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When I bought my first full-frame DSLR many years ago (an original Canon 5D), I thought I’d discovered the pinnacle of camera technology. Because a bigger sensor is better right?
Well, not necessarily.
Sensor sizes are like film sizes- they are different formats, not different quality. Each has advantages and disadvantages, and some will fit your needs while some won’t.
Bigger sensors, for all their benefits, also mean bulkier and heavier lenses. A smaller sensor, such as the micro 4/3rds system, is compact, and light. That’s why, as an outdoor pro who specializes in shooting in remote areas, I’ve recently begun shooting the Lumix m4/3rds system. Specifically, my primary camera is now the Lumix G9 mirrorless camera, the flagship of Lumix still cameras.
The Lumix G9 Mirrorless Camera is of a similar size to other pro-level mirrorless camera bodies. For me, this is the appropriate size. If the body were much smaller the controls would become too small and cumbersome for rapid use in the field, and impossible while wearing gloves. The G9, in my opinion, is a good compromise between size and functionality.
The build is sturdy with a die-cast magnesium chassis and is environmentally sealed. A textured rubber coating covers most of the body providing a confident grip, even when wet. The body weighs in 658g, more or less typical of this size mirrorless camera. I’ve used mine in temperatures varying from -25F, to +100F in the snow, rain, and salt spray. I’ve banged it around inside bush planes, safari vehicles, rafts, and canoes, and have yet to have an issue with durability.
The 20.3mp micro four-thirds sensor has an excellent dynamic range for a sensor of this size and extremely low noise below about 1600 ISO. At higher ISOs, the noise does increase noticeably, which is a drawback for night photography. However, the files can handle substantial pushes in post-processing. Adding two or even three stops of light seems to have little impact on image quality.
Lumix advertises a whopping 6.5 stops of stabilization built into the camera; a system that works seamlessly with lens-integrated stabilization. This impressive number isn’t just marketing hyperbole. I’ve found I can handhold images, even while using a long lens, to speeds as low as 1/8th of a second. Blurred water shots no longer require a tripod and video capture is smooth and almost vibration free. This is unquestionably the best camera I’ve ever used when it comes to image stabilization.
Mirrorless cameras are not subject to the same limitations of shutter speeds as their DSLR counterparts. The electronic shutter of the Lumix G9 reaches a whopping 20 frames per second, far more than is needed except in all but the most extreme, fast-paced shooting situations. Even when using the standard frame rate, it still manages 9 frames per second, which is competitive with just about any camera on the market.
The autofocus is perhaps the one point, where the G9 does fall a bit short of high-end DSLRs. Lumix has applied a contrast detection system combined with Panasonic’s Depth from Defocus technology (DFD). In bright conditions with few obstacles, I found the autofocus to be exceptionally fast with a high hit rate. However, in tangled environments, or in low light, it occasionally struggles to grab my subject.
The DFD system is an active autofocus that perpetually pushes and pulls the focus just a hair back and forth as it determines the focus point. It’s fast, but slightly distracting and often lead me to think that the camera hadn’t settled on my subject. It had, and the resulting images show a high hit rate, but the constant push-pull is a bit distracting.
In most lighting situations, the 20.3mp images are excellent. RAW format files have a competitive dynamic range which allows substantial pushing of exposure in post-processing. If you are jpeg shooter, the camera exports colorful, but not unnatural files ready for sharing on social media. I like the jpeg outputs so much that I’ve set the camera to write both small jpegs and RAW files which allows for quick shares without post-processing.
One of my favorite features of the Lumix G9 Mirrorless Camera is the high-resolution setting. The 20.3mp sensor is plenty for general use, however, as a landscape photographer, I often desire files that can be printed very large. The high-resolution image setting on the G9 takes 8 images in a row, each offset by 1/2 pixel. This produces a final file that is over 80 megapixels! For best results, a tripod is required, but for landscape work, I’m almost always using one anyway. The quality of the final image is, quite frankly, amazing.
Wifi connectivity when combined with Lumix’s intuitive app for phone or tablet, allows quick exporting of files for sharing from the field. Additionally, the app allows full remote operation of the camera. Once your image is composed, you can use the app to adjust exposure, aperture, shutter speed or ISO, then click the shutter from a 100m away.
Advanced shooters will appreciate the extensive customization options on the G9. You can program in multiple preset modes, accessible from the main function dial atop the camera. But I’ve come to like even more, a separate switch on the front of the camera at the lower left, which allows you to switch between two types of shooting modes. I have one set for my standard landscape settings, and one to my favorites for wildlife. With a quick flick of a finger, I can move back and forth between the two as my shooting situation changes. Nifty.
Lumix has always been associated with video capture, even more than still photography. And while the G9 was definitely designed with still images in mind, it has inherited many video features of the other Lumix cameras. 4k video capture up to 60fps is possible with the G9, something few other still cameras can achieve. With the excellent integrated stabilization, high-quality video is a breeze. As many of my clients are now requesting video clips in addition to stills, the excellent moving image capture of the G9 means I no longer have to carry a second, video-specific camera when I’m shooting on assignment. For a still shooter who likes to capture some video or a film-maker who also wants high-quality stills, the G9 may be the perfect compromise.
All the tech specs in the world won’t tell you what it actually feels like to use the camera. And in that case, I think the Lumix has really won the race. The controls are intuitive, with buttons conveniently located and ergonomics that allow you to determine buttons easily by feel, and without searching around. I moved from Canon to Lumix and found it didn’t take long to feel at home from the new system. I also shoot a Sony mirrorless, and moving back and forth between the two is not challenging.
But it’s in the field that I really love the Lumix G9. The m4/3rd system means that not only the sensor is smaller, but the lenses too. Everything is much smaller and compact, even with fast, high-end lenses. My kit has shrunk substantially with my switch to Lumix. While full-frame mirrorless cameras are smaller and lighter than pro-level DSLRs, the lenses are not, which puts a limiter on how much weight and space you can really save by switching to full-frame mirrorless. With micro 4/3rds however, everything is smaller.
As a wilderness photographer, this is a HUGE advantage for me. I can carry a body and multiple lenses for the same weight and size as a single DSLR and mid-range zoom lens. I can’t tell you how much this has meant to me on the many occasions I’ve had to weigh out every ounce to make my kit fit in a bush plane. Size matters to a backcountry photographer, and when it comes to cameras, smaller is better.
While this isn’t a review of the Lumix lenses, I do want to offer a quick hat-tip to the Lumix-Leica lens systems. The glass is compact, light, and extremely sharp. The Leica glass elements are impeccable, and while not cheap, the sharpness is in every way comparable to the best Nikon, Canon, and Sony lenses. Secondarily, the m4/3rds lenses are compatible across brands meaning that Olympus equipment works seamlessly on Lumix bodies. (My current long lens is the Olympus 300mm f4 PRO, and it works perfectly on the G9).
Lumix has been a go-to manufacturer for videographers and film-makers looking for a compact, high-quality system for many years, while Olympus has led the m4/3rds still photography market. That has all changed with the Lumix G9. While I look forward to a few improvements in the next generation, the G9 has almost everything a serious photographer could want: great image quality, excellent choices in lenses, ability to shoot 4k video, abundant customization options, and intuitive controls.
It looks like the Lumix system has found a permanent place in my camera bag.
Have you used the Lumix G9 Mirrorless Camera? Please share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below.