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Honey, Who Shrunk the Camera? Big-Camera Quality from the Palm-Sized Lumix GX85

By Jeff Wignall   Thursday August 25, 2016

It’s a Small World

It's a world of laughter, a world or tears
It's a world of hopes, it's a world of fear
There’s so much that we share
That its time we're aware
It's a small world after all

It's a small world after all
It's a small world after all
It's a small world after all
It's a small, small world

There is just one moon and one golden sun
And a smile means friendship to everyone.
Though the mountains divide
And the oceans are wide
It's a small world after all

    —Lyric by Richard Sherman

Snapshot:

Camera name: LUMIX GX85
Sensor:
Sensor size: 17.3 x 13.0 mm (in 4:3 aspect ratio)
Image Stabilization: Image Sensor Shift Type (5-axis)
Light Metering System:
Lens mount: Micro Four Thirds mount
Image Quality Options: RAW, RAW+Fine, RAW+Standard, Fine, Standard
Video: 4K, AVCHD (Audio format: Dolby Digital 2ch), MP4 (Audio format: AAC 2ch)
Viewfinder:   LCD Live View Finder (2,764,800 dots equivalent)
Rear Montior: Tilting 3" Touchscreen
Lens mount: Micro Four Thirds mount
Weight:  Approx. 383g / 0.84 lb (body only)
Wifi:  Yes
Full Specifications: Here


I shot both of these images at an Audubon Sanctuary in Connecticut. Exposures with the GX85 were exceedingly accurate even in very difficult situations like shooting directly into a setting sun. The problem in these two shots was that the foreground was made up of large areas of dark salt marsh and darker mud flats. One feature that I found incredibly helpful was the Highlight/Shadow adjustment which is kind of like a pre-exposure curves adjustment that lets you tell the meter to either open shadows or darken highlights. Cool. The top frame was exposed at 1/640 second at f/11 and the bottom at 1/320 second at f/10. Both at ISO 200.

The Lumix GX85



The simplicity of the GX85 is very elegant and despite its seeming lack of controls, there are actually a total of nine separate custom functions/buttons that can be set.


One of the first stops I made with the GX85 was the Old Campus at Yale and carrying such a small camera I absolutely felt more like a tourist than a photographer, which can be a great thing if you're trying to get casual photos without being noticed. Exposure was 1/160 second at f/3.5, ISO 200, in fading afternoon light. The building is Connecticut Hall, built in 1752 and the second oldest building at Yale.


The Memorial Quadrangle Gate (1918-22) at Yale was designed by Samuel Yellin and is one of 10 gates at Yale that he forged from a single piece of iron in his Philadelphia metal shop. Exposure was 1/100 at f/2.8, ISO 200 in quickly fading light. 

Weegee Doesn't Live Here Anymore

I don’t want to sound too old here, but when I first started shooting photos for a living I was using a 4x5-inch Speed Graphic—you know, the big clunky black press cameras that you see in old Humphrey Bogart movies. I didn’t choose that camera because I had a fetish for classic cameras, but because that’s what my father handed me when I told him I had landed a job shooting for a weekly newspaper. I was 16 at the time and it sure beat pumping gas at the local Mobil station.


Speaking of cool jobs, I want this guy's job! He travels around New Haven and Yale in this little jitney watering all of the city's nice flower displays. Shot at 1/320 second at f/4, ISO 200.

Shooting press photos with a 4x5 camera was actually kind of a cool experience. I felt like Weegee every time I stepped out the door (here’s a photo of him holding the exact same camera) and I don’t believe I was ever asked once for press credentials by the local cops. I guess if you were willing to look like that much of a photo nerd in public, they weren’t going to question your authority. I’m pretty sure that with the flash (it used bulbs, no joke) and film holders, roll film holder, etc., the case weighed in at about 12 or 15 pounds, maybe more.

By the time I was in my late teens, of course, 35mm cameras entered my life and while you might think my load got lighter, in fact, I quickly collected so many cameras and lenses and cases of miscellaneous crap that I often went on assignment carrying 40 pounds or more of gear. I remember shooting pictures for a cruise-line in the early 90s and getting off a ship in Bermuda one morning with three bodies, four or five lenses, flash gear, a tripod and wearing a shooting vest and khaki cargo shorts and one of the ship’s Brit crew members asked me straight-faced (as only a Brit could): “Visiting or invading?”

I guess having those memories floating around in my head is why I was a bit surprised when I popped the Panasonic Lumix GX85 out of its box and found that it fit nicely in the palm of one hand--with room to spare. Even when I attached the Lumix G X Vario 12-35mm F2.8 ASPH lens (it’s actually sold with a12-32mm lens, but I opted for a slightly longer and faster lens) that I used for most of my testing, it barely filled my hand.


One of the coolest places that I explored with the GX85 was a truck stop (actually I think there are two side-by-side) next to I95 where there were literally hundreds of trucks coming and going. This guy couldn't have parked his truck in a better place for me to catch the shadow of the sign on this side of his trailer. Exposure was 1/250 second at f/11, ISO 200.


My favorite truck of the day--how can you beat that color? And such a clean truck! Exposure was 1/250 second at f/10, ISO 200. I shot all of the truck-stop stuff in both RAW and jpeg simultaneously but the exposures were so good and the colors so accurate I barely did any work in post.

Yes, But Ca
n it Core a Apple?

If you’re old enough to remember Speed Graphics, then you’re certainly old enough to remember that episode of the Honeymooners where Ralph as the Chef of the Future and Norton are trying to hawk some kind of kitchen gadget in a TV commercial and Norton turns to Ralph and asks the eternal question: “But can it core a apple?”

That’s really the “core” of the argument when it comes to making smaller and smaller cameras. It is not just a matter of if cameras can be miniaturized, of course they can do that, but rather can they deliver big-time results. And that’s not just a question of sensor size (the GX85 has a Micro Four Thirds, or MFT, sensor), but one of camera and lens design, sensor quality, features, etc. In that respect I have to say that he GX85 delivers on scale that far exceeds its diminutive physical size. Below are some of the features that impressed me.

Do Touch Me There: One feature that a lot of people are going to love on the GX85 is the touch screen LCD. While I was never one of the voices crying out for touch screens to invade all cameras, I have to  admit that after using one, even for a short while, the concept is starting to win me over. Once you start tapping things instead of hunting and pecking (and swearing) around in menus, you find it hard to go back. Things like focus pattern, ISO, white balance, image size, etc. are just a tap away. My prediction? In two years all cameras will have touchscreens standard.

Five-axis stabilization:  The GX85 features five-axis image stabilization with dual stabilization. Essentially what that means is that the camera is using both in-lens optical (two axis) and in-camera (shifting sensor, three axis) stabilization. I was really impressed by the shutter speeds that I was able to use and still get extremely sharp images. I shot a lot of photos in failing light (see the twilight shot of the marsh below) at 1/10 and even shot photos sitting at my desk at a full second and they were amazingly sharp.


I wanted to test the image stabilization so after the I shot the sunsets above I hung around until the sun had slipped away and twilight had set it. I shot this scene at 1/10 second at f/8, handheld. That's a very sharp image for a tenth of a second. The dual stabilization that uses both optical and sensor stabilizers is one of the features that impressed me the most.


While writing this review I shot this little snapshot of my Ferrari (excuse me, my toy Ferrari) at 1/2 second at f/20 under the light of a desk lamp. Not razor sharp, but come on, a half second handheld with a near macro-sized subject?

Focus speed: The focus speed of all Lumix cameras is very fast and this camera is no exception. I was using the camera primarily in single-shot AF and only played briefly with continuous focus, but overall the focus seemed fast and accurate in all modes.

Bust me a Burst: Getting good action shots, even with a camera that features fast burst rates (the top normal burst rate for the GX85 is 8fps with the focus locked, or 6fps otherwise) is never easy. But using the 4K burst mode you can fire a quick blast at 30fps and then select your best still shot after. The resolution drops down to 8mp but let’s face it, the ability to trade off picking the perfect frame of a hummingbird at a hibiscus blossom is probably worth it.

4K…What did you say?  Shooting video with this camera was a joy. The placement of the video record button is ideal—right on the top of the camera next to the on off switch and away from most of the other controls. I found myself shooting video between still frames just because I could and because it was so easy. I still don’t fully understand all of the frame rate and resolution combinations, but one of these days I’ll sit down and get a better handle on that. There is no external mic input which is a shame because the sound quality is pretty iffy. If you’re only interested in the video quality and not the audio, it's not an issue. But if you want high-quality audio, it’s something to think about.


The panorama mode is among the simplest and most reliable that I've ever used--you just set the mode, pivot and shoot. Almost every pan I shot was flawless, though the camera scolded me a few times for going too fast or too slow. The top frame was shot at 1/640 at f/4.5 and the bottom at 1/320 at f/4. By the way, like most cameras today, the GX85 has a lot of built-in filters and picture effects; see the vivid color and soft-focus shots at the end of this review.

Hocus Focus:  I positively fell in love with the post-focus feature. If you’ve never seen this feature demonstrated, this features allows you to change the focal point in your shots after they’re made. (Isn’t this the feature that Lytro tried to build an empire on?) It’s very simple to use: just turn it on and take your shots. The camera fires a quick sequence of images (MP4) and then displays the image on the LCD. All you have to do to change the position of sharp focus is tap your finger on different parts of the screen? Does it work? You betcha by golly wow (oh, Wiggy sneaks in a Stylistics reference!). While in post focus you can also use the magnifying tool and the Lumix focus-peaking function to fine-tune focus even more. The potential of this feature is very cool: you can shoot a portrait of a bride looking at her bouquet, for example, and then shift focus from her eyes to the flowers. Even better, the camera will ask you if you want to save that version of the image and all you have to do is say “yes” and it’s saved. Then you can revisit the original can and create a different version. I’m not sure if the post-focus software is available as a separate app, but I’d love to see it as a Photoshop plug-in so that I can save the MP4 file and then make decisions about focus post-camera.

Regrets, I Have a Few

Are there any things that I don’t like about this camera? A few, mostly very minor. The biggest I guess is that it’s not weather sealed; but weather sealing drives up prices and that’s why well-protected cameras cost a lot more. I don’t particularly like the EVF being at the left end of the body because whenever I was shooting in very bright sun and facing the sun I had to use my hand to shade the outside corner of my shooting eye. On a center-viewfinder camera the body blocks the sun. Also, and I know I'm in a minority here, but I would also vote for a small exposure-compensation dial on the camera (to get compensation now you press in the rear control dial—which is not a big issue) even though I love the sleek simple look of the body. But my biggest complaint (and one I aim at all camera makers) is that while the camera comes with an adequate abbreviated instruction manual, I found a superb and much more comprehensive one online here (you can download it free). I would gladly pay an extra $20 bucks for the camera if I could have gotten a printed full-color version--it's one of the best and most thorough manuals I've seen in quite a while and I like to have a manual with me in the fiel (yeah, I know, buy an iPad).

Conclusion:

In many ways I think that cameras like the GX85 are the direction that many consumer/prosumer digital cameras will take: a smaller package, more electronic features and a price tag under well under a grand (currently the street price for this GX85 with a 12-32 mm lens is under $800). Considering the great quality of the stills, excellent 4K video capabilities, flawless metering, fast autofocus and super image stability, I think that the price is a great deal. Another impressive aspect of this camera is that (at last count) Lumix offers 27 compatible lenses—that alone is reason to give this camera some serious consideration. I’m still a pretty dedicated DSLR fan, and probably will be for a while, but honestly, this camera makes a very good case for smaller cameras and smaller lenses. I dunno, maybe it is time to sell the Speed Graphic after all.

New Product News:

Canon EOS 5D Mark IV.  Yowsa, here’s some big news for Canon fans: Canon has officially announced the EOS 5D Mark IV camera body. The fourth-generation full-frame camera features 30.4 megapixel CMOS sensor and has an ISO range 100–32,000; expandable up to 50–102,400. The Canon DIGIC 6+ Image Processor delivers 4K 30P video and up to and seven frames per second (fps) continuous shooting. The LCD monitor, says Canon, has full touch-screen interface, including selection of AF area. Video specs include: 4K motion JPEG video (DCI cinema-type 4096 x 2160) at 30p or 24p; and in-camera still frame grab of 4K 8.8-Megapixel images. The camera is expected to be available in early September and comes with a MSRP of $3499. Canon is also introducing a few new lenses that I’ll write more about in early September.

5 Comments

  1. Donna Caporaso commented on: August 25, 2016 at 8:37 p.m.
    Lovely photos Jeff! This looks like a great little camera to knock around with. I look forward to your column.
  1. Jeff Wignall commented on: August 26, 2016 at 4:07 a.m.
    Thanks Donna! It's so nice to see a comment from you. :)
  1. Gavin Zau commented on: August 26, 2016 at 3:01 p.m.
    Nice Jeff. I use the RX100 since it can fit into my pocket. This is still too big.
  1. Jeff Wignall commented on: August 27, 2016 at 3:17 p.m.
    Maybe you need an old Minox, Gavin. :)
  1. Jeff Wignall commented on: August 27, 2016 at 3:19 p.m.
    Gavin, you know, one of the most things that I did with this Lumix, oddly enough, was shooting the pans with it. It really did a superb job of making well-exposed and sharp pans. I got kind of addicted to it.

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