Panasonic Lumix GX8 review: High tech, low profile
Micro Four Thirds has evolved. It’s time to pay attention.
The Micro Four Thirds (MFT) system has evolved in ways that I don’t think anyone would have predicted when Panasonic introduced its first model, the Lumix G1, back in 2008. At that time, the potential of a mirrorless camera was unknown, and underestimated by both photographers and camera manufacturers, alike.
What began as an exercise in bringing DSLR-style control and image quality to a more consumer-friendly form factor has now spun around 180 degrees. The Panasonic Lumix GX series has grown increasingly larger and more advanced with each iteration, finally arriving at the GX8, which is about 25% larger by volume and almost 20% heavier than the GX7.
At first glance, that seems to go completely against what a mirrorless camera stands for. However, it’s important to put things into perspective: the GX8 exists within an MFT ecosystem that is incredibly diverse, with more options than ever from both Panasonic and Olympus. Nothing will best the diminutive Lumix GM5 on size, so it’s no longer the job of the GX series to be ultra-compact.
Enough direct-access control to rival the largest DSLRs
Instead, Panasonic chose to push the GX8 in the other direction, building in features that will appeal to higher-end photographers. The body is now fully weather-sealed, which is a huge plus for photographing waterfalls in the Columbia River Gorge, as I often use these reviews as an excuse to do. Gone is the built-in flash, making way for the large, 2.36M-dot OLED EVF that articulates 90 degrees upward and features a sturdy and comfortable rubber eyecup. Moving across the top deck we find a standard hot shoe, the mode dial, exposure compensation, the first control dial, and video record button. Rounding the corner toward the front reveals the improved ergonomics of the larger grip, topped by the shutter release button and second control dial. There is enough direct-access control here to rival the largest DSLRs. The rear of the camera holds the standard array of buttons, plus a new, 1M-dot, fully-articulating OLED screen.
I can’t say it’s a pretty camera, not when its most direct competitor is the gorgeous Olympus PEN-F, but what it lacks in looks it makes up for in function. And while it may be large compared to most of its MFT siblings, it still maintains a considerable size advantage over any DSLR.
And that is key.
I believe this camera wasn’t made so much for current mirrorless shooters as it was for DSLR shooters looking for a reason to switch. If so, that’s a risky proposition for Panasonic, which, save for the mighty GH4, has yet to make a sizable dent in the professional photographer segment. But the GX8 could be the camera to do it.
4K Photo mode lets you shoot 8MP stills at 30fps.
Inside, a new 20MP sensor and Panasonic’s latest Venus Engine processor produce the highest-resolution MFT images yet. New, 4-axis sensor-shift stabilization combines with lens stabilization for incredibly sharp, handheld images. With the mechanical shutter, the GX8 can shoot full-resolution images at up to 8fps (or 10fps with the electronic shutter), putting it well within the performance range of all but the highest-end DSLRs, but keeping it slightly under the flagship GH4.
That sensor and processor combination also works to pump out 4K video at up to 30p and 100Mbps. It doesn’t have the GH4’s V-log L gamma curve, but you do get Cine-V and Cine-D profiles for somewhat flatter tone curves that are suitable for intermediate-level color grading.
As with other newer Panasonic cameras, however, 4K isn’t just about video. The GX8 incorporates the most advanced version of Panasonic’s 4K Photo mode, which lets you shoot bursts of 8MP images at 30 frames per second.
This differs from 4K video in two key ways: First, you can select any aspect ratio and get the full 8MP resolution; you’re not limited to 16x9. Second, you can scrub through the footage using the camera’s touch screen and select your favorite frames to save as individual JPEGs right in the camera. And you’ll want to do this, because otherwise the camera simply saves a video file, which won’t do much good in Lightroom or other image organizers.
Panasonic spent a lot of time developing and pioneering 4K Photo, and it’s been a unique feature of the brand for a while—but it recently got even better. The latest firmware update introduced the Post Focus ability, which takes a burst of images at different focus points and then lets you focus after the shot. I actually wrote about this feature back when it was new. It’s certainly not something everyone will need, but it’s pretty impressive when it works right (which is most, but not all, of the time).
The Lumix GX8 really can’t be beat for hybrid photography.
4K photo is not without its issues. Firstly, it’s only 8MP, less than half the resolution the sensor is capable of, and you can’t shoot raw. Secondly, it crops the sensor to achieve a 1:1 pixel readout, which is good for sharpness, but reduces angle of view. Basically, it’s like shooting a lower-resolution sensor on a smaller format.
Then there’s the issue of rolling shutter. As 4K Photo mode is technically 30p video, it relies on the electronic shutter, which means it’s not great for shooting fast-moving subjects like cars or trains (or shooting from those things), which would otherwise seem like a natural situation in which to use this mode. This is because CMOS sensors output data one line at a time, so the top of the sensor can see something different from the bottom of the sensor if there’s too much motion. In video, this leads to the dreaded effect known as “Jello-cam.” In a still photo, you end up with vertical lines being skewed and slanted.
Unfortunately, rolling shutter rears its ugly head any time the electronic shutter is used, not just in 4K Photo mode. The photo below was from a standard continuous burst, using the electronic shutter to achieve the maximum 10fps rate. As I was panning to track the pigeons, the buildings in the background suddenly began to look like they were all leaning to the left. They weren’t.
Panasonic is really pushing 4K Photo as a unique selling point of its cameras, but it’s important to note that the feature still has room for improvement. It’s fantastic for casual settings, especially for images that will end up on social media where resolution is of little concern. This could be a revolutionary professional tool, but for now it’s best suited to getting the perfect picture of your kid blowing out the candles on his birthday cake. Which, to be fair, is a worthy endeavor.
But for as much as Panasonic touts the feature, the truth is, the GX8 is a fine camera even if 4K Photo mode is never turned on. For hybrid photographers, it really can’t be beat—it may not have the professional video features of the GH4, but it easily outclasses the video capabilities of any DSLR in its price range. Plus, it’s considerably more compact than either.
It’s important to remember that when buying into a new system, the size of the camera is only part of the equation. I love the Sony A7R II, for example, but it’s not nearly as easy to carry with you once you start adding in the full-frame lenses. For this review, I shot two relatively new lenses to Panasonic’s lineup: the 15mm f/1.7 and the 42.5mm f/1.7. Even compared to APS-C mirrorless systems, these lenses are small. The weight and space savings cannot be overstated for street or travel photography.
We have the pricier 42.5mm f/1.2 as one of our go-to video lenses here in Pro Photo Supply’s marketing department, but honestly, I think I prefer the f/1.7. It’s much smaller, still offers significant depth of field control, and, in my limited experience, seemed to perform just as well in terms of sharpness and autofocus speed.
Another high-tech trick up Panasonic’s sleeve is its Depth From Defocus (DFD) AF system. It uses stored data about the lens in order to analyze the out of focus patterns to determine which direction to turn the lens to focus on any given point. In other words, it’s magic. Standard contrast detection is very good at determining when an object is in or out of focus, but it can’t tell if an out-of-focus object is beyond or in front of the current focal plane. This leads to the hunting effect that used to plague mirrorless cameras, and is why many other companies have turned to on-chip phase detection systems. Some have had better success than others.
To me, on-chip phase detection seems simpler, and simpler usually means better. But for as complex as it seems to be, DFD on the GX8 provides for the fastest, most consistent mirrorless autofocus I have ever used. The downside is that it requires a lens profile stored in the camera to work, so while it’s compatible with most Panasonic lenses, it won’t work with MFT lenses from Olympus. (To be clear, standard AF will work on Olympus lenses.)
The Lumix GX8, like many MFT cameras, can be a challenge to sell on paper. Side by side, spec sheets always seem to favor larger sensors, larger cameras—at least for still photography. And yes, images from the GX8 are noisier than those from many larger-sensor competitors, and there isn’t quite as much depth of field control, but neither drawback is significantly worse than APS-C.
However, for anyone who spends a day with this camera in the field, I think she or he would be hard pressed to choose an equivalently-priced DSLR over it. It’s part of an incredibly compact lens system, is built like a tank, offers all the control expected of a professional-level camera, and features technology that I’m fairly certain was invented by wizards.
For anyone considering an APS-C DSLR, or for full-frame shooters looking for a more compact camera for casual use, you owe it to yourself to test out the GX8.
- Studio 67%
- Photojournalism 72%
- Travel 76%
- Casual 73%
- Filmmaking 76%
This is our assessment of a camera’s usability based on both objective and subjective measurements in four categories. Each category’s score is a function of all measurements, but with different weights.
Studio – A high rating in this category means a camera is well-suited to use in a studio environment, where size and weight don’t matter and lighting can be fully controlled. This score is most affected by resolution, while ISO sensitivity and cost are negligible.
Photojournalism – Cameras that perform well in this category are generally good for concerts, weddings, sports, and travel photography. This score is most affected by ISO sensitivity, build quality, and performance (AF and continuous shooting speed, battery life), while resolution is negligible.
Travel – Above all else, a good travel camera is one you can take with you anywhere. Size and weight matter most to this category, while build quality and ISO sensitivity are also important.
Casual – A casual-use camera is one that you can easily carry with you and is great for family pictures, vacations, hiking, etc. This score is most strongly affected by size, weight, and cost.
Filmmaking – This score looks at all the video features of a camera, such as video resolution, frame rates, and audio inputs and outputs. Keep in mind, this score is provided in the context of a camera being reviewed for its still photography first. A high score in this area does not necessarily mean you should shoot your next blockbuster indie skate rap video on this camera.