Panasonic's cute, cuddly and capable G85.
There are some cameras that are extremely capable but aren't much fun to shoot and then there are cameras that just beg you to keep their strap over your shoulder and take them everywhere. They are like a perfect traveling companion; unassuming, quiet (especially the shutter), compliant, collaborative and easy to get along with. Over the many years in which I have plied my trade as a professional photographer, and have satisfied my yearnings as a devout and committed hobbyist, I've owned plenty of both kinds of camera.
I put up with five pounds of the Kodak DCS 760, and it's voracious appetite for batteries, only because it was capable (within a tight operational window) of producing some of the absolute best images of its day. I put up with all the foibles of the Nikon D2x for much the same reason.
Over the years digital cameras have become operationally better but there is still some combination of handling characteristics, design decisions on the part of their creators, and their innate affability that makes certain cameras gloriously fun and effortless to enjoy. The Leica M3 is one. The Nikon FM is another. What Nikon user didn't like the F100? How about the Canon 7D? Or the Olympus OMD EM-1? All cameras that bring a smile to the face of most users. All cameras that make the pursuit of photographs a bit more fun.
And then there are all the cameras whose files were technically perfect butwhose general demeanor leaves me cold. At the top of that list, for me, would be cameras like the Canon 1DS mk2 which I found too heavy and too.....boring. Or the Nikon D3 series. And then there were cameras that weren't particularly great image makers and had horrible handling characteristics, like the Samsung Galaxy NX. A who remembers the Pentax K-01?
With all this in mind I have to say that the camera I most enjoyed handling, shooting, and just having by my side in 2017 was the Panasonic G85. It really was the gateway drug that pulled me back into the larger Panasonic system. I consider the G85 to be approachable, competent and competitive; at least when it comes to shooting fun images under many different conditions.
Exactly why do I like it? It's small and light. The EVF finder is a high quality viewing experience and has high resolution. It's an OLED, and from what I can see it has none of the foibles of earlier generation EVFs. This makes it easy to use in any light situation and that also means it's easy to evaluate what you've shot in every lighting situation.
The very first thing I noticed about this camera is how elegant and perfectly tuned the sound from the shutter is. Like closing the door on a very, very fine automobile it's got no raucous high frequencies and no audible hysteria. Just a perfect, low frequency "clunk."
The shutter is a brand new unit and was a change made, I think, in reaction to the noisier and vibration prone GX7. Panasonic when further and made the front plate of the camera out of a dense metal alloy which also helps to control any shutter vibration. Just for grins they also added weather proofing to the body as well.
The G85 was one of the first camera models from Panasonic to provide really effective in-body, five axis, image stabilization and also one of the first to feature the dual I.S. system that also appeared in the GH5; the result is a camera that, along with its dual I.S. compatible 12-60mm kit lens, seems almost as if it's mounted on a stout tripod when the system is engaged. It's the closest camera to an Olympus EM-5ii in terms of image stabilization that I've encountered.
While talking about operational features I have to add that it focuses on stationary objects as quickly as any camera I've owned to date --- and is many times faster than some top previous generation cameras from a wide range of makers. With Panasonic lenses, capable of depth from defocus operation with the latest Panasonic cameras, even the continuous AF is on par with cameras in its price class.
The big dials on the front and back of the right hand side of the body mean fast, unambiguous control of shutter speeds and f-stops and the camera also supplies five physical programmable function buttons and another five programmable function buttons on the touch screen. Here's a sweet trick, hold down a function button to see what function it is set to deliver. If you want to change it then holding the button down brings up a menu showing all the options available. Scroll through, pick what you want and hit "OK." You're done.
As far as usability is concerned this camera blows away traditional DSLRs in this price range by offering focus peaking and zebras, a beautiful EVF, on screen audio levels, great physical controls, and the ability to punch in and magnify images from manually focusing lenses in order to fine tune focus. Yes, you can absolutely nail sharp focus with any of the hundreds and hundreds of lenses that can be adapted to work with this camera.
The menus are logical and sensibly laid out. I've never been able to fully understand the Olympus menus but becoming comfortable with the G85 menus took about one week of playing around and rote memorization. But there always seemed to be a logic to it.
So, let's talk about image quality. The reviewers at the web's biggest English language digital camera review site have a policy of using the cameras under test with only their default settings. They would tell you that the G85 is still a step behind Fuji and Olympus when it comes to the quality of the Jpeg files you get from the camera. I have to laugh since every color profile setting in this camera comes with a complete parameter menu that allows you to control things like sharpening, noise reduction, hue, saturation and contrast. In a different menu is a brilliant highlight/shadow curve adjustment feature! If you know what you want from your camera it's remarkably easy to dive in and fine tune any of the color profiles to match your vision and your expectations. My favorite profile for stills is "natural" but I prefer to drop the noise reduction setting by two clicks and to increase the contrast by one click. I also reduce the sharpening by one click. Sometimes I'll shift the hue a bit; if I'm in the mood. The end result is a series of files that look great to me. For me. If you can''t get the color and quality out of this camera you're probably not experimenting with the controls provided. Your fault not the G85's.
But if you don't want to experiment with the settings you can always just default to raw and do all the tweaks in post processing where the files are said to basically match or exceed most of the cameras in the same price class.
Yes, the sensor is a quarter the size of a full frame sensor so when all the camera settings are exactly the same on this camera and on a state-of-the-art, full frame sensor camera this camera will show more noise as you move up from the base ISO. It's physics. But it's not the end of the world. For most of us it doesn't even rise to the level of "deal killer." It's nice looking noise, for the most part, and it's not obtrusive unless you just don't understand how to get good exposure (which reduces noise) or you just can't bring yourself to light a scene when the light drops down below a certain threshold. If you want to shoot at ISO 6400 and above, and never light anything, then this is not the camera or the format for you. Get a Sony A7Sii instead and knock yourself out.
Let's talk about video. If you look at the video specs you'll see right away that this camera is NOT a "junior" GH5. It lacks a few fundamentals. I'll start with the missing headphone jack. I'd much rather have a headphone jack than a built-in flash but the majority of users are probably not thinking in the same way. A little flash can be a convenient device to have when you really need it. But, yeah, no headphone jack.....
When you look under the hood you notice that you don't have the option to use (dot)MOV files for video, just MP4s. It's pretty much just a different wrapper but Panasonic further limits this camera to 8 bit, 4:2:0 video in both UHD (consumer 4K) and 1080p. The highest data rate is achieved when using the UHD setting; it gets you 100mb/s. If you select one of the HD settings (60p, 30p or 24p) you top out at 28 mb/s. For video pixel peepers this is almost a fatal stumbling block.
But if you fire up the camera and shoot some material (especially in 4K) you'll quickly find that the files look really, really good. Even the lower bit rate HD stuff looks very nice. We used our in-house (bought and paid for by Kirk) G85 as the third camera in a three person interview recently and it did a nice job matching the basic color and tonality of two GH5s and, when the 4K files were downsampled to 1080p in the final edit, they matched up well with the more data packed GH5 files. We were even able to match the color profile settings and their various parameters. We used a cheapie microphone for scratch audio to help with syncing and everything worked as it should.
The max. data rate at the UHD settings was 100 mb/s but I have sneaking suspicion that limiting the camera to that rate provides at least two advantages. The first is heat handling. We ran the camera for long periods of time in UHD and never had even a hint of overheating. Since reliability trumps ultimate (potential) image quality in commercial work I think of this as a big plus. The second advantage seems to be that limiting the workload of the processing engines leaves enough muscle to provide full, five axis and dual axis image stabilization even in 4K. This is not matched by many cameras from other brands. Sony is just catching up with this in their newest (and more expensive) cameras. A sub-advantage of the efficiency of the 100 mb/s limit might also be longer battery life. We are consistently getting about one hour and twenty minutes of run time in 4K with a fresh battery. Pretty amazing given how small the batteries actually are.
Lately I've been using the G85 as a "grip and grin" video camera. I put the camera in a Smallrig cage, add a Saramonic SR-M3 directional condenser microphone to the rig, add a small Aputure LED panel and then trick out the package with the 12-60mm f3.5-5.6 zoom and I've got a "go anywhere" rig with image stabilization that rivals a monopod, decent (but not perfect) audio recording, all in a bundle that makes beautiful UHD video files. It's perfect for getting lots of b-roll quickly. We'll talk about the Saramonic in another blog...it's worth its $59 price tag.
If we'll be shooting outdoors I drop a group of three 58mm diameter, Tiffen neutral density filters into a handy jacket pocket. Voila! Done.
My advice for videographers is to use the camera for its strengths rather than fixating on what it doesn't have. You pretty much want to always be shooting in UHD knowing that you can easily down convert to 1080p and get really good sharpness along with the typically good color and tonality. You might want to check out the "natural" color setting and experiment with bringing down the sharpness and contrast to taste. If you need to shoot good audio you can watch the meters carefully and trust to your good luck or you can grab "scratch" audio with a short microphone in the hotshoe while recording monitor-able sound on an outboard audio recorder and syncing up everything in post. It's not longer much of a hassle at all. Progress marches on...
As with just about any video camera the more light you give it, and the lower you can keep the ISO, the more the files will reward you. Lighting is not a dirty word or a last century concept, it's a tool that allows you to increase the technical quality of your files while also "possibly" improving the aesthetic quality as well.
Finally, it never hurts to use a fast SD card. My camera seemed happier when I fed it a V90 card but that may just be the "placebo" effect for my wallet.
Coming to terms with the camera's few limitations. The camera is usually available for around $899 WITH it's very good 12-60mm kit lens. I bought mine on a sale for $800. I thought I made out like a bandit. The downside? You won't be able to show off to your friends just how high your credit card spending limit is.
The camera "only" has a 16 megapixel sensor!!! Well, yes. And the camera we billed six figures with back in 2002 only had 6 megapixels. So what? With 70% of advertising and creative content (video, photos, etc.) being viewed on cellphones I fail to see the imperative to make every file 40" by 60" ready. It's mostly a waste of time and resources. But the 16 megapixels are sharp and well done. And it's all tucked into a package that's easy (and fun) to use. Sure, your Sony A7Rii might have 42 megapixels and you'll probably be able to see the difference if you put that Sony on a tripod and hold your breathe, or you light up your shot with fast (motion freezing) studio strobes and focus carefully. But I'm here to tell you that for a sub-$1,000 camera you'll probably be absolutely delighted with what you get if you are walking around and handholding the G85.
My take is that if you don't have the budget to buy and use one of the new generation of super cameras you probably don't need their level of capability anyway. And if you already have clients that DEMAND the highest resolution and a brush with perfection you sure as hell aren't going to waste time here getting advice about a camera that costs less than your Gitzo carbon fiber tripod. Right?
Argue all you want but if you have less than $900 bucks to spend on a camera and lens and you want the best compromise between great photo files and pretty damn good video files, along with a nice EVF and a good implementation of in body (and in lens) image stabilization, you could do a hell of a lot worse than picking up a G85 and the kit lens.
If you have clients who are demanding the output from a D810 or an A7riii then you SHOULD be working at day rates of $2500 or more. If you are not then you are delivering more than those clients deserve......or you lack the confidence to do the work you know you should deliver and you are looking for a "magic bullet" to make up for your shortcomings in lighting, posing, styling, directing, propping, and post processing. But you might soon find out that just having a bitching cool camera won't substitute for all that stuff that's really pre-requisite for doing the real work of photography. At least that's my opinion. But if you want to believe otherwise it's certainly your prerogative.
Bottom Line: I love what my Panasonic GH5 cameras can do. The files are amazing. The video is quite satisfying. The construction of the camera is state-of-the-art...but... when I want a camera to become transparent and just deliver photographs without intruding into the process the camera I pick up every time is the G85.
That doesn't mean there aren't other choices out there that do a good job in the same budget range. I'm sure that you could accomplish most of your imaging tasks with a Canon Rebel SL-2, a Nikon 3X00 series camera or an Olympus or Fuji. The point I am trying to make here is that this is a good and effective piece of gear at a fairly low price. It's a piece of gear that won't limit most people in their honest pursuit of photos and video. The only folks who will point out the "limitations" of the gear will be those guys in ComiCon sweatshirts sitting in front of their computer monitors checking those photos of the brick walls at 200%. And you don't want to be those guys. At least I hope you don't.