Despite the many available colors, there is only ONE Panasonic DMC-G3 camera, colloquially known as the "G3." I'll review the one in black since it's the most popular color.
Recommend this product?
My user experiences are marked in italics.
This is a compact interchangeable-lens camera (CILC), aka a Compact System Camera, aka an EVIL (Electronic Viewfinder - Interchangeable Lens) camera, aka a mirrorless camera. The other leading cameras in this segment include the Nikon 1, Sony NEX, and Samsung NX systems, all with varying attributes.
I've used a range of cameras and in my opinion the G3 is the best bang for the buck right now for most users. I will now compare the most important aspects of cameras, feature for feature, and end with a review of how the G3 stands among its peers.
Responsiveness and Autofocus speed.
CILCs are generally far more responsive than compact cameras, even high-end compacts like the Canon S100 or S95. This is because there is more computer power in the camera and better hardware. If you press the shutter, there is less of a lag before the camera takes a photo. If you want to take a burst of photos, the camera will be able to take more of them before choking on all the data. Etc.
The G3 has a touchscreen, and the LCD touchscreen can flip out and is fully rotatable so you can even take photos of yourself with it if you flip it in reverse. You can use the touchscreen to "touch focus" (like with a cameraphone) or even "touch shutter release" (focus AND take a shot with one touch), so as to tell the camera where to focus in the frame and take the shot. Not to mention that the touchscreen allows you to quickly change settings, as an alternative to using the G3's physical buttons. It sure beats pressing D-pads like on DSLRs, to select focus points that may or may not be exactly where you want.
The G3 is very fast handling compared to most other CILCs. In addition to a dual-purpose thumbwheel and programmable buttons for fast switching of settings (unlike some of the cheaper NEX and Micro Four Thirds cameras that force you to delve into menus much more often), it has one of the fastest autofocus times for single-shot situations, where the target is not moving. It also doesn't struggle much in low light; and it has an autofocus assist beam for when it gets really dark.
Where the G3 struggles is with fast-moving, small objects like flying birds. I had a hellacious time taking photos of flying birds with the G3 + 100-300mm lens at dusk. There wasn't that much light to begin with, and the 100-300mm doesn't let in that much light, either.
To be fair, though, all CILCs struggle with birds-in-flight in low light. Heck, even my D5100 DSLR struggles in such situations. Typically you'd need a pro camera and bright lenses to get a high rate of keepers when trying to photograph in such conditions. If taking flying bird photos matters a lot to you, consider the Nikon 1 instead because those cameras have a type of autofocus that does better when tracking small, moving objects.
Also, before I move on, I'd like to say that whoever put the (programmable) Display button flush on the right side of the G3 needs a good spanking. It's too easy to accidentally push the button or push it but not get tactile feedback as to whether or not it was actually pushed. Moving it a little to the left with a bump instead of flush to the camera body would be wonderful.
Bright light peformance.
Most cameras do just fine in bright light, because there are so many photons of light that even the smallest sensors have plenty to work with, and thus there is no need to increase ISO. The G3 is no exception and does fine in bright light. The weakest point is dynamic range, but the camera usually does well in metering the photo for proper exposure. That said, sometimes there is just so much contrast within a scene that you will wind up with blown highlights or crushed blacks, if you let the camera do everything automatically. I find that the G3 needs more pampering than my Nikon D5100, so that I have to manually underexpose shots more often, in order to preserve highlights, whereas the larger dynamic range of the D5100 allows me more leeway to not have to manually underexpose. But if you are careful, the G3 does fine. Some of the NEX/NX sensors have broader dynamic range and thus will be more like the D5100 experience, but most other CILCs have about the same dynamic range as the G3.
In sum, the G3 is pretty good in bright light, but so are most cameras, even compact cameras, so it's not exactly a big deal.
Low light performance.
Here is where things get tricky. Some people when shopping for expensive cameras do so because they want better low-light performance.
Low light is highly stressful on a camera. This is because there are a lot fewer light photons bouncing around, and camera sensors need a decent amount of them to process into photos. The lower the light, the longer the sensor needs to be exposed to light, in order to collect data. But the longer the exposure time, the more handshake or subject movement can blur the image.
There are several ways to increase low-light performance:
1. Use lenses that have large maximum apertures, such as f/1.7. Aperture means the size of the hole in the lens relative to focal length. Example: a 25mm f/2 lens is usually preferred to a 25mm f/4 lens. This is because the biggest hole the f/2 lens can make is f/2, but it can also go down in size to f/2.8 or f/4 or f/8, etc. But the biggest hole the 25mm f/4 lens can make is, well, f/4; it can only go down from there. The f/2 lens would be considered a "bright" or "fast" lens whereas the f/4 lens would be more middling. A really fast lens would be more like f/1.2 or f/1.4, but those tend to get bigger and more expensive.
Micro four thirds has been around for a few years now, and it has a wide array of useful lenses, including some large-aperture lenses like the 20mm f/1.7, 25mm f/1.4, 14mm f/2.5, 45mm f/1.8, and 25mm f/0.95. Other systems like NEX, NX, and Nikon 1 can't say the same. They have a weak selection of lenses, many of them not particularly good, and very few of them are large-aperture lenses.
Therefore the G3 has potential access to some fast glass that can help out in low-light situations.
2. Use a tripod or image stabilization.
A tripod is self explanatory. Say good bye to handshake if you use one. But it does nothing to counteract the target moving around, so it's mostly useful when used on stationary things like landscapes.
Image stabilization is sort of like having a crummy tripod that sort-of stabilizes the camera. You get LESS handshake, but there is still some handshake. All CILCs except Olympus use optical, or "in lens" stabilization where there is a moving element in the lens that tries to counteract handshake motions. (Olympus puts the anti-shake motor in the camera body instead of the lens. This means you only have to build the anti-shake system once per camera body, instead of in every lens. Unfortunately this also generates heat and thus image noise, and it's less effective for longer focal lengths.)
Panasonic lenses have tame optical image stabilization in my experience. It'll help out somewhat, but at most you may be able to quadruple your exposure times before handshake blur sets in. Not bad but not great, just middle of the pack. And like tripods, image stabilization is useless on moving subjects.
Most people like Through The Lens (TTL) flash metering where the flash and camera talk to each other. The camera tells the flash what it sees, and what focal length it is using, and thus the flash knows how much to concentrate its light and how much power to use, if it's one of the more advanced flashes. (Dumb flashes have to be manually set.)
Panasonic shares Olympus's TTL system. So you can use Oly-compatible TTL flashes on the G3. You can also use tethering. But for wireless, Panasonic does not support built-in flash commander mode, so you will have to use a wireless trigger instead, and probably manual mode. Not a big deal, but just wanted to throw that out there at the professionals who might be wondering. (NOTE: The NEX, NX, and Nikon V1 lack built-in flash so that's a factor for some... you are stuck with having to use an included external flash for those cameras. Kind of a hassle and just one more thing to lose.)
4. Increase ISO.
When all else fails in low light situations, increase the camera's ISO. This is like turning up the gain on audio equipment. You get more signal but also more noise, and if you turn up ISO too much you end up with more noise than signal.
All else equal, the larger the sensor, the better light-gathering ability and the better high-ISO performance (i.e., more signal, less noise, as you ratchet up ISO). But that's all else equal. Different companies use slightly different technologies. Also, the more pixels you try to pack into a given area, the worse the sensor's high-ISO performance. Finally, companies keep innovating and making sensors better over time, so a smaller sensor made today might actually have better high-ISO performance than a larger sensor made several years ago.
The G3 has pretty good high ISO performance. It is on par with DSLRs made a few years ago and a step ahead of Nikon 1 and a step behind the NEX/NX sensors. You can get pretty usable photos up to 1600, maybe even 3200 if it's just for smaller prints (5x7") or the web. As an aside, the G3 sensor is about 9 times bigger than typical compact camera sensors.
Lens selection and sizes.
Here's where micro four thirds cameras like the G3 really shine. The G3 has access to ultrawideangle zooms (7-14, 9-18, regular zooms, and even a supertelephoto 100-300 lens; all measures in millimeters, and should be doubled to get the "effective" focal length in 35-mm film terms. E.g., a 7-14mm zoom on the G3 gives the same field of view as a 14-28mm zoom on a full-frame DSLR.)
And the micro four thirds lenses are downright tiny! In general, the larger the sensor, the larger the lenses for it have to be, in order to generate a big enough image for the sensor. So for any given megapixel count, larger sensors have better high-ISO performance but also demand larger lenses as well. Given that cameramakers are loathe to reduce megapixels, this effectively means that to get better high-ISO performance, you need a larger sensor and larger lenses.
The G3's micro four thirds sensor is significantly smaller than that of DSLRs and NEX/NX, so its lenses can be made proportionately smaller as well. And with a broad range of fast glass, the G3 does not NEED to crank up ISO as much as its rivals with slower glass. Example: a G3 with a 20mm f/1.7 lens at ISO 200 may end up taking photos just as good as a NEX-5N with a f/3.5 lens at ISO 400.
I have had no problems carrying around my G3 to photo shoots. It is a pleasure to be able to carry 3, 4, or even 5 lenses in my camera bag and still have it weigh less than my DSLR with 2 lenses.
Manual Focus and Framing; Electronic Viewfinder (EVF).
The G3 has a setting where, if you turn it on, it auto-magnifies the center of the frame to help you manual focus. You can even tune the magnification factor.
Moreover, the G3 has a built-in electronic viewfinder (EVF), something which nearly every rival lacks. I really like the EVF. The EVF has pretty good resolution and allows accurate framing even in bright sunlight, which tends to give lots of glare to the LCD screen if you try to use that to frame a shot instead. The EVF is responsive enough for even fast-action shots and is usable even in low light, in my experience, such as dusk. The only time I felt the EVF was a bit of a struggle to use was with, you guessed it, fast-flying birds at dusk. They can be hard to predict and I have an easier time shooting them with a DSLR's OVF, which does not black out or freeze in-between shots like EVFs and LCDs do.
Side note about OVFs: DSLRs all have optical viewfinders (OVFs) but I prefer EVFs due to being able to project additional info, like exposure histograms, directly on the viewfinder itself. In rebuttal, a DSLR can also do stuff like that, but only in Live View (mirror up mode) where it loses the fast-autofocus ability and has to resort to slow contrast-detect autofocus that is about as responsive as a compact camera, not even as fast as a CILC. My D5100 for instance has pretty embarrassingly slow autofocus when using Live View, compared to every CILC I've ever used, even the relatively slow-focusing E-PL1.
Where is the built-in EVF among rivals? The much more expensive Nikon V1 has one, and the even more expensive GH2 and NEX-7, too, but everything else doesn't a built-in EVF. Having to spend another $200 to $350 on an EVF that hogs the hotshoe (preventing usage of external flash) is a real bummer.
Lens and Bokeh (aka out-of-focus blur).
The Panasonic 14-42mm kit lens is a plasticky lens (even the lens mount is plastic, much like some of its rivals and even the Nikon DSLR kit lenses that have plastic mounts) that is nevertheless pretty decent and about as well built as most of its rivals. For some reason this is one of the bigger Micro Four Thirds lenses for its focal length and not that much smaller than the 14-140mm superzoom, for instance, though it is much lighter. If size is paramount, consider getting a pancake lens (14mm 20mm or 14-42mm "X" power zoom) instead. Anyway, this 14-42mm kit lens is sharp in the center and acceptable at the edges when wide open. As you close down the aperture, the edges get better. For some, it may be all the lens they will ever need. Just don't pick up the camera via the lens or drop it, due to its iffy build quality. The optical image stabilization works fine and is about middle of the pack compared to other stabilized lenses I've used; it should allow you to roughly quadruple your exposure time before handshake outweighs the image stabilization. The focus ring and turning are both on par with rivals and nothing special either way (good or bad). It uses the common 52mm filter thread so you should have no problem finding, say, a circular polarizer for it; compare this to other system kit lenses with slightly weirder filter thread sizes like 37mm or 40.5mm or 49mm. You will still be able to find filters for those weirder sizes, just not as easily and perhaps not in the brand you'd prefer. For instance, I prefer Hoya HD filters, but they don't come in sizes smaller than 52mm.
Bokeh is the photographic term for out of focus things blurring, especially for point sources of light (highlights) which get rendered in the shape of the aperture hole. The rounder and creamier, the better (usually). It's usually used to isolate the subject from a busy background, especially in portraits. In extreme cases you have just an eye or two sharp and everything else soft and blurry.
Lenses have a strong effect on bokeh. Those with rounder aperture blades will produce rounder bokeh. And some optical formulas are better than others in producing smooth and cream blur rather than harsh highlights and rings. The kit lens on the G3 is adequate for bokeh, neither particularly good or bad. When wide open, all lenses have round apertures because they are fully retracted, so roundness of aperture is not a problem. If you stop down, especially all the way down to f/16 or f/22 or whatever your lens's minimum aperture is, most lenses will have asymmetric aperture blades, but that's not a big deal since there will be precious little bokeh anyway. As a result of writing this review, I spent an hour last night looking through all of my lenses at various apertures and noting that almost all of them are slightly asymmetric when stopped down to their smallest apertures, even my really expensive lenses. I have never noticed that before, probably because a) there is precious little bokeh once you stop down to that size; and b) in general, I don't shoot below f/11; diffraction will make photos blurry starting at about f/7.1 for micro four thirds cameras, and f/9.5 for Nikon DSLRs, so there's really no point in going below f/11 for non-macro photos.
All else equal, you can get more bokeh by increasing focal length, increasing aperture size, shortening distance between you and the subject (walk up close if you have to), or increasing sensor size. That's all else equal of course, so you can have situations where one thing cancels out the other, like zooming in with a slow kit lens (longer focal length but also smaller aperture, so the net increase in bokeh is reduced).
The G3's sensor is about nine times bigger than a compact camera's sensor. The G3's sensor is in-between the Nikon1 and APS-C-sized sensors found in the NEX/NX and crop-body DSLRs like the D5100 and T3i.
That means that the G3 will have a much easier time blurring backgrounds than compacts, though not so easy a time as bigger-sensored cameras and especially full-frame cameras which have sensors four times larger than the G3's.
In my months of shooting with the G3 I have been pretty happy with the bokeh control, especially using longer and faster lenses designed specifically for portraits, such as the 45mm f/1.8 Olympus lens. Some people may sniff that such a lens still isn't as much a cream machine as a 85mm f/1.4 on a full-frame camera, but realistically how much cream does one need? With the 85mm f/1.4 wide open on a full frame, you get only a sliver of stuff in focus, maybe a centimeter or so if you are close enough to the subject. If that's what you want, you may be better served with a full frame and fast telephoto, than anything less, especially CILCs. The larger-sensored NEX/NX can't do much better than Micro Four Thirds since they lack the lenses to achieve such bokeh. Anyway, bottom line, I think the G3 has a good compromise between too much and too little depth of field, and it can isolate subjects just fine when using fast telephoto lenses. Lenses that don't even exist in Nikon 1 or NEX/NX format.
The G3 has some common ones like exposure bracketing, but you will not find advanced ones like Sweep Panorama or auto-HDR on here, or even focus peaking, all of which are better on NEX. Then again you can do all that on software at home, and probably better than the camera computer can. But it's something to note.
The G3 can go up to 1080p HD video which is pretty good. I've taken a few videos indoors and out and it is fairly crisp and far better than what a cameraphone or a compact camera can generate. There is no microphone port though, so you are limited to the G3's stereo mic. At least it has HDMI out for direct playback. Its video abilities are par for course among its rivals.
Battery life is okay for a CILC.. about 300 shots if you do a bit of flash and LCD usage, maybe a bit more if you use only the EVF. (There is no eye detector which I WELCOME despite many people hating the lack of it. I would rather have the G3's dedicated button so I can decide when I want to use the EVF vs. the LCD, rather than have the sensor bounce back and forth between the two. Further, there is a sensor to detect when you close or open the LCD, anyway.) Get a spare battery for occasions when you will take more than 300 shots.
Of course, DSLRs have more like double the battery life due to not having to power a LCD or EVF, but 300-350 shots is about normal among CILCs.
You can get the decent 14-42mm kit lens with the G3 for about $575 now, and it comes with an EVF. That alone makes it more useful and functional and a better value that the Nikon 1 or NEX/NX series, most of which do not come with an EVF and ask that you spend $200 to $350 on a (fragile) add-on that also takes up a spot on the hotshoe (so that you can't use an external flash at the same time).
Further, Oly may have a nice kit lens, but some of the others, especially NEX, have pretty mediocre kit lenses, so there is not as much value in the 16mm or 18-55mm NEX lenses as the 14-42mm Panasonic.
The G3 is an all-rounder that isn't the best at anything, but is very good at everything. It's among the best CDAF CILCs at autofocus and is competent at HD video recording. The G3 has good metering and is about average at tracking moving targets, among its rivals. It has among the best lens selection (a trait shared with all micro four thirds cameras), including fast glass that can counteract the high-ISO blues when shooting in the dark. The sensor is pretty decent and about as good as DSLRs from a few years ago at high-ISO shots, which when coupled with the access to fast glass, negates the NEX/NX's larger sensor size advantage--at least until NEX/NX get their own fast glass, but that is going to take some time (and perhaps much money; the Sony Zeiss 24mm f/1.8 for NEX costs $1000 and even the relatively cheap 50mm f/1.8 for NEX costs $300; and both are not as sharp as the equivalent Micro Four Thirds lenses). Of special importance to travelers, hikers/backpackers, and those with multiple lenses in their bags, is that even when larger-sensored CILC rivals finally get faster glass, the G3 uses much smaller and lighter lenses. The G3 also has a fully articulating LCD and built-in flash, something many CILCs lack, as well as a useful touchscreen and fast controls including a thumbwheel--again, something that most CILCs lack. Lastly, for those who prefer EVFs, the G3 is one of the few with a built-in EVF that isn't as fragile or apt to get lost/stolen/damaged as the expensive external add-ons of other cameras, to say nothing of how those add-ons hog the hotshoe and prevent simultaneous utilization of an external flash.
All of this adds up to a very competent camera that will be useful in any situation and is downright cheap if you factor in the cost of buying an EVF for any of the G3's rivals that don't come with one.
However, if you do not want an EVF and don't mind the lack of built-in flash and articulating LCD, and especially if you don't mind larger/heavier lenses, then the best bang for the buck changes to something cheaper such as the NEX series when on sale, like the NEX-3. (They do come with cheap external flashes, just not built in.)
I can't recommend the GF2 or GF3 unless they are deeply discounted to, say, $100 less than a NEX-3, on account of their old 12MP sensors that struggle in low light past ISO 800, which basically forces you to get fast glass for low light shots, whereas the G3 can limp by on just the optically stabilized kit lens for stationary targets and use higher ISO for moving targets.
Also be on the lookout for the GH2 + 14-42mm sales if video is important to you as the GH2 is lights out one of the best video/stills hybrids on the market, second only to the Canon 5DMkII. It will cost another $100-200 over the G3 and add a lot of size/weight, but the manual and video controls would make it worthwhile. There is also a GH2 + 14-140mm kit, but that usually goes for over $1000, so that's not in the same price bracket. (I will say that the 14-140mm is a pretty good lens and sharper than other superzooms I've tried.)
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Amount Paid (US$): 575
This Camera is a Good Choice if You Want Something... Flexible Enough for Enthusiasts