £549 body only). It’s adequate as an out of the box jack of all trades, but we soon found ourselves longing for an even broader focal range than the 28-84mm (in 35mm film terms) optic would allow. Fortunately there are around 16 Panasonic branded lenses to choose from, with third party optics for Micro Four Thirds now promised from the likes of Sigma for those on a budget. For the fashion conscious the camera itself is available in a choice of regulation issue black – the sample we had in for review – white or red. Elsewhere in Europe it will reportedly be available in ‘chocolate’.

Size and form factor aside the new G3 has three main selling points. According to its maker the image quality is up there with the flagship GH2 model, though it’s not the same sensor, but rather the same Venus Engine IV FHD processor on board. The sensor here is a newly developed 15.8 megapixel Live Mos chip. Secondly, the G3 employs contrast auto focus, said to be more accurate and faster than phase detection AF. In practice you have barely finished pressing halfway down on the shutter release button before focus and exposure have been determined (officially 0.18 seconds if using the 14-42mm lens). Thirdly, the G3 is the first camera in its series to feature an aluminium metal body, also found on the GF2 – making it tough but lightweight at 336g, down from the G2’s 371g (a reduction of around 10%). Though you get a sense of this when holding the camera in your right hand, we’d have preferred a slightly larger grip than the one here, which feels slightly sacrificed in order to achieve that smaller form factor.

Flick the on/off switch that encircles the small shooting mode dial on the top plate and the camera is instantly ready for action. Image noise levels have also been improved over the G2, so the G3 at ISO3200 now resembles what was previously achievable at ISO1600 on its predecessor. It’s only really at top whack ISO6400 setting that we noticed detail softening and fine grain dusting the image, and even this isn’t at ruinous levels. So even though a maximum ISO6400 may seem modest on a camera that’s competing with the best from Canon and Nikon (chiefly the EOS 600D and D5100 models) it’s a setting actually worth having and seemingly not just there to boost how the spec sheet looks.

In terms of how the Panasonic Lumix DMC-G3’s touch screen affects operation, if you’d rather use the attendant physical controls instead this functionality can largely be ignored. That said, the ability to touch the screen to fire the shutter as well – plus touch an off-centre subject to bias focus towards it is pretty cool. Likewise, and just as impressive, for taking portraits, background defocus can also be controlled by dragging a sliding bar across the screen, with the changes conveyed in real time as you watch. In practice we found moving between physical buttons and virtual ones on screen became second nature quicker than we would have imagined – avoiding the confusion one might expect.

The G3 shoots Full HD video (an improvement on the G2) with an output rate of 30 frames per second and in stereo sound too, thanks to a pair of microphones embedded just forward of a vacant hotshoe for accessory flash and located just behind the hump that houses the built-in pop up flash. Maximum clip duration is 29 minutes and 59 seconds, a loophole to avoid tax levied at camcorders but from which stills cameras are exempt.

Though the usual Program, Shutter Priority, Aperture Priority and Manual shooting modes are included on the G3’s small top plate dial, along with two customisable settings, scene modes and digital effects modes, on initial inspection there’s no obvious ‘auto’ option on the G3.

This is because there is a separate iA (Intelligent Auto) button hiding to the right of the shutter release button. Press this and the camera defaults to point and shoot operation, no matter which alternative mode is displayed on the dial. Commendably reliable its too at recognising common subjects and optimising the resultant shots. Alternatively the likes of colour saturation boosting ‘Expressive’ mode – from the new Creative Control palette – are good fun and add the occasionally needed dynamic punch to a shot.

Though the G3 isn’t cheap for anyone more used to a pocket snapshot of a digital camera, it is a jack of all trades device that manages to master most of what it purports to offer. We can see it going down a storm with family users who’d like more professional looking shots of their kids but who don’t want to lug around a digital SLR and separate camcorder with which to achieve it.