A "First Blush" review of the Panasonic G6 budget super camera. Plus a bonus lens review....

Occasionally a member of my family will ask a logical question like : "You already have two Panasonic GH3's, why in the world would you go out and buy a G6 ?????"  And I'm not really sure they want the literal answer as much as they want to voice their incredulity at my spendthrift ways.  But no one asked this time even though the box was sitting right there on the front step Weds. night when we came home from dinner at David Garrido's fun restaurant. Maybe it was the afterglow of great Margaritas and pork tacos or the joyful, spicy fried oysters that Garrido's is famous for...but no one even batted an eye. If they had asked I had my answer ready.  "It's all about the focus peaking!!!" I was going to say. And now I am disappointed that no one did ask because I'm excited about it and I really wanted to share....

The G6 is less a replacement for a big, interchangeable lens DLSR and more a dramatic upgrade to all those fixed lens, smaller sensor cameras like the Canon G series or Panasonic's own LX-7. At least that's what I thought before I started using one. Now I'm thinking that it's a great, light, cheap and resourceful machine for all but the most demanding types of photography.

For a whoppingly small $500 I got a camera that features: A very decent 16 megapixel sensor. An extremely lightweight camera body that has enough square inch-age to feel just right in my hands. A very competent and useful electronic viewfinder. A more detailed movie making mode. with much more detail, than the $3,000 Sony body which I bought mostly for its video capabilities. A camera with a full positionable LCD screen. A camera with a highly logical and useful touch screen. A camera with a 3.5mm mic input.  A camera that uses all sorts of micro four thirds lenses and is adaptable to just about every lens on the market today. A camera with a conventional hot shoe. An absolutely silent electronic shutter mode (silent, not even a demure click).  And, the main event...... a camera with focus peaking.

When you mix all of this together along, with a very capable, new formulation zoom lens that gives me a 28 to 84mm equivalent (35mm FF) range, complete with in lens image stabilization it pretty much seems like the bargain of the season to me. If you already have a big Nikon or Canon or  Sony and you want a smaller camera with big performance that you can take anywhere without feeling like you're dragging a chubby brick around with you this might be the one. And the image quality is much closer to your big camera (almost embarrassingly so) than it is to your favorite cellphone. 

But the thing that cinched the deal for me (in addition to the price drop....) was the brilliant (at this price point) inclusion of focus peaking. I like using the GH3's and their one button magnification allows for quick and easy fine focusing with manual focus lenses from across the catalogs, but there is something quicker and more fluid about seeing the image quickly shimmer into sharpness in the EVF of this little camera. A discreet cyan shimmer outlines in focus details and that tells you without multi-step interpretation that you'll be in focus. 

Here's why it's important to me: I bought the GH3s to do video and commercial work and in my testing I came to realize that my collection of Pen FT manual focus, half frame, prime lenses from Olympus's past were not just "usable" on these cameras---many were actually superb. Now, most of the time when I work I have ample time to fine tune manual focus and it's easy enough to push a function button and pop up a part of the frame in the GH3 LCD or EVF to 5X or 8X and make precise adjustments. And when we're shooting video it's pretty much the same thing. Plus, we mark the focus on the distance ring of the lens or on a focus follow device and then mark any other focus points we intend to transition to before we start rolling. Then we can effect focus without even looking at a screen. But---when you are walking down the street, see a gorgeous Austin girl whose face is covered with a Darth Maul tattoo, and whose pink hair appears to be on fire, and you've just got nanoseconds to make the shot before she fades from view ---the focus peaking is a magic feature. Bring the camera to your eye and, if you haven't forgotten your manual focus techniques, the focus peaking will help you nail the shot faster than AF and with more certainty. And it automatically holds the focus where you set it, shot after shot.  I first started using this feature in the Sony Alpha cameras and became addicted to the quickness and to the ease with which I could nail focus on manual focusing optics like the Rokinon Cines lenses.

Now one of the reasons I feel like a cat in a swimming pool when I pick up a traditional OVF camera is the paucity of good viewing feedback. Yes, the scene is like looking through a window into an optically imaged chunk of the real world but you won't know until you chimp whether you paid attention to proper exposure, color balance or even fine focusing. The traditional OVF is to the EVF what the plastic finder on a Holga (even clearer than an optical finder because all you are looking through is air....) to an OVF on a current DSLR.  It's like an aspirin compared to morphine. 

And now, in this small, inexpensive camera I get one more layer of feedback and control: I know where the focus lies.

If you can live with 16 megapixels on a sensor that's a generation older than the one in the GX7 you'd pretty much think that the G6 is the ultimate, affordable, portable pro camera body (no, it's not weather proof or alloy-ishly rugged) but there is one little gotcha that disappointed me. There is no constant preview in manual setting. And what that means is that no matter what exposure you have set in manual the camera will still pipe an image into the viewfinder that it presumes is correct for viewing. Your exposure combination of 1/4000th at f11 indoors at ISO 160 will probably give you a black or almost black frame but the camera will stupidly and heroically try to give you a perky and bright image in the finder for your compositional pleasure. Much to your control oriented chagrin. 

I'm not happy with that missing feature since I use it all the time on the GH3 but I've decided that I'll work around it and work in "A" mode instead. I'll go to "M" if I need to but I'll be chimping and watching the meter like a hungry dog watches the beef sizzling on the BBQ grill. But for day to day fun stuff the Aperture mode is just right for me.

And there's one more thing that makes the A mode even easier. There's a little toggle/slider switch on the top of the camera. It was put there when Panasonic and Olympus started making lenses with motorized zooms for shooting video. I don't have any motorized zooms so rather than letting that darling little control go to waste I repurposed the button and made it the exposure compensation toggle switch. Push right for plus compensation. Push left for negative compensation. When it's neutral a bigger +/-  graphic pops up in the finder and you know you're in the null zone. Once learned it's a priceless control. No more pushing in on a button and moving a dial or diving into a menu. One dedicated button, logically connected with visual feedback, that makes automatic mode shooting nearly as virtuous as manual exposure settings. Sure, go ahead and toss in a live histogram if you are uncomfortable making a totally visual confirmation of good exposure. 

Of course none of these little niceties would matter if the camera didn't perform. If it didn't deliver the files you commanded it to. And I have been impressed at what I've gotten from it. The image above was shot on Thanksgiving. The camera was handheld and the ISO was 3200. I looked at 100% and I could see very tight, fine black noise in the petals of the flowers but for the most part the file was competitive with the files I've been getting out of cameras four and five times the price of this one. The image above was done with the type II kit lens, wide open and I think it's great.  

OMG! Is this unprocessed file exhibiting "Olympus Colors?"

Sadly, the pool was closed yesterday and it's closed again today so we had two days of enforced non-swimming to get through. Couple that with three hours of driving and two big meals yesterday and you'll understand why I was up and out of the house early this morning. I wanted to get in two hours of brisk walking before getting into the office to construct this vital blog post and to shore up arrangements for three fun shoots next week. I tossed the kit lens into the center console of the super high performance studio car (stock Honda CRV) clamped the Olympus Pen FT 60mm f1.5 lens onto the new camera (which, if you price out separately from the kit lens equals a $300 to $350 camera body...) and headed downtown for a wild walk and a moving morning of manual focusing. I tried to use the lens in its sweetest sweet spot at around f4 but every once and a while I'd hit the shutter speed ceiling of 1/4000th of a second and have to stop down to f5.6. 

For a lens that is as old and experienced as this one (the 60mm f1.5) I am continually amazed at how well it delivers images, both in bright light and on the edges of light.  It resolves plenty of detail and its only concession to modernity is a slight lack of contrast. But that is one parameter that's easily and transparently resolvable in post processing.  This lens, on the G6 and the GH3's is quickly becoming a favorite portrait lens for me because of its combination of resolution without the biting contrast of today's better lenses....

Another point I'd like to make about the Jpeg files I was getting out of the G6 today: If you read the forums, and especially the Olympus forums, you'd be forgiven for believing that Olympus is the only camera company on the face of the globe that understands how to get good color, in Jpeg formats, out of current camera sensors. We hear constantly about the legendary Olympus blue and about the perfect blend of thick, rich colors. It almost sounds like Ricardo Montelban's description of the "rich, Corinthian Leather...." used on the Chrysler car seats of the old days. Well,  I'm pretty convinced by the color palette that Panasonic is supplying in both the GH3 and the G6. And they also provide fine tuning controls that, with a tiny bit of effort, can pretty much mimic the color profile of most other cameras. Get your color balance right and most cameras can deliver very accurate color these days. Don't want "accurate"? Then we open up a whole can of worms. Tweak the blues and add a little contrast and you're pretty much in the Oly ballpark. 

But camera ownership shouldn't be about us versus them, especially when it comes to m4:3. Why? because it's all in the family. With the interchangeability of lenses you get to live in the context of an interesting paradigm: You buy the stuff that's more or less permanent (lenses) and hold them for a longer term. You can then mix and match the bodies to get exactly the look you want----and it's okay to have more than one brand of body in the toolbox. In my world it's also okay to own multiple tool boxes and have more than one lens system. 

From my experiences shooting this morning I would also call attention to the metering of the G6. It is very accurate. The highlights in the image above were hanging on by their fingernails but the camera took the file right up to the edge without loosing control of the highlight detail. I've found that the camera is pretty uniform in exposure and rarely underexposes either. Again, I've owned plenty of much more expensive cameras whose proclivity for routine (and cowardly) underexposure to protect highlights was so over done it was almost embarrassing. Yes, Nikon, I'm looking at you!

The journey of a thousand miles begins not with the first step but with the proper tying of one's shoelaces.

And sometimes a rock is just.......a hat on a giraffe. 

Cranes Dancing. Sometimes we experiment with the "mono" mode in the cameras.

Bottom line? I wish the camera had "constant preview" as in the GH3. Other than that I think this is a perfect, carry everywhere, interchangeable lens, EVF-supercharged, wonderful camera. For less than $500? Amazingly good.

Studio Portrait Lighting