Which camera have I enjoyed using the most in 2017? That's easy...

 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 but
whose 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. 


Anonymous said...

Thank you for the first two photos with brick walls. I'm blowing them up and using them to evaluate just how good the G85 is.


Massimo said...

Hi Kirk, even if at the end I got the Em1mk2 and not the g80, I subscribe all you say as it applies, more generally, to the m43 ecosystem.
My considerations on the system here http://www.massimocristaldi.com/blog/mft-worth-a-serious-look-the-olympus-em1-mk-ii-experience/

Anonymous said...

Sage advice!!!

Karen Casebeer said...

Thanks, Kirk. Your article is making me wonder if I should be getting the G85 vs. waiting for the G9. Anything thoughts?

Unknown said...

Agree with you 100%, love my G85. I have Sony FF and APS cameras as well but my favorite is the G85. I have sold work and had work published with it so its good enough, LOL. My favorite thing is the manual focus magnifier on the camera. With my old eyes it makes using this camera fun again.

Kirk Tuck, Photographer/Writer said...

Karen, I've read your responses on the blog and on a DPR forum. I think the G9 is the camera to buy if it will be your primary camera. The increased resolution is nice and the files, just because the processors are newer and faster, will be better. I use GH5s for my commercial work because they offer things that clients need (or want) that the G85 doesn't have, like a headphone jack for monitoring audio, or 10 bit 4:2:2 color that comes in handy when shooting video on green screen. It's a complicated camera but when used right is competitive with almost anything on the market. The G85 is pared down but with an eye toward easy handling and less intensive video use. Both are very capable, the GH5 is just more capable (better finder, better battery, more controls) but it's three times the price of the G85. I like the G85 because I can get close to the quality of the GH5 but without the weight, the complexity and the cost. But I wouldn't have switched systems based on the G85, it's an adjunct to the more professional camera. It has become my (much admired) hobby camera.

Dennis Elam said...

Yes I know it has a small sensor but I would still like to read your evaluation of the Pany FZ 300. constant 2.8 all the way thru, 4K, relatively light and sealed, what's not to like, and at $500 a bargain with the familiar Pany menu and fold out touch scren
Dennis Elam

Mark the tog said...

"But you might soon find out that just having a bitching cool camera won't take substitute for all that stuff that's really pre-requisite for doing the real work of photography. "

The longer I work in photography the truer that phrase.
I find myself agonizing over planning and executing a shoot to ensure that my client never says "Who hired this idiot?"

I can't look at my work cameras without feeling a pang of the burdens of work to some extent.
When I pick up my fun camera (GX-7 and kit lens) I re-connect with why I started in photography all those years ago.

Stephen said...

Could not agree more although I do seem to remember there was a time when you had serious lobe for the wee brick that was the K01

Michael Matthews said...

Speaking of things that sell for about 900 bucks and offer an incalculable multiple of that in video production — now might not be the worst time to acquire a DJI Mavic Pro. That 4K video from a gimbal stabilized 12 MP camera looks superb on the average viewer’s iPad or phone and, for all I know, may be equally impressive on a TV-size screen. It not only gives you the opportunity to offer your clients flyover views, but can give you all the advantages of movie studio crane shots and trackless dolly shots. Just a thought.

Dave said...

I was so torn between the Cyber Monday deal on the G85 and GH4. The ibis of the G85 was tempting, but in the end I opted for the extra controls and flexibility of the GH4. Thanks again for your input on that decision. I do still find myself tingling with gear acquisition syndrome over the emerging ibis, but the base capabilities of the GH4 won me over.

Kirk Tuck, Photographer/Writer said...

Dave, a tripod trumps IBIS every time. So does a monopod when you need to be more mobile. Not as sexy but imminently usable. The GH4 is a great video cam and a really good photo maker. The battery life alone should bring many smiles to your face....

Anonymous said...

That G85 is a hell of an all-arounder. It lacks the glamor and beauty of a Fuji or Pen-F, it lacks the sculpted clean all-business look of the OM-D's. Once it's in your hands, however, it just makes life easy. The viewfinder is like looking through a picture window, it's as responsive as my Nikons in decent light, the touch screen is among the most enjoyable to use so far implemented. Add the weatherproofing and the stabilization and the ease of getting great results and it would be very hard to beat.

Somebody once said there are camera models you love to look at and possess, and then there are those you forget are even there. I'm learning more and more that boring cameras that get out of your way and let you work may be the best ones after all.

Dano said...

Is there enough differences between the GH5 and the G9 for you to have an interest?

Doug said...

Kirk: If you were going to choose an international travel camera, would you choose the G85 with 2-3 lenses or the FZ2500?

Dano said...

Do you think Olympus will introduce a new m5 to compete with the G9?

sgcamerastore said...

Using high quality Photo equipments can help you achieve the high quality photos. Thank you.

SBC said...

Kirk, your comments have been very reassuring. I bought the G85 with 12-60mm kit lens with the 100-300mm last week after much deliberation. I enjoy nature/scenic photography and upgraded from the very nice FZ300 to improve IQ and to use of a manual zoom. The FZ300 power zoom was just too slow and inaccurate. I've found the G85 continuous focus to be very good and hand holding with the 100-300 is a breeze. I'm a happy 'snapper'.

tnargs said...

I think it's wonderful that a non-traditional newcomer to the camera manufacturing business, so often sneeringly denigrated as a microwave oven or TV company that doesn't care about cameras, wins your pick as the most fun, intuitive, enticing camera of your year.

Well done Panasonic. You've earned your praise, the hard way.

Karen Casebeer said...

Thanks for your input, Kirk. I agonized over getting the G85 all weekend, reading DPreview reviews, forums, and customer reviews on B&H. The "want it now" part of me was speaking very loudly! In the end, I decided the G9 is the camera I've been waiting for so I've dug in for the wait. Your input confirmed that decision. Many thanks for taking the time to answer. Karen

pepeye said...

Don’t forget about the mighty little GX85. Same sensor, IBIS and 4K video (with no recording time limit) of the G85 in a tidy package that feels great in the hand. Has a few limitations such as no mic input (I record audio seperately anyway) and a lower-resolution EVF. But it can easily be found for around $500. I may outgrow it someday for some video production uses, but I love it too much to let it stray too far from my side.

Gary said...

Kirk, a slight correction from a California dude: The word is "bitchin," not "bitching."

Craig Yuill said...

The G85 is one of the top cameras on my "if I decide to get into the Micro Four Thirds system" list. Yesterday afternoon, in the front window of my favourite camera store, where the choice used cameras and lenses are displayed, were two G85 bodies. There was also one of the 12-60mm matching kit zooms as well. I don't know about how the store figures out pricing of its used gear, but the combined price of a used G85 and a used 12-60mm lens is the same as a brand new G85/12-60mm kit with full warranty. If I was to pick up one of those used G85s I am wondering what lens other than the 12-60mm would be a good choice. The store is also selling a used copy of the 14mm f/2.5 Panasonic lens. One of the Panasonic f/2.8 zooms?

Mosswings said...

What a gorgeous camera. Beautiful to hold, a wonderful, high eye relief viewfinder that gives eyeglass wearers a break. But Kirk, how does a left-eye shooter select a focus zone with eye to the viewfinder?

Unfortunately, this left-eyed Nikon shooter was really disappointed in Panasonic's control offerings for selecting a focus zone. Use the touch screen? Us lefties keep poking ourselves in the eye or having to pull the camera away from our eyes to read the touch screen, which doesn't work in broad daylight. Use the 4-way buttons? Takes two button presses and a great deal of care that you don't reset the mode...and the focus zone moves slowly.

Sadly, I'm too used to working the camera completely from the viewfinder, and to having an AF joystick or joydisk properly placed so that I can fine tune focus position without appreciably changing my grip. The G85's UI is in my opinion really designed for the user to rely on the auto subject detection feature of the AF rather than exercise direct positioning control.

I notice that the G9 DOES have an AF joystick. Sigh.

Unknown said...

I too also purchased the Panasonic G80 this year as my main camera. It was an upgrade to my E-PL6, which in turn replaced a worn-out Panasonic G3. Due to stock availability issues in the UK this summer, I could only buy it body only. I paired it with my Pana-Leica 25mm f1.4, then also bought the 15mm f1.7 to go with my new camera. Whilst I lacked a good wide aperture zoom, I knew I could always fall back on my Panasonic 12-32mm when needed.

My primary objective for upgrading was to get improved video quality, where the compression didn't 'crash' in quality due to image compression.

I can agree with you that even after 6 months, I don't regard this as a beautiful or 'sexy' camera. Not much cold shiny metal and satisfying manual dials. But the way the G80 falls in to your hands and gives every common function an instinctive control mechanism is sublime. I recommend putting the picture modes and shadow/highlight adjustment on a function key. You can programme it to put whatever functions you need directly to hand. The photos can give depth and saturation when needed, but they can also give toned-down natural colours when required too. Most of all, I love that I could operate this camera in pitch black darkness and control all the important settings in time to take a photo. That's one of my critical requirements of a camera! Finally, the superb high ISO performance combined with fast and compact lenses means that for all practical purposes you don't need to worry about noise from high ISO.

This camera is growing on me month by month as it's still here, working flawlessly, more and more intuitively. The photo and video quality never let me down. I'm growing to get over my prejudice of a generic black lump, and I'm beginning to love this camera.

Anonymous said...

I have a GX-7 and an LX-100. Between ubiquitous cell phones and big rig DSLR's, the smaller cameras can sometimes let you hide in plain sight. That's why I love the lightweight division.

David Corney said...

Just bought a G85, and very pleased with it. I have an OM-D E-M5 Mark 1 (and a D800) for comparison. With my large hands the ergonomics of the G85 are much better. As for picture quality, in RAW it looks good to my eyes. What really appeals is the size and weight. Lugging a D800, with lenses around has got old.

The day when my D800, and the wonderful Nikon lenses, are put up for sale is getting closer. I'll miss the image quality, but not for long.