I’ve tried out some powerful cameras on my travels in the past few years. But I don’t know if I’ve tried one with as many unique and useful features as the Panasonic DMC-G7, the latest in the company’s well-reviewed line of mirrorless cameras. I took one along on my recent Viking river cruise from Passau to Budapest, and had a chance to try out its impressive capabilities.
If you’re not a photo aficionado, a short explanation: mirrorless cameras are the alternative to the familiar single-lens reflex, or SLR cameras, delivering the same excellent picture quality, along with interchangeable lenses, in a significantly smaller package. That’s good for travellers, since size and weight are two things we like to avoid. The G7 fits the bill admirably; it’s not the smallest mirrorless camera I’ve ever seen, but it’s compact and full of SLR-style capabilities.
Looking at the camera
In fact, the G7 looks much like an SLR, with its slope-shouldered body and retro-style control knobs. And it has the same 16-megapixel sensor and powerful processor as some of Panasonic’s other recent cameras, for SLR-like photo quality. As well, it offers more features than you can shake a stick at; even for an experienced photographer, they can take a while to master.
First, however, the basics: the G7 fills the hand comfortably, neither seeming too big or too small. It sports a very sharp touch screen monitor that swivels sideways, tilts and reverses for taking selfies. Plus, there’s a high-resolution electronic viewfinder, for those of us who still like to have one. There’s also a pop-up flash, and a hot shoe if you want to clip on a more powerful flash unit.
As for the controls: well, there are a lot. In addition to the mode dial on top, the camera has a second dial to choose drive modes, a four-way controller on the back, and two rotary dials, front and back, for changing settings when in manual modes. As well, the monitor displays a whole range of controls, so you can adjust settings with a touch of your finger; you can focus and shoot with a finger tap, too.
The G7 is also a powerful tool if you like to take video. First and foremost, it shoots in the new 4K format, which produces video four times as detailed as regular HD. As well, it has a stereo microphone input, focus peaking to help get video sharp, and “zebra” highlight warnings to keep the exposure on point. There are multiple video formats, and adjustable settings so you can give your movies the look you want. (For more on the G7’s video capabilities, plus a more comprehensive look at its features, check out Maarten Heilbron’s excellent video review.)
While all that’s impressive, the G7 does some other remarkable things that capitalize on 4K video’s super-high resolution. Since every frame in 4K video is an 8-megapixel photo, Panasonic has added a feature called 4K Photo that shoots a short video clip and lets you save frames from it as still photos.
There are three 4K Photo modes: 4K Burst, 4K Start/Stop and 4K Pre-burst, each of which works slightly differently. In Pre-burst mode, you simply click the shutter when the action has ended and the camera saves the 30 frames before and after the shutter click. Then you review the file, which displays as a rolling series of frames, and save the frame that catches the action at the perfect moment. Voilá: a great action shot.
Shooting with the G7
Travelling around Austria and Hungary with the G7 on my Viking cruise felt kind of familiar; in fact, it felt a little as if I were carrying an SLR, only smaller. The camera was handy for grab shots, waking up quickly when I saw something I needed to capture in a hurry. And it performed well in the automatic Program mode, so I didn’t need to fiddle with settings when there wasn’t much time.
When I did want to fiddle with the controls, there were lots of options. The basic functions were on the four-way controller, or under my fingertips, if I wanted to switch to the manual modes and change settings with the control dials. As I got used to the camera, I made more use of the on-screen buttons, which let me control most of the settings.
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When it came to catching the mood, the G7 was up to the task in pretty much every situation. The viewfinder was very useful, although it did show colours a little cooler than real life. The rear monitor was easy to see in sunlight, and gave me a good look at what I was shooting even in low light, like this night shot of the Liberty Bridge in downtown Budapest. Note: all the shots below are unedited, except for cropping where needed — click on the photos for a closer look.
The camera’s focus function was impressive, as well. I didn’t have a long zoom lens, which gives the focus a real challenge, but the G7 focused quickly and in most cases hit the mark without hunting around. As well, the camera can shoot six frames per second with full focus function (and eight frames without it), making it ideal for events like this air show over the Budapest waterfront, despite the short lens.
The movie function worked well, and the 4K Photo modes were fun to play with. However, I didn’t spend much time with them, for one reason: like some of its predecessors, the G7 has a battery problem. The battery in the G7 wore out quickly, barely lasting through the day even with a full charge. And taking movies or 4K Photo files — especially in Pre-burst mode — depleted it quickly. I soon left the movie-making to the Sony compact camera I brought along. I thought this problem had been fixed: apparently not.
Looking at the pictures
The photos from the G7 were uniformly sharp — I wouldn’t say needle sharp, but the 14-45mm kit lens did a commendable job of bringing out the detail in shots like the one below, a view from Cesky Krumlov castle in the Czech Republic.
As well, the camera handled difficult lighting situations well, rarely “burning out” highlights in sunny weather (though there wasn’t a lot of that on the trip) or turning dark areas completely black. When I was faced with some tricky mixed light — as in the shot below, taken in the Salzburg Fortress — I could kick in the high dynamic range (HDR) function and even out the light and dark tones.
I did get some use out of the video mode, and this footage, taken on the Salzburg funicular in MP4 mode, looks pretty sharp. The camera handled the constantly changing light reasonably well. Come along for the ride.
As well, I tried out the 4K Pre-burst mode, and grabbed a frame that looked like this.
Overall, I was impressed with the Panasonic G7; just as importantly, I found it a comfortable camera to travel and shoot with in a variety of situations. While this camera has an endless list of settings and adjustments — including 24 scene modes and several adjustable filters — I found it easy enough to shoot in Program or Auto when I just wanted some quick shots.
If I needed something more serious, there were plenty of possibilities. While it takes a little while to master all the features this camera offers, it’s well worth the trouble. In fact, you could spend a long time getting to know the G7, and discovering new ways of using it to take better pictures and create new effects. It’s not a cheap camera, but the combination of its high photo quality and extensive feature set could make it a good long-term investment. Remember, as well, that Panasonic has a good selection of quality lenses if you want to get sharper shots or increase your range.
I’d call the G7 a very good travel companion, except for one thing: the battery life. Travelling with a camera whose battery doesn’t last out the day is a non-starter. Admittedly, I shoot pretty intensively. But that said, don’t think of taking this camera travelling without bringing along a second — or maybe a third — battery to pop in when the first one conks out.
Still, when all is said and done, I liked the Panasonic G7. And with an extra battery in my pocket, I’d be happy to circle the globe with it.