Panasonic has unveiled six new cameras set for release sometime this fall: the new mirrorless G5, the enthusiast compact LX7, wireless SZ5, and finally superzooms FZ200, FZ60, and LZ20. Panasonic is clearly gunning to win over the high-end compact market, and the FZ200’s constant f2.8 and LX7’s f1.4-2.3 lenses are a promising start. Check out the individual product pages for a more succinct summary of the new models, but for all the juicy details, read on to hear our hands-on impressions of the G5, LX7, and FZ200. Panasonic is releasing these latest models with all the glitz they can muster, and accordingly treated the press to a luxurious pre-release event in Sonoma, California. With our time split between racing Audi R8s at the Sonoma Raceway and exploring the sunlit vineyards and dark cellars of the Ram’s Gate Winery, we were given prime opportunities to test autofocus speed and low-light performance. While not without their quirks, these cameras, particularly the FZ200, promise to raise the competition to new heights.
The new G5, available in either black or a fetching white, is based around a 16 megapixel MOS sensor which, while similar to that used in the G1X. Panasonic assured us is an updated version. The company is apparently quite impressed with the low-light performance of the camera, as the ISO range has been boosted from 6400 on the G3 up to 12,800 on the G5. Video has also been improved over the G3 to 1080/60p in AVCHD, in line with other high-end mirrorless cams from Sony and Olympus. Autofocus has also been improved, with the G5 boasting 3.7fps with full-time tracking and a faster 6fps at full resolution without tracking. The same 20fps burst mode at 4 megapixels found in the G3 can be selected as well.
Most of the other changes are to user experience and performance rather than image quality. After complaints surfaced regarding the G3’s understated hand grip, the G5’s has been deepened. It is now much more comfortable and reassuring to hold with one hand. Panasonic is even further promoting one-handed use with the addition of a zoom function lever right behind the shutter button, which can be used to operate a power zoom lens as well as navigate menus. This means that you don’t need a second hand on the lens to zoom in or out, as long as you’re content using the 14-42mm kit lens or upcoming 12-35mm f2.8. The 3-inch swivel LCD screen, now 920,000 dots, is touch sensitive too, allowing for touch to focus functionality as well as quick access to an on-screen shooting menu. The viewfinder remains the same as the G3’s at 1.44 million dots, but Panasonic has once again added an eye sensor to detect when the viewfinder is being used.
Most of our time with the G5 was spent testing the autofocus on the track. All the models were running pre-production firmware and therefore occasionally had hiccups, but impressions were overwhelmingly positive. The autofocus was impressively capable at 3.7fps and was able to keep up nicely with the Audis streaking by us. And despite shooting outside on an exceptionally bright 90-degree day, the camera’s LCD screen was still discernible. Theviewfinder was better, of course, and showed quick previews as you shot to give some idea of subject tracking. The buffer could hold in the vicinity of 10 RAW photos before the frame rate slowed, followed by nearly ten seconds of write time to the high speed SD card Panasonic provided. If you can keep your bursts to a reasonable amount you should have no trouble using the G5 for sports.
There were some minor problems with the G5, the most notable of which is the touch to focus function on the LCD screen. While it was great to play with when shooting portraits, my nose constantly hit it when using the viewfinder. This locked the autofocus into focusing on something other than what I wanted and was exceedingly frustrating. The Panasonic reps didn’t have any answer to the problem when asked; Panasonic really needs a menu option to turn off touch focusing. The new zoom lever was handier than we expected for flipping through menus or zooming one-handed, but we do still prefer an old-fashioned manual zoom ring to Panasonic’s power zooms. They zoom too slowly and lend an otherwise snappy camera a note of sluggishness.
Panasonic is also announcing a new 45-150mm zoom lens alongside the G5, which is quite a bit lighterand smaller than the 45-200mm lens available now. The two together make a great compact kit that doesn’t sacrifice on performance or quality; the new lens has stabilization, an internal focus motor, and a full-metal body. This newest lens brings Panasonic’s count to 17, with about 40 total lenses available for the Micro 4/3 system. The new lens will retail for $299, and will be available around the same time as the G5 in late August or early September.
Arguably the most exciting model at the event, the FZ200 seems to be the first superzoom model to eschew zoom and megapixels in favor of truly groundbreaking functionality. The camera’s zoom range stays the same as its predecessor at 24x, and the new MOS sensor is still 12.1 megapixels, but the lens is now a constant f2.8 (vs. the f2.8-5.2 of the FZ150). The engineers seem to have done their homework too, for the camera is a bit bulkier but only .15 pounds heavier. When the display model in the showroom was first passed around, everyone ooh’d and ahh’d at the FZ200’s surprisingly light heft.
There have been a few minor design updates to the FZ-series, most notably the new high-resolution (1.32 million dot) viewfinder. It’s a real pleasure to use and nearly as good as the one in the G5. The FZ200’sbutton layout has also been reworked, resulting in three custom function buttons including one within easy reach of your right index finger. The battery has also been increased, resulting in a 540-shot rating rather than the FZ150’s 410 shots.
Other new features include a quick 1-second start-up time and Panasonic’s new “Light Speed AF” which,while not quite light speed, was impressively quick to lock on. The camera didn’t perform quite as well as the G5 with 100-300mm lens at keeping up with the Audi’s streaking by us, but that all-in-one zoom and constant aperture were a joy to play with. There’s something magical about having a 600mm f2.8 lens that doesn’t cost as much as a car. The FZ200 can also shoot 5.5fps at full resolution with autofocus tracking (actually faster than the G5!) but again wasn’t quite able to consistently keep the cars in focus. The performance was still better than any superzoom in recent memory, however, so Panasonic really has done their homework. Burst rates go up to 12fps at full resolution and a whopping 60fps at 2.5 megapixels, while we finally get a usable implementation of slow-motion video with 120fps at 720p.
We were warned that the FZ200 is still using pre-production firmware and thus weren’t able to judge much about the camera’s image quality, but expect to be impressed. While other manufacturers are piling on the megapixels (Sony) or the zoom range (Nikon), Panasonic is clearly carving themselves a niche in the high-performance segment of the market. The FZ200’s expected price, $599, is proof that Panasonic believes they have struck upon a winning formula. Now we just need word on a release date.
The LX7 is the last of the three models we were able to try out at the pre-release, and in some ways is the least exciting of the three. Enthusiast compact cameras have come back in a big way over the last couple years, and the LX7 continues to push the envelope with a newly designed, f1.4-2.3 lens (a full stop fasterthan the LX5 at wide end). The lens’ range stays the same, 24-90mm, as does the 10.1 megapixel count, yet Panasonic has switched the sensor to their MOS technology rather than CCD. The switch means that the LX7 matches the FZ200 for burst mode as well as video. This means 1080/60p HD recording, 5 fps burst with autofocus tracking, and 12fps burst mode with single focus at full resolution. While the MOS chip is sure to perform adequately, we’re a little disappointed that Panasonic was not able to fit a larger sensor, like the Sony RX100’s, into the LX5 replacement.
There have also been a few changes to the body that should make it easier to access and change settings. There is still an aperture ring around the lens, but Panasonic has also added an aspect ratio selector switch to quickly toggle between the 1:1, 4:3,3:2, and 16:9 ratios. While potentially a useful addition, we do wish Panasonic had instead focused on making the aperture ring customizable. The back button layout is largely the same as the LX5 with the exception of a new Neutral Density switch, which toggles on or off a 3-stop neutral density filter. This allows users to use those impressive apertures with accompanying small depth of field even on bright sunny days. The camera body itself is a tad thicker and heavier than its predecessor, yet not as much as you’d expect given the dramatically brighter lens.
The LX7 we were given to use is a production model and, as such, we are able to post full resolution images from the event. We brought the Canon S100 along to the pre-release and had the opportunity to take a few comparison images. Know that these photos are not taken from a tripod and have obviously different white balances (the Canon defaulted warmer), but do accurately portray how you might use each respective camera. The LX7’s f1.4 was very handy in low light and allowed for lower ISO’s than the Canon, but the Canon’s ISO 800 looks remarkably similar to the LX7’s 400. The LX7 has more fine detail in the wine barrel photo, but again not the dramatic difference you'd expect for a full stop difference. Outside at base ISO and with the lenses stopped down, the LX7 has obviously higher sharpening but still reveals Panasonic’s infamous teal sky problem as well as soft corners. To look for yourself see the comparison crops below, the full size samples in the sidebar, and the Canon samples in that camera's review. Take all this with a very large grain of salt, for again these are not controlled test images, but we’re anxious to get a review copy in to really put it through the paces. Panasonic was keeping mum on the LX7’s price and release date, so stay tuned.