If there was a perfect camera

Many of us are searching for the perfect camera. We're curious about what cameras other photographers are using, in case they have the perfect bit of gear. I'm asked about what I use all the time. Finally I've decided to write an entire blog post about Panasonic GX7 - a camera I absolutely love. It's what I've predominantly used over the past year and a half. All the images here have been shot with it.

In this blog post I've outlined why I've switched from a DSLR, what I find great about mirror-less in general and what features in particular have made the GX7 my favourite camera of all time. Is it perfect? You'll have to read on to find out.

NOTE: The Panasonic GX7 is no longer the latest model, but the new one is similar enough that much of what I've written will apply to it too. 

DISCLAIMER: A few weeks after this blog post I became a Panasonic Lumix ambassador. However this post was in mind much earlier than that. 

Why ditch the DSLR? 

I’ve loved photography for some time, but I was never too crazy about the photographic process with the DSLR. You could say that some of my thoughts in regards to this are a little unusual, but here they are anyway.

The camera as a barrier between you and the world

With the DSLR or most traditional cameras I never really liked that I had to close off half my face and close my other eye when looking into the viewfinder. You don’t see what’s happening around you. The camera actually becomes a barrier between you and the subject, you and the world.

Very hard to be discreet

Standing around with your eye at the viewfinder makes it abundantly obvious that you are taking a photo. You sometimes really want those candid shots, but it can be very hard to not get a reaction as soon as you place the camera next to your face. People see you, they smile, they pose. The moment you wanted vanishes.

Auto-focus was the cause of many missed frames

Auto-focus, while actually seen as one of the advantages of DSLRs till recently, was another thing that always frustrated me. I hear that Nikon always had better auto-focus, but since I started with a Canon and stuck with it, I was also stuck having to frame, with that little square on what I want to bring into focus, then re-frame to get the composition I wanted. Frustrating.

It's damn heavy

Of course the main reason why most people consider the switch from DSLR to the smaller mirror-less is the size and weight difference. My Canon kit, which included one body and a few lenses easily weighed close to 3 kg. Add a small bottle of drinking water, some bits and pieces here and there, and you have at least 5kg in a shoulder bag. Carry that for a few kilometres up and down the streets in a hilly town and the fun is definitely taken out of your walk. By contrast, my entire mirror-less kit is probably just around 1 kg.

The advantages of mirror-less

The first thing that jumps out about most mirror-less cameras is that they are small by comparison to DSLRs. Some, like the Fuji X100s, my first mirror-less camera are really small. The first advantage of having a small camera is that you can take it everywhere.

Small, but potent

Many of the mirror-less cameras have a silent shutter or a silent shutter option. The quietness is a huge factor in certain situations.

For me having a potent camera by my side all the time has meant that I can photograph my family in a serious kind of way, just as I would with a DSLR. I'd usually never bother carrying a DSLR to a cafe, where the above image was made. A smaller camera allows me to create some great memories of my wife and daughter. The saying "The best camera is the one you have with you" really applies here.

Inconspicuous

The small size allows me to be more inconspicuous too. I don't necessarily come across as a professional. These days, with everyone shooting, it can be an advantage. Less questions and less people taking me seriously or making me the centre of attention. My photography is not about me. It's about them. 

Silent shutter 

Many of the mirror-less cameras have a silent shutter or a silent shutter option. The quietness is a huge factor in certain situations. No matter how you look at it, a loud clicking sound will affect the people in front of the camera in at least some way if they hear it. 

They can become self-conscious. It can break up the flow of their conversation or interaction with each other. Having a silent shutter when photographing these two men performing traditional Bulgarian music really enabled me not to interfere with the scene. They were into their thing. I didn't disturb them with the clicking of the shutter and got an image of them absorbed by the music.

Sometimes the shutter click just gives away the fact that you're shooting. When people know you're photographing them, they inevitably react. In the case of the above image, I got a few chances at getting a candid shot because the subjects were not conscious of me making photos. They knew I was looking into my camera, but without the clicking sound as a cue to pose, they continued drinking their tea as if I wasn't there. 

A switch from mirror-less to… another mirror-less

I loved my Fuji X100s. I liked the Fuji XE-2, which I got later. Both of these cameras were absolutely capable as DSLR replacements, but I never felt they fully took advantage of the potential that was now there with mirror-less.

I came across the Panasonic GX7 by chance in 2014. It soon became my favourite camera of all time. 

Some revolutionary features

Panasonic GX7 camera

With a 35mm equivalent lens, the Panasonic GX7 was just as compact as the the Fuji X100s, but it had a couple of features that really put it over the top for me. It’s important to mention that it still had the silent shutter, an option I decided I can’t do without after having had it.

The tilt screen

The tilt is screen is a ridiculously useful feature. It allows me to shoot from virtually any angle. From the chest, from the hip, from the ground or, if needed, to stick the camera into right a crowd. 

No matter how good someone might be at blindly framing images, doing that is never as good as actually seeing the composition on a screen.

Sticking a camera into a crowd is literally what I did for the above image. There were so many people around. I couldn't move freely. The composition here is actually quite precise. I couldn't blindly compose this image and there's no way I could have managed to crouch and quickly get this shot with a regular viewfinder camera. It was just too crowded and everyone kept moving.

The camera needed to be on the ground for the shot of these puppies. If I tried to lay down near them, they would have likely run off. The ability to only put the camera on eye-level with the action was crucial here.

Sure, I could do that all of the above with a camera that doesn’t have a tilt screen. Shooting from the hip is not a new technique. But, I wouldn't see what I’m composing. No matter how good someone might be at blindly framing images, doing that is never as good as actually seeing the composition on a screen.  

The tilt screen is definitely better for candid photographs too. Since you don’t need to raise the camera to around your eye level, it’s not clear to your potential subjects when you’re actually shooting. Combine the tilt screen with the small size and a silent shutter and you have the ultimate candid photography tool. It's about as close as one can get to being a fly on the wall

Touch screen and touch-focus

I used to think that touch screens were a gimmick. The iPhone camera changed my mind. It started to make so much sense that you could get your focus point by tapping on the subject you want in focus on the screen. 

The Panasonic GX7 has touch focus. Now it's possible to compose the frame at hip level or wherever else and get focus by simply tapping on the screen, where the action is taking place. No more framing and re-framing, closing down the aperture (so that everything is in focus) or hoping that the camera's auto-focus guesses what I want to focus on. This feature is absolutely crucial for anyone who photographs rapidly changing situations. 

I’m sure it wouldn’t be impossible to get this image without a touch-focus screen, but, I would surely need a lot more time and luck to nail it.

It might not be obvious that the above image was made in one of those rapidly changing situations, but there were a few changing factors. The wind kept blowing and the red flags would occasionally cover the boys faces. The boy in the front kept turning his head and rocking back and forth. I only had occasional windows of a couple of seconds to make the frame. 

The focus point was always different. I couldn't pre-focus. I didn't want to close down the aperture – the blurred foreground and background was part of my idea for the photo. It was crucial to be able to focus precisely on the boy's face, wherever it would be. I'm sure it wouldn't be impossible to get this image without a touch-focus screen, but, I would surely need a lot more time and luck to nail it.

An image like the above, with the movement and the dark conditions can be incredibly hard to capture. Pressing the shutter button at the right moment is just one concern. You really want the figure to be in focus too. I can remember how often I used to miss focus in these situations before I had the touch-focus feature.

I honestly didn’t nail the shot every time even with the touch-focus. The woman was moving fast and sometimes she'd step into spots which were too dark. However, by touching on the right points (generally on the edge, the outline of the woman) I did get most of my frames in focus and this isn’t something I could say with any camera before. 

I should note that the tilt screen and the touch-focus are not entirely new nor unique to Panasonic. Olympus has these too, but, I do feel that the body of the GX7 is better than anything Olympus has made.

Stabilisation plus lack of mirror

The Panasonic GX7 has in-body stabilisation and there's no mirror. This amounts to much less camera shake at slower shutter speeds. What does this mean in practical terms? It means that you can experiment a lot more with exposures as long as 1/2s, while hand-holding.

I've done a fair bit of experimenting myself. The above image is taken at 1/8s. The blur of some elements and the sharpness of others results in a certain atmosphere, a bit of magic in an otherwise regular situation.

Again, the stabilisation and lack of camera shake from a mirror is not unique to Panasonic, but, it all works really great together - the body, the tilt screen, touch-focus and the stabilisation.

A wide range of lenses that are small

This doesn't only apply to the Panasonic, but to the Micro 4/3 system in general, of which Olympus is part. The system is one of the most established among the mirror-less options and there's a wide array of lenses of all focal lengths and apertures. Here's the list of just the Panasonic and the Olympus offerings. There are third party manufacturers too and there are adaptors for virtually any mount. I've even experimented with security camera lenses. 

Best all of these lenses are small. You can get an 80-300mm equivalent which is no larger than a 355ml can of Coke. This fact really adds to the portability of Micro 4/3 cameras. 

It's not all perfect

While I do consider the Panasonic GX7 an almost perfect camera, there are some minuses and quirks. I've outlined them below.

distortion when using electronic shutter

Using the electronic shutter is the only way to have a silent shutter on the Panasonic GX7. The biggest current disadvantage of electronic shutters is distortion. A fast moving subject, like a car or possibly even a running person can come out skewed. If you move the camera too quickly in any direction, you can also distort what's within the frame.

This issue is more prominent with longer focal length lenses. I ended up with some really strange looking heads a few times, when I wasn't mindful of the limitation.

Banding

When using the electronic shutter under certain types of artificial light and at fast shutter speeds, you will get banding or lines going across the screen. Changing the shutter speed can dramatically reduce and even get rid of the banding and it depends on what kind of light you're dealing with, but, the issue is certainly there.

Micro 4/3 means everything is multiplied by 2

It’s a little more difficult to get that bokeh than with a full frame, but, it is totally possible.

The Micro 4/3 sensor is smaller than that of a full-frame DSLR. This means that whatever the focal length and the aperture of the lens you put on the camera, you have to multiply it by 2. Hence, a 17mm becomes a 34mm and f/2.8 becomes f/5.6. 

Thankfully the Micro 4/3 system is very established and as mentioned, there are plenty of lenses available for virtually all focal lengths.

It's a little more difficult to get that bokeh than with a full frame, but, it is totally possible. You can see from the above image. It is important to note that the lens doesn't actually become any slower. If it's f/2.8 it is still f/2.8 as far its sensitivity to light.

In some cases, the crop factor can actually be beneficial. On a full frame, when shooting a portrait at f/1.4 you'll generally only get either the eyes or the nose in focus, not both. You can shoot a 25mm (50mm equivalent on a full frame) wide open at f/1.4 and the whole face will be in focus. 

About the act of making photos

Some people like looking through an optical viewfinder. The act of focusing with the focus-ring on the lens, or framing and re-framing is familiar and reassuring. Getting accustomed to looking at a screen or using an electronic viewfinder can be really hard. 

Depending on the tilt screen of the Panasonic GX7 and its touch focus system is a different experience altogether.

There’s definitely a learning curve to using some of the mirror-less cameras. It can feel unusual in the early stages. When I first started shooting with the Fuji X100s in Istanbul, I became so frustrated that a few days later I went back to my Canon 5D MKIII. After my first outing with the DSLR however, I changed my mind and my Fuji came out again. When kids on a street where I was never acknowledged with the Fuji shouted “tourist, tourist!” I understood just how inconspicuous a little mirror-less can be.

Relying on the tilt screen of the Panasonic GX7 and its touch-focus system is a different experience altogether. It might not be for everyone. Perhaps it felt familiar to me because my first ever camera was the weirdly shaped Nikon Coolpix 990. The screen tilted on it too. I also made films before I made photos, so I used video cameras that shared the idea of the GX7 - a tilt screen and an electronic viewfinder. 

After just a few days with it, shooting with the Panasonic GX7 felt like the most natural way of making photos. Not needing to look through the viewfinder to frame my shots felt liberating. Using touch-focus was incredibly intuitive. Ultimately and perhaps above all, the features of the GX7 allowed me to take advantage of situations where most other cameras weren't much use.

Conclusion

Sure there are some issues, but is the Panasonic GX7 the closest thing there is to a perfect camera overall? Of course it depends on what you’re shooting. For the work that I do – where I need to travel light, to be discrete and not to overwhelm the people in front of the camera – it has been the closest thing to perfect out of everything I’ve used. The few annoyances can be avoided completely once you understand the Micro 4/3 system and the limitations.

I constantly watch for developments in the camera world. I love some of the things that Sony have been doing, but their lenses are just too big to be in the same category as the Micro 4/3 cameras in terms of portability. Even more importantly, the top models don’t have the touch screen with touch-focus, a feature that I don’t want to do without ever again.

Final note

I've occasionally shot stills with my Panasonic GH4 (mostly a video camera for me). It's a little too big to consider an everyday camera, but it is definitely more powerful than the GX7 and has some advantages.

A few days ago I got me a Panasonic GX8. It’s an upgrade to the GX7 and it's something in-between the GX7 and the GH4. It does still suffer from the above mentioned issues, but, I have a feeling that its faster frames-per-second burst rate, higher mega-pixel count and better high ISO performance will make it my new favourite. 

Join the discussion & invite your friends

Mirror-less cameras aren't the novelty they were just a couple of years ago. I know that I'm not the only professional who's ditched the DSRL for a smaller camera.

I'm really curious to know; what do you think of mirror-less cameras? Do you have a favourite mirror-less camera? What's great about it? Does it allow you to do anything that you couldn't do before with a DLSR?