I’m westbound on Interstate 84, the final leg of my return trip home from Missoula, with the golden-hour sun shining through my windshield. The evergreen walls of the Gorge are tinted orange by the late-evening light, and even though I’m tired — and have already made too many photography stops this trip — I decide to pull over once more. Upriver, I can make out a distant cargo ship glowing bright red against a backdrop of deep blue water. It makes for the last photo I’ll take with Panasonic’s newest Micro Four Thirds camera, the GX85, and it’s probably my favorite image from the trip.

I’ve spent the last few days testing the camera in Missoula, with stops in Coeur d’Alene and the small town of Wallace. Known as the GX80 and even GX7 Mark II in other markets, the GX85 has served me well. It’s the Swiss Army knife of cameras, and is well-suited to a road trip. That said, any multitool has its limitations. You probably wouldn’t take a Wüsthof camping, but you definitely wouldn’t peel a pineapple with a Swiss Army knife.

The GX85 continues Panasonic’s leadership in providing compact, feature-rich cameras at affordable prices. New to this model is a modified version of the 16-megapixel MFT sensor. It foregoes an antialiasing filter, improving sharpness at the potential expense of incurring moiré when photographing fine patters. It also helps the camera approach GX8-levels of detail, despite having four fewer megapixels.

There’s also a new shutter, driven by an electromagnetic motor that reduces vibrations by a claimed 90%. It’s clear that Panasonic is trying to squeeze out every possible bit of sharpness from that 16MP sensor.

 

Panasonic is trying to squeeze out every possible bit of resolution from that 16MP sensor.

But the real crown jewel is the new, five-axis, sensor-shift stabilization. This is the best in-body image stabilization (IBIS) of any Panasonic camera, beating even the GX8, which uses a four-axis system. By itself, this is equal to the best IBIS systems out there, but the GX85 works in conjunction with stabilized lenses for even greater effect. This would, I believe, make it a total of seven axes of stabilization.

What’s more, the system remains fully active when recording 4K video, which makes it possible to shoot steady handheld footage, even at long focal lengths. In my testing, I was able to capture smooth video shooting at 100mm, which is equivalent to 200mm in full-frame terms. It’s impressive.

Although not new, the GX85 gets the same autofocus system as the GX8, which includes Depth from Defocus (DFD) tech that greatly improves the speed of the contrast-detect focusing. Between the superb AF performance and class-leading stabilization, this is simply one of the easiest cameras to use. It’s incredibly flexible and perfect for shooting on the fly. This makes it a great choice for travel photography, but also for parents of young children, who will appreciate how easy it is to capture stable photos and videos of their kids.

4K Photo mode returns, shooting 8MP images at 30 frames per second from a cropped, central region of the sensor. As much as Panasonic likes to hype this feature, I feel it should remain relegated to a minimal role. As I’ve written about previously, it’s not so much the reduction in resolution that bothers me as much as the loss of field of view. Furthermore, you can’t shoot 4K Photos in RAW, as each image is simply a frame from a compressed MPEG video.

That said, Panasonic has beefed up the 4K Photo capabilities with a new Light Composition mode. Designed for easy star trails, light painting, and the like, Light Composition only records the bright pixels from each new frame and merges them all into one. It mimics the effect of a long exposure, but should be somewhat easier to use handheld. This is cool, but, again, comes with all the usual limitations of 4K Photo.

A new in-camera video editing feature has also been added, as well, called 4K Live Cropping. It adds simulated camera movement through typical “pan and scan” techniques. It’s no different than the common post-production trick used to add motion to time lapses by cropping a section of the frame and then digitally panning or zooming. For anyone without access to high end production gear or the willingness to edit on a computer, 4K Live Cropping may be neat, but note that it will sacrifice resolution as it’s cropping from the 4K capture.

 

Superb AF performance and class-leading stabilization make the GX85 is one of the easiest cameras to use.

As far as limited-use features go, I prefer Olympus’ High Res Shot mode, which requires a tripod, but produces exceptionally clean, 50MP files on the PEN-F. Although, I suppose Panasonic’s various 4K Photo modes could have genuine appeal to the aforementioned parents with young children.

Whether you think all the new features are great or gimmicky doesn’t really matter, because the GX85 provides a solid shooting experience for regular photography, and this is what counts. The autofocus is lightning quick, all of the controls are very responsive, the tilting touchscreen is great, and the camera easily stows away when you don’t need it.

When it comes to image quality, the GX85 is right up there with other MFT cameras. I did notice a fair amount of noise in the shadows, even at the base ISO of 200. This made photographing landscapes with bright skies and dark ground difficult. In such high-contrast scenes, there’s no room to overexpose the image to increase shadow detail without blowing the highlights.

When it comes to RAW adjustments, that shadow noise means the files simply don’t have the latitude of images from larger sensors. This puts increased pressure on getting the exposure right in-camera. But, again, this isn’t always possible in high-contrast scenes.

However, for general use, the sensor performs admirably. In fact, it actually does a decent job at high ISOs. But, again, this isn’t the camera’s main selling point. This is a do-it-all camera that’s easy to use and to easy to take with you. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to appreciate this without trying it out for yourself.

Beyond that, it’s also just priced right. At $800 including the kit lens, the GX85 competes with high-end point-and-shoots, like the Sony RX100 IV, yet is infinitely more versatile thanks to interchangeable lenses and its larger sensor. It also costs less than the camera it essentially replaces, the GX7, while offering numerous improvements.

But for as much as I enjoyed shooting the GX85, and as much as I admire Panasonic’s continued commitment to innovation, I can’t help but feel the MFT format is being left behind by its larger-sensor peers. The GX85 truly pushes the limits of its 16MP sensor, but it still struggles to keep up with the current crop of APS-C cameras (no pun intended). The lack of an antialiasing filter, new shutter drive, and stellar, sensor-plus-lens stabilization make for some sharp results, but this is somewhat negated by the relatively high shadow noise.

There’s a reason that Fujifilm has done well with its X-Series, despite historically poor autofocus and video performance. Its cameras appeal to a narrow demographic, but they appeal to that demographic very, very well. Panasonic’s approach is, in some ways, the opposite. It seeks to appeal to a broad audience through advanced technology. The result is a spec sheet that reads very impressively, but, ultimately, few people will care about every item on that list.

It’s also somewhat of a compromise camera, with some simple features reserved for the more-expensive GX8 and GH4 (such as a microphone jack). It’s 290-shot battery life is also a little wanting.

To be sure, none of that makes the GX85 a bad camera, but I can’t help but feel that Panasonic is capable of much more. Yes, this isn’t a model intended to usher in a new era of technology; it’s not a flagship. However, as Panasonic’s newest MFT offering, it’s a reminder of how things can be improved.

The MFT format itself has some inherent disadvantages (and inherent advantages), but there are still ways Panasonic could lead the industry by doubling-down on the features it already heavily promotes. 4K video could be improved with overscanning in order to sample the full width of the frame. This, in turn, would enable higher-resolution 4K Photos (I guess they’d be called 6K or 8K Photos, then?) with less cropping, removing one of my biggest complaints about the feature. A global shutter (fingers crossed!) would greatly improve all functions that rely on the electronic shutter, from 4K Photo and video to silent mode.

Whatever remains to be improved upon, however, the GX85 is one of the most attractive mirrorless options for non-professionals. At its core, it’s a fantastic little camera. Personally, I would ignore the fringe benefits and focus on that. The combination of affordable price, fast performance, and ease of use really can’t be beat by any other camera in this class.

The enthusiast or aspiring professional will likely be happier with a larger-sensor, even in a camera that doesn’t otherwise match the Panasonic’s feature set. But for casual photographers, the GX85 will make taking good photos and videos easier — and, really, isn’t that all people are asking for?

Overall assessment

  • Studio 66%
  • Photojournalism 62%
  • Travel 77%
  • Casual 79%
  • Filmmaking 51%
Score explanation

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.

 

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