Thoughts on Panasonic G3 for festival music photography

Discussion in 'Panasonic Cameras' started by martsharm, Aug 7, 2012.

  1. martsharm

    martsharm New to Mu-43

    5
    Mar 25, 2011
    North East England
    As a longstanding micro-4/3rds user, I thought I would share this cautionary tale which describes how the system does have its limits, and why it is important to be aware of them when deciding to use it for a particular purpose.

    This weekend I was at a music festival with a press ticket and photo pass. Whilst I was not primarily there as a photographer, as a reviewer I do like to illustrate my reviews with photos of the festival and the bands appearing. And I love music photography. Generally for live music work (or anything else photographically “serious”, for that matter), I use the classic Nikon D700 / Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8 combo. But because this was a camping, outdoor music festival, for reasons of bulk (and partly relative risk of financial loss), and because I wanted to enjoy the event as a spectator rather than concentrate on photography, I chose to take a Panasonic G1 & G3, and three lenses - the Panasonic 14-45mm and 20mm, and Olympus 45mm. These had proven effective and enjoyable to use at a similar event a couple of weeks previously, and I didn’t really consider taking anything else. With hindsight, I should have thought things through more carefully.

    The system is undoubtedly capable of fine results. The lenses are excellent, and the sensors, even the G1’s, can generate nice sharp images in casual use. Where things do fall down somewhat is in high-pressure situations, where split-second timing can make the difference between a great shot and a photographic mess. I will attempt to explain why.

    Viewfinder
    For live stage work, the viewfinder’s auto-gain function is a disadvantage. If the stage goes dark, the viewfinder compensates by showing a bright scene. If the lights come on, the viewfinder is temporarily blinded into 100% white light until the electronics have time to catch up - there is significant lag. So the photographer isn’t ever really seeing the true scene, but instead is being presented with a false picture of average brightness, regardless of what is happening in reality. One relies much more on the meter to evaluate exposure, rather than making educated guesses by reading the visual brightness of a scene, which is counter-intuitive and can lead to lighting changes going unnoticed.

    Controls
    The controls are too small and there aren’t enough of them. The main lack is “back-button focus” - of which more later. Yes, ISO has a dedicated button, but instead of the “hold-and-spin” Nikon system, the ISO menu pops up over the viewfinder, taking one’s eye from the scene. Exposure control is one spinner rather than two; there are no native lenses with aperture rings, my preferred control option. The buttons are absolutely miniscule, and on the G3 Panasonic has inexplicably decided to make some buttons entirely flush with the surface, making it impossible to detect them by feel alone. In terms of controls, the G1 is by far superior to the G3, especially with its focus mode dial on the left shoulder. An example of how progress sometimes isn’t.

    Autofocus
    By far and away the most irritating aspect of using the G3 when shooting music, and the one which means I am seriously considering never attempting it again, is the autofocus system. I was primarily using the Olympus 45mm f/1.8 lens, which is a pretty fast focuser in the micro-4/3rds world. I did use the Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 for some wider shots, and had the opportunity to make a cup of tea in the time it took to focus. The 45mm does a little in-and-out dance every time before coming to rest at focus, even if it’s already accurately focused. I estimate this takes 0.1-0.2 of a second - it doesn’t sound like much, but boy does it get annoying quickly. There is no way to dissociate focus from the shutter button, as there is no AF button underneath the right thumb as is usually found on DSLRs. This means one either autofocuses on every press of the shutter (with that annoying in-and-out delay), or deliberately autofocuses once and then switches to manual focus. I set up the Fn button on the G3 to activate the switch between focus modes; it would be better if this button could switch modes with one press; alas it brings up an on-screen menu which requires the thumb to move to the arrow keys to switch options, and then press OK to activate. Three presses, with finger movements, where one would suffice - disappointing. The G3 loses the G1’s eye sensor - whilst moving the focus area using the touchscreen is very intuitive, having to keep pressing the LCD/EVF toggle to do so is deeply infuriating, especially when one is used to the G1’s sensor.

    On the plus side, the focus tracking is pretty novel, and can work well in good light, and the face detection works as well as can be expected, so the electronic live-view style of shooting does have its benefits.

    Battery Life
    ...is nowhere near enough for a three-day event on one battery: with heavy use, one would be lucky to achieve one day, which means a power supply is essential. Not easy when home is a grassy field (yes I know media tents have power, but it’s still an unwanted inconvenience.) I’ve never run out of battery in the field with a Nikon DSLR, even though I always carry a spare just in case. The nature of music photography is particularly unsuited to the live-view system - a lot of time is spent with the viewfinder activated, waiting for that particular expression or movement that makes a great photo, and the live-view system really eats the batteries in these situations, which can last for 15 minutes at a time. In contrast, a DSLR uses no batteries whatsoever for viewing, only for focussing and tripping the shutter, making batteries last a lifetime longer.

    Size
    This is a massive win for the micro-4/3rds system. I can carry two bodies, capable of generating images of a quality far in excess of what anyone publishing on the web would require, one normal zoom and two fast primes, in a small sling bag, with room for plenty of other sundry festival items - notebook and pen, lighter, hip flask, etc. Had I been toting the Nikon behemoth, I would need a bag solely for it, and would have a sore shoulder after a day - not good when the event lasts for three. For general non-music shooting around the site, the cameras are ideal - small, unobtrusive, fast lenses, and they can be lent to anyone to use in the superb, foolproof iA mode. Put the D700 in the hands of a newbie and they are visibly scared.

    Lenses
    The lenses are great, especially the Olympus 45mm f/1.8, which was the main lens used for music shooting. They are all lovely and sharp, the primes are fast, and everything’s small. Autofocus speed aside (see above), one cannot reasonably complain about the micro-4/3rds lens offering. Except it’s expensive to get to 12mm - either Olympus prime or Panasonic f/2.8 zoom. Kit lens with 12mm someone, please!

    Image quality
    Totally fine for every reasonably conceivable outlet for the images - 99% of which will end up on the web, with the odd print here and there. No complaints. The D700 is better, but that’s only noticeable in a side-by-side comparison.

    Peer pressure
    It sure feels odd toting a tiny camera that fits into the palm of one hand, when one is used to carrying a lead weight on a strap, especially when all around are using their megazooms and carrying heavy backpacks. Surely an educated fellow photographer would know the potential of the micro-4/3rds system, however the cameras are reasonably anonymous and could even be mistaken for a point-and-shoot. Not good for the street cred - but then again, who cares about that anyway?

    Summary
    Of course I am aware this is a deeply unfair comparison - I am comparing consumer with professional, small with large, cheap(ish) with expensive(ish). And yet in my personal case it’s a very important question to get right. I don’t want to carry a heavy Nikon rig unless it’s pointless carrying anything else. And the micro-4/3rds gear does have a killer combination of image quality and small size. But as described above, it can be so difficult to use in a high-pressure environment that I may have to stop using it.

    Alternatives
    For the G3 & 45mm setup I was primarily using, it’s possible to buy an entry-level Nikon/Tamron system, although I’m not sure I’d have much faith in the lens option. It would be possible to try the Nikon 60mm f/2.8 macro, giving 90mm equivalent, but it’s still darker than the Olympus, and may suffer from sluggish focussing, being a macro without focus limiter (although I haven’t tried it myself). And there’s no pancakes or wide Nikon DX primes at all to choose from, whereas micro-4/3rds offers 24mm, 28mm, 35mm, and 40mm (35mm equivalent) options. Nikon starts at 50mm with its 35mm f/1.8 DX, and goes longer from there. Mirrorless, and micro-4/3rds in particular, is by far the strongest option for a compact, high-quality system. I wouldn’t bother with Nikon DX - image quality is not significantly better than micro-4/3rds, and there is little weight advantage over Nikon FX. The Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8 lens looks like the bargain of all the lenses when compared with the equivalent options from micro-4/3rds and Nikon DX.

    Micro-4/3rds options
    Panasonic G3 with Olympus 45mm f/1.8 = £329 + £228 = £557
    Panasonic GH2 with Panasonic 12-35mm f/2.8 = £549 + £877 = £1426
    Olympus OM-D EM-5 with Panasonic 12-35 f/2.8 = £999 + £877 = £1876

    Nikon options
    Nikon D3100 + Tamron 17-50mm f/2.8 = £297 + £289 = £576
    Nikon D7000 with Nikkor 17-55mm f/2.8 = £692 + £1049 = £1741
    Nikon D700 with Nikkor 24-70 f/2.8 = £1625 + £1217 = £2842

    Conclusion
    I’ll be taking the D700 to the next music festival in a couple of weeks; I will then know if the bulk is manageable in the context of enjoying a three-day festival as well as photographing it. Only after a direct comparison of the two systems will I be able to make an informed choice. But the G3 and 20mm will be in my pocket!
     
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  2. jloden

    jloden Mu-43 Hall of Famer

    May 15, 2012
    Hunterdon County, NJ
    Jay
    You can disassociate focus from the shutter, but you would have to use the (annoyingly flush with the body, as you noted) Fn button as AFL. The GX1 puts the AFL/AEL button up high on the body near the natural rest position of the thumb, and does away with the flush Fn button.

    I agree about the focus mode button, the GX1 has a dedicated focus mode switching button and I really wish it could be set up to toggle between the two most used modes instead of cycling.

    Olympus 12-50mm kit lens? No it's not up to the quality of the prime 12mm or the 12-35mm, but it's a considerably cheaper kit lens as requested...